For two decades, Star Wars was a seminal piece of movie fandom - a must-see experience that inspired childhood fantasy, while wowing adult moviegoers with cutting-edge special effects and a quality character story. The franchise endured a few bumps along the road (brother-sister romance and ewoks, among other things); but even though Empire Strikes Back remains, arguably, the "best" of George Lucas' original trilogy, Return of the Jedi still left plenty of viewers clamoring for more adventures in the Galaxy Far, Far Away. For years, Jedi-lovers around the world made do with "Special Editions" and one reworked home retail release after another - until Lucasfilm finally gave fans what they really wanted: more live-action Star Wars episodes.
Instead of continuing the story of Luke Skywalker, Lucas doubled back (kicking-off the prequel movie craze) to explore the early days of Darth Vader, before Anakin Skywalker turned into the galaxy's most powerful Sith Lord, and the fandom was delighted - until they saw the movie. Now, nearly twenty years later, moviegoers are once again getting hyped for "The Return of Star Wars" to the big screen with Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens - but with such high expectations in front of him, is it even possible for director J.J. Abrams to deliver a movie that lives-up to pre-Episode 7 buzz and speculation?
The Past: A Cautionary Tale
It might be hard to remember now, since the prequels were (for most fans) a major disappointment, but back in 1999 moviegoers were extremely excited for Episode I. While internet marketing (and online social-commentary) was still in its infancy, 20th Century Fox deployed a similar build-up to the one at play in Disney's Episode 7 advertising. Following the casting of Ewan McGregor and Jake Lloyd in the iconic roles of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin, respectively, the marketing department debuted a simple but haunting teaser poster - featuring 9-year-old Lloyd on Tatooine casting a Darth Vader-shaped shadow. The poster teased a question that fans had been debating for years, a question that was central to the prequel story: how did a heroic and brave kid become the galaxy's most feared villain?
Days later, the studio premiered Episode I's teaser trailer - in front of Meet Joe Black screenings. Fox released the video online the following day, but fans were so eager to see what Lucas was cooking up that many paid for early Meet Joe Black tickets, sat through the Star Wars trailer, then left before the feature film. It might sound ridiculous now, but at the time, moviegoers were extremely hopeful that Episode 1 would make-up for years of theatrical re-releases and Special Edition retooling - assuming that since Lucas was at the helm of these new Star Wars movies, Episode I would mark the glorious return of geekdom's most beloved franchise.
Check out the video below, capturing an authentic audience reaction to the Episode I trailer:
Little did fans know, Episode 1's striking Sith apprentice, Darth Maul, would get one-tenth the screen time of fumbling alien-sidekick Jar Jar Binks, and wouldn't even survive beyond the first installment of the prequels. Looking back, the trailer is filled with red flags that, out of context, went unnoticed: a heavy reliance on CGI, as well as melodramatic handling of Anakin's story, most notably.
However, the trailer only increased excitement for Episode 1 - and fans continued to line-up for pre-release events - including a Force Friday-like celebration where retailers unveiled Episode 1 merchandise during midnight release parties. Where Sphero's app-controlled BB-8 was the hottest toy of Episode 7's Force Friday (more on that later), Darth Maul 12-inch deluxe figures (read: dolls) and Sebulba podracer vehicle packs were the talk of the comic book shop in 1999.
The second Episode 1 trailer premiered ahead of the Wing Commander video game movie (starring Freddie Prinze, Jr., Saffron Burrows, and Matthew Lillard). Once again, many fans walked out of the theater once the Star Wars trailer was shown (a prudent move on their part...).
Years later, fans may look back at Episode 1 as a disappointment, but at the time, even after release, hype for The Phantom Menace was still alive and well. The film set box office records for midnight showings, opening weekend ticket sales, and all time grosses - to this day, it remains in the top 10 highest domestic box offices of all time (and that's unadjusted for inflation).
One might assume the financial success of the film could be credited to fans ignoring critics - in favor of experiencing the Episode 1 "event" for themselves. However, critics (just like fans) were also caught up in the excitement, and while Episode 1 might have a "rotten" rating on Rotten Tomatoes today (sitting at 57%), the film scored plenty of positive reviews back in 1999.
Check out Roger Ebert's review of The Phantom Menace below (which also includes an interview with George Lucas):
It wasn't until weeks after release that mass viewers turned on Episode 1 - and backlash began to catch on. In spite of initial buzz for the movie, vocal detractors, not to mention second and third viewings by fans, started to paint a very different picture of The Phantom Menace. Criticisms of Jar Jar Binks, questions of racial stereotyping (Nute Gunray), convoluting of mythology (midi-chlorians), and undermining of Darth Vader, dominated the conversation - and caused even dedicated fans to question whether Lucas' unchecked creative control over the final product had hurt - rather than helped - his film.
Even the most positive reviews indicated that the movie was clumsy at times - with hopes that time spent laying the prequel series foundation would payoff in Episodes 2 and 3.
Nevertheless, in the time since Episode 1's release, reviewers, industry analysts, and even documentarians, have gone back and examined reaction to The Phantom Menace - with many suggesting that, while Lucas could have delivered a better movie, the real villain of Star Wars: Episode 1 may have been unrealistic expectations.
Which begs the question: Now that the Star Wars 7 trailer is the most-watched movie trailer in the history of cinema, garnering praise, and heralding the "true" return of Star Wars, is it even possible for The Force Awakens to live-up to that level of hype and excitement?