SFX Issue 53

July 1999

Star Wars: The Countdown

May 1999. The month the world’s media went Phantom Menace mad. Everyone from Ewan MacGregor’s mum to the Disney studios bosses were asked to pitch in their two dime’s worth. Here’s SFX ’s multi-media review of the days up to the film’s momentous release…

1-2 May At the Star Wars Fan Club Event in Denver, Colorado, producer Rick McCallum announces pre-production on Episode II begins this week with shooting commencing in June 2000. McCallum also told the crowd, “I know George has very special plans for the DVD release of Episode IV ”.

4 May Exhibitor screenings of The Phantom Menace take place in Toronto, Dallas, Boston, New York and Los Angeles.

One of the first reviews of The Phantom Menace appears on-line on Coming Attractions . Written by the boyfriend of a “woman who got invited” to a secret screening in Boston, it was generally positive – “It fit (sic) my definition of a Star Wars movie to the tee” – while admitting, “The major problem with this movie is OVERKILL. There are way too many creatures and way too many robots, and they weren’t done convincingly… Several times in the movie I caught myself thinking ‘nice painting’ when I should’ve been saying ‘cool place’… In conclusion, More than Jedi , less than Empire .”

Various US newspaper reports that the MPAA have rated Episode I a PG.

5 May Cinescape Insider breaks the news that the Bail Organa character, who Lucas had previously said would play a major role in Episode III , has been cut from Episode I : “Organa was to make an important cameo in the Galactic Senate sequence. At one point this character, played by Adrian Dunbar, had been transformed into the neutral Alderaan Senator Bail Antilles, but apparently Dunbar has been cut from the film entirely paving the way for another actor to play Organa in Episode II .”

Cinescape Insider also mentions rumors that a scene where Anakin tells Padme he will marry her has also been cut (which it has, thank God).

More reviews resulting from the exhibitor screenings appear on the internet.

  • “It looks like a simpler film than it really is to the untrained eye.” Patrick, NY
  • “As a science fiction film it was excellent. But as a Star Wars film? No.” Darkman
  • “This film is on par with Jedi … I was hoping that the effects would be perfect, but nevertheless, we aren’t completely there yet folks.” The Sithmeister
  • “Kids will love it, critics will love it, but fans may (and will) be disappointed.” Richard Epstein ( Critics? Love it? Ahem! – Ed )

Nearly everyone, however, agrees Jar Jar Binks is a mincing great gnat-voiced mutant Bugs Bunny from hell.

6 May A Daily Variety report states: “Polite applause and a wide range of reactions greeted the industry’s first full screenings of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace … Overall audience response to the long-awaited sequel was less than enthusiastic… The audience was ready to embrace the film, but never did.” The Hollywood Reporter , however, reckoned, “The response was overwhelmingly positive.”

7 May New York press screening.

Thanks to SFX reader Kit Davies for this scoop: “Hot news from The Grocer (control your excitement). Cadbury has scooped the competition to win the chocolate licence for The Phantom Menace .” These will apparently include a selection box containing moulded characters from the film, tubes of Star Wars bars and lightsabers containing moulded Wispa bars in the characters’ shapes. No sign of a Phantom Choc-Ice, alas.

8 May Over the next few days reviews of the movie start appearing in the US press. The LA Daily News , amid reservations, applauded Episode I , citing that it, “presents the most elaborate, thoroughly integrated fantasy universe ever put on film” and praises Lucas for his “storytelling” and “visual genius”.

The New York Daily News portrayed the film as a “lively adventure”, feeling that the best is still to come, yet believes that the movie’s huge digital content, “has brought the series to the brink of total artificiality, the future as a video game”.

Hollywood Bible Variety praised the film’s technical abilities, but felt its CG creations lacked both “charm and interest” while bringing “nothing new” to Lucas’ latest vision. It finally sums the film up as being, “Easily consumable eye candy, but it contains no nutrients for the heart or mind”.

Time ’s analysis reckons it is, “A panoramic entertainment with several terrific set pieces of action”. Their reviewer reports that he overheard one member of the audience declare, “What do you want for $9?”

Leading the chorus of disapproval is Rolling Stone : “The actors are wallpaper, the jokes juvenile, there’s no romance and the dialogue lands with the thud of computer-instruction manual”. Ouch!

Newsweek declares the film a “disappointment, a big one”, slamming the acting, directing and just about everything else. It also bemoaned, “Lucas’ child-like vision is beginning to look merely childish.”

Common ground? Everyone agrees that Episode I is visually beautiful, a marvellous technical triumph bringing digital effects to unforeseen heights and the almost universal hating of Jar Jar Binks. Criticism voiced at the CG-conceived creature ranged from, “A poor cousin to Eddie Murphy’s dragon in Mulan ” to its voice being compared to a Muppet-like Peter Lorré.

The Wall Street Journal prints an article about the impending economic failure when workers all play truant to go and see The Phantom Menace . It reckons companies are, “developing contingency plans should the much-hyped film produce lots of phantom workers”. One boss reckons, “the work stoppage due to the OJ Simpson trial will pale in comparison”. One company even goes so far as to announce, “May 19 a cultural holiday. Everybody in our office gets it off.”

8 May US Star Wars press junket takes place. Over the next few days, quotes from the press junket turn up everywhere from the LA Times to Meat Packer Monthly .

9 May The Phantom Menace soundtrack album enters the both US and British charts (it peaks at number eight over here).

10 May British press full of reports that Liam Neeson is to resign because he hates directors who treat “actors like puppets”. Who could he be talking about, we all wonder? But a few days later he says that his quotes were misinterpreted.

11 May Ewan McGregor’s mum (and Denis Lawson’s sister) interviewed by The Mirror : “I’ve no idea how many times Ewan watched [ Star Wars ]… umpteen times. The boys used to watch it with their friends and Ewan learned the script by heart.”

12 May At noon, tickets go on sale at the Mann Chinese Theater in LA for Episode I . The first showing will be a minute after midnight, Wednesday, 19 May.

13 May Reports thet Fox/Lucasfilm’s initial demands for showing the film stated that a theatre must play the film on the same screen for 12 weeks (or eight, depending on the market). Now, after some, um, discussion, the film will only play for four weeks at the prominent Mann Village in Westwood and Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood, while in New York, Loews Cineplex chose to pass on showing The Phantom Menace at all. According to Variety , after lengthy talks, Fox/Lucasfilm and Loews could not come to terms with the latter feeling that the former’s restrictions were too excessive.

15 May First pirated copies of The Phantom Menace spotted in London and Bristol. Quality not assessed (though if anyone from Fox is reading, the guy in Bristol had a scar on his right cheek, and tried to flog our contact a Relox watch for £12 as well).

17 May Radio One’s “see The Phantom Menace ” competition winner broadcasts from Los Angeles on Simon Mayo’s Breakfast Show and is very disappointed with the movie. How ungracious.

18 May Reviews start appearing in the British nationals. The Independent , in a piece titled “May The Farce Be With You” calls it one of the worst movies of all time: “Loud, vulgar, manipulative, careless and pretensious.” The review, however, admits to liking Watto, but Jar Jar comes in for a right old kicking.

19 May Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace opens in the US and Canada.

Suddenly press speculation turns to whether Star Wars Episode One will out-gross Titanic . In Variety Disney big shot Joe Roth predicts without hesitation that The Phantom Menace will make, “$300 million by June 2 and $1.5 billion worldwide.”

TV stations around the world interview the first people to come out of the public Star Wars screenings. Most say, “it’s great” but at least one member of the Counting Down crowd just hated it: “No characters, no feeling, nothing you could care about.” Darth Maul seems to be a bit of a hit (strange how Lucas spent years and millions of dollars creating all these CG creatures, and the most popular character in the movie is a bloke with a painted face).

Dave Golder
Freelance Writer

Dave is a TV and film journalist who specializes in the science fiction and fantasy genres. He's written books about film posters and post-apocalypses, alongside writing for SFX Magazine for many years.