Just forget the words and sing along

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Summer of Episode I

Your girlfriend “accidentally” recycled your Pepsi collectors cans and your dog ate your Jar Jar Frisbee. The summer of Episode I is officially over. -- A webcomic I read in August of 1999.

Can you believe that it’s been 10 years today? It was May 19, 1999 that George Lucas disappointed a generation of geeks. It was on this day that the phrase “raped my childhood” entered our lexicon. Yes, today marks the 10 anniversary of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace.

As I reflect on the decade of the 1990s, perhaps there’s no better movie that followed my growth throughout that decade. In 1993, George Lucas made that announcement that, after what he saw in Jurassic Park, the time was right to create new Star Wars films. In 1996, I was off to college, where I met others who shared in my passion for these sci-fi films. As I worked on a gravel crusher for the summer of 1997, I devoured every scrap of news of I could get online, as that was the summer that Episode I actually filmed. And then, the fall of 1998. The first trailers were coming. The hype was slowly starting to build. And...I was entering my final year at Augustana University College. A new Star Wars film to coincide with graduation...it would be perfection.

The fever pitch started building in November of 1998, when the first trailer was due to hit theatres. Of course, I had fully embraced the Internet at the time, and had discovered that movie studios had begun the practice of posting trailers online. It was also around this time that most of the lecture halls around campus had been outfitted with brand new digital projectors. I started doing the math in my mind and figured why should I go to the theatre in the off-chance I’ll see the trailer, when I could see it right here? I asked one of my professors if we could watch the trailer on the digital projector in the biggest lecture hall on campus after class one day. He said yes. On that day, twice as many people showed up for that class, just to see the trailer.

(In the interests of historical accuracy, I feel I need to point that there was only six of us taking Linear Algebra II that semester, so twice as many people in class was just 12.)

And things just started building from there. My show on the college radio station was one of the hottest things on campus, and I dedicated a whole show to Star Wars music. If I could have somehow gotten my hands on a leaked copy of Duel of the Fates to play, I would have done it.

But we knew that the big show would be coming in May. The announcement came that Episode I would be the first movie ever to sell advance tickets. Advance tickets for a movie! This thing was going to be huge! Plans were made. Lines started forming. I knew I had to get in on all this standing-in-line action. April came...final exams were written and grades were handed out. Graduation ceremonies came and I had my moment on the stage...got a big laugh when I gave the president of the university a great big hug instead of shaking his hand like everyone else was doing. I posed for pictures with friends, we all shared stories as we walked around the campus one last time. But it didn’t feel like then. It wasn’t the end.

Because one week later we were all back in Camrose, standing in line at the Duggan Cinemas, to be the first to get our Episode I tickets. Tickets went on sale at noon. Me and my gang showed up at 8AM. And damn it, we were third in line! My only regret from sitting in that line for so long was that I neglected to bring my Star Wars edition of Trivial Pursuit so we could pass the time. A friend brought his CD player though, and the Episode I soundtrack which had been released a few days earlier. We chatted about the recent graduation, what are plans were for afterwards, and how much Episode I was going to rock. When the theatre box office opened at high noon, by some strange coincidence, that’s when Duel of the Fates started playing on the boombox. I got my tickets for the show, exactly one week from that day. There was a reporter there from the Camrose Canadian who interviewed me and was quite curious to know why this man from Entwistle chose to come to Camrose to see the film. “Because I just graduated from Augustana, and I wanted to see it with all my friends. This is pretty much our grad party,” I told the reporter. The reporter even took my picture. I was told afterwards by my friends that I made the front page...but they never saved me a copy.

There was lots of standing in line. The news told tales of toy stores opening up at midnight so collectors could be the first to get their hands on all the new Episode I action figures. There was footage of nerds running through Toys R Us at 12:01 AM, not even caring who the characters were. They were just shoving as many as they could into their carts. Here I was clever. Why stand in line at midnight to buy these new action figures, when I could just go online to the Star Wars online store the day they came out, and buy them over the Internet? Sadly, several million other people were also clever and the Star Wars online store crashed that day. A few days later, my Mom was doing some business in the city and stopped by Wal-Mart and bought me the figures I’d had my eye on. They were just as plentiful three days later as they were the first day they came out.

There was a lot of merchandise for Episode I. I did have a Jar Jar Frisbee. The crown jewel of my Pepsi can collection is a can from Germany that my sister bought for me. (Rather than stand in line for hours on end to see a Star Wars movie, she decided to spend the summer of 1999 backpacking across Europe.) But my favourite was the miniature trading cards inside every bag of Doritos. Up until just recently, I used them to frame my computer monitor. I got a lot of Padme cards....

And then, the big day. May 19. We were seeing the 7PM show, so we all started gathering at the Duggan Cinemas in Camrose at around high noon. The theatre owners wouldn’t let us start a line for 7PM show until around 6PM, so most my line-standing consisted of hanging out in the Duggan Mall, chatting with friends about the plans for after graduation, and other movies coming out that summer.

6PM rolled around and we all started crowding into the very tiny lobby of the Duggan Cinema. It was around 6:30 when my best friend showed up. He already had a job post-graduation, and had to work that day. He wasn’t excited as the rest of us. He was very calm and reserved about the fact that we were about to see THE FIRST NEW STAR WARS MOVIE IN 16 YEARS! It was a stark contrast to three years later and the release of Episode II. For the release of Episode II, NOW he took the day off work. NOW he stood in line for 8 hours. NOW he dressed up as Darth Maul, convinced his girlfriend to dress up as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and they entertained others in the line with re-enactments of lighsaber duels. It usually takes my friend at least one film before he gets caught up in the fervour of a franchise. Someday, I’ll tell you how he thinks The Matrix Reloaded is THE GREATEST FILM EVER MADE, but shakes his head in disbelief when I tell him that there's a prequel called simply The Matrix.

6:45 was when they let us into the theatre. I was officially the first one through the doors. I had my pick of the place. I chose my perfect seats. All my friends filtered in and crowded into their favourite seats. Trailers and all the other pre-movie stuff started. And then...it began.

Now, if you’ve read this far, then you must be thinking that I’m one of those Star Wars superfans. But the truth is, I’m not. I’ve never dressed up in costume. I’ve never cracked open the novels. I don’t own any of the video games. The only things I know and love about Star Wars comes from the films themselves. I guess that makes me a casual fan. And as a casual fan, I remember enjoying the hell out of Episode I. It had a lot to do with being the first. I was the first to see this new Star Wars film!

I came out of the theatre pumped. I came out of the theatre jazzed. It was a new Star Wars film and it was a good. I started looking around at most of my friends, who are Star Wars superfans, who have played all the games and read all the books, and the looks on their faces said it all. The one word, the appropriate word: disappointed.

And the summer of Episode I just kind of petered out from there. I saw it in theatres two more times: once for my traditional birthday movie, and once around Christmastime in the cheap theatres. Everything after the premiere date was just...there. Sure, we had the now classic “Weird Al” Yankovic song, but once you’d seen the movie, it was all over.

I’m sure as you can tell by now, it was one of those films where the events that surrounded it were bigger than the film itself. Hell, I was graduating from university that summer! And as I reflect on it, fan reaction to Episode I perfectly sums up my feelings towards graduation. Here it was, this big event that I’d been building up to for so long, and when it finally came around, it was strangely anti-climactic and left me with questions about what was to come next.

Of course I own it on DVD and still watch it from time to time. Multiple viewings has shown me the things that my friends had problems with on opening day. And while I no longer think that it’s the pinnacle of science-fiction, I do think that it was a really good movie and highly entertaining. But what I’ll always remember is that the summer of Episode I was my last great summer...my last summer of carefree, youthful exuberance before the weight of the real world started closing in. It was the final summer filled with deep conversations with friends, hanging out at malls, and catching a movie.

The tagline told us that every saga has a beginning, but for me, it was an ending.

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