‘Star Wars: Episode VII’ vs. ‘Phantom Menace’: What We Know So Far

Where was the 'Star Wars' prequel on a comparable timeline?

Today is December 18, 2013. And as Star Wars’ Twitter so helpfully noted, In just two short years, we’ll all be sitting in a movie theater watching J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars: Episode VII:”

But so far, we don’t know a whole lot about the sequel, and the clock never stops ticking.

So is this a problem? To find out, we jumped in our time machine to look at a comparable period of time between the release of “Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace,” which was released on May 19, 1999, and where that movie was on a similar schedule.

By May 19, 1997 the majority of the main cast of the first “Star Wars” prequel had been unofficially announced by Variety, including Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, and Samuel L. Jackson, as well as what parts they’d be playing. Though Jake Lloyd was rumored for the part of young Anakin Skywalker, he wasn’t officially confirmed (along with the rest of the cast) by Lucasfilm until early June.

Filming officially commenced on “Phantom Menace” on June 26, 1997, 23 months before the movie was set to hit theaters. Meanwhile, “Episode VII” will deliver its script by the end of January, 23 months before that movie is set to be released.

To answer the question posed three paragraphs ago, this could be seen as a problem, except for two crucial pieces of info:

1) “Phantom Menace” was one of the first movies to completely embrace digital environments, creating new ways of filming never before seen. Over a decade later, these techniques are par for the course, and much quicker to implement.

2) Pre-vis, aka Pre-visualization. Despite not turning in a script, “Episode VII,” much like “Phantom Menace” before it, most assuredly is much further along in the process than those of us in front of the scenes truly know. Undoubtedly the production team is deep into designing the look of the movie, building set pieces and props, and possibly even finished with blocking out nearly every action sequence. At this point, script could just be a formality.

The problem, then, is one of perception. “Phantom Menace” was also shrouded in secrecy, but we knew far more about the movie than we do about “Episode VII.” Unfair or not, human beings tend to wonder why one is being so secret, rather than buying into the excitement of surprise. If we only liked surprises for the anticipation, we’d never open presents.

Alarm bells also arise when you look at the other big releases in 2015, and what we know so far about each of them:

Mission: Impossible V,” which releases a week after “Episode VII,” already has stunts blocked out, a cast, and a Director.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2” started filming about a month after the end of filming “Catching Fire.”

Batman vs. Superman” has released a steady trickle of news, including casting and locations, and starts filming shortly.

Jurassic World” and “Terminator: Genesis” both seem to have steady casting announcements, as well as directors and staff working hard on scripts.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron” has a cast, scripts, an announced villain, and the faith that everyone in Marvel knows what they’re doing at this point.

And more than all that? It’s frickin’ “Star Wars.” It’s a tautology (or tauntaunology, if you will), but we want to know more because we want to know more. It’s unfair to do to filmmakers like Abrams or their process, but with this much built up anticipation, we want the movie to be good, or at least some assurance they’re on the right track. When the only information that’s released is pushing back the filming date, or an unfinished script, we get worried the movie will be rushed.

Now granted, George Lucas was working on “Phantom Menace” from 1994-1999, and look where that got that mostly critically panned movie. Perhaps a frenzied schedule will help the sequel?

Regardless, we expect a floodgate of info to hit us in 2014, and even one news story could change all this around. As long as Jar Jar Binks stays far away? We’ll be fine.

Writer/Editor at MTV News. You can follow him on Twitter, but not in real life because that would be weird.
@azalben