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25 Years of 'The Phantom Menace'


Every generation has a legend.


DETROW: Those are the first words that appear over a black screen in a trailer that teased one of the most anticipated movies in Hollywood history.


DETROW: Twenty-five years ago this month, George Lucas gave us "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace." The movie promised to tell the origin story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.


SAMUEL L JACKSON: (As Mace Windu) You refer to the prophecy of the one who will bring balance to the force. You believe it's this boy?

DETROW: It was the first "Star Wars" movie in 16 long years. When it came out, "Return Of The Jedi" felt like ancient history to "Star Wars" fans.

ERICH SCHWARTZEL: There are all these stories about people buying tickets to go see the movie "Meet Joe Black" because "Meet Joe Black" had a "Phantom Menace" trailer on it. So they would go and buy a ticket to "Meet Joe Black," go watch the trailer and then leave the theater. And so all these other movies had these, like, box office bumps, just because people wanted to see "The Phantom Menace" trailer.

DETROW: Journalist Erich Schwartzel is writing a book about "Star Wars," and he can trace the way blockbusters are marketed and promoted today back to the excitement around "The Phantom Menace."

SCHWARTZEL: I remember, like, the Pepsi cans. And I remember the Pizza Hut campaigns. And I remember there being so much around it, the anticipation of it.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: "Star Wars: Episode I" cans. Collect all 24 this summer.

DETROW: In 1999, local news stations across the country treated the movie release like breaking news. They talked to fans in brown robes and braided hair and big plastic helmets, fans who had camped out for days, sometimes even weeks at movie theaters to see the film on opening day.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: The original trilogy was just so phenomenal. People have been awaiting this for like 16 years.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It's going to be of the many wonders of the world. There are now eight wonders of the world, one of them being this movie.

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Are there any of you that think this is going to be a lousy movie?


DETROW: Well, NPR sent two critics to see the film and provide their response. And, no, Tom Shales did not like it.


TOM SHALES: The new "Star Wars" movie, "Episode I: The Phantom Menace," is a menace. It's not about storytelling, and it's not about people. It's about effects and technology. It's a computer movie through and through, by computers and maybe for computers.

DETROW: NPR's Bob Mondello took issue with one of the film's most infamous characters, Jar Jar Binks.


BOB MONDELLO: What could he have been thinking, you say to yourself as he introduces a race of idol-worshipping primitives who speak in Caribbean accents and behave like refugees from "Amos 'n' Andy."

DETROW: The backlash did not stop there. Even some of the hardcore fans complained. People didn't like the idea of a 9-year-old Darth Vader.


JAKE LLOYD: (As Anakin Skywalker) I'm a pilot, you know. And someday I'm going to fly away from this place.

DETROW: They didn't like all of the talk of taxes and trade embargoes.


NATALIE PORTMAN: (As Queen Amidala) You will not be so pleased when you hear what I have to say, Viceroy. Your trade boycott of our planet has ended.

SCHWARTZEL: You start to see just, like, this absolute - this very loud wave of backlash.

DETROW: After 16 years of waiting and hoping, a lot of the fans were not amused.

SCHWARTZEL: There's this pretty loud, angry reaction.

DETROW: For many of those who remember the heady excitement they felt from the original "Star Wars" movie, and the cherished characters developed over the first trilogy, "The Phantom Menace" was, to put it graciously, a disappointment. But with the 25th anniversary upon us, maybe it's time for another look. To commemorate that anniversary, the film is getting a rerelease in theaters. So I thought it was very important for journalistic purposes, of course, to go see it with the biggest "Star Wars" fan I know, NPR senior White House correspondent Tamara Keith. I met her outside of D.C.'s Alamo Drafthouse theater.

Why don't you just tell us what you're wearing, Tam?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: I'm wearing a shirt that says, may the fourth estate be with you and some "Star Wars"-themed earrings maybe.

DETROW: Because you're a reporter and you like "Star Wars"?

KEITH: Indeed.


KEITH: (Laughter) Indeed.

DETROW: Let's start with this. What do you remember about "The Phantom Menace" when it first came out? What did you think about going to see it? What do you remember your first impressions were?

KEITH: I was in college. It was a very big deal. We picked the movie theater because it was the theater in San Francisco that allegedly George Lucas had optimized the speakers in to make his movies most enjoyable. Stood in line outside for a very long time to see this movie, and I did not like it.

DETROW: So now I'm kind of, like, I feel on the fence about it. But at the time, like, I remember walking into the theater. I remember the excitement of seeing the crawl. And I remember leaving feeling like that was a good movie. I remember it was mostly positive. And it was only after the fact, years later, that the haterade kind of came into my head on this.

We settled into our seats, ordered a whole lot of popcorn and re-entered a galaxy far, far away. And as much as we both like "Star Wars," we both tensed up and cringed when Jar Jar came on the screen.

KEITH: It's the meesa (ph) that just kills me. I just can't do it. I just can't abide.

DETROW: I feel like this is the top thing that I want to know, like, was anyone telling George Lucas anything was a bad idea in this movie?

There was a little bit of redemption.

We've been hating on this movie here and there, but I feel like the best part of this movie just started. And that is the music and this fight scene between Darth Maul and Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon.

KEITH: And the double-sided lightsaber, which is just like mind-blowing.

DETROW: As Tam and I left the theater, I asked her if she saw anything differently this time around.

KEITH: I mean, it was everything I remembered. I remember being excited for the exciting parts and absolutely appalled at some of the other parts. And that continued.

DETROW: After the movie, I piloted my pod racer back to the NPR newsroom and called up Erich Schwartzel to talk more about the legacy of "The Phantom Menace." Schwartzel covers the film industry for The Wall Street Journal, and he's writing a book on the cultural juggernaut of the "Star Wars" franchise called "Empire."

Do you remember what your initial thoughts were about "The Phantom Menace" when it came out in 1999? Do you remember going to see it in theaters? Did it register for you in that moment?

SCHWARTZEL: You know, what I remember and what's so interesting to look at now is I remember just a lot of the noise around it. I remember it was - it's really like looking back, I think, the first example that I have and maybe that the film industry has of, like, the movie almost being beside the point because there was so much anticipation with every trailer drop. I mean, I think one thing that I've been trying to do is put myself in the mindset of a fan, you know, let's say like a 28-year-old fan the year that this is coming out. Like, the anticipation must have been absolutely, almost like crippling to fans who had waited so long for a new "Star Wars" story. Like, I remember - I just read this story about a guy who was trying to get a licensing deal at Lucasfilm, and so he grew out a beard so that he could dress as a Jedi to the pitch meeting.

DETROW: Did it work?

SCHWARTZEL: I think it did, yeah. He got it. Yeah.

DETROW: So I think we'll get to the response and the backlash in a moment, but I think that certainly set that up because the expectations were so sky high. And then the movie comes in, and it's just so wildly different than the original "Star Wars" movies. But let's tap into your reporting here. What can you tell us about what George Lucas's goal was when he set out in the mid-'90s to write and direct "The Phantom Menace," and basically do it all himself?

SCHWARTZEL: Well, George had been saying for years, really since the start, that this was going to be a much bigger project than just three movies released in the 1970s and the 1980s, but that there were stories he wanted to tell and ways he wanted to tell them that just were not available to him yet. And so, really, one of the real pivot points in his career and in movie history, really, was whenever he saw "Jurassic Park" for the first time because "Jurassic Park" and the special effects used really convinced him that the technology had caught up to his vision. And so when he started work on the prequels, he knew that the technology was there to really populate the world with the creatures and the planets that he wanted to populate it with.

DETROW: How would you characterize the initial wave of response and how that response changed over time? Because I feel like performatively hating on "The Phantom Menace" is such a big part of "Star Wars" fandom at this point.

SCHWARTZEL: It is. Yeah. It's become a bit of a punchline, although I do think that's changing a little bit and I'll explain why. But I do think that there is this arc that you can see. And there's this real dramatic irony because there's - these are like men and women in their mid-to-late 20s who were "Star Wars" kids who are now excited about the prequel. And you're reading these stories, and there's this, like - now I read them in 2024 with this sort of mounting sense of dread because, like, you know what's going to happen. And you hear these people talk about this being the greatest day of their life. And then the first indication that there were some problems, you know, started whenever the critics started to take a look. And the critics were actually, I think, even tougher, maybe, than some of the fans were, really just saying this is a very weird film. It's very dry. It's very boring. The acting is, like, you know, this side of public access, and really just start - just knocking it down.

And that's when the record scratch starts to happen. And there's all these interviews, like, of man-on-the-street interviews, like, outside the theater. Like, what did you think? And there's all these people just, like, they sound, like, more, like, confused. And, like, they're trying to figure out what's happened to them over the last 2 1/2 hours. And they're trying to sort of talk themselves into liking it or explaining it. And then you start to see just, like, this absolute - this very loud wave of backlash. And now I think we've come to understand that maybe that might have been - I wouldn't say like a vocal minority, but, like, an outsized voice in the reaction.

DETROW: And this is the perfect place to talk about Jar Jar Binks, who became, like, the avatar of all of the feelings about this movie.


AHMED BEST: (As Jar Jar Binks) I mind warning you. Gungans no liking outsiders, so don't expect a warm welcome.

SCHWARTZEL: Yeah. It was a huge part of the conversation pretty immediately, actually, with a lot of critics saying that Jar Jar's behavior and speech patterns, like, really called to mind, like, a history of, like, Hollywood's dark history with minstrelsy and with these, like, racial stereotypes. And Lucasfilm would always - you know, Lucasfilm doesn't really engage too much with fan reaction traditionally, but that was one thing they would always come out and deny was any kind of, like, racial motivation in the character. But it was one - it was something that really, it seems like, took hold.

DETROW: So here we are in 2024. We are living in this world of endless "Star Wars" content and merchandise and theme parks. And I don't know how many movies and shows have been produced since then. How much credit do you think "The Phantom Menace" deserves for this world of "Star Wars" as this multi-generational juggernaut?

SCHWARTZEL: I've come to really appreciate its role in building "Star Wars" into this kind of multi-generational juggernaut. One thing I would say is, as you said, like, we have this kind of firehose. After fans had to wait 20, 25 years for a new "Star Wars" story, we now have, like, more than you could almost possibly keep up with since Disney bought Lucasfilm 12 years ago. But what's interesting to me is that I think even when Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, there still was this kind of stink on the prequels. As I said, it was sort of seen as this punch line or this evidence that maybe George Lucas had lost his touch.

But what you have seen since then, if you look at a lot of the TV shows that Disney is producing, a lot of them lean very heavily on the era of storytelling that the prequels explore and even the characters that they explore, right? They bring back a young Obi-Wan Kenobi. Hayden Christensen, who, you know, maybe was second to Jar Jar in the beating he took from fans over the prequel, he's now popping up in streaming shows time and again. And, in fact, when I was at - I was at a different fan convention last year in London. And the longest line for autographs by far was for Hayden Christensen.

And so I think, like, since then, we do have to acknowledge that, like, that era and those characters is actually what's kind of sustaining "Star Wars" at a time when fans aren't getting new movies or new, like, breakaway storylines. In some ways, I think it did define "Star Wars" fandom because it allowed fans to find one another and, you know, find common cause, whether it was in anticipation or outright criticism of it. I think it's become absolutely this, like, undeniable pivot for the franchise. And even though it wasn't the experience that so many fans wanted it to be, even the fact that it was as controversial as it was, I think, has contributed to "Star Wars" taking on this massive presence in our culture. Because if anything, it's allowed fans to debate something. It's allowed them to rank. It's allowed them to criticize. It's allowed them to engage with "Star Wars" in this almost kind of, like, scriptural way, right? It's like something you can argue with and you can volley back-and-forth over.

DETROW: Erich Schwartzel covers the film industry for The Wall Street Journal, and right now he's working on a book about "Star Wars" called "Empire." Though I cannot let this interview end without saying that a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Erich and I were rival bloggers covering the Pennsylvania fracking industry.

SCHWARTZEL: Journalism - it'll take you to crazy places.

DETROW: Thanks so much, Erich. And when you're done with the book, come back and we'll talk about it.

SCHWARTZEL: Absolutely. Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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