As part of Before The Cyborgs ongoing retrospective on the films from the monumental year of 1999, regular BTC contributor Michael Vecchio is joined by special guest Conrad Leibel to look back on Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.
“You see the echo of where it all is gonna go“GEORGE LUCAS ON THE PREQUEL TRILOGY
Michael: It may be difficult to imagine a time when Star Wars, its related content and merchandising were not everywhere; the series’ ubiquitous presence (especially since the Disney Company’s acquisition in 2012) makes it seem as if George Lucas’ universe has, like The Force, always been with us. Yet after the tremendous success of the Original Trilogy (1977-1983), Star Wars had been forgotten by casual audiences in the remainder of the 1980s and 1990s; its memory kept alive only by the legions of devoted fans then largely outside of the mainstream. In fact, by the mid-’90s, even George Lucas was beginning to be “forgotten”; he was now the author of a decade old set of space films that lived on through television re-runs, fan fiction, and special conventions. When Lucas made the announcement in late 1994 that a new set of Star Wars films were to be made, the jubilation and anticipation from the zealous fandom were palpable (especially in the early days of the Internet). A new generation would be introduced to the magic of that galaxy far, far away, while fans of old would be able to revisit it.
By the time of the release of the first film of the new Prequel Trilogy, 16 years had passed since the conclusion of the Return of the Jedi, creating one of the biggest movie events of the past 25 years. In commemoration of the 20th anniversary of that first film, The Phantom Menace, (released on May 19th, 1999) we look back at the beginning of a new wave of Star Wars mania, and the lasting impact this film and the Prequel Trilogy would have on the future of the beloved franchise.
Conrad: While The Phantom Menace is a film with many flaws and deserves fair criticism, it cannot be dismissed out of hand. For its historical importance in regenerating the Star Wars universe, The Phantom Menace not only shaped a series of films but a culture of world-building and film-making for the coming decades.
It resurrected Star Wars for a new generation. Granted, while not every millennial child grew up in the period prior to the release of the prequels watching the Originals, we grew up in households where we would ritually turn on our TV’s and put our VHS trilogy on. In Kindergarten, I was chastised for listing Darth Vader when my teacher asked me to write about our heroes. The reasoning wasn’t completely bonkers– Darth Vader did, in fact, show that he cared about his son and threw the Emperor down an endless shaft in an act of sacrifice! Star Wars was a household name for my family.
As young children when The Phantom Menace was released, the movie was endlessly exciting. Not only was it a return to our favorite universe (and for some a first-time introduction to it) but a new exploration of its awesome nature. Star Wars has often catered towards young viewers, and The Phantom Menace is no exception– the lengthy pod race sequence, a mysterious man with a double-bladed lightsaber, and a superstar kid hero! It was all very exciting to a pair of seven-year-old boys. Other things, like George Lucas’ beloved Jar-Jar Binks (he has been recently quoted as naming the character as his favorite in the prequels, likely to annoy fans) were, however, just as irritating for kids as adults. As a child, I liked to imagine that Jar-Jar Binks did not exist in the important Star Wars universe. There are key points where George Lucas clearly misunderstood why his audience loved his films. The critics were right about one thing: negotiations with George on production were short.
Michael: I also fondly remember the media machine that came along with The Phantom Menace. Everyone was trying to hype up the film, from Pepsi-Cola and Nintendo to Pizza Hut and KFC. Before the rise of social media and the explosion of the Internet, the anticipation for The Phantom Menace, the first Star Wars movie to be released in nearly twenty years, was in many ways old fashioned and yet new in its buildup: word of mouth, burgeoning chat forums, simple TV marketing, and clever merchandise (cans of pop with characters on them, pizza boxes, magnets, clothes, posters, books, and of course toys!) created a feverish atmosphere in the spring of 1999. In the era before smartphones, fans camped out for weeks for advance tickets. YouTube didn’t exist and trailers had to be watched with QuickTime. The Phantom Menace trailer set an internet-record by being downloaded 3.5 million times in the first five days. On its release, the film would go on to gross over $900 million, the highest grossing film of that year.
Conrad: While the original series did cater towards obsessive world builders and creative minds, The Phantom Menace was a film made for, and sold to, obsessive young boys like us who would spend endless hours learning the names of every single character and event in the extended universe. This would be bolstered by the video game media that also accompanied the film’s release: Episode I Racer remains an entertaining, rewarding and yet still difficult game (try it as an adult, you’ll see how frustrating it can be!) Star Wars has a long history with video games – with the Star Wars arcade game being released in 1983, accompanying the release of the then final film Return of the Jedi.
It is no surprise that Lucasfilm has a long history of involvement in the video-game industry. Where the original trilogy contained a handful of wonderful and charming new worlds, The Phantom Menace was the beginning of the Star Wars Extended Cinematic Universe proper. The movie introduced Naboo, Tatooine (again), Coruscant and the intergalactic machinations of the trade federation. One thinks of the technical awe inspired by the digital animation of the vistas of Naboo and Coruscant that capture the very best of the Star Wars mystique. While it’s not difficult to scoff at these plots and often poorly executed narratives in retrospect, we remember the excitement of realizing just how vast the worlds and stories offered by George Lucas’ films were. Whatever was in the films themselves, outside of them – there is always a bigger fish: the realm of imagination.
Michael: Indeed in spite of all the outrageous material present in the film and the other Prequel films, what was never in shortage in The Phantom Menace was a sense of wonder and tremendous imagination. Although younger audiences may be more bedazzled by the film’s look, it’s hard to deny the impressive visuals found in the movie (which have aged fairly well) and eye-catching costumes, even if you are a harsh critic: the Boonta Eve pod-race, the mysterious underwater world of the Gungans, the thrilling duel between the Jedi heroes and Darth Maul, and the unmistakable look of Queen Amidala and her would-be assassin. Where the movie falters in its clunky dialogue, confusing scenes of political theatre, and outright questionable character motivations, its visual flare remains superb. And of course, we would be remiss if the utterly extraordinary John Williams and his musical score were not singled out; perhaps the only universally acclaimed elements of all the Prequel films was the Maestro’s exceptional scores, which proved that the best of Star Wars music was most definitely not in the past. The Phantom Menace, in particular, continues to be the film with many of the most recognizable themes from the series. The “Duel of the Fates” is an unrelenting adrenaline rush of musicality that showcases the talent of the choir alongside complex orchestral tempos. It begins with an instantly iconic ostinato and its wide-ranging use of the orchestra make the theme not just a brilliant demonstration of the composer’s genius, but a thrilling addition to the movie. John Williams composed several other beautiful and equally rousing tracks like “Anakin’s Theme”, “The Flag Parade” and “The Droid Invasion”, which continue to inspire and linger in the minds of the audience. John William’s music in The Phantom Menace is epic, soaring and just plain wonderful.
Conrad: For young musicians like us attempting to learn these pieces for solo piano is another sweet memory that this film contributed to our childhoods.
Conrad: It is easy to mock George Lucas for essentially telling a story “we already know” – the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker. Defenders of originality and creativity often balk at these types of plots, however, we found that overall, knowing the definitive endpoint and yet not the entirety of the plot inspired audiences to great lengths of imagination in filling out the spaces in the story.
Michael: With a bevy of supporting characters who were both literally and figuratively colorful and strange (Queen Amidala, Darth Maul, Boss Nass, Nute Gunray, among others), new adventures and backstories were rich canvasses to fill with one’s imagination. Before we were able to see the next movie, we would spend hours writing and playing with our LEGO and assorted toys in imagining how the next act of the series would play out. Like Palpatine’s view on the young Anakin’s career, we watched with great interest.
Conrad: George Lucas, in having a concrete endpoint (the rise of Darth Vader) was able to wring out and play with many potential story-lines that could feasibly reach the story as we knew it. It’s an exciting model for story creation as it employs both nostalgia and excitement to create something we recognize and yet do not fully know. This is a form of creativity that would be immediately recognizable to the audiences of medieval and classical literature, both literary traditions which are no strangers to the Star Wars mythos: the writers of antiquity were masters in the art of spinning new life out of old narratives.
Conrad: My final verdict on The Phantom Menace is that while it is a flawed film and often, quite frankly, ridiculous as a result of George Lucas’ over-bloated desires, it made possible a great many new trends in science fiction – setting up the path for the massive exploration heavy universe of the Mass Effect series and even what would become the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Michael: It has a place in history as an ambitious and wildly creative film that solidified the series’ enduring popularity for a new generation, introducing new worlds and characters to populate the Star Wars universe. The Star Wars extended cinematic universe (The Force Awakens, Rogue One. etc) and television series like The Clone Wars would not exist without it, owing to a great deal to the ambition of its creator. 20 years after its release, The Phantom Menace still has flaws, but conversely still has thrills, visual panache, striking music, and exceptional imagination. For this, it will continue to resonate not just with the children who grew up with it, but all those who have fallen in love with the wonder that is that glorious galaxy far, far away.
Michael Vecchio is a contributing writer for Before The Cyborgs. A graduate of the University of Alberta, he is a keen follower of events in the world of film, as well as politics and history. You can also hear him podcast about film and politics
Conrad Leibel is a poet, performer, essayist, and musician. He graduated from UVic’s MA in English Literature program with a concentration in medieval and early modern studies and holds a BA in English and Film Studies from the University of Alberta.