Phantom Menace Madness - 11.23.98

The first Star Wars movie I saw in the theatre was The Empire Strikes Back. Being the most intense (in my opinion) of the first trilogy, and my being less than ten years old, it scared me several times, but by the time the credits were rolling, I was hooked. Although I didn't ever sink to tragic geek depths, I became immersed in the world of Star Wars and tried to get my hands on as many things as I could. When Return Of The Jedi came out when I was 10, I was completely hyped and my parents knew that I was ready to go.

In the weeks that followed that movie, the high point of my infatuation with the series was reached. I had storybooks, coloring books, matching sheets and comforter, a stuffed ewok, action figures, playsets, and a couple molded toys and models. My Christmas and birthday lists were padded with more gear than I would possibly get at one time, but I still had my goals. I built villages in my sandbox and would spend hours and hours creating different scenarios with the group of about 30 figures that I had. My imagination would run wild and some of my first writing was simply creating stories based around the characters I had seen in the movies. My favorites got the most playing time and eventually their joints became wobbly from heavy use and their somewhat delicate paintjobs got worn off on their faces and hands.

After a couple years, my infatuation with the series lost its edge a bit. The holiday special and Ewok adventure television series simply didn't hold onto my interest and I moved onto different things. The toys went into boxes and about the only times I would pull them out was to blow limbs off disliked characters with firecrackers and melt their faces off with smokebombs on the Fourth of July. The sheets came off my bed and really the only things that I kept around were a couple posters and a model or two.

On occassion, I'd view the videos when they were released, and a couple times in college I watched all three of them in a row. It was also about this time that I started hearing more rumours that Lucas was going to go back and make the first three of the series. When this first started happening, I was excited, but I tried to take it all with a grain of salt. I had heard it all before, but it had been almost 10 years since I had heard anything from the director who had created a special part of my childhood.

Then, within my last years of graduating, I heard viable proof that Lucas was finally going to do it. He was scouting locations around the world and he announced that he was going to film the three almost consecutively and release them two years apart each. He even touched up the first three films in the trilogy and re-released them to huge fair just to test the waters a bit (and reinforced the idea that everyone was still in love with the films). Even when I heard this solid news, though, it didn't really phase me.

Over a year later, all of this has changed. Scoops started coming out about the plot and I started seeing possible filming locations and talk about what the new films would be about. I started to check out movie sites like Ain't It Cool News and Dark Horizons on a weekly basis and absorbing as much information as I could with one exception: I didn't want to read any spoilers.

Then, one day I went ahead and threw all that out the window. I went back and read all the inside information that I had skipped over at earlier points and started looking at character sketches and known developments on sites almost every day. When the name Phantom Menace was dropped, I wondered if it was a joke, but it soon started growing on me. One day about a month ago, I was reading along when a huge bomb was dropped: someone had seen 2 minutes of footage and written up a complete shot-by-shot breakdown of it.

I read over the description and tried to visualize everything that I had just read. Even though I knew a little bit about the characters and plot, I couldn't quite imagine what Lucas would pull off after a 10 year hiatus.

Last week there was a sneak preview of the Episode 1 trailer, and although I wasn't able to make it to a theater to watch it, I was still excited. The next morning, a fan on the internet came through for me (and countless other Star Wars geeks) when he posted a completely bootlegged version of trailer that he had made with a handycam the previous day.

This move almost singlehandedly forced to release their own authorized version of the trailer, simply because there was no way to stop its spread. For several days, sites were completely bogged down with people downloading the two minutes of new footage and savoring it.

Even though the version of the trailer that I got was grainy and flickering, I got goosebumps the first time I watched it. The picture faded in and the music started and I could feel the hairs standing up on the back of my neck. When it kicked into overdrive, I was smiling uncontrollably and not daring to breath. After it was over, I quickly rewinded the clip and watched it again and again, even though I was at work. It didn't seem to matter as Project Managers and Supervisors wandered through and wanted to watch it for themselves as well.

The crazy thing is that out of everyone that I know (even people that are pretty cynical) that have seen the trailer, I haven't heard very much in the lines of negative comments. I think that everyone (including myself) is simply happy to be seeing new footage. While there are people who dislike the movies, the Star Wars Trilogy seems to transport people to a different mindset. Even though there were only two minutes of footage, it was two minutes of new footage from a series of films that is really larger than can be explained in simple film terms. It was a cultural event, plain and simple, both in this country and several others.

One could probably write a college thesis on the phenomenon of Star Wars and its cultural effects, but that's really for another time and place. As it stands now, though, millions of people (including myself) are on the edges of their seats in excitement, and it's something that will only grow over the course of the next six months until release. When it finally does happen, it will really be like no other. People will be camping outside theatres in the heat, literally waiting days for tickets, and every show of every theatre showing The Phantom Menace will be sold out for days and possibly weeks. If you don't believe me, keep reading.

When Titanic destroyed all box-office records by raking in over a billion dollars worldwide, I thought that it would probably never be surpassed until I started reading about the stats on the Phantom Menace teaser alone. (the main place, but not the only one by far) to find the trailer reportedly was recieving over 400 requests per second for people wanting to download the clip. To handle requests, they were installing 10 more T1 lines to accomidate the traffic (up to 90 from 80). Round 1 definitely goes to Lucas.

So, whether Episode 1 breaks the all-time record probably partially lies on the quality of the film itself. If it completely sucks, people may not see it as many times, but considering the amount of people that voraciously want to see it in the first place, it's probably not going to matter. If the movie is cool, average fans will be seeing it multiple times, while obsessive types will make the pilgrimage 5, 10 and 20 times or more. The vast majority of others (whether interested or not) will simply be drawn to the theatre at one point to see what all the hype is about.

Lucas has a lot of things on his side in creating a great film. If you think about it in statistics alone, he should be able to blow everyone away with sight and sound alone. Not only did the Star Wars trilogy rake in a ton of film money, but the merchandise for the films has been selling like crazy for 20 years solid. I was just the average kid with my amount of toys, but for every one of me, there were several more even-more zealous consumers. The cool thing for movie-goers, though, is that he hasn't completely been sitting back on the money that keeps flowing in from licensing.

Although the rumour is that he's tight with his money, Lucas has not only put money into developing two new sound formats (THX and yet another for the release of Phantom Menace), but has his own huge sound-recording facility (Skywalker Sound) and special-effects company (ILM). With these components in place, he's had a chance to test and develop to his heart's content, while being completely independent of Hollywood.

So, even if the story is a bit flimsy (and let's face it, the first trilogy wasn't exactly brainy material), it won't matter. I literally think that the new film will be a showcase for things never seen before on film. Besides the new sound system mentioned above, the movie is rumoured to have 1600 effects shots (just for reference, Titanic had 800) including 100% digital characters and full CGI environments that look as if they're real, as well as other slick little tricks that make for historical movie moments.

With that, I'm going to end this piece. I didn't originally plan for it to be this long, but like anything I get excited about, I tend to linger on a bit too long for my own good. While I probably won't camp out for a week come next May 21st because of work obligations, I'll be one of those people who'll be nervous and excited for weeks leading up to the release date. When I finally sit down in the seat and the opening credits come up on the screen, the only thing I'll hear is the goosebumps of hundreds of people raising at the same time as I take a trip to a galaxy far far away, but still quite close to my heart.