The supposed fan backlash to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in 1999 is as legendary today as it is mysterious. Unlike cultural events that are documented in real time in 2019, the real zeitgeist reaction to The Phantom Menace is tricker to pinpoint. But, I remember. I was there. And unlike now, there wasn’t an immediate consensus formed on the internet. Instead, 17-year-old kids like me had to search their feelings about The Phantom Menace without an echo chamber.
In 1999, I thought the film was excellent. Disturbing, but excellent. And now, exactly 20 years later, after having held a variety of differing opinions in-between, I think my first reaction was the right one: The Phantom Menace is great because it is a deeply weird movie. It shocked me and rattled me to my core. Here’s why that mattered.
When I saw Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace on opening night on May 19, I was wearing a blue flip-up watch sporting Ewan McGregor’s face, carrying a green Qui-Gon Jinn lightsaber in my backpack, and clutching a red package of Darth Maul candies in my hands. If I had hated the film—as many, many fans claim they did in 1999—I would have had to rip-off my watch, throw away my sweet lightsaber toy and regurgitate my Darth Maul candy. Spoiler alert, I didn’t, mostly because it was almost impossible for me to see anything wrong The Phantom Menace at that moment. Star Wars was a religion and this was the second coming.
The journey to sitting in that movie theater seat started months and months earlier, however. I was a junior in high school in 1999, and obviously, the massive cultural anticipation for The Phantom Menace started way before May. Shocking no one who knows me well, all of my best friends in high school were on the speech and debate team, which basically became an ad hoc Star Wars fan club from February 1999 until, well, I think it still basically is the same thing today. Our debate coach at the time was 27 years-old, meaning, in terms of enthusiasm, he probably fired us all up way more than any other adult in our lives. Was it cool if we left campus to go pick up the new lightsabers at Toys “R” Us? Yes, of course, said Coach Kenobi, as long as we brought one back for him, too.
I’ll never forget driving a guy a year ahead of me to pick up The Phantom Menace soundtrack from Tower Records in the hot Tatooine sun of Mesa, Arizona the day it came out. My 1987 Dodge Ram pick-up truck sported a red X-Wing decal poised above another decal for the rock band, Oasis. I thought my truck was like a part of Champagne Supernova Squadron, though everyone else called my truck “Ginger Spice.” (The Spice Girls were still HUGE in 1999.) Anyway, this guy—we’ll call him Dr. Soundtrack—had to own the CD the day it came out, and, he also had the 15 bucks on him. So, with the permission of Coach Kenobi, we got a signed slip that let us leave 6th period and drive to Tower Records, provided of course, we returned to facilitate a full-on listening party back in the classroom. I was chosen for this mission mostly because my truck had the best CD player and sound system on the debate team. Ginger Spice may not have looked like much, but she had it where it counted.
Oddly, by this time, Dr. Soundtrack, Coach Kenobi, and all of my other friends had already heard the hit single from The Phantom Menace soundtrack: “Duel of the Fates.” And that’s because that track was often played on the mainstream radio stations, you know, the same ones that played the Spice Girls, TLC, and Britney Spears. When we got this CD soundtrack, I obtained what is perhaps the earliest “spoiler” in my personal memory as, infamously, one of the tracks on The Phantom Menace soundtrack was titled “The Death of Qui-Gon Jinn.”
No one was really mad about this spoiler. Like, at all. I don’t remember one single person being upset. Qui-Gon was the new Obi-Wan. Of course he was going to die. Let’s crank “Duel of the Fates” one more time. Also, pass me that Mountain Dew with Captain Panaka’s face on it!
In so many ways, by the time you’d seen The Phantom Menace, it was like you’d already seen it anyway. The facts of the film were pretty much established but without the context of how you felt about it yet. In 1999, the events of a Star Wars movie weren’t spoilers; but your emotional reaction to those events totally were. We were drinking in Menace through all those collectible Pepsi and Mountain Dew cans, listening to those chants from “Duel of the Fates” whenever we drove anywhere, and always, always being aware of how many days were left till May 19th.
Anecdotally, I think a lot of other Star Wars fans around my age had the same experience. In the summer of 1999, Star Wars fever was like Stockholm Syndrome—we’d fallen in love with our captors. I think this is partly because The Phantom Menace was the beginning of a new Star Wars trilogy; one that would belong to us, not to our parents. That sense of ownership was important, and in my case, encouraged by cool younger role models like Coach Kenobi and literally all of my friends. We couldn’t hate Jar Jar Binks, Darth Maul, or anything else about the movie if we tried.
This was also the era of “line culture,” when you camped out not only two weeks before the movie to buy advance tickets, but also the night before—or several nights before—just to make sure you got a good seat. At least one guy I knew in line for The Phantom Menace had a Darth Maul inflatable beach chair, and further up, toward the front of the line, people were rocking Jar Jar Binks chairs. The characters and images of The Phantom Menace surrounded us and were binding us before we even saw the movie.
Even after the film came out, I saw The Phantom Menace ten more times, sometimes with close friends, but more often than not alone, like a religious experience. I remember being legitimately moved by Anakin saying “It’s working! It’s working!” and feeling genuine horror when Qui-Gon Jinn was killed by Darth Maul, not because I was expecting Liam Neeson’s Jedi Master to survive the movie, but because of the way he just got stabbed. This moment, to me, is the metaphor for the entire movie. You couldn’t like everything about the movie—that was intellectually impossible—but to deny the whole thing wasn’t emotionally effecting would also be dishonest.
It’s a small thing, but it’s worth noting that even though we knew Qui-Gon Jinn would die, most hardcore fans expected him to fade away into the Force, just like Obi-Wan Kenobi does in A New Hope. But he doesn’t. He just gets whacked in the face and then punked by a swift jab in the gut from Darth Maul. At this point, it’s obvious as hell to say that everyone loved this fight scene in The Phantom Menace, but what we’ve already forgotten is that relative to the rest of Star Wars at this point, it was a dirty fight. Darth Maul fights dirty, Obi-Wan fights dirty, and even before his death, there’s an edge to Qui-Gon Jinn that we’d never seen in Star Wars before. I’d also argue that in almost every single way, The Phantom Menace played dirty, too. This wasn’t a safe movie, despite being the most family-friendly. Essentially, it wasn’t what anyone expected, deserved or wanted. It was just fucking weird.
There’s a lot about The Phantom Menace that is bad, but those bad things (most of the stuff with Gungans, Anakin and Padme’s “flirting”, Watto, the Trade Federation) are bad in a way that is very strange. The movie isn’t embarrassed by how weird it is, mostly because George Lucas clearly created it in a crucible totally free of what he thought people wanted. With The Phantom Menace, Lucas made his version of Dune; a bizarre and ruminative sci-fi space epic that was also, somehow, a Star Wars movie. With Attack of the Clones, you can see him giving people more of what he believed they wanted: a faux-Boba Fett, Yoda fighting with a lightsaber, stormtroopers who are really clones. But none of that pandering exists yet with The Phantom Menace. It stands apart and alone as one of the most successful movies that is also supposedly a failure.
I think at this moment, George Lucas had more in common with teenage kids than when he made the original Star Wars films. Like me and all my friends, it seems like George Lucas lived in a bubble of aesthetics. It’s important to remember that The Matrix came out the same year as The Phantom Menace, and as backlash for the latter started to kick-in about six months after the debut, the overt coolness of The Matrix was partially to blame. The summer of 1999 eventually became the fall of 1999, which means I became a senior in high school. At this point, even Coach Kenobi wasn’t as hot on Phantom Menace as he’d been the previous school year. But I couldn’t let go.
In some ways, I don’t think I ever did. The months leading up to The Phantom Menace are some of the happiest memories I have about science fiction fandom, and there are days I long for the days of that Old Republic. Sure, I was clumsier and more random than I am now as a 37-year-old adult. There was nothing elegant about my love for The Phantom Menace. But it did feel like a more civilized age. I miss it.