The Phantom Menace: Hot wet garbage or misunderstood genius?

It has been 20 years since the first trailer for The Phantom Menace was unleashed on the world in 1998. The film itself was released in 1999, 22 years after the original Star Wars changed film forever. I was 19 and had endured the Special Editions in 1997, but those warning shots hadn’t dimmed my enthusiasm for seeing a new Star Wars’ film on the big screen.

In the age of Netflix and Amazon Prime, movies have become far less special. Even big releases are not the cultural events they would have been 20 years ago, so it is impossible for the younger generation to comprehend just how big The Phantom Menace was.

I remember seeing the Special Editions of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and The Return of the Jedi with a friend and we were just happy to be seeing these iconic films on a cinema screen. In the moment, the changes didn’t seem so egregious. We were swept away in the magic and it wasn’t until later dissection that the tacky CGI creatures and Greedo shooting first seemed so wrong. (The beak on the Sarlacc pit.)  If I was smarter, I might have seen the signs, but when The Phantom Menace hit cinemas I gleefully threw myself head first into it. (Han Solo stepping on Jabba’s tail.)

I saw The Phantom Menace four times in the cinema, a paltry number in comparison to some people, but for me it was a big deal. Seeing a movie more than once in the cinema was a novelty. Typically, I’d see a film once then wait a year for it to turn up at the video store and then on free-to-air TV. Even after four times, I was still unsure how I felt about the film. I so desperately wanted to love it and the slow realisation of how terrible it is took years and many viewings on DVD.

The Phantom Menace is my favourite of the prequels. It is slow and boring. The story itself is completely unnecessary and there is nothing that happens in this film that has any discernible impact to the storyline. However, the anticipation and the thrill of being alive when the second round of Star Wars mania hit the planet was immense and unforgettable. I fell headlong into the mania.

The Phantom Menace was a piece of marketing genius. It managed to create an impenetrable aura that even its wooden acting, annoying characters, tortuous storyline and pointlessness couldn’t puncture.

I bought The Phantom Menace video game and played it endlessly. I played through all the nonsense and tedium presented to us in the theatrical cut of the film and explored the side missions and extra pieces of plot that were designed to fill out the world. I bought Darth Maul stationery. I skipped class at uni to go see it in the middle of the day with friends. I talked about it on the internet – no mean feat in 1999. There weren’t Facebook pages to find like-minded people or Twitter to spray abuse randomly, there was Usenet and an anonymity that now seems like it would give people more licence to be horrible, but there it felt like the whole world was positive and willing the film to be great.

To recapture the feelings of entering the Star Wars world for the first time was an impossible task but we were willing to let the great George Lucas tell the story of Anakin Skywalker. A story we’d all become familiar with through Expanded Universe tales and the hints and allusions in the original trilogy. Star Wars had always been a big thing for me, but I wasn’t an obsessive like other people and I didn’t know much beyond what was on the screen and the bits and pieces that filtered through to me from other sources. I never really even thought about how The Empire Strikes Back, commonly thought to be the strongest in the trilogy, was written and directed by other people. That The Return of the Jedi, my first experience of Star Wars, was also written and directed by people other than George Lucas. All I really cared about was a new Star Wars’ film and Lucas was a towering name in the film world.

Instead of the detailed and dense background of the Empire’s rise and fall, we got Darth Vader as a little boy and an incomprehensible storyline written and directed by a man who isn’t any good at either.

At the time, sitting in the cinema, none of that was immediately obvious to me. Even now, if I put on a Star Wars’ film it is as likely to be The Phantom Menace as it is Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back (a list that can now include The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, Rogue One and Solo).  It had an impact, as a movie event, that outstripped the original trilogy. Anticipation was at fever pitch. There was no negativity or apprehension. We were all excited and ready to love it.

The betrayal felt as a result of how poor that first prequel still reverberates. It wasn’t just The Phantom Menace though. The trilogy continued to race to the bottom. The Attack of the Clones was even worse. The Revenge of the Sith was even worse than that and the final turd to splash into the bowl.

A decade later, no one wanted to get too excited about The Force Awakens. We’d been hurt before. Its first line is “This will begin to make things right.” And it did. But even after that rousing success, The Last Jedi was approached with trepidation. Only now, after the strange and wonderful journey of Episode VIII, do I feel some sense of excitement about Episode IX.

The anthology films have taken the mantle of the prequels and are trying to fill out the backstory. So far, Disney has made four strong films. They haven’t been to everyone’s liking, but they’re been well-made, comprehensible and without the wooden acting and dreadful dialogue that have come to characterise the prequels. However, as far as they’ve come and as much the new films have made seeing new Star Wars worthwhile again, never will the emergence of the internet, my final year as a teenager and the return of a mythical franchise coalesce with such an impact.

The Phantom Menace: Hot wet garbage or misunderstood genius?

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