Return of The Phantom Menace

I saw the first trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in 1998 at a friend’s apartment. It took forever for the trailer to load at what was then the fastest speed available to us. I came THIS close from going to see Meet Joe Black because the trailer was showing before it. I watched the choppy internet download at my house and became increasingly more aggravated. I scoured the internet for info as often as I could, but Star Wars.com at the time only had something called “The Anatomy of a Dewback” and production art for a Naboo N-1 Starfighter. I flipped my lid when something new was discovered, like the Emperor was IN FACT Darth Sidious, mentor to Darth Maul, apparently the name of the guy with the face tattoos. So they were going into Sith discipleship and lineage? “Darth” was a kind of surname? Awesome. What I didn’t realize was I had slipped into an addiction…I was now a spoiler junkie, an addiction that raged out of control for Episode II and even for Episode III. In fact it is an addiction I fight to this day.

Then the Episode I trailer appeared on Entertainment Tonight. Now I had it on VHS to watch 7,000 times. I had worsening Star Wars fever the closer the film came to coming out and for some time after. I still have the special Vanity Fair issue, the Illustrated Episode I screenplay, tiny “Who’s Who of Episode I” books, TV Guide issue sets. I literally went to all of the restaurant chains selling the action figure topper cups and collected every last one. Those fell victim to being sold on EBay some time ago, they are just so cumbersome there’s go good place to put them, but I still collect cups to this day. I have hundreds from around the world. And that addiction kicked off because of Episode I too.

A caravan of us went to see the flick at midnight on the 18th into the 19th of may 1999. There was a guy dressed at Darth Maul trying to look…uh…menacing to everyone in line as we waited. We thought he was hired by the cinema but as we started filing into the cinema he joined the back of the line. He hadn’t even seen the movie and he was cosplaying. Did that term even exist then?

Was I disappointed? Nope. I loved the hell out of that movie. I was impressed by Sebulba the podracer for some reason, he was my equivalent of Jeff Gordon and my wallpaper for months. I just dug (pun) his style. My kids went to subsequent showing, one during the day on the 19th even. They were tiny at the time but they had a blast and remember that movie above the other prequels with special fondness. I mean NOTHING compared to the way my mind was melted when I saw Episode IV: A New Hope in 1977, but then again that kind of experience only comes along every so often.

I mean, yeah, Episode I is crazy flawed and was not the film I expected to see for over 20 years. That’s the problem with intense expectations, sometimes the final thing can never measure up. I forgave that film as well as the following two Episodes their shortcomings (actually, I have ZERO problems with Revenge of the Sith) because as a kid playing with Star Wars figures in the dirt, sleeping in Star Wars sheets, eating cereal from Star Wars bowls, reading Star Wars comics, I always had a curiosity and fascination with the snippets of lore Obi Wan gave us in A New Hope as well as tidbits of information we got in Episodes V and VI. Luke’s father and Obi-Wan were Jedi Knights of a more civilized age fighting in The Clone Wars, a time before the Empire existed. Vader was in fact Luke and Leia’s father, a man named Anakin Skywalker, but had been seduced by the dark side and was “more machine now than man, twist-ed and e-vil”. Stop me if you’ve heard any of this.

But the big one, the biggest thing that made me want to see Episodes I, II and II in my lifetime, as soon as I possibly could, is when it is revealed that the man encased inside the lethal looking black armor, scourge of the universe, dark lord of the Sith, is just a frail old man. One of the most deeply saddening things I have ever seen and felt in my life. What had happened? How had Anakin gone from Obi-Wan’s friend, a cunning warrior in his youth, to this frail, scarred man in a bionic monster suit that had seemingly become no more than an evil overlord’s heavy? I needed to know. Little did I only had to wait sixteen years to find out.

So thirteen years from THEN, as the 3D re-release of Episode I approaches on May 10, I am gearing up to go see it ASAP. I contacted my brother in law because my nephew is a battle droid freak; has tons of them, draws them all the time, made a battle droid appreciation page on Facebook. My kids both responded with a yes that implied I’d gone senile early when I asked if they wanted to see it opening day. My wife, well my wife will enjoy the empty house. It might be my fifth favorite Star Wars film but I will enjoy it like its my first favorite on that day. Good times.

Hate emails can be sent to hartters2@aol.com

Sean Hartter

Hartter wishes he was the love child of R. Crumb and Jack Kirby.

Latest posts by Sean Hartter (see all)

Subscribe to the Retroist Newsletter

* indicates required

10 thoughts on “Return of The Phantom Menace

  1. Great memories Sean. I saw the commercials for this last night during the Super Bowl and for a moment I got a little tingle of the excitement I had right when they announced the prequels.

    They are flawed and I am really more looking forward to the original trilogy on the big screen, but I will be seeing them re-opening weekend.

  2. Although I didn’t see Star Wars: A New Hope on opening day (I was 4 in 1977 and didn’t get a vote), I did see Empire and Return on opening day, and opening day midnight showings all three prequels. I also saw all three of the special edition releases back in the mid-to-late 90s on opening day as well.

    For Phantom Menace, we arrived at the theater at noon and found a line that wrapped around the theater and nearly to the horizon. I had given up hope on getting tickets when I heard someone yell my name. An old college friend of my wife’s was 4th in line! The theater said that people were limited to either 6 or 8 tickets (I forget), but our friend was only buying 2. We had just gone through McDonald’s and were getting ready to eat lunch, so we traded our two combo meals for two tickets. It worked out for everybody, and we got to see Phantom Menace opening night!

    I’ve got a pretty awesome home theater setup at home, but there’s nothing like seeing a film in a real movie theater. So while I’m not particularly excited over the 3D aspect, I AM excited about getting to take my kids to the theater and letting them experience the movie the same way I did.

  3. @Flack – I always remember the movies I went to see on a big opening weekend. Raiders, the Original Batman and Empire come to mind. I also saw Phantom Menace when it opened and while people would complain afterwards about the film, when that music hit me and the scroll started, I was a little kid again. Worth it just for that moment.

  4. I remember how big the release of this film was. I worked at Waldenbooks and we had dozens of tie-ins, mostly geared towards kids. We had a life size, 3-d cardboard display of a Battle Droid standing in our window.

    We had all the books just sitting in the backroom a good week before the street date, so I got a chance to read Terry Brooks’ movie novelization on my lunch breaks. As I finished the story, I thought to myself, “I hope people don’t get too attached to Darth Maul.”

  5. mwentworth says:

    My Daughter, at 4 1/2 years old, LOVED Darth Maul. I mean it was like she had a crush on him. I should have taken that as a warning! (just kidding MKW)

  6. mwentworth says:

    I enjoyed Phantom Menace thoroughly when it came out; I am a small minority who was more put off by the droids being woven into the prequels than I was by Jar Jar. I think the most impressive thing was the fact that lightsaber battles had improved 1,000,000%. To this day, I think I would actually rather watch Menace than ROTJ.

  7. What a fantastic memory of the Phantom Menace, Sean, thank you for sharing it with us. :)

    While I do think it is a flawed movie, I nevertheless enjoy watching it. When it first hit the theaters I ended up standing in line for 18 hours with Retroist Regular, Dax. We held the line for the rest of our friends who could not get off work to secure tickets for the opening night. There was a moment where some of my fellow movie theater workers were attending the screening that only the press were invited to and they offered to let me in to watch it with them…it was so tempting…so very, very tempting. But I did manage to somehow resist the temptation and I continued to hold the line with Dax. Thankfully we had our friends who would drop by throughout the day and night to bring us food and drink and eventually warmth as the temperatures began to fall…and worse of all I had gotten a sunburn, kind of a bad one because of my own stupidity.

    The morning of the release I found myself shivering, wearing a friend’s black hoodie as a radio station van pulled up. They wanted to interview some of us and I was the first one picked.
    “Wow, are you supposed to be the Emperor?” the Radio Guy asked.
    “No. I’m just really, really cold.” I replied.
    The Radio Guy asked how long I had been standing in line and I told him to which he said that the Force was strong with me for doing that. Sigh. He asked me who my favorite character of the Star Wars films were and I replied, “Admiral Ackabar”. The Radio Guy just gave me a blank stare…and moved on. But not before handing me a box of donuts and some OJ!

Leave a Reply