Twenty years. Yes, it has actually been twenty years since George Lucas brought Star Wars back to the big screen with The Phantom Menace. Twenty years since podracing, dual lightsabers, gungans and midi-chlorians all became part of the Star Wars universe.
In all that time, Star Wars Episode 1 – The Phantom Menace still remains in the minds of filmgoers the world over, but for a number of reasons.
Those who were young at the time will likely remember summer 1999 as the summer of Star Wars. It was near impossible to avoid The Phantom Menace’s enormous publicity fanfare – which included tie-in toys, drinks cups, bath soaps and tongue-shaped sweets. It was genuinely exciting, a time those who lived through it won’t soon forget.
There is more to The Phantom Menace’s longevity than just nostalgia, though. To this day it is held up as an insult to the Star Wars name – some even saying to cinema itself – and the film that “ruined” (to say it politely) their childhoods. This looks like a recent development, though, as reactions at the time seemed very different.
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To this day, filmgoers and Star Wars fans alike still pour scorn on The Phantom Menace with a passion usually reserved for war criminals. It is a film people love to hate, but that has had some real-world repercussions for those involved.
For his portrayal of Jar Jar Binks, Ahmed Best said he “faced a media backlash that really made me feel like my life was over.” After experiencing “racially motivated” criticism, where he was “called every racial stereotype you can imagine,” as well as death threats, he contemplated suicide.
Jake Lloyd was not well received as Anakin Skywalker, a role he says he was bullied over. As a result, he disowned his involvement in the franchise, claims to have an aversion to appearing on camera, and in 2015 was diagnosed with Schizophrenia after being arrested for driving recklessly without a license.
“I’m still angry about how they treated Jake Lloyd. He was ten years old,” says Mark Hamill, who admits being baffled at the reaction to the new trilogy: “I couldn’t believe some of the things that they wrote about the prequels, beyond ‘I didn’t like it’ – ‘You ruined my childhood!’… It’s just brutal.”
Of course, everyone is entitled to say if they didn’t like a film, but the reaction to The Phantom Menace does seem extreme. To the point that it started to affect people in the real world. Two decades on, it’s worth discussing whether or not it was truly deserving of its reception.
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The Phantom Menace was never going to be the second coming of Star Wars everyone was expecting. While the original was a landmark technical achievement back in 1977, when Lucas came to make the prequels the industry had caught up with the technology.
Ironically, by trying to match the original Star Wars on a technical level, Hollywood had stepped up the level of special effects by the time Lucas and co. started production on The Phantom Menace. As a result, the first prequel looked sort of basic by the standards of the time – not breaking any new ground like the original films did.
In addition to the creations and locations all created on a computer, this film shows a galaxy in order, protected by the Jedi, populated by a lot of previously unheard of characters. Of the prequels, it is the furthest away from the world so fondly remembered – which could have made it a harder pill to swallow.
Even in the right context, though, there are a lot of things that even the most apologetic Star Wars fans can’t deny about The Phantom Menace. The dialogue can be banal, the story gets bogged down in its own politics and there are some egregious contrivances and changes to the original mythology.
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What’s more, there isn’t much in the way of tension as we know the eventual fate of some of the film’s characters – and are able to make assertions about those who don’t appear in the future timeline. Which leads on to one thing that cannot be ignored when talking of The Phantom Menace’s flaws.
Fans saved much of their venom for Jar Jar Binks – to the point that plans for him in the next two films were dropped, and he was relegated to a background character. He was seen as the embodiment of everything wrong with the film; a marketing tool; a stereotype.
His mannerisms may make him overbearing at times, but in essence he is a well-meaning character – just a misjudged one, who may have been designed with younger audiences in mind. Even so, he has remained a figure of disdain ever since.
These issues aside, the film is not a complete loss. It’s visually arresting, entertaining and at times rousing, with some of the same heart that made the original trilogy a watershed moment.
Its themes of trust, believing in oneself and coming together to fight common foes are ones that can still resonate today, it addresses criticisms of a lack of strong female characters in Star Wars with Padmé Amidala, and in Darth Maul gives us a truly unforgettable villain – one who is still popular today.
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The Phantom Menace took $28 million on opening day – a record at the time. It went on to become the highest-grossing film of 1999. At time of writing, it’s the 33rd highest grossing of all time. Despite bad word of mouth that grew around it, its two sequels – Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith went on to be big successes.
The fact that the masses were still turning up despite the The Phantom Menace’s reception just goes to show the prequel trilogy did not break Star Wars. What continues to make these films so important to so many people is ingrained even in its less-appreciated installments.
In the end, The Phantom Menace’s biggest fault was that it was not the original film – which is both a high bar to set for it and also a comparison that it can’t escape. It’s a victim of its own heritage. While it’s far from perfect, when seen on its own merits The Phantom Menace is not the total train wreck it has long been seen to be, and is worthy inclusion in the Star Wars canon.
By Jack Ford