Every generation has a legend.
Every journey has a first step.
Every saga has a beginning…
It was one of those moments where people will remember where they were when the teaser trailer for ‘The Phantom Menace’ dropped online in November 1998. The return to a galaxy far, far away was something the world was more than ready for, but even when the teaser trailer launched, it was clear this itself was more than just a teaser trailer…it was an event.
The air of mystery surrounding a new story, the haunting glimpses of new fantastical worlds, characters, creatures and battles, the adrenaline pumping soundtrack bursting out from the darkness. It was an exemplary demonstration of how to tease with a teaser.
Famously fronted before a few select films in cinemas before being uploaded to starwars.com in a pre-YouTube and pre-fibre /broadband /on-demand /streaming /online 24/7 world (remember those days?), it’s safe to say this thing really “broke the internet” before breaking internets was even a thing. Months later, the second full trailer debuted on 11th March 1999 and landed 3.5 million downloads in five days, and a total of 35 million in the first year. It was, quite simply, simply “the biggest download event in history”.
The film was released in May 1999. Star Wars was back, and then some.
16 years after we left Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia et al in ‘Return of the Jedi’, it was time for George Lucas to go back and tell the story of young Anakin Skywalker, Luke’s father – #spoiler – and his journey from Jedi hero to evil Sith Lord Darth Vader – #spoileragain. Teased with the odd wording here and there and snippets of events gone by during the original trilogy of films, it was a story that many fans were eager to explore and see happen such as these “clone wars” and how Obi-Wan and Anakin were good friends.
With a surge of new CGI developments and film-making technology on the rise through the 90s, writer and director Lucas presented us with the most anticipated film of all time*; and this would soon turn out to be one of the most disappointing films of all time**, especially for ‘Star Wars’ fans.
* until 2015s ‘The Force Awakens’
** until 2017s ‘The Last Jedi’….there’s a Star Wars theme here when you look at it.
From the opening crawl it is clear this is the same franchise but different. John Williams returns for another memorable score that acts as a safety blanket, and lots of familiar planets and characters return such as Tatooine, R2-D2 and Yoda, but it also presents a new visually stunning galaxy rich in visually immersive landscapes and technology that transports us even further back far, far away and gives us something we’ve never seen before in this universe. The only issue aesthetically is that the galaxy looks so much shinier, new and advanced 30+ years BEFORE we saw it in ‘A New Hope’. But that’s just picky for picky’s sake. It looks slick and fantastical and the use of technology is very evident, and it works in creating a wider galaxy with Lucas’s imagination that had no limits.
However, the core of Star Wars is to have characters and situations the audience can invest in from the start, regardless of what situation and environment they are in. With the original trilogy, at best, a character-led series of films surrounded by mind-blowing effects, music and plot-points, ‘The Phantom Menace’ takes a big, bold drastic leap in tone and pace from what we are used to in order to capture old fans and inspire new generations into falling in love with this franchise all over again or for the first time. Lightsabers, huge starships, lush worlds and action sequences are effortless in design, scope and sound now thanks to the return of veteran crew members, but this fanciful design just covers up an awfully dull and, at times, pointless story from George Lucas who brings politicians, animated characters and a wealth of boring conversations to his galaxy once filled with rogues, pilots and space-wizards.
Fans wanted the first step of an eventual 37 year spanning sci-fi epic to be something nobody could ever have anticipated. They didn’t want one filled with computer animated buffoons prat-falling or lifeless computer-generated robots as the substitute for real actors playing Stormtroopers in iconic armour. The initial critical and fan reception was overwhelmingly mediocre. The film failed to connect initially to a large portion of audiences, except those who knew nothing of Star Wars and fans who saw something fresh and new.
‘The Phantom Menace’ detracted from any emotional connection you desperately wanted to feel again with old and new heroes and villains when they either appear as computer-generated characters or simply shrouded behind a complicated back-story. There are many new characters here that have made such a great impact on Star Wars culture that they deserved to have recognition for; just a shame half of them are for the wrong reasons.
Ahmed Best as Jar-Jar Binks acts as a mascot for a targeted younger audience and manages to come across as overly goofy and annoying rather than gently naïve and misguided. Still, he helped sell millions worth of toys so they got something right. Yet when you look at the legacy his character was left with by what nowadays we would call “fan toxicity”, his role was cut over the following two sequels and Ahmed himself fell into depression and withdrew from the industry when he received back-lash, racial insults and blame for “destroying a franchise” just by simply doing his job as a professional.
Fast forward 19 years after the world-splitting divide of ‘The Last Jedi’ and targeted hate towards actor Kelly Marie Tran for her character Rose, and you see just how bitter Star Wars fans are when their own personal wishes, views and opinions aren’t met. Social media is a dangerous weapon used by millions to attack professionals who are doing a job they love, and Ahmed was the first high profile victim of this even back in 1999 with Jar-Jar Binks, and the shockwaves still resonate today for him as an actor and family man.
Darth Maul, played with great physicality by Ray Park and beautifully voiced by Peter Serafinowicz, helps create the most exciting sequence in the franchise yet with a 3-way lightsaber duel, but he is never given much time to develop into a real grounded villain that could have continued to be over the prequels. Effectively he was here to help market the film and draw audiences in and then prematurely axed just as we were settling in. But, again, fast forward nearly 20 years later and his character has returned in many forms in Star Wars stories being so he clearly did something right.
A promising cast of Academy Award winners and a full spectrum of international talent excite on the outset, but were down by flat dialogue and constantly working opposite green-screen backings or stand-in actors rather than an “in the moment” scene. Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman as our leading trinity, regardless of their material, do the best they can do and have fun with their roles.
We have flashy action sequences and the trademark land and space battles dotted around the narrative, and the Tatooine Boonta Eve pod race sequence is a giddy 10-minute video game sequence. Nearly all of these sequences did spawn a number of hit video games and toys, so maybe it was important for George to have a CGI playground after all to give fans not just a movie, but a whole host of media to take away?
But just why did the film feel so empty and disappointing to many who had waited so long to return to their favourite franchise? Was it because they felt, on the whole, they were watching a very self-aware Star Wars film made to help sell merchandise and the brand? It was no longer a small labour of love to tell a simple story of good vs. evil, but now a global multi-million dollar juggernaut that was on the cusp of taking over the world and make megabucks? It’s hard to pinpoint. Or maybe, quite simply, this just wasn’t the film the world wanted when returning to Star Wars? But what film WOULD be what they wanted? It’s a vicious cycle of questions where we never really identify the answers.
With so much expectation, this was never going to please everyone. On retrospect following the stand-out prequel ‘Revenge Of The Sith’ in 2005, many felt it could have been so much better if the tone was a little darker to cater to older fans, the characters more immersive and the story less flaky. Many say if ‘The Phantom Menace’ started on the same track ‘Revenge Of The Sith’ did, it could have been a whole new experience, and they are probably right.
Yet 20 years later there is no denying this is a Star Wars film and then some. It delivers token thrills and creative worlds none of our imaginations could ever dream about. It launched Star Wars to generations in a whole new light.
While it felt alien at the time watching a film unlike nothing we’d really seen before and juggling our emotions whilst watching, it paved the way for books, games, toys, sweets, cartoons, documentaries and a current new trilogy of films looking to wrap up the saga once and for all.
‘The Phantom Menace’ was a behemoth cinematic and social event that, for all faults and failings, re-ignited the Star Wars franchise once more and still provides entertainment, enjoyment and light-hearted fun.
More importantly, it showed that no matter what others felt, if you stood by your intent and passion to create something, you can survive what can be seen now as the most dangerous, cruel and toxic critic of all – us, the fan base.
Behind our keyboards, we are the real phantom menace.