Now that Star Wars mania is gearing up for it’s annual bombardment of our senses, as it plasters every surface of the Earth with some incantation of Lucasfilm licensed images before the December release of Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, I thought it would be nice to look back on the days leading up to the a previous period of Star Wars frenzy, the time we waited for the prequels to start. The days of The Phantom Menace.
I remember when The Phantom Menace came out I was working at the movie theater at the local mall at that time, which was basically the best job ever. The pay was pitiful, but you got free movies, free posters, free popcorn and lots of free time in between screenings where you could just walk around the mall or jump into a theater. It was great and the uniforms weren’t embarrassing. It definitely rivaled video store clerk for best slacker job at the time.
The hype leading up to Episode I: The Phantom Menace was completely insane and I don’t think I realized how big it really was until we got the poster in and my manager, who almost never left his office, personally came out to hang it in the display case in front of the theater. He treated it like it was a child or a new car, and I could feel his fear that someone might try to hurt it or steal it.
Like the tractor beam on the Death Star, it didn’t take long before the poster was drawing people in. Sure, there were kids that just ran by and dragged their grimy hands across the glass, yelling to their parents that they wanted to see it, but there were other people (I’m sure you can imagine the type) who would stand there staring at the poster outside just quietly dissecting it to death.
The day the movie was to open it was all hands on deck, and I drew the short straw to work the ticket booth (which we only had one of) the morning they went on sale. When I arrived at the theater to open up it was insane. The entire wing of the mall and that section of the parking lot was packed with people who had camped out to get tickets. The television station had a news crew there. The radio station had been broadcasting live from the lot most of the night. It was bananas, but also really exciting. Everyone was just stoked.
One of the perks of working the ticket booth that day was that I was able to purchase tickets for myself and my friends without having to panic over getting sold out…which was a reality for some people that showed up late to the party. Again, this was a low paying job, so I’d take whatever perks I could get. Eat it, Blockbuster Video guy!
Most of the day was a blur, since we were so busy and everyone was just buzzing around high from the excitement. When the film prints arrived that afternoon you would have thought the Pope was visiting. We all stood around them in the lobby staring at these yellow canisters completely dumbfounded by the fact that the new Star Wars movie was actually a thing, a physical thing, and it was right there in front of us. That is until the projectionist whisked them away.
I don’t know if it was standard practice or he just couldn’t wait till later, but the manager decided to close for a while and have an employee screening before the midnight show, which was actually taking a bit of a risk since rumors of burned up and damaged prints at other venues were swirling around.
I think there was only around eight of us for the employee screening and, I’m not going to lie, having a private screening of anything, let alone the new Star Wars film, was pretty badass. It really hit me when the crawl started that this is happening. I’m watching the new Star Wars. And I was more than ready to love this movie.
There is some good stuff at the start of this movie, but I remember a feeling started to grow within me throughout the film like something isn’t right here. I thought maybe it was just me, but I looked around and everyone else had this head-tilt, slightly confused expression on their face. It wasn’t until Anakin got in that N-1 Starfighter that it hit me, this is not a good movie. Ugh.
After the screening ended and the lights came back on we all just sort of shrugged and didn’t know what to say to each other. It was a fun experience to have, but it was just undeniably disappointing. When we exited the theater the crowd from earlier had reassembled and you could just tell that no on had spent the hours that had past sleeping. I felt like Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles as I made my way through this crowd of wishful maniacs jacked up on caffeine.
‘How was it?’, someone asked, and all I could think to say was, ‘you just gotta see it’. Which I then did again at the midnight show and in bits and pieces everyday I was working for its entire run as it made its way down the hallway with each passing week to the small theater at the end.
It’s still my favorite of the prequels, but I guess that’s not really saying too much.