20 Years of Summer: 1999: STAR WARS Makes it Weird

Who's afraid of The Phantom Menace?


20 Years of Summer is a series covering summer blockbusters year by year, from 1996–the year that Independence Day turned special effects spectacle into the new norm–through the present.

1999. The year of Y2K hysteria that The Almighty Purple One had prepared us for years before. We were all set to party and celebrate, especially with a summer that was bringing a long-awaited new episode of the most popular film franchise in history. A franchise so popular that, as I’ve said before, calling it a franchise fails to do its popularity and ubiquity justice. Star Wars is a sub-culture. Star Wars shouldn’t merely be a land at Disney World, it should and could have been its own theme park years ago.

Nothing generates immediate hype like the beginning of a new Star Wars trilogy, as we saw most recently with the release of The Force Awakens. In 1999, The Phantom Menace was being called “the most anticipated movie since Gone With the Wind.” That much hype has an impact on more than just fans. Other studios wanted to keep their major projects as far away from The Phantom Menace as possible. The result is a bizarre summer where June is inordinately lacking in options, and two of the biggest, most-discussed summer hits were low key horror movies.

But before The Phantom Menace hit theaters in May, the year’s best blockbuster sci-fi film would take audiences by surprise in March.

Pre-Summer Warmup: The Matrix

Keanu Reeves and virtual reality science-fiction-action had been combined before. It was called Johnny Mnemonic, and no one liked it. That the Wachowskis were able to get The Matrix funded with Keanu in the lead is kind of amazing. He’d been going through a somewhat rough patch post-Speed. The aforementioned Johnny Mnemonic flopped, as did Chain Reaction. His quieter, more serious work, Feeling Minnesota, was panned, and his one success was The Devil’s Advocate, and everyone knows that it’s appeal was all about Pacino as Lucifer. And hell, even Speed was sold far more on its premise than any star power.

The premise to The Matrix is its strong suit as well, but the film’s earliest teasers were very secretive. “What is the Matrix?” and “No one can be told what the Matrix is, you have to see it for yourself,” were two of its taglines, and there was a sense that the people promoting the movie weren’t playing things close to the chest to preserve the plot’s mystery, but to mask some convoluted and/or empty bullshit. And then that first trailer came out…

“Woah” indeed. With its gravity-defying, digitally-aided stunts, extreme action and carefully choreographed, wuxia-influenced fights, The Matrix proved to be an exceptional test-run for the kind of superhero fight scenes we see in blockbusters today. Because that’s essentially what The Matrix is, a sci-fi superhero fantasy complete with origin story, code names, signature tight-fitting outfits and other aspects common to comic book heroes. The sleek, “all-black everything” look worn by the heroes in The Matrix would be copied in X-Men a year later (yes, Blade was also an influence in literally every single one of these categories, and it paved the way for Marvel’s future film ventures as I covered in the last entry, but The Matrix was a much bigger film)and in 2001, Spider-Man would be dodging projectiles in super-slow-mo like Neo.

Regardless of what you think of the sequels, the influence and impact of the first Matrix movie is undeniable. ID4 changed the scale of special effects and turned city-wide devastation into a showstopper. The Matrix brought digital effects back down to earth, using them in combination with practical effects to create an American wire-fu slow-motion action extravaganza. Beyond the special effects, the effect of the fight choreography on Western action films also can’t be overstated. To anyone who’s seen the type of martial arts movies that influenced the Wachowskis, the fighting in The Matrix might look just a bit stiff, a bit less fluid than it should. But it’s still damn good, and it lifted the importance of fight choreography in Hollywood action flicks.

Other Releases:

  • Wing Commander effectively killed the ideas of “Freddie Prinze Jr., leading man,” and “Matthew Lillard, co-leading man.”
  • EDtv was a year too late to be the first to critically comment on reality TV (losing that distinction to The Truman Show), and at least a couple of years too early to capitalize on the reality TV boom.
  • Eddie Murphy’s last R-rated film was Life, and it was also one of his better films–certainly one of his most thoughtful–so naturally it disappointed at the box office, because we don’t really want nice things.
  • Entrapment was not a good movie, and it has about four different increasingly stupid twist endings before the credits roll, but um…

…it ain’t all bad.

Early SummerThe Mummy and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace


I’m a horror movie fan, but I like to think I’m not a horror “snob,” and I’m certainly not “hardcore” when it comes to my affection for the genre. I maintain that I can have love for Halloween and Suspiria and still appreciate a movie like The Mummy, which, yes, is at least partly horror movie. It’s one of those horror-action-adventure-hybrids I talked about in the first 20 Years of Summer entry–similar to Jurassic Park–that manages to be gruesome yet playful fun for the whole family. This is a movie that opens with tongues being sliced out and a bound man being buried alive in a sarcophagus filled with flesh-eating, brain-burrowing beetles. It also has a lot of deliberately corny jokes, one absolutely hilarious bit that’s so well-conceived it would have worked in a silent movie, and the requisite, by-the-numbers, opposites-attract love story.

I really like The Mummy. The sequels are terrible, and the director’s attempt to replicate this movie’s general formula with Van Helsing is even worse (so, so much worse), but the first flick strikes the right balance of fun, horrific and silly to be good, brain-dead popcorn fare.

But, of course, for John and Jane Moviegoer, the summer of 1999 wasn’t about The Mummy, or any movie that came before or after May 19th. Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Looking back through the prism of this series reminds me of how much most of us had in George Lucas at the time. Sure, he’d released the “Special Editions” of the original trilogy with added CGI and general nonsense back in 1997, but none of us were terribly concerned about it back then. Okay, so this was his original vision, Han talks to Jabba and walks behind him and steps on his tail. I can do without it, but it’s no big deal, I still have the actual original version on home video and can watch it when I please. Unless you were a hardcore Star Wars purist, the Special Editions were, at worst, inessential, and at best, honestly, kind of cool. “But Han didn’t shoot first!” Who cares? It didn’t feel like it truly retconned anything, and I got to see X-Wings dogfight with TIE Fighters on the big-screen.

So even when the early rumblings of some ruinous character called “Jar Jar” started spreading to more and more people, there was still no reason to believe a Star Wars movie–a damn Star Wars movie–wouldn’t be, at the very least, a good time.

And then the movie came out. I needn’t rehash here what’s been covered ad nauseum on the web since The Phantom Menace‘s release. The best I can say about it is that it’s not completely devoid of entertainment: the pod-racing scene has its moments, and of course Ray Park as Darth Maul is almost good enough in the end to trick you into thinking you didn’t just watch an abomination. That’s about it. The Phantom Menace is poorly acted, poorly written and poorly directed, but what made it worse was that it was such an enormous event of a film that it was the only major show in town for almost a month in a half after its release.

From mid-May to the very last day in June, we see some comedies (including the Austin Powers sequel) and a Disney animated adventure, but no true blockbuster, action/popcorn flicks.

You could say it cast quite the shadow, but you shouldn't unless you're holding this poster when you say it.
You could say it cast quite the shadow, but you shouldn’t unless you’re holding this poster when you say it.

The year before, Godzilla was dealing with Six Days, Seven Nights three weeks after release and The X-Files a week after that. Neither of those movies were expected to be as big as Godzilla, obviously, but they still had major budgets, marketing and cachet behind them, and fit in the “live-action, action/adventure” category. Similarly, in 1997, The Lost World–the sequel to what was, at the time, the biggest movie ever–had Con AirSpeed 2, and Batman & Robin all open within three weeks after its release.

The Phantom Menace chased all direct competitors away for six weeks (don’t mention The Thirteenth Floor–you know damn well doesn’t count). The closest thing to major competition it had during that time was Disney’s Tarzan, a movie that gave Disney its biggest numbers for an animated film since The Lion King. Tarzan‘s a good movie, and maybe Disney fans are suckers for anything that’s set in a jungle and/or features talking animals 1, but I theorize that its high gross was partly due to the dearth of box office options for filmgoers seeking excitement instead of Adam Sandler’s latest. By the way, that Adam Sandler flick, Big Daddy, made twice as much as Sandler’s most lucrative effort to that point, and at least $40-million more than anything he’d make for the next seven years, which I’m going to take as further evidence that this was a weird ass summer, and that Star Wars was to blame.

And unfortunately, when the next major action flick did come to theaters, it was considerably worse than The Phantom Menace.

Other Releases:

  • I kind of breezed by Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me there, and it’s not very fair of me. It was the tenth biggest movie of the year, after all. And it’s a reasonably funny movie. It’s just that Austin Powers got really old, really fast. It wasn’t even Myers’s fault. It was all of us, with our incessant Dr. Evil impressions and “Yeah, baby / Groovy baby” quoting. And by “all of us” I mean all of you, because I’ll be damned if you can find anyone who knows me who will say I took part in any of that shit. In a few years it had gotten so out of control that Jay-Z was saying “I’ve got my mojo back, baby” on the hook of a diss track for a battle most people were saying he’d already lost, and that’s one of the coolest dudes of all time doing one of the lamest, corniest things you’ve ever heard of anyone doing.
  • A couple of R-Rated crime thrillers served as counterprogramming to The Phantom Menace, but neither was any good. Instinct‘s entire pitch to the public was “Anthony Hopkins is a crazy killer again,” and The General’s Daughter is a well-meaning, utterly forgettable and boilerplate military crime/cover-up story.
  • Julia Roberts rom-coms aren’t my thing, so it’s hard for me to muster the energy to write extensively about them, but I’m definitely doing her a disservice in this entry by just throwing any of her movies in the “Other Releases” section here. Julia Roberts crushed the summer of 1999 with one movie that was the seventh highest grossing film of the year, and another that was barely kept out of the annual top ten by Austin Powers. The first of those was Notting Hill, in which she was paired with Hugh Grant. America’s favorite glamorous actress starred with the world’s favorite charming British doof, in a story about how America’s favorite, glamorous actress falls in love with a charming British doof. Yeah, not a lot of thought put in that script, but Julia had star-power like solar panels and basically willed the film into raking in money.

Mid-Summer: Wild Wild West and American Pie


Nothing can last forever, not even Will Smith’s box office invincibility, which in hindsight lasted only from Bad Boys to Enemy of the State. He’s had hits since then, obviously, but he’s also had some underachievers and major misfires mixed in, and as of this writing hasn’t had a true blockbuster hit since 2012, though Suicide Squad could change that if it performs well.

In 1999, two catastrophic decisions derailed the Will Smith Money Train: Will passed on the role of Neo in The Matrix, and he re-teamed with Men in Black director Barry Sonnenfeld for the misconceived and horribly executed film adaptation of Wild Wild West. Everything about this film, from its title song, to its bizarre “fun racist” villain, to its ridiculous giant metal spider ending is an evident failure. It was killed by critics and audiences alike, dying a quick death at the box office and taking the overall Fourth of July weekend totals down with it.

Yet another profitable comedy mini-phenomenon made its way to theaters in July of ’99. American Pie effectively ended the brief era of PG-13 teen comedies. Movies like She’s All That10 Things I Hate About You and Can’t Hardly Wait were rendered almost immediately obsolete by this Gen-X Fast Times at Ridgemont High / Animal House. A year before, There’s Something About Mary helped legitimize R-rated “gross-out” sex romps, and American Pie brought the genre back to high school for the teenage market.

The odd summer movie season of ’99 was not quite done throwing curves, however, as its remaining weeks would be dominated by two out-of-nowhere horror hits.

Other Releases:

  • The horror movie that was set up to be a hit this summer, but that failed miserably, was the re-adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece, The Haunting. Turning that novel into a CGI-riddled, dumbed down bore is pretty close to unforgivable, and it deservedly put the penultimate nail in the coffin of Jan De Bont’s directorial career.
  • “Go, go Gadget Bad Idea!”
  • Julia Roberts second huge hit of the summer was Runaway Bride, a sort of weird movie in that probably wouldn’t fly these days. Misogynist psychos would bash it because they’re psychos, and Jezebel would over-analyze and vivisect it to expose all of its “problematic” points. It’s also a movie that could only have worked with a woman as the protagonist, just like The Hangover only works with men in the lead roles, because “a group of women wake up and can’t remember what happened the night before” is pretty much the start of a horror movie. I know it seems like we’re supposed to be progressing toward some kind of “post-gender” society sometimes, but a movie like this reminds you that these distinctions, however intangible, do exist.
  • Years later, I’m still not sure what to make of Eyes Wide Shutwhich Kubrick himself may have been conflicted about. But I do lament that such a strange, frankly adult movie might not ever see that much buzz and attention again.
  • Deepest, bluest, my hat is like a shark’s fin!” I mean, I understand why complain about today’s hip-hop, but it’s not like we were short on goofy, embarrassing rap songs in the 90’s. I’ve mentioned before that think LL is one of the greatest, but this was not one of his better moments.

Late Summer: The Blair Witch Project and The Sixth Sense

Hype and word of mouth can sometimes work for and against you simultaneously. Such was the case with The Blair Witch Project, the movie that foisted found footage horror upon the masses2, the first “viral marketing” film triumph, and one of the most profitable movies of all time. It was also, at the time, immediately considered to be one of the most overly hyped and overrated movies ever.

And, to be sure, it was all of those things. Over on my personal site, I wrote about my own experience with seeing The Blair Witch Project in theaters years ago. Seeing the movie at an advanced screening and knowing what I was getting into helped me appreciate the movie in the moment more than I likely would have had I watched it upon wide release. It was a great and unique experience. But Blair Witch isn’t a good movie so much as it is an important movie experiment, something it took a little while for me to realize.

The Blair Witch Project had a lasting impact on the horror genre, both positive and negative. Without it, there would be no Paranormal Activity series, for example, and your feelings toward those movies–and the myriad found-footage features like it–probably inform your feelings toward Blair Witch, or vice versa. Similar to The Matrix, however, its impact cannot be denied, even though it wasn’t the biggest horror movie of the year.


The Sixth Sense was an example of word of mouth working perfectly to a film’s benefit. It might be the biggest “word of mouth” success story in Hollywood history. No degree of marketing savvy alone could have propelled The Sixth Sense–a story-driven horror drama entirely devoid of CGI with a relatively modest budget–to become such a monster hit, making $672-million worldwide. That’s more than any non-adaptation/non-sequel/non-remake would make for ten years. The only movie since The Sixth Sense to spend more consecutive weeks at #1 at the box office is Avatar.

Considering how much it made and how it got there, The Sixth Sense can justly be classified as a film phenomenon. While it didn’t prove to be nearly as influential as The Blair Witch Project, it permeated pop culture in an entirely different way, and ultimately may have been too successful for its creator to handle.

M. Night Shyamalan was reduced to a punchline at one point, and while The Visit was good enough to give him hope for a strong comeback, it’s hard to imagine his career fully recovering. In August of 1999, he was a sudden critical darling, and the next “sure thing.” Unfortunately, he apparently decided that since The Sixth Sense‘s famous twist ending was getting so much attention, he needed to become some kind of “master of twist endings.” His devotion to last minute plot twists worked well for Unbreakable, but almost ruined Signs (some would argue it did ruin Signs), and with The Village he wrote some sleepy, elongated Twilight Zone fan fiction that existed solely to deliver the twist. Then things just kept getting worse, until the man who Roger Ebert once said could “summon apprehension out of thin air” was reduced to retroactively claiming that The Happening was meant to be a “B-movie” after it audiences and critics found it unintentionally risible. From there it managed to somehow get even worse.

No reasonable person in 1999 would have predicted that the man behind The Sixth Sense–a movie that felt like Spielberg had collaborated with Jack Clayton, director of The Innocents and Something Wicked This Way Comes–would someday be responsible for After Earth and the Airbender debacle. In hindsight, it’s almost infuriating to see how far Shyamalan has fallen. Back then, we all believed we had a new master of suspense in our midst.

Other Releases:

  • Coming out in September pushes it out of the official summer line up, but I’m compelled to mention Stir of Echoes, which was completely overshadowed by The Sixth Sense, but gave us our second great ghost story of the year.
  • Steve Martin and Eddie Murphy tried to give us something a little different with Bowfinger, so naturally it disappointed at the box office, because we don’t really want nice things.
  • The Astronaut’s Wife and The 13th Warrior came out in the last weekend of August and both were massive bombs that might have been a little too ambitious for their own financial good.

The Summer in Summary

Have I mentioned yet that this was a weird ass summer? You have the unprecedented buildup and colossal letdown of The Phantom Menace, the complete ineptitude of Wild Wild West and The Haunting, but also the groundbreaking action of The Matrix, the influential Blair Witch, and the stellar The Sixth Sense. I maintain that The Mummy is an entertaining flick, and American Pie provided some good laughs. We even got a high-profile highbrow flick in Eyes Wide Shut, and for the rom-com fans, you got two big Julia Roberts productions.

A strange summer bookended by two great surprises and peppered with a variety of enjoyable flicks, even if the one we all wanted to love failed to deliver. Maybe I’m being generous here, but I can’t let The Phantom Menace bring this entire summer down.

Summer Grade: B

  1. Calm down. I’ve seen Zootopia, I think it’s good, I was just making a random, easy, unfunny joke. Calm yo’ ass.
  2. I know it wasn’t the first, but it was the first to receive any sort of mainstream attention at all, much less be a hit
J. Compton is an author whose stories have appeared in Pseudopod, Arkham Tales, Fantasy Scroll Magazine and other publications. As co-host of the BNC he hopes you enjoy the site and only asks that you please remember to use coasters.