It's that time again. A new Star Wars movie, the first in a decade, is nearly here, and with it are all the hopes and dreams of fans that have grown up loving the franchise.
Star Wars fans have been here before. Yes, back in 1999, fans could barely contain their excitement for the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. It was to be the first Star Wars film in 16 years, and fans were starved for more of the galaxy far, far away.
We all know how that turned out. Today, The Phantom Menace is regarded as one of the worst films in the saga, with Jar Jar Binks in particular representing everything wrong with the prequel trilogy as a whole. Excessive amounts of CGI, writing that falls flat and a confusing story revolving around a trade blockade — this wasn't the Star Wars fans had grown up with.
However, here's the catch: not everyone hated The Phantom Menace when it first released. It didn't score rave reviews by any means, but more than a few critics and fans praised the film's story, visuals and characters.
Some even liked Jar Jar. Seriously, some people really did like Jar Jar back in 1999, and it's time to publicly shame them for their past sins.
We've gathered some choice quotes from various reviews to give you an idea of what the opinion of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was when it first released back in 1999. Some people loved it, others outright despised it from jump, and many fell somewhere in between, but together, they paint a picture of a movie that is far different from how we view The Phantom Menace now. Here's what people thought about ...
The Story and Characters:
The Hollywood Reporter: Although fans are bound to debate the film's fine points ad infinitum, the story line ends up being less important than the set pieces. The opening credits have barely ended before the first lightsabers have been drawn, and the next two hours are filled with high-octane, intergalactic action.
Ain't It Cool News: This film does alot (sic) of utterly fantastic things, but there is a lot of room for improvement. Lucas' characters need a bit more depth, but you know what ... I feel a bit like Emperor Joseph II telling Mozart[,] to take out a few notes and it'll be perfect.
Rolling Stone: The actors are wallpaper, the jokes are juvenile, there's no romance, and the dialogue lands with the thud of a computer-instruction manual.
Eli Roth: The opening crawl says something about a trade embargo with the federation or something about shipping, but by the time it disappeared I was already way too confused. I thought "How can a film for kids be so confusing?"
Kevin Smith: I'd rank it right after Empire in a list of fave Star Wars flicks. It starts great, ends great, and has great stuff sprinkled in between.
Roger Ebert: Set against awesome backdrops, the characters in The Phantom Menace inhabit a plot that is little more complex than the stories I grew up on in science-fiction magazines. The whole series sometimes feel like a cover from Thrilling Wonder Stories, come to life. The dialogue is pretty flat and straightforward, although seasoned with a little quasi-classical formality, as if the characters had read but not retained Julius Caesar. I wish the Star Wars characters spoke with more elegance and wit (as Gore Vidal's Greeks and Romans do), but dialogue isn't the point, anyway: These movies are about new things to look at.
Variety: There is certainly enough incident to keep the picture and the viewer going, but the bombardment of elements, names, worlds, creatures and dilemmas may prove somewhat daunting to casual observers unsteeped in Star Wars lore. Beyond that, the new CGI characters are notably lacking in charm or interest other than on the design level; they bring nothing new or special to Lucas' universe, and in a sense overpopulate it. And if it weren't for the connections many will make to the story's known future — that Anakin will eventually marry Queen Amidala and sire Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, only then to transform into Darth Vader — there is little here on the writing or performance sides to draw one close to these characters.
EW: The famous theme music, with its Wagner-gone-Hollywood fanfare, still gives you a tingle, but then the opening crawl announces a murky galactic conspiracy masterminded by the Trade Federation (The Trade Federation?). This is supposed to be Episode I, but already it feels like episode 71.
The New York Times: But stripped of hype and breathless expectations, Lucas' first installment offers a happy surprise: it's up to snuff. It sustains the gee-whiz spirit of the series and offers a swashbuckling extragalactic getaway ...
Jo Blo: I found the story line confusing, a little slow in the midsection, and itty-bitty boring. I won't numb you with the details of the plot, but the bottom line is that there are bad guys, and there are good guys.
The Special Effects:
The Hollywood Reporter: Lucas and his crew at Industrial Light & Magic have outdone themselves in production design and special effects. Nearly every shot contains a complicated computer-generated effect, supplemented by the usual model work. The film displays one dazzling visual after another, from what seem like hundreds of types of photorealistic creatures to a multitude of elaborate scenic designs.
Rolling Stone: Digital marvels abound ... Lucas surpasses himself in the creature department. Jar Jar's nemesis, Boss Nass, is a wonderfully odious menace. And Watto, the slave driver, is a fat-slob fly who manages to levitate on tiny hummingbird wings.
Eli Roth: Watching an army of computer generated aliens fight an army of computer generated robots is boring after five minutes. None of it's real, and you can't even let yourself believe it's real because there's just too much computer generated imagery. What's Lucas got against puppets?
Kevin Smith: Is it a puppet-heavy, CGI affair? There's a great deal of it, but not to the point where it's irritating (though the two-headed pod-race comentator [sic] was a bit much).
Roger Ebert: There is a sense of discovery in scene after scene of The Phantom Menace, as he tries out new effects and ideas, and seamlessly integrates real characters and digital ones, real landscapes and imaginary places. We are standing at the threshold of a new age of epic cinema, I think, in which digital techniques mean that budgets will no longer limit the scope of scenes; filmmakers will be able to show us just about anything they can imagine.
Variety: There are hundreds of droid warriors, all manner of animal-like creatures, and enough spaceships, fighting machines and vehicles to supply an entire toy store. Except for the desert scenes and a few other landscapes, the world of the movie is virtually entirely artificial, and some of the more obviously fake backdrops remind one that this is just a computer-generated version of the sort of ambiance habitually created some 50 to 60 years ago by most Hollywood pictures.
EW: The Phantom Menace never stops throwing things at you. The cities and space stations have an awesome, plunging vastness, a sense of intricately sinister technology stretching out above and below you. In a strange way, though, Lucas doesn't trust the power of those images; he keeps cutting away from them.
The New York Times: While the human stars here are reduced to playing action figures, they are upstaged by amazing backdrops and hordes of crazily lifelike space beings as the Lewis Carroll in Lucas is given free rein. The Star Wars franchise was funnier and scrappier when it was new. But it simply wasn't capable of this.
Jo Blo: A visual feast. This movie is a perfect example of why the word "eye-candy" was invented.
And, of course, Jar Jar:
The Hollywood Reporter: Jar Jar Binks, more suitable for Toys R Us than the big screen, is particularly egregious and far more irritating than endearing.
Ain't It Cool News: Mesa Luved Him!
Rolling Stone: Comic relief — and[,] boy, does this movie need it — arrives with scene-stealer Jar Jar Binks, a gangly, floppy-eared Gungan, voiced hilariously by Ahmed Best but otherwise a fully digital creation.
Eli Roth: Jar Jar Binks is simply an embarrassment. It's not just that he looks so much like a computer generated character that you can't believe him, it's that Lucas decided to make him a crazy Jamaican monster who makes fart jokes. Imagine the worst aspects of Jedi — the Ewoks — exploited in mass form and forced upon you throughout the entire film.
Kevin Smith: Is there too much Jar Jar? For a small stretch, yes; but then the Binks quotient calms down considerably.
Roger Ebert: His aliens are really just humans in odd skins. For The Phantom Menace, he introduces Jar Jar Binks, a fully realized computer-animated alien character whose physical movements seem based on afterthoughts.
Variety: Jar Jar Binks, a CGI-fashioned creature that may amuse little kids but, with its convoluted and lame comic riffs, comes off like a poor cousin to Eddie Murphy's dragon in Mulan.
EW: ...The Phantom Menace throws in a rabbit-eared mascot named Jar Jar Binks, whose goofy tongue-twisting patois renders him a nuisance within 30 seconds ...
The New York Times: ... lop-eared, clownish Jar Jar Binks is made noxious by his obsequious Caribbean-sounding patois.
Jo Blo: ... my least favorite new character is one that has seemed to rub many adults the wrong way, and that is Jar-Jar Binks, the CGI-generated creature, which annoyed me mostly because I didn't understand 3/4 of the things that he was babbling about.
Despite receiving mixed reviews overall, many critics rated the film positively. Roger Ebert, one of the most influential film critics of all time, gave the film three and a half out of four stars, for example. Turns out that critics and fans alike were so hungry for new Star Wars that it was only years later that they could see the whole truth, the truth being that The Phantom Menace was not everything they hoped and dreamed it would be. It was, in fact, not a great movie. Once the gleam of the film's (at the time) impressive visuals wore off, people saw not much was left.
Might we see history repeat itself? If this trip down memory lane taught us anything, it's that the first reviews for Star Wars: The Force Awakens are not to be trusted. No Star Wars fan can be objective about seeing a new Star Wars movie after such a long period of disappointment, and a new Star Wars movie featuring the original actors, no less. It's simply not possible. Seeing Harrison Ford as Han Solo again alone will earn the movie 5 out of 5 from any fan who's dreamt of a return to the good old days.
As a result, reviews will be blinded by nostalgia. Come back in two or three years after the warm, fuzzy feelings of getting the gang back together dissipate. That's when we'll really know whether or not J.J. Abrams' latest stands the test of time.