Star Wars fans were so excited for Phantom Menace they spoiled the whole plot

In 1999, the anticipation for Episode I reached feverish heights, with armchair detectives figuring out the plot well in advance of its release

Star Wars : Episode I - The Phantom Menace
Liam Neeson's Qui-Gonn Jinn battles Ray Park's Darth Maul on Tatooine in Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (Alamy)

Nothing in the last 25 years has matched the heights of anticipation for Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace. And while online fandom and reporting was in its infancy when the film went into development in the early 1990s, plot leaks and spoilers were inevitable.

The bigger spoilers in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy were costed in — everyone familiar with the original films understands that young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) will fight in some Clone Wars, father twins, and become Darth Vader.

What’s surprising by today’s standards is how much of the specifics of The Phantom Menace’s plot were known before 16 May 1999, its US release date. Much of the film’s story beats were either open secrets among fandom or else given away by the film’s mammoth marketing and merchandising campaigns.

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As with today’s online movie discussions, not every leak or rumour hit the mark. Star Wars forum TheForce.Net had speculation about Kenneth Branagh being a contender to play Obi-Wan Kenobi and how Liam Neeson’s character would either be Anakin’s father, a younger Emperor, or — madder still — a younger Yoda.

Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson flank Jake Lloyd who played the young Darth Vader aka Anakin Skywalker. (Alamy)
Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson flank Jake Lloyd who played the young Darth Vader aka Anakin Skywalker. (Alamy)

But between Lucas’ first draft of the script in late 1994 and the start of principal photography in June 1997, it became common knowledge in fan circles that the film would see Obi-Wan (Ewan McGregor) and his master Qui-Gon Jinn (Neeson, after all!) come to the aid of Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), who will become Luke and Leia’s mother.

After filming began, there were even rumours of Lucas shooting fake scenes to throw fans off the trail. The director addressed these reports and other leaks in a statement on the official Star Wars website, simply saying: "Don't count on it until you see the movie."

Read more: Take our Phantom Menace quiz now

By November 1998, the teaser trailer had avid Star Wars fans buying tickets to see movies like Meet Joe Black just to catch a glimpse of The Phantom Menace beforehand. When it dropped online, the official website crashed due to high demand, six months before the fever pitch of the film’s opening.

More details appeared with news of the film’s merchandise. Lucas practically invented blockbuster movie merchandising with the original trilogy and made big deals with Hasbro and Lego. It’s much more common for plot spoilers to leak out via toys these days, especially Lego sets, but new characters like Darth Maul and Jar Jar Binks became focal points of speculation.

As the release date drew nearer, larger blocks fell into place. A major preview feature in Vanity Fair revealed the start of the opening crawl — you know, the one where “the taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.”

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But the biggest spoiler that Lucasfilm dealt out was the track listing for John Williams’ score, which included “Qui-Gon’s Noble End” and “Qui-Gon’s Funeral”, giving away Neeson’s character’s fate.

The cover for Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace's soundtrack contained huge spoilers. (Sony Music)
The cover for Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace's soundtrack contained huge spoilers. (Sony Music)

Ahead of its release, it was possible to just guess the entire plot, as Weird Al Yankovic did in a detailed Phantom Menace parody song on his 1999 album, Running With Scissors.

Nowadays, most parody songs and sketches on YouTube have a quick turnaround, but albums have much longer lead times. Yankovic had to record “The Saga Begins”, set to Don McLean’s “American Pie”, in March 1999, a whole two months before the film’s release.

Yankovic told TheForce.Net: "I wanted my album to come out as soon as possible after the release date of the movie, because I didn't want the humour to be too dated — timing is very important in the parody biz."

Weird Al Yankovic at the 1999 premiere of Star Wars: Phantom Menace in Los Angeles. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)
Weird Al Yankovic at the 1999 premiere of Star Wars: Phantom Menace in Los Angeles. (Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic, Inc)

Although Lucasfilm declined his request for an early screening, the singer wrote the song based entirely on what he read online. He hedged his bets by paying to see a $500-a-ticket charity screening and only had to change one lyric, about Anakin and Padme’s relationship.

Online leaks and rumours have swirled around every Star Wars film since, but “The Saga Begins” is a true artefact of Phantom Menace fever — a song that’s so plugged into the imminent pop-culture phenomenon that it hits the nail on the head, mostly based on guesswork.

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Predictably, none of this dented interest in the film, and in May 1999, Episode I smashed box-office opening records. Despite fan disappointment and backlash at the finished product, the film was warmly received by contemporary critics and went on to become the highest-grossing movie of 1999 worldwide.

Barry Pepper and Ryan Reynolds attend a MTV special premiere of
A young-looking Barry Pepper and Ryan Reynolds attended a special preview of The Phantom Menace at Skywalker Ranch in 1999. (Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

When The Force Awakens came along in 2015, Disney, Lucasfilm, and director J.J. Abrams guarded its plot secrets much more carefully, but the hype was adjusted for inflation in an era of franchises and social media.

Back in 1999, “Star Wars is back” overcame all else, including how much we knew about Episode I going in.

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace is returning to UK cinemas for Star Wars Day 2024.