The long-anticipated Star Wars prequel Episode I: The Phantom Menace hit theaters on May 19, 1999.
The prequel concept was considered pretty groundbreaking at the time and following a 16-year break between Star Wars movies, fans were super-hyped to see the film.
Actually the excitement leading up to the release of The Phantom Menace was border-line hysteria. A film writer summed it up best for CNN:
“George Lucas’ return to the director’s chair for another installment of his deified space opera has so fully infiltrated every nook and cranny of the American experience, you’d think that Obi-Wan Kenobi is expected to blurt out a secret cure for cancer when the movie opens on May 19.”Paul Tatara
Even the release of the trailer in November 1998 was a major event.
The trailer appeared first in just 75 select cinemas across the US and Canada at three specific movies: The Waterboy, Meet Joe Black and The Siege. As a result, ticket sales for those films went through the roof.
Three days later the trailer rolled out in all theatres across North America.
The next spring early reviews of The Phantom Menace ranged from indifferent to negative. Rolling Stone magazine was in the negative camp saying:
“The actors are wallpaper, the jokes are juvenile, there’s no romance, and the dialogue lands with the thud of a computer-instruction manual.”Rolling Stone
Despite the negative pre-release reviews, moviegoers still flocked to see The Phantom Menace when it opened and the film broke attendance records through sheer momentum.
The reaction of fans depended on their age. Younger fans who weren’t around when the original trilogy was released really liked it. But older fans were disappointed, confused and in some cases angry.
Some of the reasons they ended up hating Phantom Menace included:
- The creation and prominent role of Jar Jar Binks. Most people hated the new character and accused George Lucas of creating him solely to sell toys and cater to younger audiences.
- Darth Vader’s origin story. Lucas’ choice to depict Anakin Skywalker as a kid remains one of the most controversial aspects of Phantom Menace.
- Too much political jargon. Many thought Lucas had made a mistake by filling the script with words like senate, trade deals and separatists.
- The use of CGI. Many fans of the franchise were turned off by the decision to abandon practical effects and instead mainly use technology and CGI.
Shortly after The Phantom Menace came out, George Lucas suggested that his film simply couldn’t meet the weight of expectation – that the media attention had resulted in the prequel being “overhyped.”
While some still consider The Phantom Menace to be the low point of the Star Wars franchise it did accomplish one thing. It marked the beginning of an era when super fans could use their power on blogs and online discussion groups to turn an entire franchise on its head.
For more stories from the 90s, check out my podcast “History of the 90s” available on ApplePodcasts, Spotify, Google Play and anywhere else you stream audio. You can also listen at http://www.curiouscast.ca