The first movie in the Star Wars Saga was released in May, 1977. It was written and directed by then newcomer George Lucas. The story revolved around the adventures of Luke Skywalker, a young idealistic farm boy who, along with a ragtag band of stalwart allies, attempted to aid the brave rebel alliance in its attempt to free the galaxy from domination by the evil galactic empire. Featured in the cast were Mark Hamill, now most famous for lending his voice to the Joker in Batman the animated series, Harrison Ford, who went on to star in numerous big budget Hollywood productions, theatre legend Alec Guinness probably most famous for playing a lead role in Bridge over the River Kwai, George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Carrie Fisher, who has all but disappeared from the cinematic landscape.
It broke new ground in terms of special effects and redefined American film making, and through the film, Lucas created the modern blockbuster. It was something fresh that hadn't been seen before, and used practical effects such as puppets and models to create a spectacular science fiction universe that was new and more rooted in fantasy than had been seen previously in Gene Roddenberry's television series Star Trek.
The movie was simply called Star Wars, but was retitled in 1981 Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope. It was the first of three films, the other two being The Empire Strikes Back released in 1980 and Return of the Jedi released in 1983. The same actors appeared in all three movies.
The Phantom Menace came out in May 1999 and was the fourth film in the Star Wars franchise. Set thirty-two years before the first Star Wars film, The Phantom Menace followed Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi as they protected Queen Amidala in her efforts to secure a peaceful end to an interplanetary trade dispute. Joined by a young Anakin Skywalker, a slave with unusual powers of the Force, they contended with the mysterious return of the evil Sith.
The film cost $115 million to make and made over one billion at the box office. It was absolutely awful. The acting was stiff, the script was clunky, the characters weren't well developed and many of the computer-generated alien creatures were based on racial stereotypes, including the now infamous Jar Jar Binks, whose dialogue was almost unintelligible. Given that the majority of the characters were played by such talented actors as Liam Neeson, Ewan MacGregor, Samuel L. Jackson, Terence Stamp and Ian McDermid, it revealed Lucas' talent for bringing out the worst in his actors.
The ones who suffered the most under Lucas' direction (or lack thereof) were Natalie Portman (Queen Amidala), who at that point was a relative newcomer to film, and Jake Lloyd (the young Anakin Skywalker). The things that were spectacular about the film were its special effects, which still hold up in comparison to other CGI films produced in the late 1990s, and the light saber duel between Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul, featuring the amazing martial art stylings of taekwondo expert Ray Park.
The film was quickly followed by two horrible sequels, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. It is sad watching The Phantom Menace now, as it shows the beginning of the end of Lucas' magical talent at film making.
Thankfully, the franchise has returned, bigger and better than ever. If you want to view a recent Star Wars film of incredible quality, see Star Wars: the Force Awakens, the latest Star Wars film by J.J. Abrams, and be amazed at how he is able to rejuvenate the dying franchise.