Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
There have been races and then there have been races in the movies but Star Wars took it to an entirely new level in The Phantom Menace with the painstakingly constructed 10 minute pod race. Straightaway the underdog status is clear because our star racer Anakin is hardly off the ground, highlighted as Qui-Gon hoists him off the ground and into his racer. “May the force be with you.” says Qui Gon and we whisper it along with him.
The tension has been set even before the race starts, as we see the race villain Sebulba fiddle with a part on Anakin’s racer. “Sebulba was my assignment. I was inspired by this camel that lived at the Oakland Zoo," explained concept artist Teryl Whitlatch and true enough it’s one evil camel looker as Sebulba heads off to his racer. There are shades of Nero at his circus when Jabba the Hutt waddles in, there’s the rivalry and pageant of Ben Hur as the racers line up and the flag bearers stride across the course. The astonishingly creative two headed race caller completes the magic of the setting.
There have been races and then there have been races in the movies but Star Wars took it to an entirely new level
The sound effects are awesome as the engines whirr to life - each racer having its own special whine. It was the task of people like Matthew Wood, one of the supervising sound editors, to work out. “The first lap of the pod race where there is no music, and we're heavily relying on all the visual effects and all the sound to drive that scene" Wood explained at a Star Wars Celebration. Wood, under the tutelage of Ben Burtt, spent years collecting the sounds that would be used in the pod race to complete the sequence.“To make Anakin's pod was this high-end Porsche that I had recorded and Sebulba's was basically a Ferrari that a guy kindly punched a hole in his muffler for," he said.
In classic film race tradition, Anakin’s racer stalls as the rest of field screams ahead. Sebulba in true Messala style is not just attacking the race but eliminating the competition- side slamming one, casting a can in the engine of another. Anakin is trailing after his slow start and has to deal with exploding debris and brigands taking pot shots. And all the while the steady thudding and whining of engines at full throttle. When his engine rein comes loose, Anakin has to stay cool and yank it back.
And soon it’s just the two of them left - Sebulba and Anakin hot on his tail. They trade the front spot before the final race to finish. In a scene reminiscent of Ben Hur, Sebulba locks engines with Anakin’s like how Messala’s wheels attempted to slice Ben Hur’s but in the final twist of justice, Anakin breaks free while Sebulba spins out of control and crashes. The crowd and we roar as Anakin crosses the finish line and one of the best race sequences to hit the big screen leaves micro millimeters of fingernails for every audience member to salvage.