The Phantom Menace: Looking back in anger

Most of us probably remember where they were when The Phantom Menace, the long-awaited continuation of the Star Wars saga from George Lucas, hit theaters nationwide.

I was actually in New York, staying around the corner from the Ziegfield Theater, watching the lines go round the block for days. Star Wars mania was all over the news, and some fans initially denounced the critics who said it was a big letdown, but it wasn’t long before reality finally set in that the new Star Wars film didn’t deliver, and the new trilogy never would.

It was probably in 1997 when George Lucas first started becoming the fanboy whipping boy when he made changes to the original trilogy in their theatrical re-release, then a year later the book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls popularized the spin that Lucas and Spielberg ruined movies by creating the modern blockbuster. 

The worse the movies got, the more the geeks revolted, while Lucas just stubbornly dug in his heels, defiantly re-tweaking the movies to his hearts content, and ignoring the non-stop fanboy bitching.

Now Moviefone’s Mike Ryan, who is a big Star Wars nut, compiled a bunch of first reactions to the Phantom Menace from a group of his writing brethren, including Kurt Loder, formerly of MTV News and Rolling Stone, Sean Fennessey, the editor of GQ, Mark Graham, the managing editor of VH1, and more.  

For example, Meredith Woerner of the sci-fi site i09 went with her best friend, who was very underwhelmed, no matter how hard she tried to convince her friend that Star Wars was actually cool. “I had developed Stockholm Syndrome – I’d become a full-fledged Lucas apologist.”

Eric Gillin of Hearst Digital Media Men’s Network said, “Episode I was a soulless piece of corporate shillery passed off as mindless entertainment to sell total crap. It’s an artistic insult to Episode IV, which accidentally produced the metal lunchbox, bedsheets, thermos, coloring books, acting figures, hand puppets, and breakfast cereals I had as a kid.”

Rider Strong, an actor and director, actually saw an advance screening at Skywalker Ranch with Lucas in attendance. “I thought, we must have walked into the wrong theater – this is a parody of a Star Wars film, isn’t it? It was then that we felt the strange, numbing loss of our childhood. And Jar Jar laughed. Then we hard [Lucas] say the chilling words, ‘I don’t think I can let anyone else direct the next two films.’ It was over. There was no going back.”

And indeed, for many geeks, this had to feel like the day we learned Santa Claus didn’t exist. “We went into that theater mere children,” Strong continued. “We emerged men. Aware that we could no longer count on an earlier generation to entertain us. It was up to us to find new filmmakers, and to make better movies ourselves.” 

Also, did we mention Kurt Loder felt that “the brevity” of Jake Lloyd’s career “strongly suggests the existence of a just and vengeful God?”