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Every saga has a beginning — Star Wars has two. The first is May 25, 1977, when George Lucas’s original megahit premiered in theaters, launching a cinematic trilogy that transformed the film industry. The second occurred on Nov. 18, 1998, when the first trailer for Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace played on 75 North American movie screens. Two days later, on Nov. 20, the trailer went into general release for millions of moviegoers to watch before major releases like A Bug’s Life and The Waterboy. In a mere two minutes, that trailer reestablished the franchise’s omnipresence for the next 20 years … and counting.
Star Wars hadn’t gone away in the years separating the end credits of Return of the Jedi from the first teasing glimpses of The Phantom Menace. Books were written, TV incarnations were attempted and video games were shoved into game consoles. By the mid ’90s, though, popular demand for trips to that far, far away galaxy had shrunk since the days when Lucas had taken a hands-on role in plotting his big-screen spectacles. So his return to the director’s chair for The Phantom Menace made the trailer even more of an event — a way of announcing to the public at large that Star Wars was going to be back and bigger than ever.
From today’s vantage point, we know things didn’t exactly play out like that. While Star Wars is bigger than it’s ever been, The Phantom Menace — which premiered in its entirety six months later — occupies a complicated place in that rebirth. Let’s save the debate over the finished film for its own 20th anniversary next May. For now, just give the trailer another look and marvel at the way it makes you feel the power of a dormant franchise roaring back to life.
Watch the trailer below:
The year before the teaser premiered, Lucas smartly stoked anticipation for Episode I by re-releasing the original trilogy in theaters via his controversial “Special Edition” cuts. Revisiting all of those familiar haunts and heroes on the big screen primed the audience with teasing glimpses of new environments and characters contained in the two-minute trailer. Later accused of being out of touch with the Star Wars fan base, Lucas’s creative instincts with the trailer couldn’t have been sharper. The opening moments — scored to John Williams’s beautifully elegiac “Force Theme” — instantly establish a mythic tone, alternating such tantalizing landscapes as a mist-covered swamp, a barren desert and a royal city with grand pronouncements like “Every generation has a legend” and “Every journey has a first step.”
Then, at the 37-second mark, the mood-setting overture ends and a blast of Williams’s immortal main title theme announces that the trailer is kicking into high gear. The remaining minute-and-a-half offers a rush of imagery that includes pod racing, aerial battles, first introductions (“Anakin Skywalker meet Obi-Wan Kenobi”) and a certain Sith warrior revealing his mind-blowing weapon of choice: a double-bladed lightsaber. Watching the trailer 20 years later, it’s easy to get excited for The Phantom Menace all over again, even knowing that some of these moments — particularly those involving Jar-Jar Binks’s brand of broad comedy — play very differently in the actual movie.
The original Star Wars is credited with re-inventing everything Hollywood knew about movie merchandising. The Phantom Menace announced a new era in movie advertising, one where the internet played a more powerful role. News of the Nov. 18 sneak peek was exclusively announced on StarWars.com four days earlier, along with the list of participating theaters. That web traffic translated into foot traffic: A 1998 New York Times article reported that those multiplexes saw a significant increase in nightly grosses for movies like Meet Joe Black and The Siege purely because fans were buying tickets to watch The Phantom Menace trailer on the big screen, many of them bailing before the main attraction. At least some things didn’t change between the ’70s and the ’90s: long lines still greeted those eager to blast off to Lucas’s far, far away galaxy.
On the other hand, by the late ’90s, Star Wars wasn’t an exclusively theatrical experience. Just as Lucas embraced home entertainment formats like VHS and LaserDisc, he recognized the potential of reaching audiences on their computer screens. Along with the general theatrical release, the trailer could be downloaded from StarWars.com. Forget YouTube or other video streaming sites, which were still years away from going online; if you wanted The Phantom Menace on your desktop, you’d have to put up with dial-up download speeds and iffy resolution. Still, the experiment was such a success that Lucas teamed up with tech titan Steve Jobs to release a second spot in March 1999 exclusively in Apple’s QuickTime format.
J.J. Abrams was a young screenwriter and TV creator when The Phantom Menace trailer heralded the return of Star Wars, but he clearly recognized a good idea when he saw it. On Nov. 28. 2014 — 16 years after the saga took its second first step — the teaser for Star Wars: The Force Awakens roared onto the internet, instantly dominating post-Thanksgiving chatter. (The 88-second spot also played in theaters, but in a clear sign of the times, most chose to watch it at home.) The Force Awakens trailer cuts to the chase, literally, with more speed than The Phantom Menace did, and focuses on quick and often context-free glimpses of action rather than trying to provide a sense of story. That speaks, in part, to how the mission of the two films differ: The Force Awakens is taking audiences into an as-yet uncharted future; The Phantom Menace is giving form to a history we know, but haven’t seen.
Still, there’s at least one moment in that teaser where Abrams directly channels Lucas: at the 54-second mark, he showcases the three-bladed lightsaber we later find out belongs to Kylo Ren. It’s a salute to the expertly timed reveal of Darth Maul’s double-bladed weapon, an image that caused fans’ hearts to beat at hyperspeed back in 1998. The Phantom Menace may not have been the movie that first trailer promised, but it provided an early glimpse of how Star Wars would go on to be a dominant “Force” in our own pop culture galaxy.
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