Star Wars: The Movie Event Twice in a Generation

When it comes to movie history, how do The Phantom Menace and The Force Awakens stack up against each other?

This past weekend saw a deluge of new films hit the multiplex with much fanfare. For the younger family set, there was the first cell phone game to get the big screen treatment in Angry Birds (though according to our critic, it went the way of all other video game movies). Then there was also the hilarious Nice Guys and amusing Neighbors 2 for adults. With so many options, it was clear that this weekend has become the interval for “counter-programming” between the first weekend of May’s juggernaut release and then the following one that drops on Memorial Day (this year that means Captain America: Civil War and X-Men: Apocalypse, respectively).

However, that wasn’t always the case for the third weekend in May. In fact, not that long ago, it held what was considered the movie event of a generation. You know, a film set in a galaxy far, far away, and with a story that marked a return to George Lucas’ world after a long, long time. I am of course talking about Star Wars and how it enjoyed one of the biggest opening weekends of all time… in 1999.

Indeed, before there were generations of hype and expectations in 2015, there was Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (a title that was almost as longwinded as its exposition). And much like The Force Awakens, it marked a new age of blockbuster cinema that drove in families on the promise of nostalgic John Williams-scored enrapture. And yet, how these movies were both greeted and treated in geek culture offers a mirror for each other, even if one is still currently beloved and the other’s name is essentially mud—at least as far as the internet is concerned.

During the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Blu-ray last month, Disney’s home marketing department helpfully reminded viewers that they were watching cinematic history since they christened The Force Awakens to be “the movie event of a generation.” And admittedly, The Force Awakens decisively took the record for the highest opening weekend of all time by earning $247.97 million in three days, supplanting the ancient previous record holder of… that past June’s Jurassic World, which earned $208.81 million in its opening. But The Force Awakens also accumulated far better legs becoming the highest grossing film worldwide ever… after James Cameron’s Avatar and Titanic, both of which are in our current generation’s memory for anyone over the age of 24.

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But gently ribbing marketing and fanboy hype aside, The Force Awakens is a monumental achievement and a far, far better movie than Avatar, Jurassic World, and that last Star Wars movie event of a generation, The Phantom Menace. But it is how those two Jedi movies’ legacies reflect one another that might hint at The Force Awakens’ true destiny going forward.

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Like the instant 2015 classic, The Phantom Menace was the most hyped movie of its decade. In 1999, it was inescapable to know that Star Wars was back in theaters after 16 long years following Return of the Jedi. There were video games, comic books, novelizations, action figures, and a rather infamous fast food cross-promotion deal between Lucasfilm and Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC, which ended in so much red for corporate partners that Attack of the Clones’ tie-in push was noticeably muted by comparison.

However, most of all, there was a joy at seeing this far away galaxy that featured beloved characters like Obi-Wan Kenobi reimagined as a young, full-blooded Ewan McGregor, and Yoda, decidedly still a puppet but ever so lovable. The film also attempted to introduce a young Anakin Skywalker (aka Darth Vader) in Jake Lloyd… but the less said about that the better.

Overall, the film sought to broaden the expansiveness of the Star Wars universe by going backwards. Showing us worlds we’ve never seen, we glimpsed Coruscant—a giant city that engulfs a whole planet only hinted at before in “Expanded Universe” novels (and a brief scene in the Return of the Jedi Special Edition) as well as Naboo, a location that suspiciously looks like Lake Como in Northern Italy, only now planet-sized (hey, we wouldn’t complain about vacationing there!).

There were also new set-pieces; if Hollywood’s imagery of debauched Rome was glimpsed in Jabba the Hutt’s Caligula-esque palace in Return of the Jedi, then George Lucas would reappropriate the iconic chariot race scene from Ben-Hur into a Pod Race sequence (much as Lucas lifted direct shots and pacing from World War II dogfight movies like The Dam Busters for his original Star Wars in 1977). Yet, other than that Pod Race—as well as the shockingly badass Darth Maul and his double-bladed lightsaber, whose demonic visage caused Williams to write the inspired “Duel of Fates” theme—none of this “newness” or world-building worked out particularly well for The Phantom Menace.

Rather than a simple (and familiar) story about a boy hero, a princess, and a roguish scoundrel, Lucas attempted to also build political intrigue in the Star Wars universe via exceedingly dry and baffling discussions about tariffs and trade disputes. While an important message that even the most listless political theatre can insidiously hold the fate of billions of lives in its hands when you’re not paying attention, George R.R. Martin, Lucas is not. And creating high stakes drama around power-brokering in his fantasy world landed with about as much of a thud as Darth Maul’s bisected corpse billowing down a garbage chute.

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Ultimately, much of the “new stuff” that The Phantom Menace introduced, from midichlorians to (sigh) Jar Jar Binks and the Gungans, never took off like the simplistically divine “Force” metaphor in Lucas’ earliest Star Wars stories, or the walking shaggy dog he named Chewbacca.

By contrast, The Force Awakens risked far less in traveling through undiscovered country by remixing the overall plot from 1977’s Star Wars, the sense of open-endedness and shocking “twists” from Empire Strikes Back, and a primordial melodrama about the relationships between fathers and sons found in Return of the Jedi. Yet the final concoction, blended from very familiar ingredients, went down smooth and, unlike The Phantom Menace, introduced a real new generation of beloved characters to audiences thanks to Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn, and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron. Unlike Natalie Portman, who at only 16-years-old was buried under pounds of geisha makeup and leaden dialogue, these were performers gifted with instantly lovable characters, which they took and ran with.

Still, the effect these two films had on the culture is actually an unbroken, if entwined, line of franchising potential. The Phantom Menace enjoyed the second biggest opening weekend of all time—it couldn’t quite surpass Steven Spielberg’s The Lost World: Jurassic Park from two years earlier (with the now amusingly quaint opening weekend total of $72.1 million)—and it was a phenomenon that millions convinced themselves was amazing at the turn of the century. I know this because I was 12-years-old and played the Pod Racing video game on Nintendo 64, talked about how cool Darth Maul was with friends, and helped contribute to that hype machine, which in many ways has never stopped.

For, in the end, The Phantom Menace’s real legacy is that more than the first Star Wars—and more than Jaws, Raiders, E.T., Batman, or Jurassic ParkEpisode I set the stage for modern blockbuster franchising in the 21st century. While the superhero craze was still at least a year off from Bryan Singer’s X-Men and further still from the post-9/11 zeitgeist-grabbing Spider-Man debut in 2002, both future caped franchisees owe something to what is now the most reviled Star Wars movie of all time. Few would admit the emperor had no clothes in 1999, but that is because the emperor was not only rich, he also lay the groundwork for the wealth that came afterward for all the other branded-lords in the Tinsletown’s kingdoms.

Nostalgia for a multigenerational brand, one that parents pass onto their children like the love of so many comic book characters, has proven to be everlasting. When The Phantom Menace dropped in ’99, the 15-plus year wait for a Star Wars movie drove record profits for Lucas and the distributing 20th Century Fox. And unlike Titanic, it was something that could have endless sequels. Hence why even the competition of that summer unapologetically namedropped Star Wars as the undisputed multiplex king, as seen in trailers for movies as diverse as New Line’s Austin Powers and Universal’s American Pie movies.

Now, decades-old brands with their built-in audiences, no matter how ponderous like J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings tomes, or how infantile like Transformers, Power Rangers, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, are getting remade or rebooted ad infinitum. That includes something as sacred as Star Wars too. Despite Lucas going back to the beginning to offer his Star Wars saga a (second) final end, which started with The Phantom Menace and concluded with Revenge of the Sith in 2005, he nevertheless saw the appeal in selling the enticing brand for the tune of $4 billion to Disney.

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Thus now, the legacy of the Disney era for Star Wars has just begun, and the first chapter written by The Force Awakens is a far more enjoyable one than any verse in Lucas’ own “Prequel Trilogy.” But this is not a movie event of a generation; it’s an assembly line that has simply turned out its first model.

Consider that it is hard to remember the fondness and goodwill generated by Iron Man in 2008, which critics and audiences treated like a novelty at the time, in the wake of 13 more Marvel Studios superhero movies over the past eight years. It might prove equally as hard to recall this 2015 “event” after a decade of annual Star Wars movies.

There is still a “trilogy” punctuated every other year by standalone movies, but the blurring effect is inevitable. And just as they can’t all be Iron Man (some at least might even be Iron Man 2 or Thor: The Dark World), they can’t all be The Force Awakens either… much less the the legendary, self-contained trilogy from a bygone age 30-plus years ago when stories were allowed to end (and adults did not exclusively seek the repackaged icons of their youth).

In that way, much as The Phantom Menace heralded a new era for blockbusters and general moviegoing, so too does it seem The Force Awakens has moved the proverbial needle. Hence, both movies might really be the singular, uninterrupted movie event of our generation, one whose effect hasn’t ended since 1999—and it probably never will.