May 25, 1977. On that day, in theaters across the country, the 20th Century Fox fanfare erupted on the big screen, ushering in those famous words: “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. . .” We are, of course, talking about the day the original Star Wars was seen by moviegoers across the country. Little did they know that what they were watching was actually the fourth episode of a larger story spawned within the mind of George Lucas. In fact, no one knew this until it was re-released short before The Empire Strikes Back when Lucas included “Episode IV: A New Hope” into the opening crawl. He concluded his original trilogy with Episode VI, which we all know as Return of the Jedi. But what about the preceding three episodes? The ones in which all those things alluded to in the other three episodes happened?
Skip ahead to today, sixteen years after the last Star Wars movie was released. This summer George Lucas is taking us back over an entire generation in the Star Wars universe. There is no evil Galactic Empire, the Jedi are still guardians of the galaxy, Obi-Wan is a young Jedi apprentice and Darth Vader, well, Vader is a nine year old boy. This is the world of the newest Star Wars movie, Episode I: The Phantom Menace.
That’s right. Prepare yourselves for the biggest event in movie history. Not to mention one of the biggest popular culture events of recent memory.
This might not be the most expensive movie ever made, but it certainly is the biggest and most technologically advanced. Lucas has pushed his creative teams at Industrial Light and Magic to maximize existing technologies and invent new ones in order to make the film fit his vision. This includes the countless numbers of spaceships, alien species and breathtaking sets that Star Wars viewers have come to expect, not to mention the glowing swords of the Jedi and the Sith, the lightsabers.
He really takes special effects to a new level, however, by creating a supporting character that is completely computer animated, Jar Jar Binks, an amphibian creature from the planet Naboo. This movie holds more special effects-related scenes than any film ever; most of its shots feature some sort of digital manipulation. In fact, some of The Phantom Menace was filmed digitally. Lucas dares the audience to try to tell it apart from the rest of the film.
As to what exactly this movie is about, I couldn’t tell you any more than what’s been in the trailers. A young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor of Trainspotting fame) is completing his training with Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson of Schindler’s List). They take it upon themselves to bring a young boy, Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), who we all know will grow up to become Darth Vader, before the Jedi Council. They believe he is, as Samuel L. Jackson’s character Mace Windu says, “The one who will bring balance to the Force.”
Meanwhile, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon also helping out a young Queen (Natalie Portman) whose planet is being invaded by an enemy Federation. Hanging around the Queen is Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who becomes the Emperor somewhere down the line in the new trilogy.
And, of course, we have the really bad guys, in hot pursuit of the Jedi. Darth Sideous looks remarkably like the Emperor is Return of the Jedi. Darth Maul (Ray Parks), the new trilogy’s answer to Darth Vader, sports a double ended lightsaber and a red and black face with nasty horns.
It is an undeniable fact that since the Star Wars saga began that day in 1977 it has grown to be an immense popular cultural phenomenon. The fact that the names and places of the characters have become ingrained in the minds of people all over the world is proof of this. This new movie doesn’t look to escape the trend. In fact, it perpetuating it in a way that has blown the minds of people across the country. The lengths which fans have gone through for this movie could easily be the subject of a whole other trilogy. Back in November, when the first trailer premiered, people paid full price for a movie just to see the trailer, then walked out.
If you didn’t want to pay, though, you could always download it off the Internet. It was out for less than a day before a fanatic made a bootleg of it and plastered it all over. Lucasfilm struck back by digitizing the trailer and putting it up on its own site. The Internet, as it turns out, has been a major player in the new Star Wars phenomenon. Fan sites have kept track of all available information better than most professional publications. From footage to information of the plot, it can all be found on the Internet.
As you read this there are fans in line for the movie preparing to buy their tickets, which go on sale this Wednesday, May 12. They have been waiting in lines outside the theater for close to a month now. The first line that started at Mann’s Chinese Theater is Los Angeles and is headed up by the webmaster of a web site which was been counting down to the new Star Wars movies. There are also lines all over the country from New York’s Ziegfeld Theater to Austin, Texas and even in Europe and South America. That’s right, if you want to line up in Germany or Peru, there is one forming pretty soon. If that weren’t enough, there were plenty of lines on Sunday, May 2 as fans prepared for the new Star Wars merchandise that hit the shelves that night at midnight. Stores were sold out of the most popular toys (especially Darth Maul figures) before the sun came up. While most places were surprised by the patience and the orderliness of the costumers, some places had people thrown out.
So, will this madness end on May 19, 1999 when The Phantom Menace premiers in theaters across the country? Of course not. The future still holds Episode II and Episode III (coming out in 2002 and 2005, respectively) where we can expect to see a great man things: the Clone Wars in which Obi-Wan plays a major part, along with the original trilogy favorite, Boba Fett; the fall of the Republic and rise of the Empire at Palpatine’s hands; the training of Anakin Skywalker by Obi-Wan and his plunge into the Dark Side from which he emerges as Darth Vader. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. For now, sit back and enjoy as this summer George Lucas takes us to the very beginning of the Star Wars saga and whisks us to “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. . .”