90s Movie Challenge Week 18: Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

It’s 90s time again! In a week that we celebrate all things Star Wars, KJ McDougall recalls, just as we were about to usher in a new year, decade, century and indeed millennium (Falcon… Hoho, Ed.), seeing the first new Star Wars film for over a decade… love it or hate it, you can’t deny the massive cultural impact of 1999’s The Phantom Menace…

A Long Time Ago….

On any given day in 1986 you could find me, my blankie tucked in the back of my shirt, a cardboard lightsaber in my hand, stomping up and down the halls looking for “rebel scum” until my mom would force me down for nap time.

My Lightsaber
(Vader's "cape")
Vader’s “cape”

I could work the VCR before I could read and had three tapes that I would watch endlessly. Three little bootlegs, copied from Blockbuster, their labels written neatly in black ink on bits masking tape: Star Wars (it hadn’t been changed to A New Hope yet), Return of The Jedi, and From Star Wars to Jedi: The Making of a Saga. While I had seen it several times, I wouldn’t get a copy of Empire until my folks upgraded from Beta to VHS some years later.  And if someone else was watching TV, I had my Star Wars Read Along Cassettes (also oddly missing Empire) that would tell you to “Turn the page when R2-D2 beeps like this…beep boo beep boop – per-plow!” Or a great pile of action figures to enact my own adventures.

At six years old I got into a rather loud argument with a kid in Sunday school who insisted a donated toy was from Star Trek not Star Wars – the mouthy little $#!t.  It was a f$%&ing snow speeder, Brian! I haven’t forgotten, and lord help you if we ever meet again!

I never grew out of it either. I’m 38 and still read all the books and comics, I still wear star wars PJs, and even collect toys now and again.  

By the time I was a teenager I was an avid reader of the Star Wars Insider magazine. I had been following the development of the prequels over the years. It had long been the dream of Star Wars fans that Lucas would finally go back and finish his rumored nine movie saga. Something that he had seemed hesitant to attempt, and few of us ever believed he would really do. When it was officially announced that it was actually going ahead, I nearly screamed in excitement. 

The Return of Some Jedi 

I was in high school when The Phantom Menace finally came out. Watching the trailer for the first time is still so vivid in my mind. Williams’ score, the opening of mist as alien creatures just barely come into view, gorgeous long shots of exotic locals, intricate costumes, and more lightsabers than you can shake a gaffi stick at! It is a work of art unto itself and pushed my excitement into the stratosphere. I went full geek. I bought toys, clothes, stickers (which still adorn some of my music equipment) without even seeing the film. Star Wars was back baby! New stories, new worlds, new Jedi’s – all on the big screen. It was time to celebrate. 

I wasn’t able to get tickets for opening night. Or even opening weekend. My friends were coming back and, while not giving me spoilers, their muted reactions were telling. No one really wanted to go see it a second time. I wasn’t worried though – none of them loved Star Wars the way I loved Star Wars

Finally the following week, my friend Josh and I went to see it. I kind of have to laugh now as my experience was very conflicted. There were parts I genuinely loved (and still do) and parts I… didn’t. But I wasn’t ready to not like Star Wars. I remember sitting in the theater telling myself – “no, no this is fine. It’s fun. It’s cool.” Just flat out lying to myself at points. 

When the house lights came back on the theater emptied kind of quietly. Josh and I went out the back door. “Man…” Josh said. “That was….” he stopped either searching for the right word or just pausing for effect. I was ready to admit defeat, admit that there was Star Wars that didn’t live up to expectations. 

“..Awesome!” Josh shouted. 

“Uh, yeah.” I stammered. “That was badass.”

The more we talked about the parts we liked, and neglected to talk about all the things that the fandom and the critics would take a part and bitch about ad nauseam for years to come, the more I felt good about the experience.  

“You want to go buy lightsabers?” Josh asked.

“Definitely,” I said. 

The Duel of Mates

We went to the toy section of Wal-Mart and picked up a lightsaber each. Mine was Qui-gon Jin’s. Back at my house we put batteries in them and played outside in the warm summer night. A great lightsaber battle ensued and neither of us held back. 

Suddenly, we were five years old again playing Star Wars. The street where we played baseball or hockey and yelled “Car” when some driver interrupted our game became Naboo.  Those pesky cars were no longer interruptions to a game. Transformed by our imaginations they became force fields momentarily slowing the fight. Every time one came by I would adopt a serene pose of Jedi meditation on one side of the street; while Josh would impatiently pace back and forth and snarl like Darth Maul on the other.  And as soon as it passed we rushed back into the street, lightsabers clashing. 

Sure, Jar-Jar sucked. The script was wooden. Blah-blah-blah. We know all that. And it’s true, The Phantom Menace has some problems. But for a night that movie transformed a cynical punk teenager into a giggling child who believed in laser swords, a mystical force, and wondrous worlds of beauty and danger. And if that isn’t what Star Wars movies are for then I don’t know what is.

Join us again next week as Paul Childs takes us back to 1992 to revisit one of the nineties’ most controversial mainstream blockbusters. Contain your excitement – cross your legs if that helps – because we’ll be visiting the seedy world of Basic Instinct.

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