What a difference 13 years makes. This weekend, Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace is being re-released in theaters, this time with an added third dimension, and not many seem to care. Contrast that to what happened in 1999, when the original release was caught up in a sixteen-year storm of hype. To help excavate our suppressed collective memories, Moviefone asked 13 writers -- including one who was there with George Lucas at the premiere at Skywalker Ranch -- to take us back to what we all thought was going to be a very glorious day.
Kurt Loder, Movie Critic, Reason Online
Who could forget their first exposure to The Phantom Menace? For a talented man, Lucas has a minimal flair for gripping dialogue ("Hold me like you did by the lake on Naboo"), nifty plot devices (a galactic tax dispute?), colorful character names (Nute Gunray? Shmi Skywalker?), or, Lord knows, comic embellishment (Jar Jar Binks!). There's also the matter of little Jake Lloyd, the brevity of whose subsequent career -- one more movie and out -- strongly suggests the existence of a just and vengeful God. I don't recall any mass longing for a Star Wars prequel before Lucas made this thing. Can there really be one to see it again, in super-cool 3D? No, wait -- don't tell me.
Rider Strong, Director, Actor
Phantom Menace was my rite of passage. I was "lucky" enough to see it early. MTV was hosting an advance screening at Lucas Ranch, and since I was on a TV show at the time, my brother and I were invited. This was the greatest thing to ever happen to me. It was our Call to Adventure.
A limo picked us up. But for us, it was more than a limo: it was a gleaming white ship, there to carry us into a glorious future. One in which burning questions that had lingered since our childhood would surely be answered (Who was Anakin Skywalker? What were the Clone Wars? How do you make the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs?), one in which new landscapes and species would unfurl before us and inspire our imagination ... We were so young.
Immediately, everything was wrong. Our driver got lost. We arrived late, after the movie had started. We scrambled into the theater in darkness, like Luke entering the cave on Dagobah. And as we raised our faces to the screen, I thought, we must have walked into the wrong theater -- this is a parody of a Star Wars film, isn't it?
It was then that we felt the strange, numbing loss of our childhood. And Jar Jar laughed. In a daze, we actually spoke to George Lucas afterwards, which ranks up there with the most awkward post-screening experiences of my life. We kept it neutral: "That was really ... something."
Then we heard him say the chilling words, "I don't think I can let anyone else direct the next two films." It was over. There was no going back.
We went into that theater mere children. We emerged men. Aware that we could no longer count on an earlier generation to entertain us. It was up to us to find new filmmakers, and yes, somehow, some way, to make better movies ourselves.
Sean Fennessey, Editor, GQ.com
I saw it alone, two weeks after it opened for the same reason I don't watch ball games in bars: I hate crowds and I love to obsess. I wanted to be unencumbered, experience the origin story as a child might. No influence, isolated, allowing the chance for wonder. And it worked, sort of. I specifically recall, in this order, enjoying it; thinking Jar Jar was racist, and perhaps the epitome of Lucas's weird, latent race problems; having my breath stolen during the pod race; thinking Darth Maul was devoid of motivation; and wishing Liam Neeson was my Dad (some things change, others not so much). Funny thing: Natalie Portman didn't register at all, just three years after becoming the Most Important Teenage Girl Ever in The Professional/Beautiful Girls. I was 16, so those seem fairly perceptive thoughts. On the other hand, I went back and saw it again twice more in theaters.
Dan Kois, Senior Editor, Slate
I saw it at the Uptown, the giant-screened theater in Washington DC. I remember being pissed off because I was not a big enough Star Wars fan to wait in line for the prequel, yet there I was, forced by the sheer giganticness of this event to wait in line for like an hour just to get a halfway decent seat. I am not lying when I say I remember zilch about the movie itself. I think it was too early for everyone to have an opinion about Jar Jar or the kid or anything, so I think I just thought, Well, that was fine. I didn't know my entire generation was getting angry.
Meredith Woerner, Senior Reporter, io9
Emotionally flattened after my high school crush called Han Solo "stupid" at the theatrical re-release of The Empire Strikes Back, I was determined that my next Star Wars screening wouldn't end with me furiously stewing in my own tears. Two years later, after multiple failed attempts to win my friends over ("Who wants to start a Cantina Band?!"), The Phantom Menace finally arrived.
After a few desperate pleas and promises of endless white-cherry slushies, I'd persuaded my best friend Katie Harrington to ditch class and catch a matinee. Despite the fact that she would only address this new chapter in sci-fi filmmaking as "that movie about the guy with the red face," I promised that the origin story of the world's most feared villain would entertain and amaze!
This was my chance. Together George Lucas and I would bridge the gap between my friends and my inner nerd. There was no doubt that Darth Vader's secret history would charm my friends, leading to late night Leia bun-braiding sessions. First I would turn Katie, and her joy would infect the others. Spreading throughout our high school like a virus. And then I would be their God, because I saw it first. I strutted into the theater, drunk with promise and righteous in my faith in the Force.
We drove home in silence. The first thing I can remember saying was "Well ... it looked cool." The droid army was absolutely intimidating. Yoda didn't look like a pile of spoiled lunchmeat. And it certainly wasn't weird that Samuel L. Jackson was on the Jedi council ... at all. I had developed Stockholm Syndrome -- I'd become a full-fledged Lucas apologist. "No, that was just bad. Really bad." Kate paused, "And you're not allowed to pick out any movies anymore."
Will Leitch, Contributing Editor, New York
Like everyone else, I was so excited to see The Phantom Menace -- egged on in part by the public boosting of Kevin Smith, someone else I was dumbly a much bigger fan of 1999 than I am now -- that I read up on everything I could about the movie before I saw it. I've never quite figured out whether or not that was a mistake. Would I have hated it as much had I not been clued in of the Jar Jar horrors, or the "wait, who cares?" Baby Vader plotlines, those wretched midichlorians ... if I had gone on with my fanboy blinkers still on? Was I cued up to hate them? I might have been. Or maybe they're just so objectively horrible that it wouldn't have mattered. But I walked into that theater knowing how disappointed I was about to be. (OK, fine: The pod race has two non-awful moments, and Darth Maul has his one good scene. But otherwise: Yelch.) So, I try not to know anymore. I know I'm not alone in feeling like that movie took part of my childhood away. As I near 40, I'm still, stupidly, angry about it.
Erik Davis, Editor, Movies.com
The Phantom Menace hit theaters while I was in college, somewhere between my senior and super-senior year, at a time when I was struggling to commit to adulthood while all my friends graduated and began their lives by interning as future alcoholics. It was a 2pm screening, and of course I skipped class, but everyone skipped something the day this film came out just because you had to. I didn't obsessively follow every square inch of the making of The Phantom Menace, so they really sold me on the trailers. Even the posters gave me chills. Growing up a Star Wars nerd with all the action figures and junk, this wasn't just another movie to go see with my buddies - it was a long-awaited sequel to a movie franchise that changed my childhood.
And then the movie happened. I didn't hate The Phantom Menace after that first viewing, but I didn't love it. It didn't blow me away, it didn't alter the way I watch movies, it didn't seduce me with its characters or universe, and I didn't long to see Natalie Portman hook up with a 10-year-old whiny, moppy-haired kid. Jar Jar Binks was annoying and unnecessary, and the political chatter was a bore. But I dug Darth Maul. Everyone did. Darth Maul was -- and still is -- the greatest thing about Episode I. He's scary and menacing, and you're frightened by him. The dude rocks a duel lightsaber, which totally kicked my world's ass when I first witnessed the ferociously-paced fight scene between Maul, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon -- perhaps the film's greatest sequence -- and one of the best Star Wars lightsaber battles the series has to offer.
I guess I walked away with mixed feelings. It felt familiar, yet distant. I wanted more, but I didn't. If it achieved anything, watching this film really put me in touch with that tug-of-war between becoming an adult and remaining a naïve kid who wants to sleep with his toy Millennium Falcon. It wasn't that Lucas made a bad film, it was that he didn't make me feel 10 years old again. But maybe that wasn't his objective. When Lucas made the original Star Wars movies, he made them for the 10-year-old inside of him. With the prequels, he made them for the 10-year-old standing next to you at Toys "R" Us.
Mark Graham, Managing Editor, VH1
Growing up, I was never what you would describe as a raging Star Wars geek (although, I will admit that getting an AT-AT for Christmas in 1980 is undeniably one of my fondest memories of childhood). Still, I remember a palpable sense of excitement coursing through my veins when my brother and I went to a movie theater in the northern suburbs of Detroit in the summer of '99 for an opening night showing of The Phantom Menace.
Sadly, that sense memory is trumped by the crushing weight of disappointment that washed over me as I sat dumbfounded in the theater as Liam Neeson prattled on about midichlorians to Jake Lloyd. This scene, more than anything Jar Jar related, is what really killed my enthusiasm for the Star Wars series. In the first three films, The Force was presented as this cool, mystical, spiritual thing that enveloped us all; it was something that everyone in the universe could tap into, whether you lived on Tatooine or in Rochester, MI.
For reasons that are still indefensible, Lucas felt the need in The Phantom Menace to turn The Force into something that exists first and foremost in the biological realm, which was both boring from an expositional perspective and, speaking of my personal emotional reaction to this reveal, kind of soul-crushing.
Lucas lost me, as a fan, in that scene, and although I did end up seeing both Episode II and Episode III in the theater -- I'm a completist, what can I say? -- I have never revisited any of the six films in the series outside of the theater environment since. And I never will.
Erin McCarthy, Associate Editor, Popular Mechanics
I saw The Phantom Menace on a field trip with my 10th-grade English class. Why did my teacher want us to watch a Star Wars film for class? I can't remember -- presumably it had something to do with a book we were reading, maybe A Separate Peace -- but at the time I didn't care, because it was pretty awesome to leave school to see a movie. And if not for that field trip, I might not have seen The Phantom Menace. Because although I had seen the other films and had a totally sweet Star Wars mattress (not a sheet set, a MATTRESS) at my dad's growing up, by 16 I was more interested in films starring Leonardo DiCaprio.
Anyway, my recollections of the movie itself are vague, but I remember finding little Anakin annoying, though I liked the pod race. I hated stupid, nonsensical, weird-looking Jar Jar. I was obsessed with Natalie Portman's crazy face paint and costumes, and I found the big battles to be quite fun. My favorite, though, was the fight between Qui-Gon Jin and Darth Maul. It was AWESOME. In the end, I think my overall reaction was favorable. Not because the movie was any good, but because I got out of school to see it, and because my teacher used (a botched version of) Yoda's excellent quote -- "Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you" -- in a softball question on our final exam. I aced it, and I haven't seen The Phantom Menace since. And I'm totally OK with that.
Eric Gillin, Director, Hearst Digital Media Men's Network
My thoughts, in order that they came:
1.) Those "plot" segments I always skipped in videogames sure reached puberty in a hurry.
2.) When George Lucas looks at actors, I bet he sees action figures instead of people.
3.) Natalie Portman does a very serviceable Carrie Fisher impersonation.
4.) Quandary: if these CGI aliens seem like obvious racial stereotypes, am I racist for thinking that or are the people who created them in the first place racist?
5.) If you look closely, I'm pretty sure you can see the shipping containers filling up with Anakin Skywalker Pod Race Playsets in the actual movie.
6.) Liam Neeson sure gives you his money's worth, even if the film sucks.
7.) A double-headed light saber! Coooool.
8.) Sad, but as the years pass, millions of people will prefer this Star Wars to the older version, if only because this is the one they saw first.
9.) Episode I was a soulless piece of corporate shillery passed off as mindless entertainment to sell total crap. It's an artistic insult to Episode IV, which accidentally produced the metal lunchbox, bedsheets, thermos, coloring books, action figures, hand puppets, and breakfast cereals I had as a kid.
Matt Singer, Film Critic, IFC and Time Out
The strongest memory I have of Phantom Menace is not of the film itself but of the craze for its action figures, which everyone was convinced were going to be worth a fortune someday, like the original Kenner action figures of the 1970s. The summer after Phantom Menace opened, I was working in a comic book store in New Jersey, where I was about as popular with the ladies as Jar Jar was with the fanboys. One day, another employee ran into the store in a state of giddy excitement -- the local JC Penny's, of all places, had gotten their hands on the supposedly rare 12-inch Darth Maul doll. Several of us ran back with him to buy these invaluable items, confident in the fact that we had just bought ourselves the sweetest-looking retirement fund a nerd could want.
Current asking price of that figure on eBay?
Current number of bids?
Matt Patches, Movies Editor, Hollywood.com
I was a young nerd in his early teens when The Phantom Menace finally hit theaters, but even then, it felt like I'd been following its evolution from myth to actual movie for eons. Every bit of photographic evidence that made its way in front of my eyes added fuel to my burning desire to see the movie. When the pictures eventually came to life? When I was actually watching pod racing, outer space dogfights and lightsaber battles in motion? I flipped, obviously. The Phantom Menace made about as much narrative sense to me as a Stan Brakhage film, but the movie felt like an undiluted injection of imagination. I enjoyed the heck out of it (and I still kind of do) for the reasons people loathe it -- TPM is a live-action cartoon. "Unfaithful" to the original trilogy? Maybe, but not even the unexpectedly lame goofball antics of Jar Jar Binks (which even irked youthful me) could take away from watching a new Star Wars unfold on the big screen.
S.T. VanAirsdale, Editor, Movieline
My first reaction was to never see it.
Mike Ryan is the senior writer for Moviefone. He has written for Wired Magazine, VanityFair.com, GQ.com, New York Magazine and Movieline. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter