When Star Wars hit theaters in 1977, it was a jaw-dropping spectacle of game-changing visuals, and when it hit my family’s VCR in 1992, it was still exactly that. Some films’ technical achievements endure through the ages and I have a feeling that, even without George Lucas’ digital face-lifts, the original trilogy’s effects would still look impressive today. Other FX milestones, like say the work of Ray Harryhausen, may not be quite so protected against the kitchification of time, but are still awarded their due reverence in the history of the field.
The Phantom Menace, however, is an interesting case. It’s one of the few films whose impressive technical achievements were in service of a story so bland and characters so one-dimensional (forget 3-D) that the annals of cinema history are unable to separate one from the other. This is unfortunate because, by all rights, the prequel not only boasted some of the most impressive digital effects to date, but also ended up influencing, for better or for worse, how Hollywood has made blockbusters ever since.
People often point to Gollum as the first fully CGI, motion-capture major character in a film, but they’re forgetting a certain floppy-eared, syntax-challenged Gungan. Now, some things are better left forgotten, and I’m sure many put Jar Jar Binks — the comic-relief figure audiences needed relief from — in that category. But it’s tempting to wonder: If Binks’ personality hadn’t been equivalent of taking a cheese grater to the face, would he currently be lauded as an important VFX stepping stone?* Similarly, the massive battle scenes in The Lord of the Rings were predated by the prequel’s droid-Gungan skirmish, yet the former is far better remembered than the latter.
The Phantom Menace was the first Star Wars film not to win the Academy Award for Best Visual Effects, losing out to the bullet-dodging tai chi of The Matrix. There’s no doubt the Wachowskis blended their technology more seamlessly into their story; George Lucas was never very good at directing actors, and even less so when their only visual cue is a giant expanse of green fabric. (It only takes one look at Liam Neeson’s stoically unfocused stare whenever he’s supposed to be reacting to something that isn’t there to see that these actors were entirely on their own.) But The Phantom Menace still may have had more influence on subsequent big-budget films than people realize. Few blockbusters nowadays opt for the more contained aesthetic of The Matrix, but Lucas’ more-is-more, rolling hills of greenscreen, approach has essentially become norm. There’s very little that doesn’t look overbusy and plastic, and a 90 percent postproduction film like Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland owes a lot to Lucas opening that particular Pandora’s box of synthetic wonders, from which even James Cameron’s Pandora partially sprung.
Now you can argue whether or not this influence was a good thing — personally, I think as a whole it’s more Sith than Jedi — but it’s hard to deny that it happened. And George Lucas probably deserves either a lot more credit or a lot more blame than he’s gotten.
*Interestingly, the first-ever appearance an all-CGI character in a live-action movie was also thanks in part to Lucas and the proto-Pixar animators (including John Lasseter) at Lucasfilm who made the stained-glass knight in 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes.