The release of the first new Star Wars movie years after Return of the Jedi was a momentous occasion for fans of all ages. For those who were too young to see the original trilogy when they first premiered, seeing the prequels in the theater was an especially unforgettable moment as their first Star Wars on the big screen.
In honor of the 20th anniversary of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace — the movie debuted on May 19, 1999 — some of StarWars.com’s contributors paused to remember their favorite moments of the film, how it became a part of their lives, and how Episode I left a lasting impression ever since.
A Test of Patience
The midnight release of The Phantom Menace fell on the same day as one of my last finals in college. There was no way I could skip it. My loyal friends, however, held my place in line for hours while I studied and flew through the test, thinking the entire time about Jedi and what secrets the prequel might reveal. (Luckily, I still passed.)
I finally made it to the theater and got a ticket. I watched the midnight showing of Episode I in awe — crying happy tears when the Star Wars logo flashed on to the screen, a tradition that has continued ever since. I went home, crashed, and woke up to immediately go see the 10 a.m. showing. – Kelly Knox
There’s a number of obvious things that stick out in my mind that, I’m certain, are shared by many people: Maul’s double lightsaber reveal, podracing, and our good friend Jar Jar Binks. But when I think about The Phantom Menace — a movie I adore — what’s most memorable is the anticipation. I was convinced, throughout my entire life, that we’d never see another Star Wars movie. It just didn’t seem like it could happen. But then it did, and I hardly knew what to do with myself in the space between the prequels being announced and opening night.
I remember being in line to buy tickets for the midnight showing (yes, this was the pre-Fandango stone age); it was a blistering hot day, and I waited for hours roasting in the sun, right alongside hundreds of other Star Wars fans — and all we could do was speculate. What could this new Star Wars movie really be like? What would see? What would we learn? It was a time when anything was possible, and I’ll never forget how amazing it felt to have the doors to so many possibilities opened in my imagination, which is something Star Wars does best, for all us fans. – Michael Moreci
We Are Brave, Your Highness
I don’t have a clear memory of the first time I saw The Phantom Menace, but I do know that I was immediately enamored with Padmé and her handmaidens. I was that nine-year-old girl who loved both Star Wars and ballet, so it felt like these teenage girls who fought to save their planet and wore beautiful clothes while doing so were characters made for me. I spent a lot of time on the playground that year yelling things like “Viceroy! Your occupation here has ended!” and “Now, Viceroy, we will discuss a new treaty.”
When I look back now, it’s clear that the movie (still one of my favorites!) came out at a formative time in my life and played a fundamental role in me becoming the person I am. Padmé, all of the handmaidens, and this movie will always have a very special place in my heart. – Bria LaVorgna
Very Fast, Very Dangerous
The country roads of California’s Central Valley are ideal for going fast. Growing up, my friends and I ripped up and down them in motorcycles and roadsters, knowing that our hero George Lucas had done much the same in his youth.
Lucas’s podrace sequence in The Phantom Menace felt like a valley contest in high gear. He portrayed speed with sensitivity and tension, placing the audience in the driver seat where Sebulba’s monstrous craft would run right over you. The editing contrasted noise with silence, motion with stillness. There was something about the refraction of light on the hot ground and the long wakes of dust as the pods whizzed by. Anakin Skywalker was in his element, not unlike Lucas must have been, or John Milner in American Graffiti. The myth was handy for our own adventures during those long summers racing between dry tomato fields. – Lucas O. Seastrom
The Trivia Is Strong With This One
The buildup and hype leading up to The Phantom Menace was some of the most fun I’ve had as a Star Wars fan. We were all so excited and could not wait for that first viewing. But there was no midnight screening back in 1999 (at least where I lived), so I thought I would have to wait until May 19, 1999. This is madness!
However, our local radio station had a trivia contest where the tenth caller would win free tickets to a promotional midnight screening, provided they could answer a Star Wars trivia question. The question was: “What was the working title for Return of the Jedi and why did it operate under a pseudonym?” I called immediately, got right in, and gave the answer, “Blue Harvest: Horror Beyond Imagination, and it had this name so fans and journalists wouldn’t find out what was being filmed.” I won the tickets and got to be among the first to see this brand-new Star Wars film! I’ll never forget it. – Dan Zehr
The Future of Filmmaking
Shortly after The Phantom Menace premiered, I was invited to a digital cinema projection demonstration in a theater in Burbank, California. It was one of the three theaters in the country you could see The Phantom Menace (or any film) projected digitally. The presenters encouraged us to watch a scene from the film version of The Phantom Menace and then run down a hallway to see the digitally projected version that was playing 10 minutes behind so we could see the same scene two ways.
The scene we watched was the epic Darth Maul lightsaber battle at the end of the film. It’s easy to forget that The Phantom Menace wasn’t just the return of Star Wars films but played a huge role in changing the way audiences see new releases in their local theaters. – Amy Richau
Duel of the Fates
When The Phantom Menace came out I wasn’t following the Star Wars saga yet, so it took until about 2002 until I found it. Then “Duel of the Fates” was love at first sight. The duel encouraged me to start doing martial arts, and at Celebration in 2010 I was finally able to tell Ray Park how much his performance had affected how I spent my time.
The Phantom Menace was also a great era for source books and tie-ins: some of my most important memories of that time come from reading Star Wars novels and tabletop RPG guides during the saga revival, working out timelines and characterization for Phantom Menace-era stories so I could write fanfics and understand the references in other writers’ novels and fics. The Phantom Menace is so important to my foundational Star Wars experience that my favorite memory is a collage of all of those books and maps and stories. – Megan Crouse
At Home in the Galaxy Far, Far Away
The Phantom Menace holds a special place in my heart. Just turning 24, I’d moved to New York without a job, few friends, staying with family while I tried to establish myself. Everything felt adrift and in flux…but Star Wars, in the form of a new movie after years without, was something waiting for me in my new city; a welcoming, familiar presence during a bold, scary time in my life. Not only as a movie experience, but a cultural experience, too — FAO Schwartz had built a Phantom Menace “headquarters” in the heart of their Fifth Avenue store and I visited early and often.
The movie itself was a revelation in terms of expanding a world that had (until now) been encapsulated by only three films and a cavalcade of merchandise celebrating a specific window of characters, vehicles and locales. Established landmarks — the Jedi Order, Tatooine, droids — suddenly took on new life as viewed through a new lens, with enough recognizable faces to keep me comfortable along the way (Hi, R2! Obi-Wan! Yoda! Jabba!), to make it feel like visiting with old, missed friends. Introduced ideas and acquaintances (“This is Podracing!”, our first visit to Coruscant, Boss Nass!) felt at once intriguing and intimate, as well. Being both very new but also very “Star Wars“, providing thrilling excitement and a pervasive sense of “home” to a fan who’d uprooted himself from his own home to make a life in a city far, far away. – Neil Kleid
Dress to Impress
The Phantom Menace looks so different than any other Star Wars movie. That made a strong impression upon me the first time I watched the film and every time I’ve viewed it since. The sets and the costumes, oh, the costumes, are rich and luxurious. I am obsessed with Trisha Biggar’s thoughtful designs and how they’re woven into each character’s arc and the overall story. – Amy Ratcliffe
Star Wars on the Big Screen
I felt so grateful when the Special Editions came out and I finally got to see Star Wars in the theater on the big screen, but it couldn’t compare to the excitement I felt going into Episode I the first time. I could not have imagined that we would ever get new Star Wars and here we were at the beginning of a brand-new trilogy!
I still get that same sense of anticipation and exhilaration when I sit down in a theater to watch a new Star Wars film for the first time. And I still love sitting down to re-watch The Phantom Menace and experiencing that first chapter in Anakin’s story all over again. – Kristin Baver
Magic in Manhattan
It’s a little hard now to describe or encapsulate just how great the anticipation was for this movie. But the hype was huge, and as an 18-year-old fan in 1999, it was a huge moment in my life. So I wanted to do it right — and that meant seeing it at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York on opening night.
The Ziegfeld, now tragically closed, was one of New York’s best theaters. It opened in 1969 and was gorgeous, with old-school charm, red velvet seats, and a single massive screen hidden behind drapes until showtime. When you saw a movie there, it felt like an event.
Now, in those early internet days, there was no guaranteed way to get tickets online. Here’s where I out myself as Officially Old. There was no website to pre-buy tickets, there certainly was no Fandango app. (There were no apps, at all, for that matter. I didn’t even own a cell phone yet; pay phones and pagers were still alive and well.)
So we would have to get our tickets the old fashioned way: camping out at the theater the night before they went on sale.
I’d seen all of the Star Wars Special Editions at the Ziegfeld, my parents trusting me to make the trip from Staten Island to Manhattan and back with only my friends. Maybe that’s why they gave me the OK for this. I’m not sure. At the time I remember thinking, “No big deal,” but now, a parent myself, sleeping overnight, outside, in Manhattan gives me a little pause. But whatever. They said OK!
I went with my then-girlfriend, her brother, and another friend, and we got there early enough that we had a decent spot on the line. Soon there were hundreds, if not thousands, of fans lining 54th Street and around onto 6th Avenue, and the mixture of excitement and nervousness was tangible. Would we all get tickets? Would they sell out on Moviefone first? News crews from around the world showed up, and I spoke to an Italian channel (I seem to remember the reporter pointing at me and saying “Italiano” to her cameraman, picking up on my heritage, maybe?). The hotel across the street graciously welcomed us to use their bathroom, an important solution to something we hadn’t even considered.
We had a great time, short of sleeping on concrete, which wasn’t fun, and a late line-cutter who had a story about meeting a friend he couldn’t find and wanted to join us. (I said no.) Finally, we did indeed get our tickets, and the seats were good. We were thrilled. It was an experience we all shared and would remember forever.
The night of the premiere is a blur. I think I was too excited. I remember fans in costume and fans dueling with lightsabers throughout the theater. I remember a feeling of “I can’t believe we’re actually here.” I remember huge cheers at the Lucasfilm logo and opening crawl. And I remember loving the movie. I couldn’t believe the podrace and the end duel knocked me out. Qui-Gon’s death had been spoiled for me on some message board by someone who I think was just guessing, but that image of Maul pulling his lightsaber from the Jedi’s gut shocked me. Obi-Wan’s victory was exhilarating and we all cheered. It was like magic.
I’ve never had a moviegoing experience quite like I did for The Phantom Menace, both in terms of getting tickets and seeing the movie. For this, it will always be a special to me. – Dan Brooks
What memories of The Phantom Menace stand out for you? Tell us in the comments!
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