Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

1999’s most anticipated film was a childhood-ruining debacle

A bunch of people at the New York City premiere of The Phantom Menace who had no idea their lives were about to be ruined.
Photo: Ron Galella, Ltd./Ron Galella Collection/Getty Images
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Star Wars: Episode I-The Phantom Menace

What it’s about: A story as old as time. An enslaved 9-year-old drag-racing robotics expert falls in love with an 18-year-old democratically elected queen and is adopted by magical space samurai with the help of his best friend, a klutzy pidgin-speaking alien frogman. And then there are trade disputes. Oh, the trade disputes. Yes, George Lucas once again tapped into universal myths to revive Star Wars, and the result was one of the most anticipated films in history, at least until the hype was suddenly silenced by a million fanboys, crying about their ruined childhoods.

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Biggest controversy: About that alien frogman. On paper, Jar Jar Binks might seem like a groundbreaking character. But Obie Award-winner Ahmed Best, cast for the athleticism he showed in Stomp, played Jar Jar as a squeaky-voiced clumsy goofball whose comic relief grated against Liam Neeson’s leaden gravitas.

Furthermore, some critics thought that, between Jar Jar’s broken English, vaguely Rastafarian appearance, and general buffoonery, that he was a racist caricature in the ugly tradition of Stepin Fetchit. In a vacuum, the charge is debatable. But when placed side by side with the vaguely Asian-accented Neimoidians—untrustworthy traders who brought to mind Yellow Peril stereotypes—and Watto, a greedy raspy-voiced, hook-nosed merchant who couldn’t be less subtle if he shouted, “Oy vey!” after every line, it was hard not to draw the conclusion that Lucas lifted the worst elements of his beloved 1930s serials. In his own defense, Wikipedia paraphrases Lucas as saying, essentially, that the people complaining about these stereotypes are the real racists, the tried-and-true attempted defense of racists everywhere, so make of that what you will.

Strangest fact: For a movie that seemingly puts too little thought into dialogue, acting, and story, loads of thought was put into every other aspect of the film. Industrial Light & Magic art director Doug Chiang spent two years reviewing thousands of set and character designs. Production designer Gavin Bocquet created actual construction blueprints based on Chiang’s designs, so the buildings would look realistic. Creature designer Terryl Whitlatch designed entire food chains of alien creatures, most of which never appeared onscreen. She also designed skeletons for many of the creatures, and facial muscles for Jar Jar for the animators to use as a reference. Stunt coordinator Nick Gillard combined multiple sword-fighting styles to create a new style specific to the Jedi. Costume designer Trisha Biggar created more than 1,000 different costumes inspired by cultures all over the world. All in service of dialogue like “Mom, you said that the biggest problem in the universe is no one helps each other,” and, “Even Master Yoda doesn’t have a midi-chlorian count that high!”

Thing we were happiest to learn: Bad as this movie was, it’s also an undeniable landmark of moviemaking. The justifiable criticisms leveled at George Lucas’ screenwriting and direction make him seem to many like a hack who had one good idea. (Two, as he wrote the stories for his friend Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series.) But in fact, he may be the most important single figure in the history of cinema. Apart from being a massive blockbuster, the original Star Wars also advanced the craft of special effects by decades. The moment the Star Destroyer flew past in the opening moments of the film, every previous sci-fi movie not directed by Stanley Kubrick suddenly looked like garbage.

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George Lucas’ company Industrial Light & Magic did everything from make the T-1000 melt and re-form to having Forrest Gump shake hands with JFK to letting Roger Rabbit interact with his human co-stars. THX, the audio standard used by movies, computers, and game consoles? Lucas founded the company. Pixar, the studio that both invented and perfected computer-animated films? Lucas founded the company.

Virtually every advancement in the technology of filmmaking in the last 40 years has George Lucas’ fingerprints on it, and no movie had a bigger effect in that regard than Phantom Menace. While the CGI looks dated 20 years on, the movie pioneered CGI characters and sets, and motion-capture technology, things one can scarcely imagine not seeing in a big-budget film in 2019.

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Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Anakin Skywalker wasn’t the career-making role it probably seemed like at the time for poor Jake Lloyd. The then-10-year-old actor was already a veteran, with roles in Apollo 11, Jingle All The Way, and a guest appearance on ER. Phantom Menace was an absurdly high-profile role which must have seemed like a career-making part. But being a child didn’t protect Lloyd from the fan backlash to Episode I, and he retired from acting at age 12. Having spent his adult life as “that kid from the bad Star Wars” took a toll—he was arrested in 2015 after a high-speed chase, and Mark Hamill had to scold Star Wars fans for treating Lloyd so poorly.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: In 1994, Eon Productions revived the James Bond series after releasing 1989’s License To Kill, only to find their traditional home, Pinewood Studios, was booked solid. In its search for an alternate shooting site, Eon stumbled onto the Leavesden Aerodrome, a WWII-era aircraft factory whose hangars made ideal soundstages. Leavesden Studios were born, and most of Phantom Menace that wasn’t filmed in the Tunisian desert was filmed there. The studio also produced Sleepy Hollow and Sweeney Todd for Tim Burton, Inception and The Dark Knight for Christopher Nolan, Wonder Woman and its upcoming sequel for DC, and Spider-Man: Far From Home for Marvel.

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Most notably, all 10 Harry Potter films were filmed at Leavesden, and when Deathly HallowsPart 2 wrapped, a section of the studio was turned into a permanent Harry Potter studio tour, where fans can see hundreds of props and costumes from the film and actually walk around Dumbledore’s office or Hogwarts’ Great Hall.

Further down the Wormhole: While George Lucas didn’t direct a movie between the original Star Wars and Phantom Menace, he did produce several films under his Lucasfilm banner in the interim, including the two Indiana Jones sequels, fantasy adventure Willow, and an even more notorious flop than Menace, Howard The Duck. Howard somehow turned a political comic about a wisecracking duck into a debacle of a movie about a ducklike alien who lands in L.A., manages a band, and tries to have very awkward interspecies sex with Lea Thompson. The special-effects heavy film was, at the time, one of the most expensive bombs ever made. It swept that year’s Golden Raspberry nominations, but ultimately tied for Worst Picture with Prince’s Under The Cherry Moon. (For the record, Phantom Menace was beaten by Wild Wild West in 1999.) A fellow Worst Picture winner, and even more expensive flop, was Kevin Costner’s epic fiasco The Postman. That film includes a litany of baffling writing and directorial choices, including setting the film—in which society has collapsed to the point where most people don’t know who Shakespeare was—only 16 years after the film’s 1997 release. We’ll look at other stories set in a future now past in Wiki Wormhole’s 300th installment, next week.

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About the author

Mike Vago

Author of five books, including Selfdestructible, his first novel. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.