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Phantom Menace wasn't great, but its Force still runs strong

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As The Phantom Menace of 1999 celebrates its 20th anniversary on Sunday, fans of the franchise will look back on the enduring vision of George Lucas, the last of the blockbuster iconoclasts.

New York

MAYBE you waited in line all night for tickets. Maybe you let your kid have the day off from school. Maybe you sat through the somnambulant three-hour Brad Pitt movie Meet Joe Black six months earlier, just to see the first trailer. But even if you were a casual fan back in 1999, you surely felt goose bumps when the lights went down and The Phantom Menace, the first Star Wars adventure after 16 years of rumours and anticipation, was finally unveiled.

It took only 55 seconds for the disappointment to set in. First, there was the full 20th Century Fox fanfare, leading into the glittering emerald of the Lucasfilm logo. Then a silent fade to black and "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away", a phrase that so perfectly evokes storytelling tradition while suggesting the infinite.

And finally, that familiar burst of brass and percussion that opens the theme music by John Williams, welcoming the titles and the opening crawl, and a prequel trilogy that will bring a new generation of fans into the Star Wars family. "Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. Yes! Turmoil! The pretext to all interstellar conflict! The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute".

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A sudden drop in cabin pressure. Who opened the air lock? To be fair to George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars and the writer-director of Phantom, which has its 20th anniversary on Sunday, nations have gone to war over less than taxation. Lucas has always been a politically minded filmmaker - he was involved in the early stages of Apocalypse Now, which he intended to direct - and perhaps he wanted to suggest that mass tragedy is often rooted in the banal. Policy divisions that put you to sleep can also kill you.

It was also the first indication that maybe Phantom was not the event it was cracked up to be. That maybe a lack of creative urgency explained all the time that had passed since the original Star Wars trilogy ended.

And yet, the critical disappointment from that time has slowly receded as Hollywood has built on Lucas's achievements. Without Phantom and its sequels, the complex integration of the Marvel Cinematic Universe may not have been possible - to say nothing of the screen-saver gloss of its celestial destinations.

All the weaknesses that plagued The Phantom Menace 20 years ago are still readily apparent in 2019: the actors stiffened by dialogue that must have sounded snappier in its original Huttese; the non-action scenes that alternately appeal to the very young or to grown-ups stuck in meetings all day; the midi-chlorians.

And then there was Jar Jar Binks, the notorious floppy-eared Gungan whom Lucas intended as comic relief but who spoke and behaved like an amalgam of bad racial stereotypes - "a Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit," as Wall Street Journal critic Joe Morgenstern described him. (Lucas has fervently defended his maligned creation as recently as April, when he called Jar Jar his favourite Star Wars character.)

And the stereotypes didn't stop with Jar Jar; multiple characters wouldn't survive the scrutiny of today's culture pages.And yet the legacy of The Phantom Menace strangely redounds to Lucas's favour, setting the tone for the big movie franchises of today.

The Marvel and DC universes, for example, are full of Easter eggs and other incidental details that are less about moving the story forward than about adding dimension for its own sake. The current Star Wars trilogy and spinoffs, of course, are too: Learning how Han Solo got his name in Solo: A Star Wars Story has no dramatic value. It's just a piece of trivia, another collectible to put on the virtual shelf.

Adults who grew up loving the original Star Wars trilogy may have groaned in disappointment, but for their kids, Phantom was the start of their Star Wars trilogy. And people packed the theatres regardless: Phantom grossed nearly US$1 billion worldwide, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, (the 2012 3D release pushed it beyond US$1 billion), and the sequels were wildly popular.

A debut this anticipated was expected to break opening-weekend records (it topped US$28 million on opening day, a record then for single-day returns), but its overall earnings belied the notion that audiences were completely crestfallen. The culture shifted accordingly. Franchises such as the Harry Potter and Marvel movies, or even the Fast and the Furious series, are talked about now in terms of "mythology" - not as mere sequels but as densely connected epics of ever-ballooning scale.

Pour enough detail into the work, as Lucas did, and it will take root in the popular imagination. The tragedy of George Lucas is that he was ultimately rejected from the world he created. Phantom had reaffirmed the durability of the franchise, Jar Jar be damned, but its flaws were enough to make fans and studios start to dream about a Star Wars without Lucas - to question whether projects on that scale were worth ever risking on a single person's vision.

Once Disney bought the franchise in 2012, a phalanx of writers and directors could be deployed to make whatever small modifications were needed to spruce it up - better performances and dialogue, perhaps, or increased diversity. Lucas's idiosyncrasies could be buffed out.Twenty years ago, no one could have anticipated that Lucas would be the last of the blockbuster iconoclasts. NYTIMES