Skip to main content

Fresh off Barbie, Ryan Gosling’s new film bombed. The Fall Guy almost debuted at number two. What film nearly stopped it? A new Marvel movie? A Sydney Sweeney rom-com? None of the above.

Twenty-five years after its release, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is grossing millions at the box office, landing at number two on the charts. I saw it last night on a Tuesday, and crowds have taken over the theatre. The New York Times even praised Ahmed Best for his role once maligned performance as Jar Jar Binks. It was like 1999 all over again, but we may have never left 1999. 

Phantom’s comeback opens up interesting facts about the reality of our pop culture moment. Much has been made about the film. Some say it’s finally getting its due because the children who watched it have grown up, and the plot aged better than expected. But the movie never actually flopped. It was the highest-grossing film of 1999, and The Phantom Menace and the subsequent Star Wars prequels remain some of the highest-grossing movies in history. It set the stage for the beloved prequel cartoon series, The Clone Wars, which set the stage for today’s never-ending TV-and-film connected universes. 

The Phantom Menace was loathed, but some people always liked it. Part of the film’s never-ending discourse comes from its divisiveness. If everyone loved Phantom Menace, fewer people would discuss it today. You hear what more about the Star Wars prequels today than you do the Bryan Singer X-Men movies. You don’t even hear much about The Force Awakens. People always talk more about divisive subjects. Just ask Kim Kardashian. 

George Lucas’s first prequel also aged better than expected. Whereas much of today’s CGI looks fake because of overuse and budget cuts, the CGI appears more sparse than it did in 1999. In the Naboo sequences, it even looks downright painterly, with the CGI of the palace appearing like a backdrop in an old Hollywood movie. It’s digital, but it’s rooted in old Hollywood. The same cannot be said of last year’s CGI debacle The Flash. 

The Phantom Menace plot also influenced all of today’s culture. Lucas was the first to create a high-end, interlocking franchise. Prequels with unrelated characters to main films are everywhere today. The pod racer sequence looks very connected to A New Hope compared to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s disparate off-shoots: The Marvels, She-Hulk, What If–the list goes on and on. Many found the politics of the movie boring, but now politics and foreign policy dominate Marvel movies. 

At the time, many found The Phantom Menace too much. Animated movies and the Tim Burton Batman films received sponsored fast food toys, but The Phantom Menace took it to a place. Taco Bell sold Jar Jar Binks and Padme Amidala cups. Jar Jar Binks graced the cover of Rolling Stone. Toys covered Target and Toys R Us shelves. It was everywhere, over-sponsored and over-advertised. Some disagreed with so much corporate sponsorship for a film. But now, we are all “spon con”. Everyone posts sponsored content. Compared to anyone’s average Instagram feed, The Phantom Menace campaign was sparse.

The difference, of course, is The Phantom Menace is much more unique than today’s popcorn fair. It took risks that you won’t see the MCU, or even the Disney Star Wars, making any time soon. 

In truth, The Phantom Menace was ahead of its time. Now, everything is The Phantom Menace. The original was just a better version than most of the culture we see today.