As we stand on the cusp of Star Wars Rebels, the sequel trilogy, and the stand-alone movies, it’s sometimes easy for forget the anticipation and expectation that surrounded the release of The Phantom Menace in 1999. Announced in Variety in ’93, with George Lucas beginning work on the screenplay based on notes from the ’70s in November 1994 and filming commencing on June 26, 1997, the anticipation for its arrival couldn’t have been higher. With the release of the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition adding new visual effects and cut scenes and that first Internet melting trailer hitting 56k dial-ups everywhere in November 1998, followed by a second trailer in March 1999, Star Wars fans were primed for the second coming of Star Wars — a path that had started at the end of the Dark Times and built and built and built towards May 25, 1999.
But while history tells us that the return of Star Wars had a happy ending, leading to more movies, TV shows, and feature films to come, it’s interesting to take a look back at the reception The Phantom Menace received in ’99.
Writing in The New York Times on May 19, 1999, Janet Maslin gave the film its due, while calming the waters and reminding her readers that this was a film, nothing more, nothing less.
“Mr. Lucas’s new opus is only a movie. This revelation has touched off shock waves in a cultural climate (much stranger than Naboo’s) where anything short of the biggest, splashiest and most moneymaking qualifies as a galling flop. And the reception of The Phantom Menace has not been helped by spoilsport tie-ins that make it (according to an item in The Hollywood Reporter) ”the first film that will make money even if nobody buys a ticket to see it.” Nobody, not even camp followers ready to turn this souped-up Star Wars into the second coming of the Grateful Dead, wants to be sick and tired of a film before it hits the screen.”
A great and fair point, given the mass of licensing deals that surrounded and in part funded the making and promotion of the film. But Maslin continues, focusing on the strengths of the film.
“But stripped of hype and breathless expectations, Mr. Lucas’s first installment offers a happy surprise: it’s up to snuff. It sustains the gee-whiz spirit of the series and offers a swashbuckling extragalactic getaway, creating illusions that are even more plausible than the kitchen-raiding raptors of Jurassic Park. While the human stars here are reduced to playing action figures, they are upstaged by amazing backdrops and hordes of crazily lifelike space beings as the Lewis Carroll in Mr. Lucas is given free rein. The Star Wars franchise was funnier and scrappier when it was new. But it simply wasn’t capable of this.”
Staying in the UK Danny Graydon at the BBC wrote his review on September 25, 2001, ahead of the release of Episode II: Attack of the Clones and for the most part his review was positive, allaying any fears and reminding us that the film is — and always was — essentially pitched at 10-year-olds.
“By no means the feared anti-climactic disappointment, Episode I vitally succeeds in holding its own against the legions of blockbusters Star Wars was responsible for. It’s an often deliriously exciting adventure, hitting the target audience of 10-year-olds and satisfying long-time fans, providing the pop culture analysis is discarded.”
On June 10, 1999, Peter Travers in Rolling Stone was less jocular, criticising the acting and dialogue — familiar criticisms of Star Wars over the years but in essence a part of the saga’s DNA.
“The actors are wallpaper, the jokes are juvenile, there’s no romance, and the dialogue lands with the thud of a computer-instruction manual. But it’s useless to criticize the visual astonishment that is Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace. With this epic and the trilogy that preceded it, George Lucas has built a pop-culture monument that packs all of history – war, religion, myth, art, science and those old reliables, good and evil – into a mystical grab bag that plays like a kiddie cartoon. There’s a less fancy explanation for why Phantom Menace will inspire fetishistic worship: It’s loaded with cool stuff. And reasonable facsimiles thereof are on sale at your local Force emporium.”
In May 1999, filmmaker Kevin Smith, over at his View Askew site gave a fans view of the movie, noting the elements that hit the proverbial nail on the head and flinging the fans back into the galaxy far, far away.
“Of the film, I can say many things. But the long and short of it is that I liked it — quite a bit. I’d rank it right after Empire in a list of fave Star Wars flicks. It starts great, ends great, and has great stuff sprinkled in between.
I think the key is to go in with low expectations. I did, and I really dug it. Dug it more with distance. I’d see it again.”
An interesting observation, given that like a fine wine Phantom improves with viewings and age. After all, who only plays an album by their favourite band once? The film will be with us for the rest of our lives — enjoy it.
“The stuff I liked: Liam, Ewan, Darth Maul (who’s in the 2:10 flick for maybe a half hour, tops), R2’s introduction, the reappearance of the Tusken Raiders, the treatment of the Jedi as supreme badasses that are to be feared, the political subplot, the fact that Lucas slows the second act way down to introduce Anakin, and of course, the lightsaber battles. The use of the lightsaber in this flick is astounding; worth the price of admission alone.
I’m sure in about a week, it’s going to become quite fashionable to bash this flick — hard. But I’d like to go on record as saying I dug it. It’s a good movie with great moments.”
It’s perhaps fitting to end the article with the late, great Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun Times on May 17, 1999. Lucas’ intentions clearly hit the small thermal exhaust port, delighting Ebert with its fantastical vistas and sense of wonder.
“Star Wars: Episode I–The Phantom Menace, to cite its full title, is an astonishing achievement in imaginative filmmaking. If some of the characters are less than compelling, perhaps that’s inevitable: This is the first story in the chronology and has to set up characters who (we already know) will become more interesting with the passage of time. Here we first see Obi-Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, Yoda and R2-D2 and C-3PO. Anakin is only a fresh-faced kid in Episode I; in IV, V and VI, he has become Darth Vader.
At the risk of offending devotees of the Force, I will say that the stories of the Star Wars movies have always been space operas, and that the importance of the movies comes from their energy, their sense of fun, their colorful inventions and their state-of-the-art special effects. I do not attend with the hope of gaining insights into human behavior. Unlike many movies, these are made to be looked at more than listened to, and George Lucas and his collaborators have filled The Phantom Menace with wonderful visuals.
What he does have, in abundance, is exhilaration. There is a sense of discovery in scene after scene of The Phantom Menace, as he tries out new effects and ideas, and seamlessly integrates real characters and digital ones, real landscapes and imaginary places. We are standing at the threshold of a new age of epic cinema, I think, in which digital techniques mean that budgets will no longer limit the scope of scenes; filmmakers will be able to show us just about anything they can imagine.”
As is evident, there were mixed thoughts about the film. But there’s no doubt that it returned Star Wars to the heady heights of the zeitgeist, and taking the story of Anakin Skywalker from George Lucas’ legal notepad and imagination to digital screens across the planet — and a lifetime gross of over a billion dollars. No matter what you think of the film, every Star Wars fan owes The Phantom Menace a great debt, because without its success we might not be here now.
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Mark is a long-time contributor to Star Wars Insider, the co-owner of Jedi News, a regular contributor to the UK’s biggest free newspaper The Metro and co-host of RebelForce Radio’s UK-centric RADIO 1138 podcast. When he’s not talking or writing about Star Wars, he can usually be found sleeping, where he’ll most likely be dreaming about Star Wars.