That time 'The Matrix' ate 'The Phantom Menace' and George Lucas' lunch at the Oscars

Posted by · 10:34 am · February 10th, 2012

I wasn't much of an Oscar-watcher in 1999. I was naive enough to think, surely, “The Insider” would be a big winner that year. “Three Kings” would definitely get a few nominations. “Magnolia” would HAVE to be a Best Picture nominee. None of that happened, of course.

I never liked “Star Wars.” Still don't. Not one single entry in the franchise. Look, fans, I respect your obsession, admiration and commitment. But they don't work for me. So when I lined up for “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” on May 19, a high school senior soon to enter film school (and let me tell you, what a year to be a film school student), I wasn't too pumped or anything. I had a number of friends who were, surely, but even they — some of them on their third and fourth viewing of the DAY — were beginning to cool on it a bit when I finally got there to see it that afternoon.

Technically, the film was a marvel, of course. Particularly in the aural arena. I wasn't all that educated enough to get the minutiae of all this yet, but you get a sense. I was still “meh” on it on the whole, though. And the film seemed to come up short even more because it was opening in the shadow of the true early landmark of that year.

Andy and Larry Wachowski's “The Matrix” hit theaters in March of 1999 after a nebulous marketing campaign that still had me wondering what I was about to see when I went to the theater. Indeed, “What is the matrix?” remains one of the more fetching and curiosity-piquing campaigns building to a movie that I've seen. The movie was a burst of creativity, precisely the kind of thing I needed at that point in my progression, a dazzling, unique glimpse of dystopia.

Fast forward a year to March of 2000 and the annual Academy Awards. “The Matrix” found itself in direct competition with “The Phantom Menace” in three categories: Best Sound, Best Sound Effects Editing and Best Visual Effects. I was staunchly pro-“Matrix,” but I really didn't expect it to take down a “Star Wars” film in those categories.

But it totally did. The cartoonish effects of George Lucas' dubious prequel were no match for the innovative work done on “The Matrix,” and I still remember visual effects supervisor John Gaeta's acceptance speech to this day, when he offered what sounded like a subtle shot across Lucas' bow: “MVFX's Rob Bobo, thank you very much for putting all of your efforts behind innovation, behind the spirit of doing visual effects in service to a story.” I think he even accentuated those last five words.

Not only that, but the film's audio qualities beat out names like Ben Burtt, Gary Rydstrom and Tom Johnson in the sound categories, which, tied to a Best Film Editing win, made for a clean sweep for the film. “Wow,” I thought. “The Academy's pretty cool.” (HA!)

A few years later the Wachowskis would learn the same thing Lucas did on his prequels, about losing the goodwill of your fans with crappy new installments of your franchise. But in that small window of 1999-2000, it was pretty sweet.

Nevertheless, “The Phantom Menace” is getting trucked out yet again this weekend to soak up some more dollars and line the ole' pockets one more time. I'll probably go see it, though, because I'm curious about the 3D post-conversion. But all of the pomp and circumstance surrounding the latest re-release got me thinking about that nifty night that saw a true underdog blockbuster kick Darth Lucas' teeth in.

Of course, “The Phantom Menace”'s bad Oscar luck was just a harbinger. 2002's “Attack of the Clones” only registered a visual effects nod as the sound branch couldn't be bothered with this stuff anymore. By the time “Revenge of the Sith” rolled around in 2005, even the visual effects guys were out, though the makeup branch did throw it a bone. Still, five nominations and zero wins stretched across the trilogy, compared to 17 and seven from the first (which lapped up three separate special achievement prizes along the way). Yikes.

But what does Lucas care? $430 million at the box office, baby.

But I don't want to end on a sour note, so let me promote a series Drew McWeeny has been doing over at Motion/Captured that is adorable and delightful. He took his son, Toshi, up to Skywalker Ranch a few weekends back for the film's junket, where the youngster had a blast with lightsaber battles and model making and got to meet Darth Maul. Hey, even I won't take that away from a kid with my ennui.

“Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace 3D” opens in theaters nationwide today.

For year-round entertainment news and awards season commentary follow @kristapley on Twitter.

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