The Phantom Menace: The movie that brought me into Star Wars


With The Phantom Menace turning 20(!) this past weekend, I take a look back at my first experience with the film, and how it shaped my perception of the franchise forever.

There are certain touchstones in your life that you can refer to when piecing together your past. For some people, ask them about a particular album and they can contextualize what that collection of songs means to them based on where they were at release.

For others, simply mentioning certain Premier League seasons can bring on a flood of memories. Ask me how old I was in 2008, and I wouldn’t be able to tell you without a few minutes to think about it.

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Ask me how old I was during the 2008/09 season, and I can give you ages, names, gigs I went to, part time jobs I had, and the list goes on.

The same can be true of films, of course. In particular, for me, at least, Star Wars films tend to be that particular touchstone. And, with the prequel sagas beginning their 20th anniversary this year, I thought it would be nice to share my experience with the film, both at release, and later down the line.

The year is 1999…

Despite being billed as a worldwide release on May 19, 1999, I’m reliably informed (both colloquially, and via the BBFC) that The Phantom Menace didn’t hit cinemas in the UK until June 16, for whatever reason.

In the weeks leading up to seeing the films, some major developments had taken place in my life. I’d just turned 7 years old, arguably the best age. Manchester United had just won the European Cup for the first time in 40 years, becoming the first English team to win “The Treble” ever. And…that’s pretty much it, to be honest.

If there’s something you need to know about 7-year-old me, it’s that I only truly loved two things: Manchester United, and the Nintendo 64. Sure, some of you might argue I had a lot on my plate at that time, but I was open to a new interest, for sure.

I don’t remember the exact day my dad told me we were going to the cinema. It will have been on a weekend, most likely a Saturday. And it certainly wouldn’t have been opening weekend; there would have been far too much going on for me to be trusted around packed foyers and screens.

But I distinctly remember being sat at the table, eating my breakfast cereal of choice (probably Cheerios), when Old Man Willoughby walks in and and says “Right. We’re going to see Star Wars”.

I have to stress this right now; at 7 years old, my knowledge of Star Wars extended as far as promotional material and Simpsons references. I had never seen a Star Wars film. I couldn’t tell you what happens.

My family collected “Tazos” from Walkers crisps around the time the Special Editions were released, and I remember going through the collectors binder every few days trying to figure out what Star Wars was, but I’d not seen the films.

And for good reason, as it turned out. When my dad caught wind they were making a Prequel trilogy, he decided I should watch the films the way George Lucas intended. It also turned out that my dad didn’t like Star Wars much growing up. Any excuse to not revisit them, I suppose.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999). Lucasfilm Entertainment Company Ltd., All Rights Reserved

Road Trip

This wasn’t a normal trip to the cinema. My younger sister wasn’t coming, nor was my Mum, and my younger brother wasn’t being watched by my Grandparents. It was absolutely roasting hot.

I made the decision to wear my black Man United shirt (rookie error), we were picked up by my Uncle and my Grandmother at lunchtime, and we headed out to High Wycombe (about 45 minutes from where I live) to see Star Wars.

I have to stress, at the time there were two major cinemas in Oxford City Centre. The screen in High Wycombe was reserved for special occasions.

I don’t remember a great deal about the journey. I don’t remember whether we got a drink or popcorn or anything like that. I don’t even remember the name of the cinema. It still exists today as part of the Empire (fitting) chain of cinemas, but I don’t know whether it was called this 20 years ago.

I DO remember getting into the biggest screen in the building, sitting three rows from the screen, and being absolutely washed away.

The Phantom Menace was HUGE!

From start to finish, it was like I’d been sat down and made to watch a film specifically catered for me. The lightsaber battles were awesome! The space battles were the best! Jar-Jar Binks was HILARIOUS! I sat between my uncle and my nan, both of whom seemed to be enjoying it as much as I did. I kept looking over at my dad, who seemed to be catching up on lost sleep.

I came away from The Phantom Menace a changed boy. I thought I was Anakin Skywalker. I wanted to be Obi-Wan Kenobi. We got home, and I spent the rest of the weekend running around the garden saving the galaxy. I’m not sure the cat truly understood the lengths I was going to, but the appreciation was underlying, to be sure.

School on Monday was a vastly different experience to normal. For the first time in forever I passed on playing football at lunchtime. Instead, a lightsaber duel with Jacob from the other class in my year. When I got home, I tried making a Podracer out of cardboard boxes knocking around the garage.

Things had *changed*.

Growing Older

The Phantom Menace was the jumping on point, for me. What followed immediately was the collection of toys and books, video games and more. And that hasn’t really changed, although my perception of the film certainly has.

As you grow older, and start to see things in a more critical view, the flaws stand out more and more. It all culminated with, 10 years later, feeling a certain sense of resentment towards it. Feeling like The Phantom Menace was a betrayal of everything I loved about Star Wars…despite it being the reason for loving Star Wars.

Fortunately, thanks mainly to the Disney buy-out, I’d been able to reconcile with the film.

Prior to The Force Awakens’ release, I took it upon myself to marathon the films in order. In my head, I had The Phantom Menace bottom of “my order”, and was gladly proven wrong to hold it in such low regard.

Naturally, it couldn’t hold a candle to the experience 7-year-old me had, but the 23-year-old me was surprised by how much actually held up. It’s still a technological marvel, but it also feels closer to Star Wars than the next two in the trilogy. It’s no masterpiece, not by a long chalk, but it’s a good film. It’s enjoyable, even now.

And I’m incredibly thankful to it for bringing me into the series.

Next. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace: The 5 best scenes of Episode I. dark

What was your experience with The Phantom Menace on release? Let us know your stories in the comments!