Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace is a 1999 American epic space opera film written and directed by George Lucas, produced by Lucasfilm and distributed by 20th Century Fox. It is the first installment in the Star Wars prequel trilogy and stars Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Ian McDiarmid, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Ahmed Best, Pernilla August, Brian Blessed, Ray Park, and Frank Oz.
The film is set 32 years before the original film, and follows Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi as they protect Queen Amidala, in hopes of securing a peaceful end to a large-scale interplanetary trade dispute. Joined by Anakin Skywalker—a young slave with unusually strong natural powers of the Force—they simultaneously contend with the mysterious return of the Sith.
Lucas began production of this film after he determined that film special effects had advanced to the level he wanted for the fourth film in the saga. Filming started on June 26, 1997, at locations including Leavesden Film Studios and the Tunisian desert. Its visual effects included extensive use of computer-generated imagery (CGI); many of its characters and settings were completely computerized. The film was Lucas's first directorial effort after a 22-year hiatus following Star Wars in 1977.
The Phantom Menace was released to theaters on May 19, 1999, almost 16 years after the premiere of the previous Star Wars film, Return of the Jedi. The film's premiere was extensively covered by media and was greatly anticipated because of the large cultural following the Star Wars saga had cultivated. It received polarizing reviews; critics praised the visuals, action sequences, score and many of the performances, but criticized the writing, characterization, and Ahmed Best's (as Jar Jar Binks) and Jake Lloyd's (as Anakin Skywalker) performances. It grossed more than $924.3 million worldwide during its initial theatrical run, making it the second-highest-grossing film worldwide at the time, behind Titanic. It became the highest-grossing film of 1999 and the highest-grossing Star Wars film (until the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015), and is the tenth-highest-grossing film in North America as of August 2017 unadjusted for inflation. A 3D reissue, which has earned an additional $102.7 million at the box office and brought the film's overall worldwide takings to over $1 billion, was released in February 2012. The film was followed by two sequels, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones in 2002 and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith in 2005.