Star Wars: The Phantom Menace – The Expanded Visual Dictionary Review

From Lucas Books and authors David West Reynolds and Jason Fry, comes a new expanded version of the well loved Episode 1 Visual Dictionary; a book that was part of the earliest Episode 1 merchandising thrust back in 1999. This new expanded edition under review, is released as part of a fresh wave of merchandising supporting Episode 1 now hitting cinemas in 3D.

I actually own a copy of the original edition, which I had to hand while writing this review. Direct comparisons between the two then, were not only possible, but inevitable, and as it turned out; pretty helpful too. Let’s see how it fares then.

The first thing you notice about the expanded dictionary (brushing aside the fact that this rather depends on having an original copy to compare it to), is the change in title. The ‘Episode 1’ moniker from the original edition is now entirely absent (preferring instead, to use only the film’s proper episode title ‘The Phantom Menace’). The second and more significant change is the cover design. The original’s front cover sported a montage of images, with a large shot of Queen Amidala somewhat inexplicably taking centre stage. The new edition features nothing but a vivid, red filtered close up of Darth Maul. This seems consistent with the idea of the original book being put together during filming or post production. At that time, none of the movie’s characters or elements had yet had a chance to make a lasting impression on public awareness. Even so, Amidala getting top billing on the original cover seems bizarre. Well, with the benefit of some thirteen years of continued marketing, brand familiarisation, filtration, condensing and cultural osmosis; it’s an obvious choice to put super Sith baddie Darth Maul, on the cover. He has long since become Episode 1’s coolest, most credible, and indelible visual image. Of course he’s on the cover, c’mon people!

Moving on, and the third thing one notices is that for a hardback of its generous table-book page size, it seems upon first acquaintence to be a little thinner than you’d expect. Don’t worry though, the book is much more generous of glossy page than you think it’s going to be, and certainly doesn’t lack for content. It’s also considerably thicker than the original, so it’s win-sauce all round. In fact doing a quick count reveals an additional 40 odd content pages over the original edition, a two thirds increase, by Jove. This is looking good.

Like its predessesor, the book seeks to act as a graphic compendium, an exhibition if you will, of all things Phantom Menace related. From characters, to spacecraft, from weapons, to droids, and all the wildlife, gadgets and gizmos in between. Pretty much everything you can think of is in there. From Darth Maul’s impossibly cool double bladed Lightsaber, to Chancellor Palpatine’s chunky office ornaments. Items are typically afforded a general description, as well as diagrammatical bullet point details (rather like one would add to project diagrams). Naturally some entries are more significant than others (a main character for instance), which equates to more page space, larger, more detailed pictures, and more in-depth text. Lesser entries may only be covered to a minimum standard, but covered they are nonetheless. One thing to be sure of though, is that there are hundreds of items included here that you barely even see in the movie. Such is the extent and thoroughness of the content, and the author’s seemingly unfettered access to Lucasfilm’s archives. In this respect, the new edition really excels, and betters its predecessor by a quantum leap.

One thing I’ve yet to mention, and must be noted, is that the dictionary is an ‘in character’ creation, not a non-fiction ‘making of’. By which, I mean that its contents never breaks out of its own fictional existence. Obi Wan Kenobi’s 4 page spread, for instance, will make no mention of Ewan McGregor or anything else outside of the Star Wars galaxy. This is not that kind of book.

Overall, the dictionary has an enjoyable, fun and energetic flow. However, having trained as a graphic designer back when one did these things by ruler, eye and heart; I felt that the page layout and visual language of the book was not perhaps quite as clear as it could be. Some pages looking a little cramped for space and disorganised to my sensibilities. This is a subjective reality of course, and beauty is in the eye of the beholder. One certainly gets the impression that this is an intentional design philosophy, rather than a clumsy means to save a few extra leaves of paper. Subjective aesthetic tastes aside then, I really cannot fault the readability, or effectiveness of the book. Photos are crisp, hi-res and well detailed (sometimes, this leads to a realisation of the all too Earthly and humble origins of certain props). Character shots are a mixture of clear movie stills and official posed promos. There are some very nice exploded or cutaway technical layouts too, enhancing the fictional verity of the item in detail.

I think it’s fair to say that this book is mainly aimed at children and young teens. This is no bad thing of course, after all, so was the movie. However, I think that some older readers initially interested in a book like this, might at some point, begin hankering for a factual book about the movie instead of this fictional approach. I know I did. This is not a criticism mind you, far from it. I would just be more interested to know that the UX-53 Autopolisher MK.II was indeed a Flymo hover mower painted grey, than where its ‘Efflux Discharge Stacks’ are supposedly situated (if you see what I mean?), but I digress. For its intended purpose and demographic; the book is absolutely spot on, and in its expanded new format; a really comprehensive, rich guide to everything you could possibly want to know, and more, about the people and gadgets of The Phantom Menace. Oh, and before I forget; I’m very glad that someone over at Lucasville spotted the original edition’s constant (and frankly unforgivable) misspelling of the word Lightsaber (as Lightsabre), and fixed it throughout the new book. Well done dudes.

The expanded visual dictionary is out now priced at £14.99

Ben Pegley

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