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The Ecstatic Reaction to the Trailer for The Phantom Menace: A Cautionary Tale

Darth Maul and his double lightsaber in the Phantom Menace
Never judge a movie by its trailer. Especially a Star Wars movie.

Scene from the trailer for The Phantom Menace © Lucasfilm

On May 12, 1999, I was first in line to buy tickets for the new Star Wars. I had skipped school (it was a Wednesday), ridden in the car with my mom to Showcase Cinemas in East Hartford, Connecticut. (I was 12), and arrived before the sun was up, prepared to camp out until the box office opened. The first Star Wars movie in 16 years was perhaps the most anticipated movie of all time, and both the local news station and the Hartford Courant soon arrived to interview me about why I was so excited. (Have I mentioned that I was wearing a Yoda mask?)

Star Wars fans don’t like to remember how excited we were for The Phantom Menace, but it might save us some heartbreak if we think long and hard about it. After all, it’s almost eerie how closely the anticipation for the newest chapter, The Force Awakens, has mirrored the anticipation for The Phantom Menace. I was reminded of this when a bootleg video of an early screening of the first trailer for The Phantom Menacewas passed around the Web, with a note of foreboding, last month. The audience cheers at the Lucasfilm logo before the trailer even begins. Throughout, they can hardly contain themselves, hooting at the first appearances of characters like Yoda, before finally erupting into applause at the end.

We might like to think that this was an isolated theater of dupes. But their reaction to the trailer, as a roundup from the fan site Dorkly shows, was if anything remarkably restrained. Here’s how Moriarty of the then-ascendant fan site Ain’t It Cool News described the scene at the theater where he first saw the trailer:

All around me, there were actual tears of joy. There was excited hollering. There were hugs, people laughing uncontrollably. As the haze passed and I realized there was a movie playing, one thing kept going through my head.

Thank you, George. Thank you, George. Thank you, George.

None of these people thought they were dupes; in fact, many of those who found themselves raving and crying “actual tears of joy” were knowledgeable movie fans and skeptics. One report in the Washington Post noted that many of those lined up to see the trailer, which was playing before movies like Meet Joe Black (fans would buy a ticket, pile in, and then leave as soon as the trailer was over), sat reading “scholarly texts about cinema.” The paper quoted a college student who said, “I consider myself a harsh critic, but after the trailer I was applauding.” The movie blogger Jeffrey Wells later recalled making a trip to one of the first showings of the trailer before a screening of The Siege, writing, “Every hip person in the known Los Angeles universe with any interest or investment in film-geek culture was there.” Among those Wells bumped into at the screening was Paul Thomas Anderson.

A perhaps more surprising Damascene moment came from Ain’t It Cool’s fanboy-in-chief, Harry Knowles. The New York Times noted that, before the trailer came out, Knowles had been a prominent critic of the movie, expressing a number of reservations about it. Here’s how the Times quoted Knowles’ reaction to the trailer:

“I hate myself for every doubt I had,” he said. “What on earth was I ever thinking? … George seems to be 100 percent on his game.”

I can’t judge any of these people—even the fan who told the Times that he managed to see the trailer in theaters more than 20 times on the first day—especially because it’s a pretty great trailer. Sure, if you examine it closely, you can still catch a few faint whiffs of bantha poodoo—a few snippets of flatly delivered dialogue, a shot of Jar Jar Binks getting his snout stuck in a podracer’s electrical current—but it’s not hard to see why it’s still sometimes remembered as “one of the best movie trailers of all time.” After all, it had just about everything that the beloved trailers for The Force Awakens have: As the New York Post’s description of the 1999 trailer put it, the trailer was a rush of “freakish aliens, double-edged light-sabers, light-speed battles through arid canyons and in distant galaxies, and armies of sleek, vicious-looking droids.” Where the Force Awakens trailer has “Chewie, we’re home,” the Phantom Menace trailer had “Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi.” Where the Force Awakens trailer had the new crossguard lightsaber, the Phantom Menace trailer had the movies’ first double lightsaber. Not to mention that thePhantom Menace trailer’s effects were more groundbreaking than anything we’ve seen from The Force Awakens.

The anticipation didn’t cool with the release of the second trailer, which debuted online and quickly became what Steve Jobs declared “the biggest Internet download event in history.” (In hindsight, this was the dawn of today’s Internet-fueled culture of anticipation.) Some folks camped out for six weeks to be the first to see Episode Iand would take years to come to terms with it. As for myself, I saw the movie five times in the theater (may I remind you that I was 12?), the disappointment seeping in gradually, over the course of weeks and then years. Not that it took so long for the scales to fall from everyone’s eyes. My colleague Seth Stevenson has already written about being the exception that proved the rule (pace Opie). And to David Edelstein’s credit, the original Slate review (one of the most scathing) nailed it the first time.

I bring all this up not because I think The Force Awakens is going to be bad. In fact, I think that the most likely scenario is that the movie is just pretty good. After all, this has been the case with each of the five other movies J.J. Abrams has directed: Whether reviving Star Trek and Khan, making a new Mission: Impossible, or writing and directing what amounts to an unofficial sequel to Steven Spielberg’s late ’70s and early ’80s sci-fi, Abrams’ specialty has always been twisting the conventions of a franchise just enough to keep them fresh, but not so much that he might risk scaring off fans—or make something truly original. This makes it probable that The Force Awakens will be a worthy sequel, but extremely unlikely that Abrams will ever make anything that hits with the impact of the first Star Wars. (You know which trailerdidn’t get a good reaction, with some audiences even laughing and booing? The trailer for the original Star Wars.)

Official poster for The Phantom Menace
While we’re at it, this poster was pretty great, too.

Official poster for The Phantom Menace

But—because it never hurts to lower expectations, and because those who cannot remember the past are condemned to five repeat viewings—it’s worth keeping in mind how easy it is to make an incredible trailer for even the most embarrassing Star Wars sequel or prequel. No matter what, it’s going to have lightsabers. It’s going to have that John Williams music. And it’s going to have some of the same spaceships and blaster sounds and character names that for many of us are the secret combination to unlocking our inner seven-year-old. As Moriarty wrote early on in his reaction to the original Phantom Menace trailer, “The analytical part of my brain just shut down.” I’d like to think that the analytical part of my brain is still humming along, but who knows?

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