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Release Year: 1999
Genre: Action, Adventure, Fantasy
Director: George Lucas
Writer: George Lucas
If we asked you to guess what the most anticipated movie release in the history of the silver screen was, you might say:
You must be talking about The Story of the Kelly Gang, the film that defined the film industry when it dropped in 1906. It was the first feature-length film, after all.
Probably Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, right? It was both Disney's first full-length movie and one of the very first color pictures.
Gone With The Wind? Hey; it's still the most highest-grossing film ever made—adjusted for inflation, that is. People must have been psyched for it.
You probably figured it out—after all, you're reading an introduction to The Phantom Menace—but the same movie that ruffled the feathers of so many old-school Star Wars fans was also the most anticipated film in cinematic history. Dang.
After waiting nearly two decades, fans had cycled through all five stages of grief multiple times waiting for the next entry in the Star Wars saga. After Lucasfilm announced Episode I, fans experienced everything from giddiness to rapture to excitement-induced mental breakdowns as the buildup to the film brought a galaxy's worth of hype to the pop culture scene.
When the trailer dropped in 1998, fans didn't have YouTube. Instead, they purchased full-priced tickets to other movies just to see it, leaving after the two-minute teaser to save themselves from having to endure Meet Joe Black. (Source).
The die-hards among the fanbase set up camps in early April outside the Mann's Chinese Theatre to get tickets for the May 19, 1999 opening day. The merchandising campaign was a total-war assault of tie-in products from Pepsi to Lego, Taco Bell to video games.
And then the movie came out, and moviegoers saw a film that was very different from the ones they grew up with.
The story told of the meeting of Qui-Gon Jinn and a young Anakin Skywalker. As Qui-Gon attempts to save Queen Amidala and protect the planet of Naboo, he uncovers a political conspiracy hiding an evil power the Jedi were thought to have destroyed a thousand years ago, the Sith.
Of course, no movie could live up to the expectations, and the love-or-hate-it reactions were a clear sign of this. Roger Ebert gave the film a positive review. And Janet Maslin of The New York Times said, "[…] stripped of hype and breathless expectations, Mr. Lucas's first installment offers a happy surprise: it's up to snuff." (Source)
More critical were the diehard fans who felt Lucas betrayed their saga by populating the film with stock characters and imagery designed to sell toys to children. It's also the lowest rated of the six Star Wars films. Womp womp.
In fact, the film swept the satirical Gold Raspberry (RAZZIE) Awards, receiving seven nominations including Worst Picture, Worst Supporting Actress, and Worst Supporting Actor.
But The Phantom Menace was still a success, beating box office records the weekend it was released. And while it's not the most loved film in the franchise, it remains an important one—after all, it brought the Star Wars films into the digital age while introducing the saga to a whole new generation of fans.
We could say "because The Phantom Menace is a study in generational conflict: old-school fans hated it; kids loved it." We could say "because, um, Jar Jar Binks is iffy."
But we won't, because there's something way more groundbreaking about The Phantom Menace. (And no: it ain't Padmé's elaborate hairstyles, although they're stunning.)
Here's the thing: while the original Star Wars helped create the summer blockbuster, Episode I helped usher in the era of the transmedia franchise. That's right: the most mind-boggling thing about The Phantom Menace is the fact that it sold additional stories about podracers… and not the fact that it featured an explosion-happy podrace.
This film, essentially, redefined the "business" part of "show business."
Media franchises existed before The Phantom Menace. Characters like Godzilla, James Bond, and Freddy Krueger had been featured in numerous films before the year 2000. But each of their films told mostly self-contained stories, with only occasional references to other entries. What The Phantom Menace did was to take these merchandising tactics and ratchet them up to eleven through transmedia storytelling.
Basically, The Phantom Menace expanded the story of Star Wars (there's that storytelling) across (there's that trans) various media (there's that media). While The Phantom Menace may tell a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, it was also designed to be one piece of a larger story. By reading the novels and comic books and playing the video games, fans could flesh out aspects of the story that moviegoers wouldn't have access to.
Think of it as a kind of story jigsaw puzzle. The Star Wars movies give you a few pieces of the story (or puzzle), but you can really start to put things together once you buy additional chapters to the story.
The original Star Wars films had been part of a transmedia campaign as well, but the trilogy stood on its own. With The Phantom Menace, the transmedia stories almost became required reading. To find out anything about Darth Maul, fans needed to invest time in books, comics and later The Clone Wars TV series. Also, the film's novelization contains character stories and information about the Sith that's left out of the film. (Source)
And this transmedia campaign (like The Phantom Menace itself) got some seriously mixed reviews.
Some fans enjoy the opportunity to dive super-deep into their favorite mythologies. And the others? They think the method takes away from the individual stories and is an obvious ploy to separate fans from their money.
But whatever your opinion on transmedia campaigns, the success of The Phantom Menace and other transmedia stories of its era has made this kind of storytelling pop up all over the place.
The largest example today is the Marvel Cinematic Universe , which tells its stories across movies, TV shows, comic books, and novels. And fellow longtime transmedia story Star Trek was given a reboot in 2009 to revitalize interest in the mega-franchise.
So studying The Phantom Menace isn't just studying modern Hollywood movie making—it's also studying how Hollywood rakes in the big bucks. It's also the study of how Hollywood has totally changed the way we tell stories.
And that's more interesting than debating the merits of midi-chlorians any day.
Jar Jar Binks spread much fear and anger among diehard Star Wars fans. But enough to be a Sith Lord? That's what one fan theory says. According to Reddit user Lumpawarroo, Jar Jar's luck is actually the result of his ability to use the Force, and the Gungan assisted, if not masterminded, Palpatine's domination of the galaxy. Mind blown! (Source)
Steven Spielberg enjoys putting references to Star Wars in his films, and George Lucas returns the favor in The Phantom Menace. In the Galactic Senate chambers, keen-eyed observers will spy representatives from E.T.'s race. (Source)
Speaking of cameos, you'll notice a crazy-haired man next to Watto during the podraces. This gentleman is Warwick Davis, who starred as Wicket the Ewok in Star Wars VI: Return of the Jedi. Davis had three other cameos in Phantom Menace: as Anakin's Rodian friend, as a street trader, and as a double for Yoda during his walking scenes. (Source)
Ewan McGregor made lightsaber noises while filming his duels. Because if you grew up a Star Wars fan, that's just what you do with anything remotely lightsaber-shaped (sticks, cardboard tubes, and so on). His ad-libs were corrected in post-production. (Source)
To save money, the sets were only built as high as the actors' heads. At least, that was the idea. Liam Neeson proved so tall that he cost the production an extra $150,000 in construction. (Source)
Here's the official landing page for all things The Phantom Menace from starwars.com.
Odd Name, Amazing Results
Wookiepedia, the Star Wars fan wiki, brings you everything you could possibly want, assuming that everything you want is information on The Phantom Menace.
Did you know that director Sophia Coppola played the handmaiden Sache in The Phantom Menace? Or that Greg Proops, of Whose Line Is It Anyway? fame, voiced Fodo? Thanks to IMDB, now you do.
The Phantom Spoilers
Released a full month ahead of the film, fans could get all the spoilers their hearts love-hate from author Terry Brooks, of The Sword of Shannara fame.
Roger Ebert gave the film a 3-and-a-½-star review. You can read his reasoning here. Huh, maybe there's something the haters are missing?
The Haunting of Cinema House
Thirteen years after the film's release, Darren Franich and Keith Staskiewicz wonder whether it was as bad as they remember it. Their answer? Midi-chlorians. 'Nuff said.
A Man, A Plan, Lucas
Biography presents the life and times of George Lucas.
Ed Cummings discusses how Jar Jar became the most hated character in Star Wars history and decides to reinvestigate the character. His conclusions might surprise you.
Back to the Beginning
This New York Times review gave The Phantom Menace some high praise, stating it was a "happy surprise" and "up to snuff" compared to the hype. Hey, when you see some of the hater reactions, that's incredibly high praise.
The Phantom Menace teaser trailer started a hype train unmatched by any movie before it. If you were a fanboy in 1998, it was a religious experience.
Want to know every detail about the making of Episode I? As in, when in the process did Ewan McGregor get his Padawan haircut? Then this is the documentary for you.
Jar Jar's Fate
Did you ever wonder what cargo Han Solo had to dump to escape the Imperials? The first generation meets the new in this short film of fandom revenge.
Force Ghost in the Machine
You don't become a dark lord of the Sith without having something in your past you're ashamed of. Robot Chicken shows you how Darth Vader deals with his force ghosts by way of—you guessed it—another Jar Jar death.
How It Should Have Ended presents its take on how The Phantom Menace should have wrapped things up. It's spot on.
Chillin' Out Maxin' Relaxin' All Cool
George Lucas takes some time away from the Tunisian heat to relax with the stars of the film.
Here is a collection of images from the film displayed in an epic collage. It's kind of like watching the entire film in a singe image.
This intriguing image shows a young Anakin Skywalker with his shadow replaced by the specter of his future self.
Quarter Circle Forward Punch
Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan take on Darth Maul in this still frame from their epic duel.