A long time ago…
Cast your mind back to mid-May – hasn’t the time flown since then?
Well, way back in 1999 that same period of time we’ve just traversed felt endless. While our US friends celebrated this milestone back in May it’s today, July 16th 2019, that marks 20 years since the UK release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace!
For a film that’s been mired in disdain for the last two decades it sure has been great to see the outpouring of love over the last few months. We’ve seen re-appraisals, month-long retrospectives and a general consensus that informed viewers reached years ago – The Phantom Menace isn’t perfect, but it is a bold, ambitious and creative first chapter for the saga. It’s brim full of ideas even if it does fall a little short of its potential due to some flaws in the execution.
At the time you would have been forgiven for thinking that George Lucas had made something far, far worse.
Every Saga Has A Beginning
1999. Despite the negative reaction and the long wait, nothing, and I mean nothing, could kill my buzz. Star Wars was everywhere, from broadsheet newspapers to crisp packets, and me, a Star Wars super-nerd at 15 years old, simply could not get enough.
With thanks to a pirate VHS copy my first viewing of Episode I was in the comfort of my own home. The quality was as shonky as you’d expect but it did the job for me. I’d already read the novelisation and memorised the soundtrack by that point, so the film was just the final piece of the jigsaw.
If that makes seeing the film on the big screen seem anticlimactic then I apologise for misleading you.
Hearing the fanfare blare out loud once more (for the first time since 1997) gave me chills. The visceral thrill of the pod race and the lightsaber duels, and the amazing-for-the-time VFX made it honestly feel like the first time all over again. In a nutshell, I loved every second.
The circumstances made the event even more special. Thanks to my work experience with a large cinema chain I was fortunate enough to see Episode I at a midnight screening long before such events were commonplace. Another score for the Star Wars super-nerd.
A More Civilised Age
Yet it wasn’t just the sensational elements of the film that left a mark.
Qui Gon Jinn was always a favourite character, but I’ve actually warmed even more to him as the decades have passed. As the idea of the “living Force” became more vital to the Star Wars narrative it’s clear how integral Liam Neeson’s character is to the story, and how different things would have been had he survived his duel with Maul. Criticise Lucas for his final product all you like, but the conceptual scale that the man worked to was breathtaking.
This is the level that the Prequels operate on, giving depth to the Original Trilogy and operating on a much, much deeper level than anything of the Disney era. Yet Lucas started this re-positioning of the map with a film that felt tonally the closest to A New Hope in the series (at least until 2015).
That’s how embedded Lucas’ sense of creativity and vista is at the heart of the franchise. The Phantom Menace excelled at creating a unique and luscious visual landscape. Naboo became an instant favourite, not just for the grandeur of Theed but for the creativity of Otoh Gungah and Gungan culture as a whole. The costumes and visual designs for Episode One are the strongest in the saga by some margin.
As for a favourite moment? It has to be the lightsaber duel between Jinn, Maul and Kenobi; furious and kinetic cinema. For the subtler moments I enjoy the entire Mos Espa section. Sure, Jake Lloyd is average at best. But there’s something about the sense of discovery and world-building of that sequence that makes Star Wars feel real.
Also (and I’ll say it whenever I have the opportunity) I have never found Jar Jar Binks to be that bad.
Gungans No Dyin’ Without A Fight
I saw the film just twice more on the big screen. With only a paper round for funding and a lot of Star Wars merchandise to buy, that was the most I could stretch to. After that it was the long wait to April 2000 before The Phantom Menace came out on (legitimate) VHS and the long countdown to Episode II began…
The Phantom Menace has been through every kind of evaluation and re-evaluation over the years. As above, I stand by it for being an inspired expansion of the mythology by a creator with an unfettered vision. I admit in a heartbeat that the execution isn’t perfect, but it is still a great kids’ film.
At this point there’s little left to say but thank you, Mr. Lucas. 20 years ago today you gave your UK fans Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace – and made the Star Wars universe a far more interesting place to visit.