In around 1998, I fell in love with racing.
No, not what they sanction for racing nowadays, with people just taking left turns all day. I mean racing through an obstacle course. Traversing an obstacle course at high speeds avoiding hazards and the machinations of other racers.
Namely, Mario Kart.
I’ve always had an aversion to organized sports. The only ones I’ve ever liked have been fictional, such as Quidditch and Calvinball. When a friend of mine got a Nintendo 64 with the game “MarioKart64,” I took to it like a duck to water. To this day, Kart-Racers have become perhaps my favorite genre of video game. I thought to myself, “if only real racing was like this.”
I was not prepared.
When it came to Star Wars, I was always more into creatures than vehicles. I could care less about Millennium Falcons and X-Wing fighters. I was far more interested in Wookiees, Hutts, Tauntauns, Jawas, whatever the heck Yoda is, etc. Don’t get me wrong, the designs were innovative and cool for what they were, but they didn’t grab me like they grabbed a lot of the fanbase.
That changed in May of 1999.
For it seems that George Lucas also has a love of high velocity. Realizing that The Phantom Menace needed an action setpiece as well as a method by which Anakin could escape his slavery, he wrote in what was destined to become my absolute favorite part of the Star Wars Saga: The Podrace.
It blew me away. The speeds were fantastic. The track was grandiose and full of deathtraps for an unwary racer. The pilots were some of the best character designs in the Saga, weird and imaginative creatures, of which the Dug would become a personal favorite.
But for the first time as a Star Wars fan, I found myself drawn to the vehicle just as much as their pilots. I loved the myriad of colors and the unique affectation each driver gave to their Pod. I loved the overall shape of the machine. I loved the Power Couplings. I loved the noises they made, and no two racers sounded alike. I loved seeing them whip along the canyon passes at several hundred miles an hour.
It depresses me how Podracing has fallen out of favor. When the film was released, even the naysayers had something good to say about the race. The video game version sold amazingly well, and remains a favorite of many to this day, myself included. And yet, with everyone tearing apart this film, few remember it as fondly as they should. I’ve heard many strange arguments against the Pods themselves, the most ludicrous being that they’re an impractical and frankly stupid design. To that, I can say only this:
OF COURSE it’s impractical and stupidly designed! OF COURSE it stretches even the great suspension of disbelief we have going into a film like this! That’s the entire point! That’s the perverse beauty of the thing! It’s basically just a tiny cockpit strapped to a couple of massive jet engines by a thin little cable! There’s a reason Anakin’s the only human who can do it and survive. Heck, many species explicitly don’t survive! It’s one of the most dangerous underground sports in the entire Star Wars galaxy! In order to consider piloting one of these things, you need to either be ridiculously strong in the Force or be absolutely insane.
“When I first met him,” Obi-Wan Kenobi once said to Luke Skywalker, “Your father was already a great pilot.” With the introduction of Anakin as a nine-year-old boy, some folks wondered how this was possible. Thanks to Phantom Menace, now we know. Winning the Boonta Classic is nothing to sneeze at. You can keep your Corellian freighters and your All-Terrain Armored Transports. Give me a Collor Pondrat Mammoth F-Plug Split-X Racer (or a Radon Ulzer, or an Ord Pedrovia) any day of the week.
Now if I could only figure out a way to make it fire blue shells…
(Author’s Note: I wish I could get some more dynamic screenshots, but with the high speeds it was almost impossible to not catch giant blurs. Definitely a point in the animators’ favor)