Yesterday, NASCAR driver Jeff Gordon – who raced the #24 Phantom Menace paint-scheme car back in 1999 – won the first race of the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup. I attended this race in Dover International Speedway in Delaware donning my #24 Star Wars Episode I cap.
Prior to the race, for the past few weeks, I’ve had my share middle-of-the-night movie watching - thanks to my teething one-year-old. In those sleepless nights, I’ve re-watched Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. As many of you know, there is a delicious Easter Egg in Episode I that visually points to 2001.
An EVA pod from 2001 lies just inside Watto’s junkyard, where Watto and Qui-Gon Jinn have a conversation about paying for the spare parts the Jedi needs to repair Queen Amidala’s spaceship. Here is a still from 2001 showing several pods on the left...
And here is the scene from Phantom Menace featuring the 2001 pod.
Look just to the right of Watto's flapping wings...
While there are additional scenes and nuances shared by both films, I’d like to hone in on this whole “pod” business first. I want to stress that the 2001 spaceship is known as a POD and this is the beginning scene that will make up an act in Episode I that climaxes with… wait for it… a PODrace, as in Anakin will race his own PODracer to get the spare parts Qui-Gon and company needs (and secure his own freedom from slavery). Now, when we first see the 2001 EVA pod in the background, we haven’t heard the term “pod” or “podrace” in Phantom Menace, but it serves as a visual indicator.
Sci-fi fans who had already seen 2001 prior to their first viewing of Episode I (like me), may have thought, “Oh, that’s cool. That’s the POD from 2001.” When the term “podrace” is first mentioned by Anakin a few minutes later in the film, we’re not thinking about the junkyard visually – or remembering the EVA pod we saw there. And yet, we will return to that location to secure the deal with Watto for the podrace scene to occur. A few minutes later, before the podrace begins, Qui-Gon makes deal with Watto. If Anakin pilots his pod to victory, Watto must release him from slavery. In other words, Anakin will be TRANSFORMED into a new stage of his life…to be free, to become a Jedi and, ultimately, to become Darth Vader.
In 2001, main character and space traveler Dave Bowman is also transformed into his (and humanity’s) next life stage when he travels in his pod into the monolith. After steering his pod into the monolith, Dave travels across a luminous, alien landscape that ends with his aging and transformation into a “star child.”
So, what does my trip to the NASCAR race at Dover have to do with any of this? Well, now having attended a NASCAR race, I must say that Lucas and crew did an excellent job creating the racing experience in the podrace. Lucas made it very clear that he wanted the podrace in Episode I to feel “very NASCAR.” The cast of interesting characters in the stands, the intense sounds and visuals of the race and so many other aspects of Dover really hit me and reminded me of the podrace scene (arguably the BEST part of Episode I).
But, after our one-time Phantom Menace driver Jeff Gordon won yesterday, I learned an interesting fact. It’s been YEARS since Gordon won at Dover. How long?
The last time Jeff Gordon won at Dover was the calendar year 2001.
On that note, here are some other interesting similarities/coincidences shared between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace:
- Early on in each film, characters take a space flight to attend a business meeting on a space station. In 2001, Dr. Heywood R. Floyd (William Sylvester) travels via Pan Am space plane to a circular space station. In Episode I, cruiser Radiant VII carries Qui-Gon (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) to a circular Trade Federation space station.
- A robot in plain sight eavesdrops on two mortal
characters having a life-or-death conversation. In 2001, Dr. David Bowman (Keir
Dullea) and Dr. Frank Poole (Gary Lockwood) talk in a docked EVA pod while the
HAL-9000 lip reads their conversation. talk to the
two Jedi. Protocol droid TC-1, who is idly standing by, is ordered to go into the conference room.
- Characters “struggle” to get through circular portals. In 2001, a Pan Am stewardess uses Velcro-slippers to navigate the weightlessness of outer space to enter a circular portal “upside down.” Episode I, Qui-Gon uses his lightsaber to cut through circular blast doors.
- Stuart Freeborn, the man responsible for designs of Wookies, Yoda and Jabba the Hutt – also worked on the ape-suits in the DAWN OF MAN sequence in 2001.