Ask a Star Wars fan what they think about The Phantom Menace and you’re going to get a very specific answer. At Star Wars Celebration in Chicago last month, Gizmodo spoke with fans about their memories and feelings on the eve of the film’s 20th anniversary, and the sentiment was way more positive than expected for all kinds of different reasons.
In the 20 years since its release, almost no Star Wars film has been thought about or debated more. On one hand, it gave us Darth Maul, Mace Windu, and Padmé Amidala. On the other hand, it also gave us Jar Jar Binks, Trade Federations, and midi-chlorians. The film introduced some of our favourite, and least favourite, things into Star Wars canon—and every fan has a story about their relationship with it.
In Tampa, Florida, it was a family affair. As Jasmin Seals recalls, her family almost had the police called on them for watching the film a bit too loud at home.
“I remember after watching The Phantom Menace at home with my dad, we played the podracing scene so loud that the neighbours came over and almost called the police on us,” she told us. “They thought something was crashing into that house. And I thought that was cool when I was younger. Then as I got older I really appreciated the political aspects of the movie. Even though it isn’t my favourite Star Wars movie I think it did a really good job of introducing so many new characters and creating a new trilogy. It’s very important to the fandom.”
Not all memories of the film are that dramatic, of course. Some are very relatable.
Jake Lloyd as Anakin Skywalker
“I have a personal connection to that movie,” said Natassia Strayer, who was cosplaying as Rey at the convention. “When I was younger my favourite character was young Anakin and I used to have this pair of ski goggles that looked like the podracing goggles. So, when I was like four or five, I would just wear them and run around my basement like I was podracing. I know that a lot of people don’t like [The Phantom Menace] as much but for me, just because of that nostalgia, I still enjoy it because I think back to that childhood.”
“I remember after watching The Phantom Menace at home with my dad...We played the podracing scene so loud that the neighbours came over and almost called the police on us.”
Nick Evans of Columbus, Ohio had a similar story. He was just four years old when the film was released. “My parents had actually gotten me into Star Wars before that but I absolutely just walked out in awe of the movie. I remember going to the cinema. It was such a memorable point for me,” he said. “It got a lot of hate for a while. There was definitely a couple of YouTube videos that [led to that], but then I realised there’s a lot of good stuff in the movie.”
He continued, “Maybe the execution isn’t there through the entire thing. But the ideas behind them are super solid. I mean, who doesn’t love “Duel of the Fates” with Darth Maul duelling Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan? That’s the best lightsaber battle in Star Wars.”
Miniatures? Colours? You must be talking about Naboo.
Now, both Evans and Strayer saw the film when they were young, so age may be the primary factor in a fan’s memory or enjoyment of the film. But, as we talked to more people, that was decidedly not the case.
“I’m kind of new Star Wars fan and I started [by] watching The Phantom Menace first,” said Lindsey Oates, also from Columbus. “So, for me, I’m similar to those fans that grew up with The Phantom Menace in that it’s one of my favourites, especially because it has a lot of miniatures and really fun colours and stuff like that.”
“I remember initially me and all my friends enjoyed it those first couple of weeks and then it starts to sink in like ‘Wait. Maybe this wasn’t what we’ve been hoping for.’”
Even fans of the franchise who don’t necessarily love the film choose to find the good in it.
“When it first came out I was initially really excited and that’s sort of been tempered because the story gets so bogged down,” said Guido Strotheide, who cosplayed as Obi-Wan Kenobi. “I kind of focus on how much stuff came out about the Jedi that we didn’t have before... I’m not super into the prequels. I grew up with the original trilogy. But I definitely would miss if we didn’t have all that Jedi stuff in here.”
That’s not to say the fandom is totally in love with the movie, of course.
Now this is podracing.
“I remember initially me and all my friends enjoyed it those first couple of weeks and then it starts to sink in like ‘Wait. Maybe this wasn’t what we’ve been hoping for,’” said Jay Kramer. “I think it appeals more to little kids, especially now that I know people in their 20s who grew up with those movies. You appreciate them for being kids’ movies.”
And yet, as New Yorker Matt Wade was quick to point out, without The Phantom Menace, Star Wars wouldn’t be what it is today. It set the table.
“A lot of people bash it because it was ‘Slow, slow, slow, slow, awesome fight, best villain dies,’” Wade said, describing the plot. “Whatever. I say you’ve got to build the story. You can’t just walk in without a backstory. So I’ve appreciated the film since day one.”
The release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace brought infinite possibilities. It brought the promise of something fans never thought they’d ever see again: new Star Wars movies. It brought a chance for answers to questions we never thought would be answered. And, of course, it brought something none of us could have expected: very public venom toward Star Wars. Still, it’s nice to know that some fans out there still hold reverence for that film and that moment. A moment that arrived 20 years ago next week.