Waiting for The Phantom Menace

At 12 pm Pacific Standard Time on Wednesday, the movie gods, as it were, smiled down upon the masses. Lines which had begun to form as much as a week earlier at theaters around the country finally surged forward. Internet connections crackled with activity, causing an overload on AOL which blocked out many customers. Moviephone (infamous for their feature-film presentation delay tactics) stayed impossible to contact until late into the evening. After the weeks of speculation, of endlessly replaying movie trailers, of hunting out "insider" Internet sites and comparing notes, rabid fans of the most successful movie series ever took that final step towards the attainment of their very own Holy Grail. Tickets to "Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace" had at last gone on sale.

The hype preceding the release of the movie is almost unprecedented. The millions of fans who watched the original "Star Wars" trilogy unfold and the millions more who have discovered the series in the years since "Return of the Jedi" was released wait in heady anticipation for Episode I, the first of three "prequel movies." This anticipation has, in true consumer culture fashion, translated itself into a whirlwind of product advertisements and money-making promotions.

Last fall, thousands paid the requisite $8 to see "Meet Joe Black" just to catch a glimpse of the Star Wars trailer--those hard-core fans who stomached the movie itself were rewarded with an encore performance of the trailer at the end. And when "Phantom Menace" action figures went on sale three weeks ago at FAO Schwartz, there were stampedes of Cabbage Patch Kid proportions reported from Boston to San Francisco.

The obsession doesn't stop there. At the Smithsonian Air and Space museum in Washington D.C., Star Wars fans can view a photo gallery of "mythic images" from the series. Thousands of Internet sites have been established which offer everything from photos to sound bites to detailed summaries of characters and plotlines. Microsoft's home Web page, the first thing every single Internet Explorer user sees when logging on, has even included a new "Star Wars Guide," placed strategically at the top of the page next to links for stock quotes and maps. Visitors can see how much time is left until the movie is released on May 19--last time I checked we had five days, 22 hours, 46 minutes, and 19 seconds to go.

A month or so ago I was sitting with a bunch of friends watching television when one of the trailers for "The Phantom Menace" came on. Four of the people in the group instantly began to strategize exactly how they were going to get tickets, comparing spoilers that they had heard about and throwing around quotes from the original trilogy. The rest of us were at a loss for words--"What exactly am I missing here?" somebody asked irritably.


What indeed? What is it about the "Star Wars" movies that has got so many people so completely hooked? What compels one of my best friends from home to check her collection of web sites daily, scanning for new tidbits of information? What causes my mother (a mass media misanthrope) to admit that the opening day is something she would consider taking off of work for? What drives the guys across the hall to dig around for a second copy of the Time magazine "Phantom Menace" cover issue so that they can get all the photos that were on the backs of photos they had already cut out to hang all over their walls?

Perhaps it has something to do with what director George Lucas calls the "classical mythological motifs" which are at the very heart of the original trilogy. All of the elements of a fable are present--heroes, villains, fights to the death, miraculous rescues, betrayal, good vs. evil, mystery, political intrigue, romance, faith, and even a bit of the supernatural. But instead of reading about it in the Brothers Grimm, we get to watch it on the big screen with surround-sound. And instead of knights and princesses, evil stepmothers and swordfights, we get space travel and lightsabers, droids and the Force. "Star Wars" is everything from our deepest fantasies, projected onto "a galaxy far, far away," with a heavy dose of special effects and a storyline that is as human as it is timeless. A classic fairytale, if you will, for modern times.

I must admit to being a bit of a fan myself. I can still remember the first time I watched what is now known as "Episode IV"--squirming in disgust as the heroes are locked in the trash disposal with that ugly serpent thing, the nail-biting encounter between Darth Vader and Obi-Wan, that adrenaline rush you get during the sequence where Luke successfully blows up the Death Star. And while I didn't think I'd be too excited about the release of "The Phantom Menace"--I figured I could see it sometime in August, when the shows are no longer sold out--it pleased me more than I will say to find out that due to some tricky Moviephone tactics by the guys across the hall, (the same ones who took scissors to my copy of Time), I now have a ticket for next Saturday, two days after it is released.

So while I can never understand the full extent of the madness that drove some in Los Angeles to camp outside of the Mann's Chinese Theater for three weeks, or which inspired international fans to fly to the United States next week just so that they can see it before it opens abroad in July, the excitement in the air is contagious. My only hope is that all the hype has not constructed a reputation for "The Phantom Menace" that it cannot possibly live up to. The trilogy wasn't great because it was popular or because it made a lot of money; ticket sales could make "Titanic" the highest grossing movie of all time, and that still wouldn't endow the film with any sort of "greatness." "Star Wars" is legendary because of its unforgettable characters, its intricate plot, and those one-liners that anyone who has ever heard of pop culture inevitably has memorized. I can't wait for the next chapter.

Alixandra E. Smith '02 is a history and literature concentrator in Weld Hall.

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