Nostalgia is a tricky thing. It’s often ridiculed, but we don’t get to choose what we feel nostalgic for, really. The trick of parsing nostalgia is separating what you feel good about simply for nostalgic reasons, and the things that are actually good. Conflating both is when things start to get dicey and leads to the aforementioned ridicule. Anyway, all this is to say, I’ve been feeling a hefty amount of nostalgia for The Phantom Menace — which was released twenty years ago this week — recently and I am unbelievably surprised by this turn of events.
Look, I’ll openly admit I was one of those people who convinced themselves that they loved The Phantom Menace after the first viewing. Yes, I was that person strutting out of the theater saying stuff like, “Hey, how about that lightsaber fight at the end with Darth Maul? That was pretty awesome!” while just ignoring the rest of the movie. It was only after the second and third time I saw it I started to have those, “Hm, I don’t know about this one,” feelings.
And, today, I can barely make it through The Phantom Menace without falling asleep. It’s funny, it’s usually about right now in essays like this that people make jokes about the taxation of trade routes. I actually find this part interesting! Atrocities often start with something benign. And at least there is a point it. As opposed to the pod race, which serves a very flimsy purpose and goes on forever. People often cite the pod race as “exciting,” but it’s just an extended late ‘90s CGI orgy. I’d rather hear more about the trade routes. At least that’s something driving the plot. So, no, I have no problems with the film’s take on taxes, instead it’s just the entire film’s strange lack of urgency and stilted dialogue.
So this does not explain at all why I’m feeling nostalgia for a movie I objectively do not like very much. And then I finally figured it out. I’m not feeling nostalgia for The Phantom Menace. I’m feeling nostalgia for the lead up to The Phantom Menace.
And it’s not that still incredible first trailer, though that plays a big role. And yes, for those of us who love action figures, having new characters to purchase was pretty great. (I’ll never forget the first time I saw that young Obi-Wan Kenobi action figure in stores. This is why when I saw the 20th-anniversary six-inch recreation at Star Wars Celebration I knew I had to own it. And I now do own it. And it’s also when I finally figured out I have The Phantom Menace nostalgia.)
It probably doesn’t take a lot of internal digging to figure out there’s a lot more going on here than a surface level The Phantom Menace remembrance. At the time the internet was still pretty young and it just felt so full of (to use a Star Wars analogy) hope. And the lead up to The Phantom Menace was a big part of that. It’s weird thinking back to ‘90s internet, because the temptation is to discard the whole thing as archaic. But by 1998 and 1999 it was a fairly functioning entity. Oh, it was slow, but I’m always surprised when I’m on eBay and it says I’ve been a member since 1998. Like, what? There was eBay in 1998? And I joined it?
I’m sure online toxic fandom existed, but if it did they certainly didn’t have the ability to weaponize their rhetoric like they do now. Without social media, a person would basically have to seek stuff like that out – and even that wasn’t the easiest thing to do back then between AOL chatrooms and a Lycos search. (Yes, Google existed in 1999. And I remember it caught on fairly quickly. But it wasn’t the universal search engine yet. I defended Lycos until I couldn’t anymore. Also, somehow, Lycos sill exists.)