On May 19th, 1999, George Lucas changed movies forever. The long-anticipated Star Wars prequel Episode I: The Phantom Menace hit theaters, returning to a world that fans had thought they’d never see again. For some, excitement turned to confusion, puzzlement, and outright anger by the time the credits rolled, and Lucas’s grand cinematic experiment was off to a rocky start. Looking back at the film two decades later, The Phantom Menace proved to be a precursor for the cinematic environment that we now find ourselves in. It was a special effects revolution, the first inkling that stories might never end, and a film where the director and cast faced enormous pushback from fans.
In 2019, we live in a world where massive, interconnected cinematic universes rule the box office, and where films that we’re most nostalgic for end up getting their own big-budget remakes with fresh faces, CGI budgets, and capabilities that the original directors could never have imagined. Star Wars’ return to theaters seems almost inevitable now, but its resurrection wasn’t always a sure thing. Lucas once largely walked away from the franchise that built his career, although he had sometimes referred to a larger plan for two additional trilogies.
In the late 1980s, Lucasfilm began working to see if there was still life in the franchise, and licensed out a series of novels, the first of which, Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire, hit the top of the bestseller lists in 1991. In the following years, the company began to develop larger cross-promotional projects, bringing together the company’s comics, novels, games, and action figures as a sort of trial run to see if all of those parts could work together. They demonstrated that Lucas’ world was still viable, with crossover projects like Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston’s X-Wing series (which included books, video games, and comics), and Shadows of the Empire (A book, comic, video game, and action figures). Lucas had already begun work on a prequel trilogy, and restored and updated the original films in time for their own 20th anniversary. All of this was largely unheard of at the time — but it spoke to the power that the franchise still had with fans who had grown up seeing the films in theaters, or who had since watched them on VHS.
It’s now not uncommon to see studios put together a far-reaching package of intellectual property to reach fans, with not just comics and tie-in novels, but also a larger constellation of stories that build upon and add to the film at the center. In 1999, the concept of tie-in stories adhering to a centralized canon wasn’t commonplace. Nowadays, continuity and canon are key concepts, with fans scrutinizing every character and action to make sure the stories they enjoy hold together when prodded.
While Star Wars came ready-build with a lived in world with a long track record of continuity across mediums, The Phantom Menace helped demonstrate that Lucas’s world was bigger than anyone could have imagined. It kicked off an impressive — if flawed — series of films that added a new perspective to the franchise’s internal history, and led to many other stories in other mediums, like the animated Clone Wars and Rebels series, which built upon the larger foundation that the prequel films set up, and in many instances, improved on them by adding context and additional detail to the world. Lucasfilm’s standalone prequels, Rogue One and Solo, each benefited from those efforts, and helped demonstrate that the franchise could largely stand on its own, away from the main Skywalker saga films.
Ultimately, Lucasfilm’s grand experiment prefigured where the film industry has ended up: studios largely don’t invest in just single films: they invest in worlds. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm, it didn’t do so with the intention of making a couple of films: it bought the company’s vast and deep troves of intellectual property: thousands and thousands of characters and stories that it will undoubtedly mine for decades.
The same is true of Marvel and its enormous back-catalog of heroes and stories. Legendary’s version of Godzilla no longer roars into theaters with a city to smash alone: he comes alongside a pantheon of other cinematic monsters, with the potential that each crossover will bring in bigger crowds around the world. Indeed, while the word “Prequel” had been coined in the 1950s, The Phantom Menace brought it into the popular culture lexicon, and prompted an entirely new genre of movies that helped set the stage (for better or worse) for other classic films, like Prometheus / Alien: Covenant, The Thing, or The Hobbit trilogy.
Lucas’ efforts culminated in the return of the franchise, and in any instance where expectations have been allowed to run wild for a decade-and-a-half, those expectations didn’t line up with Lucas’s vision for the future of the franchise. Darth Vader, the horrifically disfigured and evil antagonist of the franchise, became a six-year-old boy who yelled “Yahoo!” Jar Jar Binks, the CGI sidekick, was derided for his voice and mannerisms. The plot dismissed as too boring and overly political. It wasn’t exactly the triumphant return that all had hoped for, although it blew away the records at the box office, and became the second-highest grossing film of all time after Titanic.
The response from the fans of the original films was brutal, especially on the actors and Lucas. Ahmed Best, the actor behind Jar Jar Binks, noted that he contemplated suicide, while Jake Lloyd noted that the reaction turned his life into a “living hell.” (He’s since left the film industry.) Lucas aired his frustrations in another interview, asking “Why would I make any more, when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?”
These instances prefigured some of the reaction that actors and directors regularly face when dealing with an established franchise. Films like Ghostbusters and the latest Star Wars installments have dealt with pervasive pushback from entitled fans whose own vision for the continuation of the stories they say they love doesn’t line up with that of studios and creatives.
But in the 20 years since The Phantom Menace hit theaters, some fans have changed their mind about the film, while kids who saw it at the same formative age as their Original Trilogy counterparts have sung its accolades. In one notable Twitter thread, art historian Glendon Mellow listed off a ton of details about the trilogy that stand out, pointing out some of the design and sub-textual elements that were often overlooked: Lucas developed a world rife with disenfranchisement, colonialism, and politics that holds up. And in his book, How Star Wars Conquered The Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of A Multibillion Dollar Franchise, Mashable editor Chris Taylor devotes an entire chapter to the rehabilitation of The Phantom Menace and its successors, pointing out the the many arguments the fans of the three films have made, and outlines that fandom’s perceptions of what the films should be don’t necessarily line up with what Lucas was trying to accomplish.
And at the end of the day, I can appreciate what Lucas was trying to do: build out his world in the way that he wanted it, on his own terms. The Phantom Menace and the rest of the prequels films are very different films — by design — than their predecessors. One valid complaint about Disney’s sequel trilogy has been that it relied too much on fan service from the existing films — something Lucas himself had observed. Indeed, the ideas that Lucas proposed for a sequel trilogy are out there — the “were going to get into a microbiotic world.” At the premiere of Revenge of the Sith, Lucas told actor Simon Pegg a revealing bit of advice: “Don’t be making the same film that you made 30 years ago 30 years from now.” The prequel trilogy certainly is that.