Much of how you view this post will depend on how old you were during the build-up to the Phantom Menace.
As an old-school fan that grew up on the original trilogy, you can bet that news of George Lucas going ahead with the prequels blew my mind like no other news in my life before it. I’m sure you feel the same way. The same applied to millions of fans who spent their childhood dreaming of what Obi-Wan and Princess Leia meant when they referred to the Clone Wars in A New Hope. Exactly how great a pilot, how cunning a warrior was Anakin Skywalker? While the framework of the story was limited, how it unfolded was a blank canvas and we were desperate to see this chapter of the Star Wars saga. With all of the excitement that comes with the litany of new characters, worlds, and themes, came boatloads of hype – on an unprecedented scale. It came slowly at first, since the first pieces of news broke before the internet became ubiquitous.
In 1994 the “Original trilogy, one last time” on VHS dropped. It was a litmus test that determined that the machine was not just alive, but alive and well. Then in 1995, the rebooting of the toy line. The fans that were children during the originals had no problem doubling-down on these new toys, weirdly muscular as they were. Then came the controversial Special Editions, both on the big screen and again, on home video soon after. For many, myself included, these revised special editions were the first chance to see Star Wars on the big screen, a chance to catch up with the generation just a few years older then me who were lucky enough to be a part of the original run in theaters. The constant undercurrent to all of these events during the mid-90’s was always “This is what’s happening now while George Lucas makes the NEW movies“. As oblivious as I was to such things back then, it was all connected. The VHS release, toy reboot, and special editions were not only about pulling together funding for the prequels, it was to re-introduce Star Wars to new audiences who knew more about Jurassic Park than the Galaxy Far, Far Away.
With all of those releases, promos, and events unfolding in exciting, effective manner, there was also blanket coverage in the media. But instead of tweets and YouTube clips, it was magazine or newspaper clippings, and segments on Access Hollywood that stoked the fires. You have to remember that this was before the age of social media, so engaging with other fans was far more challenging then than it is now, unless you were a member of a fan forum, newsgroup, or chatroom – the early forms of blogging and social media. Still, not all homes connected the way they are today, so each fan was likely to be in a silo than a somebody with their own communication platform.
Then came the trailer for The Phantom Menace. If you’re old enough to remember, this trailer dropped like an atomic bomb. Attached to stinker Meet Joe Black, the trailer brought bazillions of fans out of their mom’s basements and in to theaters, at least for a few minutes. I don’t know how much of Meet Joe Black’s box office haul is due to having the first Star Wars trailer in many years, but it has to be a sizeable chunk. The trailer making its way online was one of the first instances of something “breaking the internet” because it was so in demand, and not because the internet was relatively new and crappy. Fans watched it over and over – with good reason. The trailer was PERFECT. It seemed like it had everything that fans wanted. What it didn’t have was a lot of Jar-Jar, or Gungans in general – the guys for which most fan hatred is reserved. For a character that was so prominent, and a species so key in the movie’s final act, was leaving them out of the trailer intentional? Misleading? Maybe. Apologists would say they weren’t necessary. Your milage may vary.
Still, with May 19 1999 growing closer day by day, excitement grew to unfathomable proportions. Today it’s easy to visit YouTube no matter where you are, but back then Access Hollywood and Entertainment Tonight were appointment viewing. Meaning you needed to be at home if you wanted to take in this exclusive content. Nearly every night during the final few weeks before The Phantom Menace’s release, they’d give us a few seconds of footage, a behind-the-scenes look, or a snippet with the cast. I still have the cassette that I filled up. It’s my personal archive of Phantom Menace hype, and it was over-the-top. If you’re old enough, you remember it, too:
That summer, if I wasn’t in the movie theater, I was running to the local KFC, or Pizza Hut to pick up the newest kiddie toy in that flimsy cardboard box. There was no Taco Bell in Montreal at the time so I have no idea how I was able to complete the set, but I was obsessed, and so I completed the set. I also managed to find (and keep) all of the soda cans with Phantom Menace characters on them. I still have greasy bags of Lays chips with TPM characters on them. As a fan during this time, you HAD to get in on this stuff. It was going to be like owning all of the vintage, original-era stuff all over again. Except that it wasn’t. The tidal wave of merchandising leading up to The Phantom Menace is the one area that I think trumps that of The Force Awakens, and not necessarily in a good way. May 4th, 1999, just a couple weeks before the release of the movie saw all of the toys heaped on us. You had not experienced sensory overload as a Star Wars fan until you saw your local toy store stacked to the ceilings with NEW Star Wars toys. Sure the rebooted toy line had its share of shelf space, but this was on another level. In hindsight, stores were way off with their forecasts, with toys warming pegs and shelves for months and months after the film’s release. A byproduct of the eventual reception of the movie? Perhaps. Still, the massive wall of red-carded Star Wars toys was enough to make you go blind with joy and poor at the same time. Many fans gladly emptied their bank accounts for a chance to load up on what would surely be their retirement fund. Oops!
In the days prior to the release, fans lined up outside cinemas, spent day and night there and it was as if the only thing on everyone’s mind was this new movie. It was poised to be the biggest movie of all-time, bar none. The first reviews gave it a blah 3-stars, with some gusting up to 4-stars, but there was no parade of positive reviews. A bit of cold water was thrown on to the bonfire. Headlines like “The Force is Back!” gave many fans relief that the majority of reviews were just from reviewers looking to make a name for themselves in the burgeoning internet era. A box office haul of 431 million dollars says that a lot of people liked it (or that much fewer people went to see it many times; I saw it 21 times myself). As time wore on, debate about the quality of the film raged, and still does to this day. There was the camp that loved every minute and defended every aspect like a protective mother bear. Then there were the haters who thought their childhood had been stomped on. They believed that Jar-Jar killed everything good about Star Wars while Anakin was in no way representative of what Darth Vader ought to have been as a child.
Those who got on the prequel bashing wagon didn’t bother to get off for Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith. With their minds made up that Star Wars was ruined, that George Lucas had lost his touch, many saw their love for the saga squelched, leading them to now ignore the prequels almost entirely except for its main story beats. In 2005, we said goodbye to Star Wars films forever, or so we thought.
Enter 2012. The announcement that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm, and would immediately begin production of a sequel trilogy – episodes 7, 8, and 9. The original big three of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher were along for the ride. It was like finding out that a relative believed to be dead was actually alive and thriving. Fandom was reinvigorated, as if being given steroids made for a thoroughbred. Sure, the Clone Wars animated film and series kept the fires alive, but every fan felt it was a saga on life support as far as new content was concerned. Backed by the beast that is Disney, it was clear that Star Wars was back in a way we never thought possible.
With the age of social media in full swing, fan interaction has never been simpler and more widespread. Consuming, sharing and discussing content has never been easier. Add in the blogs, podcasts and video shows that amplify the hype, and we’ve got another era in Star Wars that is redefining what the word ‘hype’ really means. Where in the prequel era, fans more or less knew what was coming as far as story goes, this time around we don’t know what the story holds for us. The happy diehards are now re-joined by the jilted prequel haters; one group happy to add to the saga, the other group desperate to have the Star Wars name restored to its former glory. Same goal, different approaches.
The roll-out of The Force Awakens has been painfully slow but wholly engrossing. The first teaser dropped over a year ago, and fans went insane. The look was right, the tone was right, the feel was right. Everything was right. It was followed by a second teaser earlier this year, which concluded with our first look at Han Solo in 32 years. Fandom lost its shit. The summer was relatively quiet with spoilers leaking out here and there, but you have to go out of your way for those.
Then came Force Friday, September 4th, which was pretty underwhelming, depending on where you were. Maybe it was because fans haven’t come around as much as we think, or because retailers are still gun shy due to scars left by the prequel era, but complaints about this year’s ForceFriday are everywhere, and I can attest to them. In my area, promotion was virtually non-existent, fans were scarce, and stores seemed totally unaware that this was something big. Nearly 3 months later, and some places have still not received more than just the initial wave of figures, vehicles and other playthings.
One of my local WalMarts on ForceFriday this year. No, the shelves were not picked clean – they were not even loaded yet!
Suddenly in October, the avalanche began in earnest with the first full trailer on Monday Night Football. Moments later, the trailer appeared online and the internet was again broken. Since then we’ve been fed a steady diet of international trailers and TV spots, leading some fans to cry “enough!” in an effort to remain as spoiler-free as possible. The anticipation is at least as high for The Force Awakens as it was for The Phantom Menace in that all possible avenues of discussion are crammed with Star Wars talk. But what about expectations? In 1999 everyone was expecting the greatest movie ever made. They didn’t get it. In 2015, we’re expecting this to topple all box office records and many fans are expecting the best Star Wars movie of them all. Frankly, it feels like those asking may just get it. You have to dig deep to find someone who looks at the available content for The Force Awakens negatively. It seems painfully clear that every stone has been turned over in an attempt to get this movie right in all aspects. What has also been very obvious is Lucasfilm’s tendency to stay as far away from anything related to the prequels at all, repeating the “real sets, practical effects” mantra at every opportunity. Knowing that these films are polarizing, they’ve put their eggs in the original trilogy basket, to the outrage of just about nobody.
While George Lucas told a story with these movies, he also used them as a chance experiment with different technologies. He’s always been a tinkerer, a pioneer of film making who did things his way. While criticism of his methods eventually chased him away, as he mentioned in last week’s interview with Charlie Rose, George Lucas doesn’t work under regular norms and conventions. Lucasfilm has decided to take the formula that made Star Wars popular and apply to The Force Awakens, and probably episodes 8 and 9 as well. This is not an opportunity to pioneer or tinker. Each movie is a guaranteed grand-slam if they stick to what made the originals so great. So while we don’t yet know what we’re going to get, all signs point to us being giddy over the final product. Then again, where we are now in the lead-up to The Force Awakens is pretty much the same place we were at during the lead-up to The Phantom Menace. If you’re a fan irked by the prequels, is your faith restored by what you see? If you love the prequels, are you just as excited about these movies as you were from 1999-2005?
It’s nearly impossible to measure if there’s more hype today than there was in 1999. I think we can say that the cultural awareness was cranked to 11 in both eras, with the main difference being that today’s content is far more distributed as opposed to a more narrow focus in 1999.
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Thanks for reading!