So, today is the 20th anniversary of the initial theatrical release of The Phantom Menace, and, like a lot of nerds, I find myself reflecting on what the movie means to me, if it’s as bad as we all say, and on and on and on.
I LOVED The Phantom Menace when I first saw it in 1999. I was nine-going-on-ten-years old, and Star Wars had only recently become my life. I still don’t remember exactly what sparked my SW obsession. Honestly, I think I fell in love with Star Tours at Disney before I fell in love with any of the movies. But my little brother loved the original trilogy from a young age, so they were always on at my house. I always liked Return of the Jedi best.
But there was something so… mobilizing about the impending release of The Phantom Menace. I think fourth grade is when I figured out that I was a “nerd,” and I was desperate for an identity. My family had moved every school year from kindergarten through third grade. I’d jumped from home to home, school to school, BFF to BFF, without ever really having time to sit down and breathe and know who I was. By the time I was finally getting to settle down a little bit at Harbins Elementary School, I just knew that I liked books and playing pretend, and that made me a “nerd.”
And nerds like Star Wars.
In the fourth grade, I started holding Jedi training on the playground during recess. I gave out weekly Star Wars trivia quizzes, and would kick someone out of the club for a low score. I had access to a computer and the Internet for the first time, and I used that new found power to learn all I could about Star Wars. About this old, dead thing that I wasn’t really a part of, no matter how much I loved it.
But then there was The Phantom Menace! The cultural phenomenon of Star Wars was back, and I was going to get to be a part of it. I daydreamed about camping out in front of the movie theatre like they did in the good ‘ol days. I was so ready to be in on the ground floor of a new stage of my first tangible fandom, and to earn my first real nerd cred.
My best friend Kayla and I saw the movie shortly after school let out, and then The Phantom Menace was our whole summer. We logged endless hours on the PC game, we pretended to be in Naboo in her swimming pool, I started wearing a little Padawan braid and ponytail combo whenever my Mom would let me get away with it…
I had such fond childhood memories of The Phantom Menace that I couldn’t ever really find it in my heart growing up to hate it. Oh, sure, I said all the right things about what a bad movie it was, but I didn’t really buy it. I probably hadn’t re-watched it since middle school, but how bad could it be, really?
So, in 2012, when The Phantom Menace made its way back to theatres, and in 3D this time, I dragged my best friend Lucas to the Regal Atlantic Station 24, ready to be validated. People were just being cranky old gatekeeping fanboys about it, right? The first Star Wars movie that really felt like mine had to have SOMETHING going for it.
And it does! A little! There’s Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson, and the Duel of the Fates scene, and a kickass John Williams score. But it’s also about a trade dispute, and all the alien characterizations are pretty racist, so, overall… yikes. Yikes, The Phantom Menace.
Still, I can’t stay mad. At the end of the day, The Phantom Menace still equals “new Star Wars,” which equals The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. The Phantom Menace, despite mixed reviews, made tons of money, proving that a thriving, non-1970’s Star Wars market was out there. Star Wars Celebration, which I was privileged enough to attend in London in 2016, started in 1999, because of The Phantom Menace!
When it comes down to it, I feel like I owe a lot to Episode I. Star Wars provided me with an early setting for working through my geeky identity, and I think that The Phantom Menace ultimately really helped me find my place and people in the world. I hope that today’s nerdy, confused, little fourth graders are finding their place with an assist from the current trilogy.
Happy Birthday, The Phantom Menace! You’re almost old enough to drink, which I highly recommend doing before you attempt to watch yourself as an adult.
May the Force Be With You.