While Disney originally planned to have Star Wars: The Force Awakens open in theaters this month (in a parallel universe, people are already debating the many merits/shortcomings of Episode VII), they were forced to push the release back to this December after J.J. Abrams and Co. had a bit of trouble settling on the story. But as we eagerly anticipate the release of the first Star Wars movie in 10 years, and indeed the first Star Wars movie of an entirely new era in the saga, now is an opportune time to point out that on this date in 1999, May 19th, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, opened in theaters.
You would not be wrong to suggest that Episode I was the most highly anticipated movie in recent memory. I was relatively new to the saga in the late 1990s, but even I got chills walking past that incredible teaser poster at my local cineplex. This was the origin story of Darth Freaking Vader. An entirely unseen chapter in a saga that was beloved by millions of people the world over, and from the same man who created the original trilogy. What could possibly go wrong?
The Phantom Menace opened to $64.8 million in its first weekend, which at that time was second only to The Lost World: Jurassic Park’s $72.1 million as far as opening weekends go, though it did break the record for a single-day gross with $28 million (how quaint). It would go on to become 1999’s highest grossing film with $431 million domestic, and it earned $924.3 million worldwide before its 3D re-release pushed it over the $1 billion mark.
Reviews were…mixed. It had its fans, and Roger Ebert notably praised two thirds of the prequel trilogy, but audience members were less than thrilled. There seemed to be a bit of shell-shock going on wherein it took fans a hot second to admit to themselves how far The Phantom Menace fell short of the original trilogy. Now, ten years after release, instead of being a beacon for a new chapter of the Star Wars saga, The Phantom Menace is retroactively seen as the harbinger of disappointment.
Of course May 19th is also the release date of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, the final and best-reviewed installment of the prequel trilogy, but with The Force Awakens on the horizon, it seemed appropriate to focus on Episode I. Will the Abrams-steered, second “reset” of the saga finally bring the series back to its glory days, or are we in for another prequel-level disappointment? We’ll find out for sure this December, but for now enjoy quite possibly the best thing to come out of the entire prequel saga: the brilliant teaser trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.