At one point in The Beginning: Making Star Wars Episode I, George Lucas offhandedly remarks “You can destroy these things, you know?" The director is wondering if he made the right choice by deciding to add to what is one of the most successful film franchises in history. Unfortunately for Lucas, it's now no secret that he was making a huge mistake.
This moment is brilliant because it features Lucas experiencing a rare moment of insight. Almost every other frame in the documentary paints the director as a billionaire boy who won’t be told which toys he can and can’t play with. In this scene, however, we see the glimmer of an artist, starring horrified into an abyss of their own creation.
Jon Shenk — a documentarian who brought us the sequel to An Inconvenient Truth — directed the documentary about the making of The Phantom Menace, and his keen eye for the artist's self-destructive nature is on full display. Rather than acting as a collection of The Phantom Menace behind the scenes footage, The Beginning is a fascinating look into the illogical artistry that birthed the worst part of your favorite franchise.
Throughout The Beginning, George Lucas regularly stops members of his crew to remind them that The Phantom Menace is an incredibly personal movie for him. Early on in the documentary, Lucas tells a producer that his films are like poetry in that “every stanza kind of rhymes with the last one.” At this point, one has to wonder if Lucas is watching a different series than everyone else.
This isn’t to say that a movie about a precocious child pilot and his space knight friends can’t be personal. Steven Spielberg (Lucas’s producing partner and buddy) spent the '80s making films about children in peril that feel like they’re coming from the heart.
In contrast, nothing about The Phantom Menace feels intimate. It’s a cold film made by an artist with zero understanding of what people actually enjoy about his art.
It’s impossible to discuss The Phantom Menace without referencing the digital world built by Lucas and his team at Industrial Light & Magic. The film, for better or for worse, ushered in an entirely new method of creating big-budget action films.
The Beginning provides weight to the possibility that Lucas’s prequels were nothing more than the testing ground for the tech side of his production company. Throughout the documentary, the pained expressions of the digital artists suggest that they’re constantly forced to act on the whims of a director who doesn’t understand (or doesn’t care) that most of the effects requested have never been attempted before.
All throughout the documentary, George Lucas is made to resemble Willy Wonka let loose in his own chocolate factory. He expects all his ideas to be acted upon, even though he's not sure exactly what needs to be done.
The documentary opens with Lucas — wielding a yellow highlighter in one hand and a pink highlighter in the other — marking up a storyboard to inform his effect producers which shots will be CGI. When it becomes clear that most of the film will be CGI, the color drains from the faces of his subordinates. They take turns shooting brief, frenzied looks at the camera, as if to confirm that someone else is bearing witness to Lucas’s uncontrollable lunacy.
The unavoidable curse bestowed upon franchise-founding billionaires is that they are often made to sit in rooms full of people who are afraid to tell them “no.” For many of the people working on The Phantom Menace, upholding this curse was one of their main job requirements.
Chis Newman, the film’s assistant director, is essentially tasked with actually directing the film. He interacts with actors — something Lucas rarely does — explains what’s "really" happening when someone is standing alone in front of a massive green screen, and even calls cut and action after Lucas forgets to do so. If he ever worked up the nerve to tell Lucas to “learn how to direct a movie you billionaire child" he'd be out of a job.
Many of the producers featured in The Beginning seem to be making life easier for themselves by giving George what he wants. David Glier, a producer who worked closely with Lucas from pre-to-post-production, never questions the director, and doesn’t stop him from committing to a post-production process that went way over budget.
By the end of the documentary, Glier's just trying to finish the movie by its advertised release date. This "no questions asked" attitude is mirrored by most of the crew, and it dirties every decision that’s made regarding The Phantom Menace.
The way that George Lucas talks about Jar Jar Binks, you would think the character is the Second Coming of Christ. Throughout The Beginning, Lucas insists that Jar Jar is going to make people love the movie.
It’s hard to discern why Lucas thinks that the goofy, racist caricature of an alien is going to be the best part of a movie that also features legitimately cool lightsaber battles, but for whatever reason, he truly believes that Jar Jar was a good idea.
Lucas hems and haws over a $100,000 costume, wringing his hands over whether or not he should have even hired an actor when he has a team of digital effects people making a CGI version of the character. From the onset, it feels as if Jar Jar was the catalyst behind the creation of the whole prequel series, which potentially explains the overall drop in quality.