“The Phantom Menace is the film that caused a generation gap in Star Wars fandom.” — W.R. Miller, author of The Star Wars Historical Sourcebook: Volume One 1971 to 1976
The Digital Bits and History, Legacy & Showmanship are pleased to present this retrospective commemorating the 20th anniversary of the release of Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, the first entry in the long-awaited prequel trilogy to the original 1977-83 Star Wars trilogy.
Marking series creator George Lucas’s return to directing, The Phantom Menace opened twenty years ago this month, with some fans camping out for days (plural!) to experience a screening on opening day. And while the movie was an undeniable box-office smash, breaking numerous earnings and attendance records, there was a great disturbance in the Force as the film left a lot of moviegoers and critics underwhelmed and disappointed. [Read on here...]
For the occasion The Bits features a compilation of statistics and box-office data that places The Phantom Menace’s performance in context, plus passages from vintage film reviews, a reference/historical listing of the movie’s Digital Cinema presentations, and, finally, an interview segment with a trio of Star Wars historians and pop culture authorities who reflect on the film two decades after its debut.
And, in case you missed them or desire a refresher, the Bits’ other Star Wars-themed retrospectives include Star Wars 40th anniversary, The Empire Strikes Back 35th anniversary, Return of the Jedi 30th anniversary and Return of the Jedi 35th anniversary (plus a 10th anniversary look at Fanboys).
EPISODE I NUMBER$
- 0 = Number of Academy Awards
- 1 = Number of Razzie Awards
- 1 = Rank among top-earning films of 1999 (calendar year)
- 1 = Rank among top-earning films of 1999 (summer season)
- 1 = Rank among top-earning movies directed by George Lucas
- 2 = Peak all-time box-office chart position (worldwide)
- 2 = Rank among top-earning movies directed by George Lucas (adjusted for inflation)
- 2 = Rank among top-earning movies of the 1990s (earnings from 1/1/90 - 12/31/00)
- 3 = Number of Academy Award nominations
- 3 = Number of weeks North America’s top-grossing movie (weeks 1-3)
- 3 = Peak all-time box-office chart position (domestic)
- 3 = Rank among Fox’s all-time top-earning films at close of original run
- 4 = Rank among top-earning movies produced by Lucasfilm
- 4 = Rank among top-earning Star Wars movies
- 5 = Number of days to gross $100 million*
- 5 = Rank among top-earning movies produced by Lucasfilm (adjusted for inflation)
- 5 = Rank among top-earning Star Wars movies (adjusted for inflation)
- 7 = Number of Razzie nominations
- 8 = Minimum weeks large-market multiplexes were contracted to play in largest auditorium
- 11 = Number of months between theatrical release and VHS release
- 13 = Number of days to gross $200 million*
- 15 = Rank on current list of all-time top-grossing movies
- 18 = Rank on current list of all-time top-grossing films (adjusted for inflation)
- 28 = Number of days to gross $300 million*
- 29 = Number of months between theatrical release and DVD release
- 37 = Number of weeks in theatrical release
- 67 = Number of days to gross $400 million
- 2,970 = Number of theaters playing the movie during opening week
- 3,126 = Peak number of theaters simultaneously showing the movie (week of June 25-July 1)
- $21,825 = Opening weekend per-screen-average
- $28.5 million = Opening-day box-office gross*
- $28.5 million = Highest single-day gross* (May 19)
- $43.5 million = Box-office gross (3D re-release in 2012)
- $51.4 million = Box-office gross during second weekend* (May 28-30)
- $59.2 million = Box-office gross (international, 3D re-release in 2012)
- $64.8 million = Opening weekend box-office gross (3-day; May 21-23; days 3-5)
- $105.7 million = Opening weekend box-office gross* (5-day; May 19-23)
- $115.0 million = Production cost
- $176.4 million = Production cost (adjusted for inflation)
- $421.4 million = Box-office gross during summer season* (May 19 - Sep 6)
- $431.1 million = Box-office gross of original release
- $474.5 million = Cumulative box-office gross (1999 + 3D re-release)
- $493.3 million = Box-office gross of original release (international)
- $552.5 million = Cumulative box-office gross (international, 1999 + 3D re-release)
- $1.1 billion = Cumulative box-office gross (worldwide)
- $1.5 billion = Cumulative box-office gross (worldwide; adjusted for inflation)
*established new industry record
A SAMPLING OF PASSAGES FROM REVIEWS
“Right off the bat, Ewan McGregor, as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, echoes Han Solo’s ’I have a bad feeling about this.’ It would be merely clever and terribly unfair to say Star Wars fans might share that sentiment.” — Bob Graham, San Francisco Examiner
“[E]ven without the pre-release hoopla, The Phantom Menace would be a considerable letdown, as Lucas and company either misjudged or did not care to re-create key aspects of what made Star Wars a phenomenon. While the new film is certainly serviceable, it’s noticeably lacking in warmth and humor, and though its visual strengths are real and considerable, from a dramatic point of view it’s ponderous and plodding.” — Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times
“[A] remarkable achievement, a marriage of imagination and special effects, and my thumb is up, with a lot of admiration.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times / Siskel & Ebert
“Maybe George Lucas isn’t responsible for the hype associated with its release. Maybe, as he claims, he just wanted to make a high-tech adventure film for 12-year-olds and the rest is just the creation of an overstimulated, overpopulated media. But he is responsible for Phantom Menace being nowhere near as good as the original Star Wars trilogy. Lucas has had 16 years to imagine what his ’prequel’ trilogy to that trilogy would be. Perhaps he has become too lost in his mastery of computer-generated effects and digital sound to remember that creativity in the movies is not just a technical thing. It also takes good writing and inspired acting, as well as plot points that are clever and detailed rather than perfunctory. Phantom Menace lacks these.” — Steven Rosen, The Denver Post
“Will The Phantom Menace reward the fanatics who have been counting the down the days to its arrival since 1983, when Return of the Jedi was released? On its surface, yes, because it simply exists. What it doesn’t have is enough enchantment, humor and thrills to keep them coming back again and again.” — Ann Hornaday, The (Baltimore) Sun
“[A] swashbuckling extragalactic getaway, creating illusions that are even more plausible than the kitchen-raiding raptors in Jurassic Park.” — Janet Maslin, The New York Times
“Is George Lucas’ new movie visually amazing? Yes. Exciting? Sometimes. Emotionally involving? Almost never.” — Steve Murray, The Atlanta Constitution
“It doesn’t pack the adrenaline rush — or the mythic punch — of the original, but this prequel to the Star Wars trinity is so rich in physical detail and architectural flourish that it’s the cinematic equivalent of an intergalactic theme park.” — Carrie Rickey, The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Phantom Menace is a highly entertaining and visually breathtaking movie, capable at times of rocking and delighting you. Taking most of its cues from other movies, TV, comics and pop culture in general, Phantom Menace often manages to make something grand and riveting out of what can often seem silly or artificial.” — Michael Wilmington, Chicago Tribune
“[A] rudimentary failure of storytelling.” — David Ansen, Newsweek
“The actors are wallpaper, the jokes are juvenile, there’s no romance, and the dialogue lands with the thud of a computer-instruction manual.” — Peter Travers, Rolling Stone
“As the most widely anticipated and heavily hyped film of modern times, Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace can scarcely help being a letdown on some levels, but it’s too bad that it disappoints on so many. At heart a fanciful and fun movie for young boys, the first installment of George Lucas’ three-part prequel to the original Star Wars trilogy is always visually diverting thanks to the technical wizardry with which it creates so many imaginative creatures, spaceships and alien worlds. But it is neither captivating nor transporting, for it lacks any emotional pull, as well as the sense of wonder and awe that marks the best works of sci-fi/fantasy.” — Todd McCarthy, Variety
“Lucas always expressed frustration that the available movie technology could not transfer his vision to the screen. With Phantom Menace, he says he got just what he wanted. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Limitations can stimulate the ingenuity of a great artist. The lack of them has, in this case, exposed a certain banality. This one really is skewed toward kids, deficient in both the philosophical and romantic resonance of the earlier movies.” — Ron Weiskind, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
“Phantom is less likely to touch the proverbial kid in all of us, if only because Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker was a young man, while Phantom’s Anakin Skywalker, who here follows much the same course, is only 9. What’s next? A preschooler saving the galaxy?” — Bruce Westbrook, Houston Chronicle
“One suspects that Lucas was more interested in the aliens than the humans, and in the art direction than the direction of actors.” — Richard Corliss, Time
“No other film in Lucas’ canon so clearly showcases his technological strengths and psychological frailties. On the galactic moviegoing meter, The Phantom Menace rates higher than Return of the Jedi but lower than Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Physically, it resembles a gigantic, elaborate fireworks display. You gasp. You ooh and ahhh. You can’t look away. Yet Lucas’ emotional approach is almost defiantly impersonal.” — Philip Wuntch, The Dallas Morning News
“If you were caught up in Luke Skywalker’s yearning for adventure in the first Star Wars, if you loved that twin-sunset moment when John Williams’ swelling score told us how much he needed to fulfill his destiny, you’ll look in vain for its equivalent here.” — John Hartl, The Seattle Times
“Although technically slicker, this installment isn’t nearly as involving as Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back. (By the time Return of the Jedi came out, there was a noticeable drop-off in energy and inspiration — a trend that continues here.) There’s no equivalent here of Alec Guinness’s twinkling wisdom, Harrison Ford’s unruliness, or the looming ominousness of the grown Darth Vader. Lucas has written better stuff here for his Industrial Light & Magic computers than he has for the people.” — Jay Carr, The Boston Globe
“If there were ever a classic case of way too much and not nearly enough, it’s Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace. This first of three prequels to the most successful movie series in history has almost too much to see, which will make repeat viewings mandatory for the faithful. Yet there is barely a thing to feel, save sheer sensation. For all this film’s talk of the Force, there’s no soul in the machine.” — Terry Lawson, Detroit Free Press
“Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace is a worthy new installment in writer-director George Lucas’ decades-in-the-making, outer-space morality saga — which is both its strength and its vulnerable underbelly. As a tale, it’s not the bolt from above that the first Star Wars film was; neither, though, is it the embrace of the marketplace that The Return of the Jedi turned out to be. But as a technical achievement, it is a heroic leap into a new age of moviemaking.” — Shawn Levy, The (Portland) Oregonian
“The whiz! Bang! BOOM!! SWOOOOOOSH!!! is terrific. Everything else is so-so.” — Harry Sheehan, Orange County Register
“[S]pectacular vroom-vroom with a view, a spiffy theme park that’s part video game, part sprawling myth and almost all entertaining.” — Susan Wloszczyna, USA Today
“Rating for little boys: three and a half stars. Anyone else: two and a half stars.” — Rick Groen, The (Toronto) Globe and Mail
“Phantom Menace, by turns more serious and more childlike than the earlier trilogy, truly seems to express the whole mythos from young Anakin’s point of view. This is not wrong; not only is Star Wars the ultimate boy’s adventure of our era, the whole saga is clearly now about Anakin’s troubling evolution, and it is only fitting that we start out on that path in his hopeful, wonder-driven shoes.” — Bob Strauss, (Los Angeles) Daily News
“[A] computer movie through and through, made by computers and maybe for computers. As disappointments go, this one is colossal. It’s not just uninspired, it’s anti-inspiration.” — Tom Shales, National Public Radio
“People in general have had unreasonably high expectations for this movie, and critics are responding as much to the hype as to the film. Critics also tend to be iconoclastic and curmudgeonly at times. And when something has permeated our commercial, media-driven society the way this film has, it’s riding for a fall.” — Leonard Maltin, Entertainment Tonight
THE DIGITAL CINEMA ENGAGEMENTS
On June 18th, 1999, after four weeks of release (in 35mm), Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox, in association with CineComm and Texas Instruments, introduced the Digital Cinema edition of The Phantom Menace, marking the introduction to what has evolved into the industry standard for theatrical presentation.
(Miramax attempted to steal some thunder from Fox and Lucasfilm by rush-releasing An Ideal Husband the same day in a rival system.)
The following were the theaters selected to screen the D-Cinema edition of The Phantom Menace. These presentations were screened four weeks at each venue. (This author saw it twice at the Burbank location.)
- Burbank — AMC Burbank 14 [Texas Instruments]
- Los Angeles (Chatsworth) — Pacific Winnetka Stadium 21 [CineComm]
- Paramus — Cineplex Odeon Route Four 10 [CineComm]
- Secaucus — Loews Meadows 6 [Texas Instruments]
Stephen Danley is a Moving Image Cataloger at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences and the owner/editor of Star Wars at the Movies, a “centralized resource which documents vintage and contemporary Star Wars theatrical advertising, collectible ephemera, and the saga’s original movie-going experience.”
W.R. Miller is the author of The Star Wars Historical Sourcebook: Volume One 1971 to 1976 (2018, Pulp Hero Press). The illustrator and storyboard artist is also the author of The Animated Voice: Interviews with Voice Actors, Volume One (2018, Pulp Hero Press) and May the Facts Be With You: 1200 Star Wars Stumpers for Serious Fans (2018, Pulp Hero Press).
Mark O’Connell is the author of Watching Skies: Star Wars, Spielberg and Us (2018, The History Press). The punditeer is also the author of Catching Bullets: Memoirs of a Bond Fan (Splendid Books, 2012).
The interviews were conducted separately and have been edited into a “roundtable” conversation format.
Michael Coate (The Digital Bits): How do you think Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace should be remembered on its 20th anniversary?
Stephen Danley: Perhaps more than anything, The Phantom Menace should be remembered for its boldness. Despite its undeniable shortcomings, the movie’s disregard for long-gestating fan expectations and safer crowd-pleasing formulas combined with its ambition to establish a visual language so vastly different from anything we’d seen in a Star Wars movie should be more appreciated, and it seems like over time it has. Out of any of the films, this one seemed to take the most risks. Some simply didn’t work, while others paid off (or were at least kind of interesting). It feels like a bizarre Star Wars period piece — almost like a serious historical space drama peppered with jarring juvenile humor. 20 years on, it should be remembered as truly one-of-a-kind.
W.R. Miller: To some fans, the question would be: should it be remembered?
It’s the first Star Wars film that caused a generation gap in Star Wars fandom. Generally speaking, those who grew up watching the original trilogy don’t like it; while the younger generation thinks it’s great. George Lucas admitted that to talk show host Jon Stewart on The Daily Show (1/5/2010, posted online at http://www.cc.com/video-clips/cb7lw3/the-daily-show-with-jon-stewart-george-lucas).
It should be remembered for merchandising overkill. The Toys That Made Us documented what happened when licensees flooded the market with Episode I toys — which didn’t sell as well as expected and so, they were dumped in remainder bins. The documentary correlated the lackluster sales to the film’s lackluster story and characters. Alan Hassenfeld, Hasbro CEO, 1989-2008: “Little did we know, though, when we’d started, there was going to be Jar Jar.”
Any remembrance of The Phantom Menace will be for Jar Jar Binks, for what happened to the actors who played Jar Jar and young Anakin, for its application of CG technology as an alternative to using models and “practical effects,” for the rousing score by John Williams, and for the flaws as stated in the review by Plinkett, sans profanity.
Mark O’Connell: With better love than it received at the time! The faults of The Phantom Menace are not just the mop-haired antics of a child Anakin, the endless talk of trade wars, Jar Jar Binks or the paralyzed performance from Natalie Portman. It is the dilemma of the prequel. George Lucas tasked himself with adding grammar to movie sentences already written. That is the nature of prequels, not some damning indictment against Mr. Lucas.
Coate: What do you remember about the build-up to its release and the first time you saw The Phantom Menace?
Danley: Having been in junior high school in the year leading up to its release, most kids my age weren’t aware of or all that interested in Star Wars, so I experienced Episode I’s build-up in relative isolation. I completely missed the first teaser trailer that many fans remember so fondly, but do recall getting pretty excited when checking out coverage in magazines like Entertainment Weekly and the Star Wars Insider. When the full theatrical trailer debuted online in the spring of ’99, I rode my bike to a nearby Gateway Computers store to try and discreetly watch it on one of their demo stations. After what seemed like hours of waiting for the file to download, QuickTime ended up only playing the audio! But even that was enough to get me pretty hyped. In fact, it was the prospect of downloading that trailer (and presumably future Star Wars trailers as the trilogy unfolded) that was actually behind my campaign for our family to buy a new computer and get high speed Internet. Enhanced and more efficient school-work would be a bonus! As for the first time I saw the movie, my mom had hatched a plan to pull my siblings and I out of school to catch an early morning opening day screening at the Arlington Theater in Santa Barbara, California, which is where I’d seen the original films on the big screen in a special triple bill in the early 90s and again in 1997 with the Special Editions. I remember being in a slight state of confusion up until the Pod Race, my sister-in-law (who’d graciously lined up to buy the tickets a day or two before) falling asleep during the initial senate scene, and being blown away by the lightsaber duel. I neither hated nor loved it, but did somehow end up going back to see if four more times that summer. It felt like the right thing to do.
Miller: By 1999 we had two generations of Star Wars fans: one which saw the original trilogy in theaters, and one which saw them on home video and in theaters as the Special Editions. Who didn’t want a return to that galaxy far, far away?
The Internet was in its formative years. It took a while to download the trailer due to the relatively slow baud transfer rates. It turned out to be a great trailer. In 1998, The New York Times reported people paying to see films like The Waterboy, The Siege and Meet Joe Black, then leaving the theater after they saw the trailer to Episode I.
Of course expectations were high. George Lucas had the latest special effects technology and over 15 years to conceive a compelling story. We wanted to experience the same fun and excitement and romantic appeal that Lucas had delivered in the original trilogy.
Or would our faith in him be shaken?
O’Connell: Going as a grown adult into a toy store and digging deep for Star Wars figurines. It was most surreal doing that again! I remember the constant magazine covers, and the Annie Leibowitz Vanity Fair cover shoot adding some class to the circus of tie-ins and random merchandise. A year or so before a pal had directed a BBC documentary look at George Lucas and it ended on a tiny peek of what was an irrelevant ship. That image stayed with me.
The Phantom Menace was the first Internet movie — in that it was the first real big event title to have its trailer online and get massively downloaded and discussed. This sky kid remembers New Year’s Eve 1998 and waiting for a pal’s PC to fully upload the trailer. It took hours. We would all come back to the room in various stages of alcoholic merriment to check on our trailer “dinner,” but it was never ready yet. When it finally uploaded, we all huddled around the monitor and watched and pored over a promising teaser that was about the size of a USB stick. For me, the film was never as good as the brilliance of that first effective teaser. And maybe the teaser was never really as good as that shadowed Anakin image. The soundtrack listings throwing a huge spoiler about Liam Neeson’s demise hardly helped either. I saw the film at my local cinema with a bunch of likeminded Star Wars pals on its opening Friday. It was a slightly sobering night as we all realised we were never going to be 8 years old again and maybe that had fed into our quietly collective conclusion it misfired on a few counts.
Coate: In what way is The Phantom Menace significant?
Danley: The Phantom Menace is significant in that it pushed boundaries as Star Wars always has, both in terms of visual storytelling and completely dominating popular culture to a degree the world likely hadn’t seen since the original film conquered it in 1977. It established its own iconography that has continued to stand out among all of the Star Wars content that’s followed it. It relied on that striking imagery to express itself (many would argue to a fault). Maul’s devilish look embodied malice. The Queen’s elaborate costumes embodied peace and grace, etc. etc. All the while, this iconography was hilariously inescapable in day-to-day life, from toys to soda cans to pizza boxes to lip balm to office supplies to most disturbingly, Jar Jar Binks tongue lollipops.
Miller: That it was a $100 million-plus movie financed and directed by one man: George Lucas. It’s rare for filmmakers to personally finance their own multi-million-dollar movies on this level, with total creative freedom and control.
Episode I changed the scope of the Star Wars universe, in which Lucas imposed restrictions on his galaxy. Instead of many Sith and many Jedi, we have the “one master, one apprentice” rule. Instead of C-3PO being a mass production model of his type, he is simply built from spare parts. Instead of everyone having the capacity to wield the force, that ability is restricted to those who have an abundance of “midichlorians.” And while having the future Darth Vader be the one who put together Threepio might have amused Lucas, he jettisoned the earlier concept that Threepio was built 112 years before the original Star Wars, that Threepio and Artoo were interstellar vagabonds bouncing from master to master, as depicted in the cartoon Droids: The Adventures of R2-D2 and C-3PO. With the prequels, the Droids generally stayed with Queen Amidala and Anakin Skywalker, eventually winding up with the Organa family.
Originally, Lucas had intended the Droids to be like the bickering peasants in The Hidden Fortress, with the Star Wars saga presented from their point of view. Not so in The Phantom Menace. Lucas shifted the comic relief emphasis from them to Jar Jar Binks.
In Star Wars, he had envisioned Threepio to be like a used car salesman, who actually demonstrated he could be clever. He had a “silver tongue.” To wit: “Excuse me, sir, but that R2 unit is in prime condition. A real bargain.” And, “They’re madmen. They’re heading for the detention area. If you hurry, you might catch them.” And, “All this excitement has overrun the circuits in my counterpart here. If you don’t mind, I’d like to take him down to maintenance.” That aspect of his personality was now gone. He was simply a shell of his former (that is, future) self.
What used to be “The Adventures of Luke Skywalker” had become, with Return of the Jedi, “The Tragedy of Darth Vader,” as the first subtitle was dropped after the novelizations of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. The Phantom Menace began the tragedy.
The biggest paradigm shift was that the saga was no longer a tale of good vs. evil, or a clear-cut Rebels vs. Empire, as it was in the original trilogy. At the time, the “good vs. evil” approach was noted, and applauded, by movie reviewers and fans alike. Lucas muddied these waters with the prequel trilogy. Episode I planted the seeds.
We are now expected to root for a boy that grows up to be a mass murderer. And the Jedi, who we would expect to be (almost) all-knowing and wise, turn out to be incompetent. Rian Johnson capitalized on this notion in The Last Jedi, where he has a now-cynical Luke say, “At the height of their powers, they allowed Darth Sidious to rise, create the Empire, and wipe them out. It was a Jedi Master who was responsible for the training and creation of Darth Vader.”
So when the Clone War erupts, which side do we root for? Episode III tells us, “There are heroes on both sides” and Obi-Wan Kenobi extols, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.” The Guardians of Peace and Justice, the Jedi, now fight for an establishment that becomes a tyrannical Empire. The saga became cynical, abandoning the innocence and fun of the original Star Wars.
O’Connell: As the Skywalker saga continues towards Episode IX, it is an ever-significant Star Wars movie. The story foreboding and narrative warnings it yielded are still filtering through the franchise and have still to be finally utilized. The whole Star Wars saga then, now and in the future is predicated on the villainy and story world of The Phantom Menace. Curiously, the film also warns of the dangers of nationalistic and mob politics, and how power can be handed to the wrong people if the right distractions and panics are correctly engineered. It holds substantial significance because it was the opening salvo on the trilogy that led us to this anniversary and the announcement of three more Star Wars films stretching into the horizon like an opening yellow crawl. The Phantom Menace bolstered the commerce of Star Wars. It underlined for the decision makers that — regardless of the resistance of many fans and critics had to the film — this far, far away galaxy has legs. They might be severed and curtailed like a dismembered Darth Maul in Episode I, but they held the franchise up.
It is also significant because it proved what a Star Wars film couldn’t be. Lucas was wholly entitled to widen the story and investigate the wider story pulls that had to feed into the opening frame of A New Hope. But the film lost sight of how the original trilogy worked. Star Wars is about a bunch of makeshift pals on the makeshift run in a makeshift western. It is about three acts, three protagonists, three worlds and often three visual palettes. In The Phantom Menace, the story attempted to prove and incorporate too much. It is no problem to launch proceedings with trade wars and petty politics. But the original films were about a war that had already left the galaxy bereft. Star Wars is not always about the grey zone. It is about black and white. The Phantom Menace wanted to show the humanity of evil and the sequence of darkness. But only The Force Awakens successfully managed to show the good and bad contradictions in its good and bad characters. And that can be attributed to the greatest creative call the sequel trilogy made — namely casting Adam Driver. Sadly, The Phantom Menace didn’t have an Adam Driver. It had a mop-topped kid that we all looked like when we were into Star Wars as kids. But we were no longer kids. We had grown up, thought the Ewoks’ barbecue party was the final hurrah and suddenly became something we never were as Kenner children: critical. The Phantom Menace sometimes plays like an elongated Star Wars opening crawl of information and exposition. It opened a Pandora’s Box of information and universe-wide intrigue that the subsequent two films couldn’t bypass. But it is very telling that is not a fault of the new sequel films and the standalone stories. The Phantom Menace maybe served a valuable lesson in to how not to steer a Star Wars movie.
Coate: What are your thoughts on George Lucas returning to direct (as opposed to hiring a different director as he had done on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi)?
Danley: I’ve often wondered how things may have turned out had he gone the producer route with another director at the helm. We likely would have ended up with a better film, but it may not have been as compelling a moment in movie history. George’s singular artistic vision and the costs and benefits of having no restraints make The Phantom Menace the fascinating thing it is. It seems that over the years Lucas often referred to Star Wars as his burden to bear. It was his responsibility, for better and for worse.
Miller: No objection. Star Wars is his creation, his property, his vision. Whether his vision is accepted by the public is another matter.
O’Connell: The fact that George Lucas only directed six films in his movie career and that three of them were Star Wars prequels should not be ignored. I always say it was his saga, his project and his efforts. He can choose and creatively appoint whoever he wants. I did feel that maybe Clones and Sith could have followed the original trilogy’s path and cast new directors for the subsequent two films. I would love to have seen Steven Spielberg get his hands on directing one of the prequels. He did admittedly direct some parts of Revenge of the Sith, but I wonder if he might have contained the sprawling politics and scope of the prequels and added a more personal sense of humanity and character that the prequels lacked. But Lucas is famously cautious of Hollywood and navigating its precarious outer rim. Ultimately, it could well have been a safety tactic rather than some obsessional ownership ploy.
Coate: Where do you think The Phantom Menace ranks among the prequel trilogy? Among the entire saga?
Danley: It absolutely ranks far ahead of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith for me for a number of reasons. It didn’t fall victim to the technological aspirations of digital cinema the way the second and third films did. Being shot on film with a good number of real locations to ground it, its texture doesn’t cause the discomfort that the other prequels do for me. Speaking of discomfort, the relatively minimal presence of Anakin also works in its favor, as I could never really buy into the way his character was developed and portrayed in the later movies (at least in execution). I’m also quite fond of its sleek, regal aesthetic. As for the rest of the franchise, I really don’t even like trying to rank things that came before or after the original trilogy. Those three will always remain sacred and I prefer to look at the prequels and current films as eras in and of themselves and judge them on their own merits.
Miller: It’s a subjective question. A good way to rank the Star Wars movies is… how many times did you see each one in their original release? In its first year of release, Star Wars was selected by the American Film Institute as one of the ten best American films ever made. Would any other Star Wars film be entitled to be in the Top Ten?
O’Connell: As a Star Wars movie, I once felt that Revenge of the Sith is the only one that truly pushes towards feeling like a proper return to that story world. Yet, I have returned to the prequel trilogy in recent times and now wonder whether — curiously — The Phantom Menace is the stand-out film from that trinity? Maybe it is that Star Wars fever that returned to the minds of ’70s and ’80s kids as the ’90s was pushing into a new millennium? Maybe it was just refreshing to see a film — regardless of its minus points — that knew how to signpost a future story arc without dropping its own story ball. In fairness, not all Marvel films can claim that. Maybe it was the simplicity of that film compared to the narrative hyperbole and complexities of Episode I and Episode II? Maybe it was when you sequence and purvey the first six films in story order that you see an intent of saga, an intent of character and a much stronger story ambition than the naysayers have constantly leveled at that one picture. When 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story is willfully making nods and story links to 1999’s entry, it is clear The Phantom Menace was far from a (Jar) jarring failure.
Coate: What is the legacy of The Phantom Menace?
Danley: Much like the original Star Wars and The Force Awakens (to an extent yet to be determined), The Phantom Menace is much more than a film. It caused hysteria unlike anything fandom had ever seen and was a phenomenon that impacted the rules and influenced future trends in the blockbuster industry with regard to visual effects and genre film standards. Though not always implemented successfully in The Phantom Menace, featuring key characters with digital performances and telling a prequel story with an emphasis on world-building are elements that later big-time movies built upon and continue to build upon. It also established a new generation of fans that are deeply passionate about it, which can catch those from the previous generation off-guard. I was recently on a flight to Star Wars Celebration Chicago and happened to be sitting a row behind two fans in their 20s that were meeting each other for the first time. Both shared the opinion that The Phantom Menace was an amazing movie, and that they’d seen it when they were 5 years old and have had an affinity for the prequel era stories ever since. Their enthusiasm was remarkable. And man did I feel old.
Miller: It’s likely to become minimized as Disney churns out more product, focusing less on Lucas’s films and promoting the newer films, TV shows, videogames and toys. Out with the old, in with the new.
The general public also appears to be losing interest in the prequels. The Star Wars films had been popular enough to generate repeat viewings and thus, earn enormous profit. Episode I earned $431.1 million in North America in its initial release in 1999. With a conversion to 3D and release in 2012, it earned $43.5 million domestically. Comparatively speaking, not as many fans wanted to see it in theaters again, or at least in 3D. Plans to release the remaining Star Wars films in 3D were scuttled. (Though a 3D version of Attack of the Clones was screened at Star Wars Celebration Anaheim 2015.)
Seán Schemmel, the voice of adult Goku in the Dragon Ball franchise, had recently turned 50. He admitted at SacAnime 2019, “Sadly, the franchise has completely lost me. I have no interest in it any more. I used to have a Jedi coat on my wall. I was hard core. And it’s gotten so ruined for me. You know what I mean? It just doesn’t — even with the new movies. Look, I love J.J. Abrams… he’s great, but at the same time, I was watching it, going, I don’t think that magic will ever be, in the Star Wars universe, recaptured. And if it does, it will be an amazing feat. I’ve seen all the new movies. They’re good. They just don’t have, for me, that magic.”
O’Connell: It was the first prequel of modern pop culture. Prequels are as old as cinema itself, but this film has become the poster boy for prequels (and the easy abuse leveled at them). Ultimately, its best legacy is that it is the reason we have Star Wars films today. The box-office and fever for The Phantom Menace heralded a new successful trilogy at the box-office. Whether some hate or take issue with it, it was the film that let in a whole garrison of new Star Wars fans. There are as many passionate fans whose entry points were the Pod Race, the Star Wars Lego merchandise, Darth Maul and Duel of the Fates as those that discovered the original series via AT-ATs, Skywalkers, X-Wings and Kenner toys. Do not underestimate the staying power and effect the Pod Race had on young kids’ minds. Many of them have stuck with the series, paid their cinema lobby dollars and created the vital revenue that enables this new era of Star Wars to be unfurling with such a renewed vigor. The business that The Phantom Menace initiated is vital and cannot be kicked into the long Naboo grass by an ailing fan consensus.
Besides, perhaps the film’s greatest legacy has yet to be revealed. The Rise of Skywalker is hinting that not all empirical villainy died with that original trilogy and that the story and character lessons of The Phantom Menace have possibly yet to narratively mature.
Coate: Thank you — Stephen, Bob, and Mark — for sharing your thoughts about Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace on the occasion of its 20th anniversary.
Selected images copyright/courtesy Lucasfilm Ltd., Scott Marshall, 20th Century Fox Film Corporation, 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, The Walt Disney Company.
The primary references for this project were regional newspaper coverage and trade reports published in Billboard, Boxoffice, The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. All figures and data included in this article pertain to the United States and Canada except where stated otherwise.
- Kenny Baker (“R2-D2”), 1934-2016