May 19, 1999, was going to be one of the greatest days of my life -- and it was all going to begin at midnight. Yeah, I was that guy. I was the guy who scoured every nook and cranny of the Internet in an effort to digest every possible rumor about what I might see in "Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace." I was the guy who was camped out for hours in an effort to purchase tickets to see "The Phantom Menace." I was the guy who then waited in line for hours to ensure halfway decent seats to "The Phantom Menace." I was the guy who cheered the 20th Century Fox logo. I was the guy who cheered when "STAR WARS" flashed on the screen, accompanied by John Williams' very famous score. And, for a brief moment in time, I was the guy who loved "The Phantom Menace."
Let me be clear, today, as I type: I do not love "The Phantom Menace." I'm almost writing this as a bookend to a piece that I'll write on Friday about attending a midnight showing of "The Phantom Menace" in 3D. I assume that it will be nothing like what my experience was in 1999 -- an experience that was actually quite remarkable for "Star Wars" fans. An experience that we'll, unfortunately, never have again.
To be honest, I'm having trouble putting into words how much of a "thing" the release of "The Phantom Menace" turned out to be. A week before the film's release, I took the day off of work to get tickets. Of course, fellow "Star Wars" fans -- like my "best 'Star Wars' friend", Jorge -- asked me if I could get tickets for him. But what was great is that friends of mine that previously had no discernible interest in "Star Wars" were asking me, too. "Hey, if you're going to be standing in line anyway, can you get me tickets?" The final count was fifteen tickets. I was responsible for purchasing fifteen tickets to the midnight showing of "The Phantom Menace." Even I underestimated how difficult that would be.
At the time, I lived in the suburbs of St. Louis, Mo. On the morning that tickets went on sale -- a week before the film was released -- my first stop was a movie theater called the West Olive 16. I was there five hours early. There was already a line that wrapped completely around the theater. I kept driving. Theater after theater presented me with an overwhelming sense of doom: I would not be seeing "The Phantom Menace" on opening night. Finally, I reached a local cineplex in the town of Arnold, Mo. -- almost thirty miles from where I started. Yes, there was a line, but it was manageable.
In line, the spirit was quite festive, in a nerdy, "I will never kiss a girl"-type of way. It was perfect. "What do you think will happen?" was the overwhelming question at hand that day. (Which, considering that this movie is a prequel, seems kind of a silly question now.) The guy behind me had it on good authority that Boba Fett would appear in "The Phantom Menace." He was wrong. Another announced to the entire line that he had it on good authority that Qui-Gon Jin would die at the end of the movie. He was right. (As it turns out, his "good authority" was the track listing "Qui-Gon's Noble End" on the soundtrack. Regardless, that guy is still a jerk.) After over four hours in line, I purchased fifteen tickets.
A week later, in the early morning hours of May 19, I declared my love for "The Phantom Menace." I walked out of that movie, looked at my "best 'Star Wars' friend" Jorge, and proclaimed, "That was awesome!"
In the parking lot, Jorge and I recreated the lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan and Darth Maul. If it was possible for a human being to have sex with a movie, I would have had sex with "The Phantom Menace" right then and there. I wasn't alone. As a society, I think we've collectively erased the fact that "The Phantom Menace" was greeted quite positively in the initial days after its release (for example: Roger Ebert gave the film three and a half stars). In other words: it took the backlash a few days to really get going.
I saw "The Phantom Menace" four times in theaters on its initial release. Each time, it got worse. Whereas, on its first viewing, I focused on the still glorious final lightsaber duel, the second viewing the next day (yes, the next day) felt like a different movie. Like most people, it became impossible to suppress my feelings toward Jar Jar Binks -- who is in that movie a lot. By the time I saw it for a third time, I was bored. Other than for a few scenes, it became a boring movie. It became a movie about the illegal taxation of galactic trade routes. Shortly before it disappeared from theaters, I saw it one last time on a lark. Hey, it's "Star Wars" in a movie theater, I thought. That's the viewing that I noticed that one of Anakin's slave friends had braces. Wait, there are orthodontists on Tatooine? I immediately regretted seeing it that fourth time.
Oh, and I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the first teaser trailer. I can still watch this trailer today and some sort of primal instinct will engulf my conscious with a desire to see this movie. It's almost like I feel that I never did see the movie that was in this trailer. This trailer is a highlight real for one of the greatest movies ever made. "The Phantom Menace" and that trailer, as far as I'm concerned, are two completely different things. I'm still waiting for the movie associated with this trailer to be released. Unfortunately, this time, I already know that it won't be this Thursday night. Or ever.
My "best 'Star Wars' friend" Jorge -- who in 1999 played the role of Darth Maul in a movie theater parking lot -- would unexpectedly pass away in 2001. Though I don't particularly care for the film, I still have very fond memories of the first time I saw "The Phantom Menace." It would be the only new "Star Wars" movie that I would ever see with Jorge. By the time I saw "Attack of the Clones," I tried not to think about it, but I knew someone was missing. Watching "Star Wars" was never the same. So, perhaps this is a selfish: but I miss the guy who, for one day, loved "The Phantom Menace." I started this piece by declaring that day, "was going to be one of the greatest days of my life." You know, it kind of was...
Mike Ryan is the senior writer for Moviefone. He has written for Wired Magazine, VanityFair.com, GQ.com, New York Magazine and Movieline. He likes Star Wars a lot. You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter