‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,’ the most anticipated film of all time (?) was released into cinemas and bankrupted poor old book publishers, Dorling Kindersley.
After wildly overestimating the hunger for all things ‘Star Wars’, they were left with crippling debts and more Amidala journals than they knew what to do with. And they weren’t the only victims of The Phantom Menace’s marketing black hole and critical disappointment; ‘Phantom Menace’ merchandising was still flooding Poundland shelves as recently as last year, and a whole bunch of collectors hoarded their ‘Darth Maul’ figures, only to realise they were worth practically nothing on Ebay. The Phantom Menace single-handedly ruined lives and alienated a whole generation of film fans. However, it has been ten years since Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released into cinemas and changed the face of cinema (rightly or wrongly) forever. In retrospect, it is definitely worthy of a revisit. The dust has settled, the backlash has calmed, and Jar Jar Binks doesn’t seem quite as annoying as he seemed in 1999.
This preview premiered on Friday, 20th November, 1998, and was the most downloaded trailer on the Internet (back when trailers were just about all you could get on the Internet). It also prompted thousands of fans to pay for cinema tickets only to leave before the main feature started. It was the perfect example of aggressive film marketing paying off, and Team Lucas teased just enough to get fanboys wetting themselves, and not enough to indicate that the film just might not live up to their dizzyingly high expectations.
The teaser poster suggested that Episode 1 was the ultimate coming of age movie; Stand by Me meets The Omen; a dark tale about a boy’s journey into the horrors of adulthood. What the poster didn’t indicate was that said journey would be told from the perspective of a nine-year-old who uses the phrase “wizard” too much and his computer-generated posse.
Not only that, but Darth Vader was not even on the horizon and the ultra cool bad guy with the horns from the trailer was only in the film for a total of ten minutes, max.
Never has a film been more a victim of its own hype than Star Wars Episode I. The initial marketing frenzy suggested a film that didn’t exist, and fans were left wondering - what went so very, very wrong?
Perhaps the biggest flaw with Episode I is that the story being told is not cinematically dramatic; there is no sense of what’s at stake and no sense of urgency to the heroes’ quest. The narrative is framed around a blockade of a trade route and the (non-violent) invasion of a planet. However, there are obvious missed opportunities and this definitely wasn’t a space-bound Die Hard. The villains are ineffectual and clumsy, the rescue of the Queen was far too easy (where was the trash monster?), and the final battles are unspectacular. Not to mention the plodding sidetrack to Tatooine and the most tedious sequence thus far; political speeches in the senate.
Lucas stays as far from the darkness of the story as he possibly can, and there is no narrative hook to keep us interested. Who cares if the Queen saves her planet? She ditched it in the first 30 minutes! Why do we want Anakin to become a Jedi? We don’t even know who he is? And the political subplot might pay off later, but it slows the film to a dramatic crawl which it never fully recovers from.
I’m sure the publishers thought they were onto a winner when they came up with an idea for the tweeny journal of Queen Amidala. Supposedly this book even features pictures of each of her different outfits. Yay? This was just another symptom of the underlying issue; you can’t make an uninteresting story, well, interesting - no matter whose perspective you’re telling it from. And Lucas seemed too interested in having his fingers in all the pies and saturating the market, as opposed to telling a thrilling yarn. The tweeny Queen writes awesome things in her awesome journal - is this Star Wars or 90210? And, not to be sexist, but since when did teenage girls show any interest in Star Wars? They certainly didn’t at my school (in Lucas’s defence, at least he was eager to please).
Enough with the bashing! I honestly believe, over time, that The Phantom Menace has blossomed as the best of the prequel trilogy and is a visually exciting and underrated cinematic oddity. Strong words?
Well, the screen isn’t as overbloated as the further instalments (glorified computer games) and the visuals truly have an olde-worldie (?) feel about them. From the lavish costumes to the sweeping landscapes, the attention detail is sublime. John Williams’ score is a refreshing mix of new material and classic themes, and the performances of Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor, whiles not exactly Oscar-worthy, are admirably serious and feel authentic to the Star Wars universe.
The film’s rampant merchandising also ensured that Lucas had to enrich his story with ancillary characters and backstories, allowing viewers to pick up new details with each repeated viewing. The frame is never flat or empty. This also led to a marketing frenzy – the toys that accompanied the film could only get so much mileage out of the six or seven main characters so kids were treated to the delights of ‘Palace Guard Number’ and ‘Gragra’, the equivalent of your local corner shop worker. Lucas created a film with the potential for children and adults alike to imagine what else might be going on in this universe. Shameless cash-in or creative genius?
Only time will tell, but I would like to believe the latter statement. No-one spots a money-making scheme better than Lucas, but nobody fills a film with ‘Gragras’ and ‘Palace Guards’ like Lucas either. The universe feels complete, full, and functional.
Ten years later, we can still feel the ramifications of the film’s successes and failures. No film has been marketed to death the way The Phantom Menace was, but no film has attracted the levels of intense media and public interest either. Did it make moviegoers more cynical? Is getting excited about new releases now a worthless endeavour? Probably. But it also led to a revisit of seemingly dead franchises (Indiana Jones, Battlestar Galactica) and marketed itself straight into Poundstretchers and Right Prices (RIP) across the country. It captivated the imagination of children and catapulted cinema directly into the digital age. And it brought us ‘Jar Jar Sex Candy’.
Now, about that ‘Jar Jar Sex Candy…’ Lucas was criticised for making a French kissing Jar Jar Binks toy, as per this story.
“Shame on you, George Lucas” indeed. This particular toy/sweet/abomination is a true masterpiece - how many other films inspire alien sex toys with edible tongues? I can’t think of any either. For that reason and that reason alone, The Phantom Menace stands out as a trailblazer like no other.