So maybe you're one of those grumpy nerds who thinks George Lucas "took liberties" with your childhood, or wears a black Jar Jar Binks shirt with "Never Forget" on it in mournful letters. Okay, it's not a perfect movie, but "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" still has that trend-setting Knights of the Roundtable mythology, exciting action scenes and serial breathlessness that made the original trilogy so great.
On the eve of its theatrical re-release in 3-D, we're taking the stand that "Phantom Menace" is more than just a "trumped-up fireworks display of a toy advert" (as Simon Pegg said in "Spaced") and in fact still has enough coolness in it to make a revisit worthwhile. Strike up those lightsabers, 'cause tonight we're gonna party like it's 1999.
Although the catchphrase "That's so wizard!" never quite took off at the schoolyard, this high-speed, jet-propelled race across the rocky desert trenches of Tatooine was far and away the most memorable action set piece of "Episode I." When Alec Guinness talked about his amazement at how strongly the force was with Anakin in "Episode IV," this is the stuff he was talking about.
One thing just about every "Star Wars" fan can agree on is that Darth Maul was an über-badass. With his demonic facepaint and devil horns he looked like he came straight from a New Jersey hockey rink and right into our hearts. This Sith Lord's bad attitude and double-sided lightsaber made us hope he'd be the next Darth Vader-level icon of the series ... and then he got chopped in half. BOOOOOO!
Although he's a primo wolf-punchin', kidnapper-killin' tough guy today, back in 1999 Liam Neeson was still best known as "The guy who played 'Schindler's List.'" (Yes, he played the list.) As maverick Jedi Master Qui-Gon, Neeson exuded a quiet cowboy authority, supplemented by a truly biblical fake beard. Although he doesn't quite make it to the end (SPOILER!) he does set up the chain of events that will eventually bring balance to the force ... or something like that.
Again calling back to the grandeur of the original '77 classic, the climactic fighter assault on the Trade Federation's droid control vessel in retro yellow spaceships was truly the stuff of spiffy space opera. You can gripe about how it's a cheap move, but deep down every kid wanted to fly spaceship at one point, right? (The answer is "yes.")
Also Check Out: 8 Biopics Recast With Jar Jar Binks
A lot of us coming out of the theater were a little annoyed when our friends were all like, "Did you see E.T. in there?" Where the hell was Steven Spielberg's friendly extraterrestrial among the thousands upon thousands of freaky aliens populating every nook and cranny of film frame? In true "Where's Waldo" fashion, the delegates from E.T.'s planet were in the corner of one of the Galactic Senate shots, ready to phone home to their constituents.
During the pretty gnarly underwater scene, Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan and Jar Jar encounter some sea life that would have Jacques Cousteau wetting his wetsuit, starting with a really huge fish trying to eat their vessel and then an even super-duper-huger fishy thing eating that guy. "There's always a bigger fish," quipped Qui-Gon, which proved surprisingly prescient given the "Harry Potter" and "Lord of the Rings" box office dominance a few years later.
Sigmund Freud Jedi
There's a lot of badass mofos in the Jedi Temple, but none as singularly Freudian as Ki-Adi-Mundi, the white-bearded master who looks like Beldar Conehead would have if he'd become a kung-fu master. His wonderful Austrian accent when delivering the famous line "Your thoughts dwell on your mother" to Anakin leave little doubt that Lucas was using a dangerous method when concocting some of these guys. Then again, sometimes a lightsaber is just a lightsaber.
"The entire planet is one big city!" How frickin' wizard is that? The idea for the universal hub of Coruscant dates back to Lucas' earliest inclinations for "Star Wars." Original trilogy concept artist Ralph McQuarrie did some illustrations for it back in the "Return of the Jedi" days, and the site of it on-screen is nothing short of breathtaking. While some bemoan the CGI takeover of ILM's special effects, Coruscant is something that could never be achieved with models or matte paintings. Lucas added a minute-long "tone poem" sequence of our heroes having a casual city fly-through when it hit DVD.
While it visually echoes the excitement and pageantry of the original '77 "Star Wars" ending ceremony, this ticker-tape parade for our heroes on Naboo also gave Lucas a chance to once again mimic his favorite movie, Leni Riefenstahl's Nazimentary "Triumph Of The Will." Little Orphan Anakin looks cool with his Jedi buzzcut, but it's wicked ironic when Queen Amidala hands Boss Nass one of those Static Electricity Plasma Balls from the '80s and the Gungan Leader yells out "PEACE!" Yes, peace punctuated by five more episodes of full-on "Star Wars."