Friday, May 22, 2009

Flashback Friday: The Phantom Menace

Ten years ago, on 22 May 1999, George Lucas finally released Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. This was THE MOVIE of the summer. In fact, in the trailer for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, they spoofed Star Wars and said "if you see just one movie this summer, see Star Wars, but if you see two movies, see Austin Powers..." I remember hearing audiences laugh about that truth in advertising. Star Wars was unescapable that summer. Lucas went overboard on product endorsements, including a deal with Taco Bell, specially made cans for Pepsi products, books, action figures, and clothing. Lucas claimed that he needed to get his brand out in public consciousness since it has been a long time since the last Star Wars film was released (1983). A new generation of moviegoers had been born. Thankfully, with the release of episodes II and III, the over-commercialization of the film franchise was scaled back, allowing the films to stand on their own.

The Phantom Menace holds a record for me. I saw this film 13 times in a movie theater. Never have I done that before. The previous record was Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope), at 7 times (two of those times were in 1997 for the "Special Edition"). Before that, I only saw a few films 5 times in a theater. It seems amazing that I saw The Phantom Menace that many times in the theater, but in the summer of 1999, there weren't many films I wanted to see. I also had the desire to see the film a week after I had seen it. In fact, opening weekend, I saw it twice. This went on all summer long. The 13th time was on my birthday. My sister had asked me if I wanted to see it at the $1 theater when I was home for the holidays, and of course I couldn't say no. It had been months since I last saw it.

By contrast, I only saw Episode II: Attack of the Clones 6 times in a theater and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith 3 times in the theater. These days, I don't go to the theater as much and I certainly don't see movies a second time in theaters (though I might for Star Trek since it was that good and I'm still unclear about some of the story).

When the first teaser poster was released well in advance of the movie, I thought it was very well done. It was simple, yet foretelling. It made its point very clearly. However, when the official title was revealed, I was disappointed. I'm not a fan of the word "phantom" and think its usage makes the movie sound cheesy. Is the phantom supposed to be Darth Sidious? There's no mention in the film at all of a phantom. Its pretty vague.

Ewan MacGregor as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi was an excellent choice. Back in the early 1990s, when there was talk about the prequels being made, I remember reading that Kenneth Branagh was talked about as starring as Obi-Wan Kenobi, which I thought was a good choice, as well. MacGregor is younger, though (I can't believe he's the same age as me!) and Episode I is supposed to take place 30 years before the events in Episode IV.

Before the film was released, there was a lot of hype and speculation about Darth Maul. He became a fan favourite and the new face of evil. However, in the film, it was surprising that Darth Maul was in only a few scenes and was disposed of pretty quickly. The only purpose he served in the film is to show the way the Sith operate: master and apprentice. As Yoda says, "only two there are." Supposedly, Darth Maul had been groomed all his life to become Darth Sidious' replacement at some point. When he's killed off, Darth Sidious has to find a new apprentice who is already a Jedi because it would take too long to train one from childhood. That's where Count Dooku (Darth Tyrannus) comes in (Episode II). At any rate, Darth Maul is a waste. All hype, with little relevance in the movie itself.

One detail in The Phantom Menace that I really like are the diverse costumes of Queen Amidala. Many were easily recognizable styles from the Far East, particularly Mongolia (upper right photo), China (upper middle photo) and Japan (upper left photo). Costume designers had fun with this film, coming up with a different style each time she appears on screen. Sure beats Princess Leia's simple white dress and honeybun hairdo!

My favourite costume she wears is the one above. It's totally Japanese style and very cool looking. While these costumes look terrific onscreen, in reality, they look very impractical and uncomfortable to wear.

One of the complaints I've heard people make about the film is that the story is boring. Taxation of trade routes causes the Trade Federation to invade the planet of Naboo? I laughed whenever I heard people make that complaint. I was deep in political science courses when this film came out and I've read interviews with George Lucas about his underlying point about this film series. He believes (based on actual history) that empires started out as democracies/republics. People give up the right of self-rule and their own freedoms. He's interested in how this happens.

I consider this movie quite prophetic, actually. Remember, it came out in 1999. An illegal invasion is launched against a sovereign planet. Darth Sidious is insistent that Queen Amidala must sign the treaty herself to legitimize the occupation. Does this sound familiar?

In 2003, the Bush regime launched an illegal invasion of a sovereign nation. The U.S. set up a Coalition Provisional Authority government headed by a "viceroy" to oversee the transition from the collapsed Baathist government of disposed dictator Saddam Hussein. The U.S. had U.N. resolutions authorizing the invasion, as well as Congressional approval. Everything was done to make it seem legal, as bureaucracies are obsessed with the appearance of legality. Once the U.S. established a transitional government with favoured candidates, the elected government of Iraq became tasked with approving the Status of Forces Agreement, which every country that has U.S. military bases is required to pass (one benefit is that it grants American servicemembers immunity from being tried in the host country's court of law, which was a bone of contention in Japan when U.S. Marines raped a Japanese girl or in Italy when an Army pilot accidentally clipped the cable of an aerial gondola with his plane and killed skiers).

So, some might think the politics in The Phantom Menace as boring stuff, but its the stuff of history. Our country proved the genius foresight of George Lucas with our own illegal invasion of Iraq. Because Americans don't pay much attention to the world outside our borders, we are easily manipulated into going along with what the ruling class wants, and we let our fears of "the other" control us into making bad decisions.

We can learn a lot from The Phantom Menace about the purpose of life. For me, the best kernals of spiritual wisdom come from two scenes. In one, Yoda tells young Anakin Skywalker: "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering." Whenever I meet people who are afraid, I'm stunned that they don't often examine WHY they are afraid. When I feel the emotion of fear, its automatic that I will quiz myself as to the source of my fear. I like to get to the root of fear, because I think there's an important message there. If we act on our fears and cause harm to others in order to stifle our fears (such as being okay torturing another human being because we are afraid that they might kill us), we slowly become someone we won't recognize eventually.

The other powerful spiritual statement is when Qui-Gon Ginn told Anakin: "Remember: your focus determines your reality." That is pure "law of attraction" right there. I remind myself of that statement whenever my focus gets negative. I have ample evidence in my own life that reality can reflect your inner desires. I just need to do a better job of it, lately.

If there is any flaw in the film, it would have to be the pod racing part. It takes up too much of the film and it ceased to be interesting to me the third time I watched the film. I understand its purpose (to show young Anakin's precognition and mechanical genius), but its kind of boring. I dislike the Queen decoy. It was set up to fool the audience in the beginning. What was the point? I also don't like the way Natalie Portman speaks throughout the film. Its very wooden and monotone. But, I'm just being nitpicky. I love the entire saga and don't understand why fans of the original trilogy seem not to like the prequel trilogy as much. I love both trilogies, but I have to admit that the prequels are far more visually stunning (due to the advance in special effects technology). Whenever I hear fans complain about the prequel trilogy, I will ask them, "are you glad that they got made, though?" I sure am. One thing I don't understand about fanboys is that they are fanatical about someone else' creation. They might have let their imaginations run wild and dreamed up their opinions on what might have happened, so when Lucas' vision doesn't meet the fanboy's opinions, there's a lot of griping and discontent.

They need to get a life. I had no problem going to the theater and watching the prequel storyline unfold according to the genius of George Lucas. It is his story and his creation. We're just the spectators. I can't believe it has been ten years now since the release of Episode I. The ten years between 1999 and 2009 seemed to have moved much faster than the ten years between 1989 and 1999. This Memorial Day weekend, I will be watching the entire saga (stretched out over the weekend, rather than watching them all in one day). I love the Star Wars saga, but I wouldn't call myself a fanboy (I don't read the various novels, go to the conventions or obsess over the tiny details about the characters and storylines. Also, I still haven't seen the animated Clone Wars--it never really interested me).

What I get out of the films is the spiritual message. That's probably why I like it far better than Star Trek. There's a deeply spiritual message behind the Star Wars saga, whereas Star Trek is more about logic, science, and humanism. In the summer of 2002, I was in Barnes and Noble bookstore looking at the Star Wars display of books and some guy had complained to me about Attack of the Clones. I told him that I liked it because it was such a spiritual film. He looked at me like I was crazy and walked away. To understand what I mean...check out the scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi goes to the Jedi Library. The visual on that really attracted me and I can easily see the libraries in the spiritual realm being like that (glowing blue lights, holding important information). Also, the scene where Obi-Wan disrupts the younglings in training and they have to meditate on his question before receiving an answer. That's exactly how spirituality works. To not see the spirituality inherent in this film series is to be blind (perhaps by the special effects?). Star Wars is very Buddhist and New Agey and that's a good thing.

May the Force Be With You this Memorial Day!

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