The Star Wars film series created by George Lucas has become one of the most successful franchises in the history of cinema, and the latest film, Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, is out this month. The fourth film, Star War Episode I – The Phantom Menace, was released in 1999, and was the first of three prequels to the original trilogy. The film starred Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman, and grossed $924,317,558 worldwide.
Here is the Telegraph's original review by Booker Prize-nominated novelist Andrew O'Hagan, published on July 15, 1999.
When I was a boy – oh yes – a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away... we used to bother our mothers for telescopes, and beg the Baby Jesus for another five minutes of The Twilight Zone.
Another programme on TV at the time was called Space 1999: it offered a madly innocent, sticky-back-plastic vision of the intergalactic future, and we seized as many episodes as we could, swallowing them down with endless sachets of some horrendous erupting sherbet called Space Dust. We wondered at the technological wizardry involved in making a plastic man's eyes go from side to side. And then came Star Wars.
Reader, I loved it. I remember describing the movie to a mildly tolerant teacher as the best thing ever made in the history of things being made. It was certainly a new kind of space, and a new kind of world, that allowed these heroes to fly about and fight the good fight in the criminally breathtaking ways that they did. We all went properly bonkers at the prospect of more special effects to come.
This generation, my generation, was also the first to drink freely (or not so freely, as our fathers would insist) at the glistening waters of global movie merchandising. How we wanted the Yoda doll. The most obedient swot in the class would routinely go on pencil strike if denied his own Chewbacca headgear with assorted laser-guns and additional hosiery.
The new Star Wars arrives with an intensity of hype that makes the campaign for Titanic look like a minor fund raiser for the Lifeboat Institute. Critics, who like to set themselves above such nonsense, have already drawn their light sabres against it, as has a fraternity of sad fanatics, people who liked the previous films rather too much and never got over it.
Yet The Phantom Menace is probably one of the most deliriously inventive films to have appeared in years: it displays all of George Lucas's uncommon magic, a wide-eyed genius for adventure narrative that is beyond any ordinary capacity for wonder, and in many respects the latest episode proves itself to be a more finished movie than any of the others. It is daring and beautiful, terrifying and pompous – and that's just the title sequence.
The new story has a fairly familiar Star Wars shape: the unimpeachable in pursuit of the unimaginable. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson), Jedi knights and ambassadors of the Republic, come to sort out a bunch of pig-faced morons, the Trade Federation, who are, as the film opens, terrorising the peace-loving planet of Naboo.
These Jedi knights are the very height of no-nonsense. They have a quite deliberate sense of duty and barely crack a smile through the whole film, and Ewan McGregor, Scotland's answer to Sean Connery's answer to Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, is quite at home with this new severity.
Too much at home in fact. McGregor has an honest, sonsy face, and his voice, which is usually all oatcakes and shandy, is here all plum-cake and claret, and it sounds weirdly inauthentic, an unwise confection in a wholly confected universe. As Obi-Wan, he sounds like he's spent the past 5,000 years at Rada, which I suppose is the only way to sound like the young Alec Guinness, who played the part in the previous films.
After beating off a legion of rogues in the customary fashion, our heroes begin to address the slightly larger question of how to restore order to the galaxy. They do this best by serving the interests of the Queen of Naboo (Natalie Portman), who, unlike the legendary Princess Leia of old, is merely to be helped and not to be kissed. Anyhow there is no Han Solo/Harrison Ford figure, ever ready to cop a snog in the seconds before hyperspace. You wouldn't dare to smudge the Queen of Naboo's lipstick: she's a regular Max Factor on ice.
If we lose some of the human aspects of the old characters, however, there is great pleasure to be had from the otherworldliness of the new ones: ministers with fondant heads and elastic necks; gonzo citizens with wings; androids that are all iron limbs and rifles; Toongs and Dugs and Sags and, if you don't mind, Xextos – a gangly, elephantine, lizardly mob, a regular House of Lords.
Jar-Jar Binks is the new star. A wise-cracking, pony-headed, flarey-nostrilled, slack-mouthed beast with giant feet and hands like shovels, he comes into our lives as someone who knows the ways of the universe a little better than the rest of us.
He raps like a Jamaican gangster and walks like one of the Kids from Fame: he is already limbering up, in his computer-generated way, to be a long-serving Jedi chum in the manner of the howling, hairy Chewbacca. Jar-Jar is pretty useless as a mate: he can't fix stuff, and he's always getting into bother, but he lends a load of schlepping good humour to the average task of the young Jedi. He will soon be as loved as Winnie-the-Pooh.
Liam Neeson brings a heavy dose of quiet man to his erstwhile-Samurai posture: his character, Qui-Gon, has a great interest in the story of the future – a story we already know from the other three films – and more often that not he acts as the plot's connective tissue. He is also the film's brawling uber-philosopher, advising his young friends, as someone always has to, about how best to attend to the power of the Force.
But the visual effects in The Phantom Menace are so good that you find yourself not caring very much about Qui-Gon's prophetic murmurings. There's an utterly amazing sequence in which the two Jedi swim underwater to Jar-Jar Binks's colony, which consists of a series of beautifully coloured bubbles, like submerged Tiffany lamps, into which our heroes pass with ease, from the sopping wet to the bone dry, and never a splash or a whimper.
Lucas surpasses himself in these effects, offering a series of rolling perspectives on the impossible – such as the one at the centre of the film, an aircraft Grand Prix in which there are twists, turns, tumbles and crashes, supersonic scrapes and escapes, that would raise the hair on a boiled egg. Next to all this, Qui-Gon's homilies are inoffensively calm. We are just happy to be around Neeson, in his dowdy cloak and tied-back hair, looking a bit lost among all this computer-generated quackery, like a shy boyfriend at a costume party. Nevertheless in the course of their adventures he discovers an over-confident young boy, Anakin, who lives as a slave on the desert planet Tatooine. Little Anakin will be a major player, a whole division unto himself of tension and drama: he is the future Darth Vader, baddie extraordinaire.
The Star Wars films have always had a Narnia-like Christian backbone, and they have always invited the communion of the young and the not-so-young in a world that seems private and detailed and spiritually complete, with visual effects too spectacular to reason with. The Phantom Menace creates if anything a more adhering fiction of this kind. Children of no certain age will love it, and they will imagine a message in all this chasing and shooting and raging for order and laughs.
But George Lucas has a complex heart. "The biggest problem in this universe is that no one helps each other," says the apple-cheeked young Anakin, with no sense of his Star Wars future, and our Star Wars past, where the turn from goodness to badness to goodness again is a theme more compelling than reassuring. In the meantime fasten your seat belts: you're in for a bumpy night.