This weekend Action Flick Chick Katrina Hill posed a question on Twitter: “What is it that makes sci-fi action movies so kickass?” My answer was, “the imagination has no limits.”
This is exactly the reason Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace is one of my favorite action movies – it’s set against backdrops only limited by the imagination of the creative parties. The movie returns to the big screen in 3D this Friday, February 10th.
Like most Star Wars fans, dedicated or casual, if I had to choose between the Original Trilogy or Prequel Trilogy as my favorite, I’d pick Original Trilogy. In large part, that’s because I just don’t think the tragic storyline of Episodes I-III could have been as successful without the hopeful, triumphant Episodes IV-VI already in place before them. With that said, the Prequels are still a close second in my book – and it’s pretty much undeniable that some of the action scenes in the Prequels blow even the best sequences in the Originals out of the water.
When The Phantom Menace first hit the big screen in 1999, fans didn’t know what to expect. It had been almost two decades since Return of the Jedi and movie-making had come a long way in that time. While some of the quirks George Lucas is famous (or notorious) for – such as stilted dialogue and questionable storytelling decisions like cuddly Ewoks and clumsy Gungans – were back, Episode I introduced game-changing action sequences. Scenes like the Boonta Eve Podrace, the threeway lightsaber duel, and the Battle for Naboo in space and on the plains were mind-blowing as they unfolded in the movie theater. Now just imagine how you would have reacted to those moments for the first time if they’d been in 3D, too.
Anyone who has had the chance to ride the reimagined Star Tours ride at Disneyland or Hollywood Studios has already experienced some of the iconic scenes from Star Wars in 3D. I’ve ridden it several dozen times myself, and it’s confirmed for me that George Lucas’ vision of a three-dimensional experience for the films won’t rely much, if at all, on out-of-the-screen gags but rather, like James Cameron’s Avatar, on immersing the audience into the universe with the added visual depth. The Star Tours version of the Podrace leaves riders breathless. Additional minutes have been added to that sequence since the last theatrical showing of Episode I, and it promises to be one of the highlights of the movie.
Personally, though, it was the epic duel between the two Jedi and Darth Maul that took Star Wars to a whole new level for me. The first time I saw the red-and-black tattooed Sith ignite his double-bladed lightsaber my jaw dropped. Then Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi jumped into the fray. With all three of them leaping, spinning, and clashing at a pace that was almost unimaginable, I remembering whooping at the screen. I can’t wait to see that battle in 3D, especially its elevation changes and Obi-Wan’s sprint down the hall to join his Jedi Master, who is fending off the Sith on his own.
We can’t really talk about the spectacular lightsaber fights in the Prequel Trilogy without acknowledging stunt coordinator Nick Gillard and Ray Park’s portrayal of Darth Maul. Park, who has also played G.I. Joe’s Snake Eyes and X-Men’s Toad, is a fan of Bruce Lee and trained in Northern Shaolin Kung Fu, kickboxing, and wushu. I’ve seen him speak at several conventions and also at Disney Star Wars Weekends. He is one of those personalities who make people smile. Yet when Park bared his teeth in the movie and began his attack, he harnessed a furious energy that took Sith from the stand-in-place Force-chokers and lightning-hurlers of the Original Trilogy to new heights of terrifying. Park helped create the double-blade fighting style and aerial tumbling that made the showdown on Naboo so breathtaking.
When Lucas filmed the lightsaber battle sequence on Naboo, he told Nick Gillard where it started and where it ended and left the rest up to his stunt coordinator’s imagination. The showdowns between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker back in the day had been exciting, but Gillard didn’t let the style of those duels limit his choreography. Instead, as Gillard explains in an article in the most recent Star Wars Insider, he “decided that the Jedi would be the best sword-fighters in the universe.” He credits the athleticism of Park and Ewan McGregor, and also the fact that he was allowed to shoot the fight as “a master shot at speed,” for making The Phantom Menace duel one of his favorite sword-fights of all time on film. It’s one of mine, too. This year Gillard has brought his lightsaber choreography to several conventions, and fans interested in fighting like a Jedi can check out his upcoming master classes. I’m crossing my fingers he’ll be bringing this class to Star Wars Celebration VI in Orlando in August.
Even if we can’t all fight like a Jedi or a Sith, it’s quite a thrill-ride to watch it onscreen.
Tricia Barr created and publishes FANgirl Blog, discussing Star Wars, fangirls, and storytelling. She also contributes to Suvudu, Random House’s science fiction and fantasy blog, and is currently finishing her first action-packed space opera novel, Wynde, due out later this summer.
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