Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

The 20th century ended with the creative whimper and box-office bang of The Phantom Menace

Screenshot: Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace
Gif: Jimmy Hasse

The Popcorn Champs

The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?

People applauded a logo. I’d never seen that before. When the word “Lucasfilm” shimmered across the screen, my entire opening-weekend theater lost it. I might’ve applauded, too. The moment demanded a certain level of hysteria. We were here. It was happening. This day seemed like it would never arrive, but now there was a new Star Wars movie, and we were about to bear witness. Sure, some people had already seen it, and not all of them were ecstatic about what they’d just seen. But we believed. It was Star Wars, after all.

Some of us in that packed theater weren’t alive to see the first Star Wars when it was new. But we’d built entire childhood cosmologies around the original movies—playing with the action figures, sleeping on the bedsheets, carrying the lunchboxes to school everyday, mainlining the VHS tapes of the first trilogy. For years, there had been idle speculation about what might’ve happened if George Lucas had made good on his plans to make more Star Wars movies. In 1997, for the 20th anniversary of the first film, Lucas had released all three Star Wars movies into theaters, with added scenes and CGI effects. They’d all been big hits—less for the new stuff, more because so many of us wanted to see these movies in the theater for the first time.

But now George Lucas had made a whole new movie. It was the first in a planned prequel trilogy, and it was supposedly going to tell Darth Vader’s whole story. So it was going to be dark! And it would have better special effects! And now Lucas could pretty much cast whoever he wanted! And he was coming back to directing for the first time in 22 years! Anticipation was ridiculous. People had spent days lining up. Scalpers were buying tickets in bulk and then selling them for wild prices. British people were buying plane tickets so that they wouldn’t have to wait a couple of months for the U.K. release.

When the movie finally ended and the lights went up, a lot of us had to have halting, uncomfortable conversations. Did that movie… suck? Did we get too hyped up? Were there deeper storytelling currents at work? Should we see it again? Maybe it’ll get better the second time.

1999 is generally considered one of the all-time great moviegoing years—the time of The Matrix and Fight Club and Being John Malkovich and Magnolia and The Sixth Sense and Election and Three Kings and Eyes Wide Shut and Run Lola Run and Boys Don’t Cry and Rushmore and Office Spacemany of which were actual hits. On any given weekend, you could walk into your local multiplex and have your mind blown. The world seemed like it might end at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, and a whole lot of directors put a whole lot of energy and ingenuity into movies that seemed to channel whatever anxiety was floating in the air. Thanks to online buzz, an entirely new phenomenon, a zero-budget micro-indie horror flick like The Blair Witch Project, could rise to blockbuster status. Last year, journalist Brian Raftery published a wildly entertaining book that made the case that 1999 was the best movie year ever.

But in this great movie year, the film that lorded over all others, the one that dominated the box office and came close to shattering records, was one that seemed genuinely, perplexingly terrible. Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace was just as much an auteurist vision as any of the other movies named above. It was clearly the picture that George Lucas wanted to make, one that was utterly unencumbered by studio skepticism or budgetary restraint. Somehow, it came across as a shrill, pandering spectacle and as a convoluted, impenetrable mess. It was the worst of all possible worlds, which did not prevent it from utterly obliterating all its box-office competition, earning nearly twice as much as its closest competition.

The complaints about The Phantom Menace are legion, and they’ve all been so thoroughly discussed that they scarcely demand mention. There’s the strange fixation on parliamentary procedure and economic manipulation; this is a space opera with the phrase “taxation of trade routes” in the second sentence of its opening crawl. There’s the indefensible and baffling use of minstrel-era racial stereotypes. There’s the chilly remoteness of the cast, the wooden expository dialogue, the reliance on rancidly unfunny comic relief. It’s a debacle.

What really got me, right away, was the total lack of eye contact. George Lucas wasn’t the first director to go in on CGI effects, but most of the big movies that had gone there before The Phantom MenaceTerminator 2, Jurassic Park, Independence Day, Titanic—had used some combination of computer-generated stuff and old-school effects wizardry. A lot of what we were seeing was still animatronic puppetry, or miniatures, or stuntmen in rubber masks. That had lent the films some tactile sense of realness—some hint that these stories were happening in our world. The Matrix, which came out a month and a half before The Phantom Menace, figured out that CGI could help craft a sort of dreamlike unreality. But Lucas tried to build a whole damn universe out of pixels, and he tried doing it when those effects weren’t yet up to the task. Instead, we get smooth, lockstep droid armies and gurgling monsters that never, even in 1999, came close to looking real—pure video-game cut-scene material.

In the opening moments of The Phantom Menace, when Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn first meet Jar Jar Binks—quite possibly the first fully realized CGI character in movie history—the characters seem to exist on different planes of reality. It’s not just that Jar Jar’s scraping, servile buffoonery is a constant irritant, though that doesn’t help anything. It’s that Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor are both clearly looking at empty nothingness and attempting to react to it. This isn’t like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, where the toons and actors find clever ways to physically interact with each other. Instead, it feels like some kind of tech demonstration, a proof-of-concept reel, a rough draft.

By now, any actor has to be used to the idea that big-movie roles will involve staring at motion-capture tennis balls, attempting to convey the impression that something real is happening. The Phantom Menace arrived early to this party, and its actors don’t seem to have much interest in selling its scenarios. Liam Neeson, a figure of immense gravitas, is barely present; you can almost pinpoint the exact moment where he dissociates. Ewan McGregor smirks and pouts, as if this is all a big joke. Ahmed Best, who had never starred in a movie before taking the role of Jar Jar, practically does a vaudeville routine, as if this is the only way his blubbering jester will hold an audience’s attention. Terence Stamp, so impressive in Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey that same year, openly detested the pantomime that the effects required.

The tonality of The Phantom Menace is all over the map. Lucas has clearly mapped out every intricate detail of his world, and all that effort is there on screen. Lucas isn’t content to just lay out a mythic tale of an oppressed slave kid harnessing his innate superpowers. He’s also got points to make about governmental oversight and regulatory stagnation and the scientific principles behind his mystic, fantastical space religion. But he clearly doesn’t trust his audience to go on that ride with him; that’s why he loads the movie up with clanging, insulting CGI slapstick bits. And while Lucas might not have intended the straight-up racism in those comical characters, he really should’ve had someone around him who was capable of telling him no, that’s gross, don’t do that. Also, apparently Lucas’ galaxy isn’t as infinite as we once thought. The same damn characters keep popping up all over the place, for reasons that make zero narrative sense.

And then there are the kids. As Queen Amidala, young Natalie Portman, coming off of Léon: The Professional and Heat and Beautiful Girls, is stiff and unnatural, and she rarely comes off as an actual character. But she has a much easier time than poor little Jake Lloyd, the floppy-haired moppet given the impossible task of playing baby Anakin Skywalker. Lloyd is cute, but he never really seems like an actor. He delivers his lines as if someone is whispering them to him off-camera. He never holds the screen, never comes alive. That same year, Haley Joel Osment—another soulful-eyed cherub, and one who was only a year older than Lloyd—put in a terrifically intense Oscar-nominated performance in The Sixth Sense, 1999’s second-biggest hit. But Osment had a director who actually cared about getting a good performance out of him. Lloyd never had that luxury.

Lucas never exactly knew how to write dialogue, and his lines in The Phantom Menace are utter pablum. (Anakin, during a tense scene: “This is tense!”) By most counts, he also had precious little interest in his cast when he was directing The Phantom Menace; he was more concerned about pulling off his technical feats. Those tendencies, combined with the inexperience of the young actors and the hyperreal polygonal sheen of the still-primitive effects, makes for a total disaster, and it had serious effects on the lives of some of the film’s actors. Portman has said that she had trouble finding work after The Phantom Menace. Ahmed Best contemplated suicide. Jake Lloyd, bullied and traumatized, retired from acting at 12.

But amidst all those catastrophic failures, The Phantom Menace has its triumphs. Many of the settings, like the underwater Gungan city or the vast Senate sphere, are cool and imaginative. The pod-race sequence is a fun, kinetic piece of filmmaking. Darth Maul may be the greatest secondary villain in franchise history: a silent, glowering kung-fu demon with a sick-ass weapon. Where the Star Wars lightsaber fights had once been relatively perfunctory, The Phantom Menace turns them into euphoric, acrobatic martial-arts throwdowns.

For all its glaring, fatal problems, The Phantom Menace still carries the promise of something good—a promise that later franchise entries would not pay off. It was enough. Certainly, there are plenty of people who love The Phantom Menace. But there are also jerks like me—people who hated the movie but who kept going back for the rest of the prequel trilogy because we thought maybe it would get good. And even if it never did, we’d have something to sit around and complain about with our friends. It didn’t matter that we didn’t like the films. George Lucas still got our money.

That may help explain why The Phantom Menace was able to outgross every other movie in a great movie year. Films like The Sixth Sense or The Matrix could come along with some great scenes and some fresh ideas, and they could be word-of-mouth smashes that continued to rake in money even after their big opening weekends, but those movies simply didn’t have the name recognition that a new Star Wars did. You could miss those movies and still feel like you were meaningfully interacting with the world. But a new Star Wars? You had to see that. Franchise filmmaking existed long before the first Star Wars in 1977, but the overwhelming success of The Phantom Menace may have kicked it into hyperdrive. After all, if people felt like they had to see your movie, then it wouldn’t even matter if the movie was good.

The runner-up: It’s hard to pick a favorite among the hits of 1999. The Sixth Sense and The Matrix were genuinely electric moviegoing experiences that felt almost revolutionary. The Blair Witch Project is only barely watchable today, but it made for a hell of a fun cultural phenomenon. But I’m going with Toy Story 2, a franchise film that honored its audience and its characters, building on their story rather than just bringing them back for more.

Toy Story 2 is some kind of miracle—a truly fun and funny and moving film that builds out the universe of its predecessor, introduces new characters and motivations and ethical dilemmas, and moves its world forward in time without drastically reshaping it. Disney initially meant Toy Story 2 to be a straight-to-video sequel. Instead, the company wound up with a total triumph that also became the No. 3 hit of the year.

Next time: The world sanctions Jim Carrey’s buffoonery, especially around the holidays, and especially when a whole lot of ass-ugly prosthetics are involved. I am so, so sorry to report that we will be discussing How The Grinch Stole Christmas.