When George Lucas adapted the iconic opening crawl of the 1977 Star Wars picture to read ‘Episode IV: A New Hope’ for the film’s re-release in 1981, the director’s lofty ambitions became internationally known. Star Wars was to expand outside the limitations of its trilogy and become an epic saga, spanning generations of characters and plots. However, it wasn’t until the 1990s that Lucas would pursue this concept, announcing The Phantom Menace, the first of the prequel films, in 1993, six years prior to the films’ actual release. To whet the appetite of the baying fans awaiting the latest generational might of Star Wars, 20th Century Fox would re-release the digitally remastered original trilogy in 1997, elevating excitement to a fever pitch.
Just like the rusted technology of a galaxy far, far away, the original trailer for the film took around two hours to download, equating to about an hour-per-pixel as the bitesize clip was squeezed out from each household’s limited bandwidth. Arriving a whole 15 years after the saga’s previous instalment, Return of the Jedi, in 1983, many of those who absorbed themselves in the culture of Star Wars in their youths now had children of their own. A whole new generation of fans was ready to consume the franchises’ culture, and more importantly, its merchandise.
Scenes of queueing super-fans may not look too dissimilar from the blockbusting audiences of Marvel’s Avengers, or perhaps more accurately, the release of a new Apple iPhone, but in 1999, the widespread cultural significance of The Phantom Menace was unprecedented. These audiences were not singed by the cynicism of social media and instead express a certain innocence spiked with hyperbole now lost in contemporary cinema, as one queuing customer comments, “It’s grabbing history and going with it, and becoming part of it, giving a story to our children.”
The film itself could never live up to the impossible potential of viewers’ imaginations, with The Phantom Menace now being viewed as one of cinema’s greatest disappointments. Though, of course, such a response comes laced with hungover anger of the power of the original trilogy and the wasted potential of the prequels. Really, Lucas’ fourth Star Wars film represented a cataclysmic shift in filmmaking, away from a director-led experience and toward a franchised model, utilising every facet of marketing and merchandising. The Phantom Menace blew the pearly gates of Hollywood wide open and, together with the Wachowski sisters’ The Matrix, ushered in a new cinematic revolution right at the turn of the 21st century.
For all the film’s flaws, and these need not be listed (though of course include the beige CGI globule, Jar-Jar Binks), George Lucas managed to inflate the universe of Star Wars to become, certainly in recent years, an ever-expanding being. From the controversial “Midi-chlorians”, microscopic life forms that judge how force-sensitive you are, to the bombastic planet-hopping, mythos-dilating plot, The Phantom Menace would sculpt a blueprint for further expansion which the later films would willingly follow.
This planet-hopping was often criticised, with the colourful CGI world of the galaxy becoming the scapegoat for most of Lucas’ shortcomings, even though an impressive amount of the film used practical effects. No triumph was more vast than that of cinema’s first-ever fully CGI character in Jar-Jar Binks, a success certainly overshadowed by the poor quality of the character himself. Though widely disliked at the time of release, these innovations brought Star Wars to the forefront of cinema’s technical boundaries, making it a series synonymous with spearheading constant cinematic alteration.
Though we may look back at the film itself with a little disdain, and as the problem child of three successful parents, its legacy is an endearing and impressive one. When Jedi’s Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi drew their lightsabers against the double-bladed glow of antagonist Darth Maul, a new cinematic age was born…