Posted on by Scott Delahunt

Summer of 1977 was a turning point for Hollywood. A movie hit the screens with such force that it would stay running for over a year.  Star Wars was an instant hit, getting fans to keep returning to the theatres to watch it over and over. George Lucas tied together his love for the old serials played in cinemas when he was a young child and his love for the movies of Akira Kurosawa and created an almost timeless story with cutting edge effects. The story in Star Wars followed a young farm boy, Luke Skywalker, as he got caught up in the Galactic Civil War after buying two droids, R2-D2 and C-3P0, and finding a hologram of Princess Leia in Artoo's memory banks. In a classic moment of sneaking into a hidden fortress cleverly disguised as a small moon, Luke rescues the princess, escapes with the help of the mercenary Han Solo and partner Chewbacca, winds up in a hidden Rebel base. Luke flies out with several squadrons of starfighters to meet the Death Star and exploit its weakness and returns a hero.

In a re-release in 1979, the title expanded to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Two more movies followed, Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and Star Wars: Return of the Jedi in 1983. Both of the sequels dominated their respective summers and pushed the art of special effects to the limit.

Just as the movie influenced the direction of summer blockbusters, it also influenced merchandising tie-ins. Action figures, lunch boxes, trading cards, Pez dispensers, board games, role-playing games, computer games, all successful. An action figure of Boba Fett, a character not seen in the original movie, was offered through a promotion through Kenner, giving fans the first look of the bounty hunter before his appearance in The Empire Strikes Back. It is safe to say that Star Wars was a huge success for George Lucas.

In 1999, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released. Line ups started days in advance of the opening. There were more ads for tie-ins than there were for the actual movie itself. The Phantom Menace was to delve into the background of the main villain, Darth Vader. The state of the art in special effects had jumped light years since 1977 with CGI replacing stop- and go-motion miniatures.  The Phantom Menace showed a shinier past to the shop-worn original trilogy. Ships didn't look like they were a missed maintenace away from falling apart. The Empire's overwhelming presence wasn't to be felt; the Republic had a bright future in store. Air speeders had fins!

The Phantom Menace wasn't well received by longtime fans. Various factors, from Jar-Jar Binks to disjointed scenes to heavy use of CGI, weighed in their disappointment. However, younger fans not familiar with the previous movies were amazed. One problem can be traced to a change in the definition of the PG rating by the MPAA. After parental uproar over the Lucas co-helmed Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom getting a PG rating despite violent scenes, the MPAA changed the requirements for the rating and added PG-13 to handle cases like Indiana Jones. (The gratuitous topless woman jiggling in Airplane, formerly rated PG, would also not be allowed under the new guidelines.)

Jar-Jar Binks, the designated comic relief, annoyed many fans. Instead of the classic stylings of Artoo and Threepio, styled after comedy duos such as Laurel & Hardy and Abbott & Costello, Jar-Jar was closer to a Jim Carrey solo act. Jar-Jar also didn't seem to have a purpose beyond comic relief once the Jedi left Theed, at least until the droid attack on Naboo. Where Artoo carried a plot critical Macguffin (the Death Star plans) during A New Hope, gave Luke someone to talk to in Empire, and kept Threepio from getting too big an ego in Jedi, Jar-Jar was there for sight gags and didn't contribute in any other way.

The big action piece in the middle, the Pod Race, looked amazing on screen. It also slowed the plot. One of the plots, at least. The race was meant to showcase Anakin's piloting skills. No human had won the race, yet here was this slave boy entering a field filled with the most skilled and the most devious drivers. Formula 1 meets demolition derby meets Wacky Races. (Sebulba fits as Dick Dastardly, complete with mustache twirling.) There was an eye to detail as each pod racer had a different sound. The music fit. The story paused. The elected Queen of Naboo had to get to Coruscant to get help repelling the droid invasion, yet her Jedi escort stopped to deal with a slave boy on a backwater planet. (Of course, the story is about Anakin, not Padme.)

Being the first of a planned trilogy also didn't help the movie. A lot of time was spent setting up Anakin's later losses, showing and sowing the hints of his downfall. It's a tricky line to walk, making sure that the movie can stand alone while also contributing to the overall plot.

However, this was a Star Wars movie. Ships blew up. Light sabres flashed. the climax was split four ways – the Jedi battle against the Sith, Padme retaking her throne, the Gungans fighting the battle droids, and the starship battle in orbit. Each part of the climax held the tension tight, cutting away from one fight to focus on another at the perfect cliffhanger. Anakin's piloting ability (with an assist from Artoo) helped him get into the perfect spot to help the Gungans. The Gungans held their own until overwhelmed. The Jedi suffered a loss but still triumphed. The Queen took back her planet. A celebration was held, with an ominous threat that would continue into the next two movies.

The Phantom Menace shows us that having the original talent return doesn't necessarily help a reboot. Advances in special effects can't help a movie when problem characters turn the audience off. But, having key elements that make the heart of a property be the feature of the remake does help.  The Phantom Menace was still Star Wars at its heart, and that makes problems found along the way more forgivable.

Next time, a videogame gets lost in translation

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  • My own experiences with “Star Wars” were formative, but only up to a point. Some time after “Jedi” came out, Kurosawa’s “Hidden Fortress” had a revival screening, and good old Roger Ebert wrote a review where he declared “Seeing this film is like visiting the wellspring of the Force.” Curious, I dug it up, and that helped start my love affair with Japanese culture generally.
    By the time “Phantom Menace” came out, I’d left “Star Wars” so far behind that watching “Menace” was like discovering an old friend of great creative power had become a squirrelly nutcase living in a house lined with tinfoil. The magic, for me, was long gone — but that magic had also helped lead me to something else that seemed far more inspiring than Lucas’s creation on its own was.
    For me the biggest single reason “Star Wars IV/V/VI” worked and “Star Wars I/II/III” did not was because the first films were the product of Lucas having his creativity shaped by strong feedback. People told him “No, George, no. This is a terrible script. You have to rewrite this.” They told him, “No, George, no. This is not going to work on screen.” He had something to push against, and out of that friction and heat came the sparks of real inspiration and creativity. By the time 199X rolled around, Lucas was in a position where he could surround himself with yes-men and not have a single of his bad ideas tested against reality. And, as it turned out, none of them were.
    Maybe the real problem was that Lucas himself got lost in translation.

  • Scott D.

    Another part may be having the budget to do everything he wanted. Part of the charm of the original movies was that he had to make sure everything was tight to avoid budget overruns. Now, with all the merchandising and licensing and sheer hype, budgeting wasn’t an issue.
    The hype may have also played into the problems. The expectations were high, fed by merchandise and fan hopes. No movie could have lived up to the expectations.

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