I remember sometime in 1997, or 1998, sitting in Washington Market Park with my mom and brother, and she told us about Star Wars. That year, the original trilogy was released, and while I didn’t see those movies then in the theater or at home, what I remember was how serious and weighty this all was… exclusively because George Lucas had waited 16 years between movies. In my mind, I saw the great fantasy/sci-fi novel I never actually found, whether in Tolkien, Asimov, or King (if only Philip K. Dick had lived to write a doorstop…) Already, this epic, as described by my mother on a Sunny Saturday Tribeca Afternoon, was just as exciting as video games I was playing like Ocarina of Time, but a step above: 16 years.
Almost immediately after the release of Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace, George Lucas and his film were pilloried for appealing to children, with characters, set pieces, and situations that were probably made first via toy rather than page. In the 23 years since its release, The Phantom Menace has gone through zero critical reevaluation, and continues to be mocked and generally regarded as one of the most disappointing movies of all time. Of course it sold tickets, that’s how I got to see it nine times when it played through the late-spring and summer of 1999.
Fans of the original trilogy, those even a few years older than me, and people in general might’ve been disappointed, but as a six-year-old, this movie was aimed directly for me. I don’t remember hearing about the movie’s mixed reception or any vitriol from fans of the series. I counted down the days until we could see it, and I’ll never forget the day that George Tabb got us a bootleg of the movie in Chinatown several months before the film’s official home video release. Looking back, I was let down when I saw the movie at home, and I don’t think I watched more than five minutes of it, for whatever reason. Whether it was because I saw the movie so many times already, or that it was a letter-boxed tape at home, I don’t know, but I’ve never revisited the movie. I saw the subsequent prequels and the first movie in the most recent trilogy, but it’s lost on me now. There’s too much of it. The entire appeal of Star Wars was that it took time, not just between trilogies but three years between movies, a lifetime for a kid.
My mom, brother, and her friend Janie went to the United Artists Union Square 14 on Saturday May 20, 1999, and as we got out of the cab and went into the throng of ticket buyers, somebody spoiled the ending of the movie: “DARTH MAUL GETS CUT IN HALF!” This was the first and most devastating “spoiler” I’ve ever experienced, and while they’re not my thing—I’ll never see The Phantom Menace not knowing that’s coming—it’s just another movie, and just another detail. The spectacle of The Phantom Menace blew me away, from that second-day Saturday screening through all nine times I saw it in theaters. Oddly, I can only recall that first day and one of the last days, both in the same two-tier arena of the Union Square 14. We rarely went to movies above Central Park, and the Regal Battery Park 16 had yet to open. I must’ve seen The Phantom Menace a combination of times at the Loews Village 7, the Clearview Cinemas Chelsea, and maybe the AMC Empire 25.
I did try to watch The Phantom Menace again around 2005, from that same bootleg tape George got us in Chinatown, and I watched just as little of it as I did back then. What astonished me as a six-year-old in a Dolby Surround Sound Theater was the scope of the movie, the series, and the aesthetics of its world. This was a fantasy I could get into, unlike wizards, elves, goblins, or kings. James Cameron’s Avatar baffled me, but it’s not different than the Star Wars franchise. To this day, The Phantom Menace is the film I’m still in the dark on, unable to remember anything but the thrill of seeing a new Star Wars movie for the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh, eighth, ninth times… one for each movie and two I’ll never see.
I wasn’t bored by the Senate scenes—they looked cool, and all the stuff that sounds like babble now sounded like complex plot mechanics when I was six. Similarly, I have a high bar for child actors now, but particularly in the way that they’re used in a movie. I don’t think I would’ve embraced Anakin’s pod race as fervently as I did then, now. And for such a “bad movie,” consider how many indelible images are in The Phantom Menace: yellow pod racers, Natalie Portman’s makeup and gown, the opening credits, the score, the fight at the end with Darth Maul, the death of Liam Neeson (which wasn’t spoiled for me…), and the shot of Darth Maul’s pieces falling down a massive metal shaft, and yes, Jar Jar Binks. I didn’t mind him then, either.
There’s too much of Star Wars now for it to be as special as it was when my mom told me it about in Washington Market Park in 1997 or 1998. So I haven’t seen the most recent two main movies, or any spin-offs—Star Wars shouldn’t have spin-off movies. All other media is on the table. Not the cinema. Once it became more than three times a year, every few decades, it lost all its appeal. To a kid today, Star Wars is probably just as, if not less, appealing than a Marvel or DC or Pixar movie, and they’re right. But in 1999, at the United Artists Union Square 14, on a Groovy Manhattan Saturday Afternoon, it blast through the highest of my expectations. I don’t know when I’ll watch it again.
—Follow Nicky Smith on Twitter: @nickyotissmith