History, Legacy & Showmanship
Monday, 20 May 2019 18:04

Every Retrospective Has a Beginning: Remembering “The Phantom Menace” on its 20th Anniversary

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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 IThe 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 screenshot



  • 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 

Episode I screenshot



“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

Episode I screenshot

[On to Page 2]

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