The Fandom Menace: How backlash to the Star Wars prequel created a toxic fan culture

The Phantom Memoir.

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Twenty years ago this week, The Phantom Menace was released at the crest of the biggest wave of audience hype ever known. It was the first Star Wars film in sixteen years.

In November 1998, an age before universal internet access, fans had paid to see Meet Joe Black, to which the first prequel’s trailer was attached, and left before the feature. At the turn of the year, Lucasfilm announced it wouldn’t be possible advance book for the film, so as to prevent ticket touts. Outcry saw the policy reversed, and mass touting, with advance tickets going for $100 plus.

(If you’re British, you may not remember it quite like this: the UK release date was 16 July, not 19 May. Such long gaps between US and international releases were then the norm.)

Anyway. It’s March 1999, and I’m an undergraduate. A second trailer has been shown on BBC News 24, and with advance warning so people could video it. I’m discussing this trailer, and the extra months we have to wait, with my friend Jonny, when he suddenly says, “Let’s fly out to see it”.

The idea hasn’t occurred to me. Because I can’t afford it, and it’s insane. But within the hour, plane tickets are booked, maxing out a credit card to be worried about later, by physically walking into a travel agent.

A magazine editor I know who can’t send anyone to a US screening is happy to take an early review; that makes this enterprise tax deductible, but doesn’t pay for it. We see the film at New York Ziegfeld at 6am opening day. Despite the hour, the sunshine and crowds create a carnival atmosphere. We see trailers for Mystery Men, Big Daddy and Fight Club.

Then the film begins. We love it. The whole audience loves it. The set pieces. The new characters. The younger versions of old characters. It’s not the the first time I see a film applauded, but it’s the first time something get more than one round.

Afterwards we go to a bar, because we’re 21 and British and buying beer at 9am is hilarious. We read Janet Maslin’s review in The New York Times (“...it's up to snuff… a swashbuckling extragalactic getaway”), and go to FAO Schwarz, to look at the toys. I buy the score, on cassette, for my walkman. Then we go and see Star Wars again.

When we get back to London, I submit my review by putting a 3” floppy disc in the post. Then follow several odd weeks. The film has been out a fortnight, but no one knows much about it. Acquaintances ask me endless questions. A friend, bolstered by my enthusiasm, heads to New York. I chat to Barry Norman at another preview and he compares Lucas’ return to those of Kubrick and Malick, who similarly have films coming out after long gaps. I temp that summer, and a stranger interrogates me for a whole lunch hour when he finds out I’ve seen it.

I’ an English Lit undergraduate: good criticism is not about evaluating quality, it’s about ideas such as “how X works” or “Y and its place in context”. Perhaps this is why I’ve been developing ideas about how Star Wars works. The symbolism of Lucas’ use of colour. The way his story duplicates and inverts images, characters, dialogue moments, to tease out its themes. His use of visual metaphor. His quietly subversive way with story.

When the film comes to the UK I get to do everything again, at a Leicester Square midnight opening. I walk home with my flatmates buzzing about what they’ve just seen. Colleagues go as a group, and have a brilliant time. The woman I job-share with likes it so much she goes again the night she and her boyfriend mean to see Cruel Intentions.

But somewhere, a tide is turning. Some hardcore Star Wars fans are unhappy that the film is aimed at children, as if all Star Wars before it somehow wasn’t. On Aintitcoolnews, the biggest filmgeek website in 1999, advances several not-yet-commonly-called-memes, some deeply unpleasant. “George Lucas raped my childhood,” someone tells me at a party. I tell them they need help.

Some complaints – for example, that the dialogue switches between bland and florid – apply to all Star Wars. Others just seem wrong. This film, attacked as “overly reliant on CGI and green screen”, actually has more model work than any previous Star Wars film, and was mostly shot on location.

More are puzzling. The film’s borrowings from Lucas’ beloved Keystone Cops, represented by Jar Jar Binks, bother people because they’re silly; these people presumably have not noticed that a main character in the original Star Wars is a camp robot butler, presumably because they saw it aged five. Less screen time is spent discussing taxation here than the original Star Wars spends discussing the violation of diplomatic immunity with which it opens. (Although, frankly, that the villains are a corporation refusing to pay taxes would probably play well in 2019.)

Lucas would later explain his decision to sell up to Disney by asking why he’d make films when people told him he was a terrible person for trying. His working relationships with Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman, both contracted for further films, suffered. Ahmed Best, who played Jar Jar Binks, found “fan” hatred so extreme, he contemplated suicide. Of course, an opinion isn’t responsible for that, but there’s a human cost to undiluted public vitriol.

We talk about “toxic fandoms” now. This wasn’t its beginning, but it might be the point it goes mainstream, making enough noise to move the zeitgeist. It ensures something exactly as well reviewed as The Empire Strikes Back, and which sustained its business to become the second highest grossing film of all time, is remembered as a failure, becoming the stuff of lazy punchline.

But, just as I can’t tell you you enjoyed something you didn’t, you can’t tell people they didn’t enjoy something they did. Twenty years is a long time. This week on social media has seen those who were children in 1999 sharing memories of loving a film that was made for them, and of playing out scenes from it which are indistinguishable from canonised cultural memory of 1977’s Star Wars. Plenty who were adults in 1999, too, have jumped on hashtags to say how they’d never understood why it was so hated. It’s not a complete turnaround: there’s plenty of snark too, including from other 1999 kids. But the tide has gone out again. It’s not a violation or a betrayal. It’s just a film, that some people like and some people don’t.

Star Wars Celebration is a series of conventions. Despite its name and official status it was, in the noughties, ground zero for fan discontent. At this year’s there was a “Twenty years of The Phantom Menace” panel. It was packed out, largely by those who would have been children in 1999. Lucas sent a video message in which, with deadpan defiance, he announced The Phantom Menace was his favourite of his movies, and Jar Jar his favourite character. There was applause. 

Emerging on stage to be interviewed, Ahmed Best got a standing ovation.

James Cooray Smith is freelance writer specialising in TV and film history.