After the divisive 'Star Wars' sequels, a former Lucasfilm insider re-evaluates The Phantom Menace

Everyone's life has a "Luke Skywalker moment" – when something completely unexpected happens that hurls you from the life you knew into one you didn't think was possible, and you take your first step into a larger world.

For me, it came in December 2002, when a friend told me about a job he had been interviewing for, but which he decided he couldn't take. He and his wife were moving back to their hometown, and he thought I would be perfect for the role. He submitted my resume; I got a call the next day, a week after that I was interviewing, and five days later I got an offer to join Lucasfilm Ltd., initially to manage international publicity and ultimately to work as director of entertainment publicity.


Star Wars had already been one of the defining moments of my childhood (including my own 10-minute-long, Super 8 "remake"), now it was going to change my adult life. For six years, I made my professional home at Lucasfilm, and had the enormously good fortune to spend time with George Lucas, who entertained questions from journalists, fans, researchers and employees with unmatched patience and genuine interest.

As we all worked on the production and release of what we assumed was the final Star Wars film – Episode III Revenge of the Sith – I listened to many discussions of the origins and ideas behind Star Wars. Eventually, I came to think of Star Wars movies less as entertainment and more as work, and I spent a not-insignificant amount of time defending the Star Wars prequels. On the day I left Lucasfilm, a TV producer I know joked, "Now you don't have to keep insisting that those movies are good anymore."

I never really had to insist on that, and always did believe it. But once I left Lucasfilm in 2009, I never watched any of the first six Star Wars films from start to finish. The stay-at-home world of coronavirus changed that, and I allowed myself to watch Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace … and discovered that I appreciated it more than I ever thought possible.


Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace - Trailer www.youtube.com


When it was released in 1999, I saw The Phantom Menace a half-dozen times in theaters and was bemused by each screening. Since 1977, I had only occasionally wondered what the "war" in Star Wars was all about, and why an intergalactic civil war had raged. The Phantom Menace promised an explanation, and gave one – but it wasn't at all what anyone expected: Princess Leia had stolen secret plans, Darth Vader had killed Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke Skywalker had blown up the Death Star, Yoda had trained Luke, Han had been frozen in carbonite, all because trade routes were unfairly taxed?

That sense of disbelief was long-lasting, and by the time I started working at Lucasfilm four years after The Phantom Menace was released, it hadn't abated. The questions of Episode I loomed over everything we did, and were still on my mind when I re-watched The Phantom Menace through different eyes.

It was impossible not to hear the mildly exasperated chuckle in George Lucas's voice whenever he answered questions about what it all meant. He always maintained a patient insistence that it had not been a mistake to tell the world that the roots of Star Wars were indeed in political bureaucracy and microscopic organisms.

To watch Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace again is to realize a truth: George Lucas was absolutely right to do it the way he did. When given complete artistic freedom (he was spending his own money, after all) to tell the Star Wars story he wanted to tell, he remained true to his extraordinary vision of a mythology rooted in the foibles and imperfections of our own world.


Director Jim Henson (left) and Lucas working on Labyrinth in 1986


The Phantom Menace is a film stuffed – perhaps overstuffed – with ideas, so many that it is hard to keep up with them. Though it is far from a perfect film, with stilted dialogue and sometimes uncomfortable acting, it is never a dull or boring movie. And as arcane as "the taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems" may seem, so are the origins of all wars – even the unbelievable one we're in now, which began not with a bat or pangolin, but with bureaucratic, political decisions that stretch back years.

Mundane actions have massive consequences, and The Phantom Menace still surprises by looking at some of those actions closely. Even the opening scene, with its discussion of blockades, negotiations, ambassadors and senators stands in opposition to the slam-bang openings of the first three Star Wars movies.

The first half of The Phantom Menace can seem drawn out and dry, yet Lucas's script is doing much more than simply setting up the action that will lead to the discovery of Anakin Skywalker. It's also establishing a complicated world view, one in which politics as a whole is not to be trusted, but is the only imperfect option for getting anything done. Sound familiar?

Bear in mind that within the first couple of minutes of the original Star Wars, we've already learned about a civil war, an Imperial senate, and, a bit later, an "Old Republic." While he could have chosen a more action-oriented, mindless backstory, George Lucas uses The Phantom Menace to begin showing how that republic became an empire, how a politician became a tyrant, and how the senate allowed it all to happen.

In that regard, The Phantom Menace is a more consequential and intriguing film than any of the most recent sequels. It's also pointedly, proudly a George Lucas film. Its sprawling story, which is always splitting its time between two or three different plot lines, bears much more resemblance to Lucas's earliest features – THX-1138 and American Graffiti – than any of the Star Wars films Lucas didn't direct. Watching The Phantom Menace, it's easy to see Lucas's love of the craft of moviemaking come to the fore.


DARTH MAUL - Complete Lightsaber Fight - Star Wars : The Phantom Menace www.youtube.com


The Phantom Menace is equally a rumination on the cultural significance of mythology – when Anakin Skywalker's mother Shmi struggles to explain what she means about her son's conception and birth the film is also observing how the mythology of cultures around the globe share the same underpinnings. If Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope found inspiration in Joseph Campbell's ideas of comparative mythology, The Phantom Menace is a master's thesis in the teachings.

One of its most central ideas is one of the concepts most derided by fans: midichlorians. With the benefit of having heard George Lucas talk over and over about the concept of an underlying physical connection with the Force, I've come to think of midichlorians as the most intriguing aspect of the entire Star Wars saga. They are destiny made manifest, a bold attempt to explain why some people, given the same opportunities, passions and training, achieve more than others. They do not undermine the concept of the Force, but help explain why not everyone becomes a hero.


Star Wars: Phantom Menace - What Are Midichlorians (Movie Clip) www.youtube.com


Thy also speak to a concept that George Lucas would bring up over and over: the ubiquity of myths. For some reason, people around the world, separated by time and distance, have developed similar myths. Their stories and their religions bear remarkable resemblance to each other. Could it be something within us that motivates these beliefs?

Ultimately, The Phantom Menace becomes a rousing action film, though never a straightforward one. To get us to its final 45 minutes, Lucas concocted a story filled with switches and reverses, betrayals and false allies. It all leads to a grand finale in which at least four different battles are happening simultaneously. Lucas' skill as a filmmaker ensures we always know where we are throughout this massive conclusion, even if we aren't entirely sure of the ever-changing identity of one core character.

Though its midichlorian-induced hangover effect put fans on the defensive for years, a rewatch of The Phantom Menace proves the furor over the film may have been overdone. The more you watch The Phantom Menace, and the more you look at how it's put together, listen to its dialogue and even its music, the more you realize that it has a great deal to say – not just about Star Wars but about our endless need for stories that help us make sense of a non-sensical world.

John Singh is a writer and entertainment-industry veteran who began his career as a newspaper journalist and has also worked at Disney, Lucasfilm Ltd., DreamWorks Animation and on a variety of films and TV series.

Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I'll never forget the exhilaration I felt as I headed into the city on July 3, 2018. My pink hair was styled. I wore it up in a high ponytail, though I left two tendrils down. Two tendrils which framed my face. My makeup was done. I wore shadow on my eyes and blush on my cheeks, blush which gave me color. Which brought my pale complexion to life. And my confidence grew each time my heels clacked against the concrete.

My confidence grew with each and every step.

Why? Because I was a strong woman. A city woman. A woman headed to interview for her dream job.

I nailed the interview. Before I boarded the bus back home, I had an offer letter in my inbox. I was a news writer, with a salary and benefits, but a strange thing happened 13 months later. I quit said job in an instant. On a whim. I walked down Fifth Avenue and never looked back. And while there were a few reasons why I quit that warm, summer day: I was a new(ish) mom. A second-time mom, and I missed my children. Spending an hour with them each day just wasn't enough. My daughter was struggling in school. She needed oversight. Guidance. She needed my help. And my commute was rough. I couldn't cover the exorbitant cost of childcare. The real reason I quit was because my mental health was failing.


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Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash

I'll never forget the exhilaration I felt as I headed into the city on July 3, 2018. My pink hair was styled. I wore it up in a high ponytail, though I left two tendrils down. Two tendrils which framed my face. My makeup was done. I wore shadow on my eyes and blush on my cheeks, blush which gave me color. Which brought my pale complexion to life. And my confidence grew each time my heels clacked against the concrete.

My confidence grew with each and every step.

Why? Because I was a strong woman. A city woman. A woman headed to interview for her dream job.

I nailed the interview. Before I boarded the bus back home, I had an offer letter in my inbox. I was a news writer, with a salary and benefits, but a strange thing happened 13 months later. I quit said job in an instant. On a whim. I walked down Fifth Avenue and never looked back. And while there were a few reasons why I quit that warm, summer day: I was a new(ish) mom. A second-time mom, and I missed my children. Spending an hour with them each day just wasn't enough. My daughter was struggling in school. She needed oversight. Guidance. She needed my help. And my commute was rough. I couldn't cover the exorbitant cost of childcare. The real reason I quit was because my mental health was failing.


Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."