May 18th, 1999.

I started the day in Los Angeles, having arrived there the previous afternoon to await processing at the MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station). I was just getting ready to enter the Air Force, although I wouldn't end up actually leaving for basic until June 15th. They had set me up a mediocre hotel down by the airport, the name of which escapes me now. I woke up at the appointed time (4:30 AM), headed downstairs, completely failed to enjoy the third-rate breakfast buffet, and boarded the shuttle bus out front.

Fifteen minutes later, said bus deposited me and a few dozen groggy others in front of the still-closed MEPS. It was still quite dark out and remarkably chilly for a springtime morning in L.A. After another fifteen minutes, the front doors opened and the fun began. After ten excruciating hours of hearing tests, vision tests, blood tests, fitness tests, and sullen middle-aged proctologists telling me to spread my cheeks tests, I oathed away four years of my life and hopped back in my recruiter's car for the 90 minute drive back to Yucca Valley.

I'd been up twelve mind-numbing hours, but all was well. My day was just beginning. I wasn't heading home, but straight to the movies. It was seven hours and counting until midnight and the world premiere of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace.

Yeah, I love Star Wars. A lot. And back then, I was completely immersed in the hype. Star Wars owned the nation. Completely and utterly. It was on every magazine cover, every entertainment show, every newscast, every fast food wrapper. George Lucas was one crafty bastard to achieve near-total media saturation with virtually no advertising investment. I'd spent the last six months watching the trailers hundreds of times, following the websites obsessively, and generally living and breathing Star Wars prequel mania on a daily basis. I even read the screenplay well before I actually saw the film.

I knew there would be a crowd, but I was in no way prepared for what actually greeted me at the theater. There was no actual line as such, since there was only a limited number of distinctive laminated collector's item tickets sold, and numbers were issued, so being situated closer to the door had no effect on what order you got seated. What there was resembled nothing less than an insane drunken block party.

A crowd of more than a hundred blasted Star Wars soundtracks, dueled with plastic lightsabers, passed around armloads of fast food, guzzled Pepsi from Darth Maul-shaped drink cups, and zipped about the parking lot on scooters and skateboards. Most of the crowd was teenagers, but two white-haired old men watched the proceeding from lawn chairs. One girl made periodic snack runs in a ridiculous traffic cone-orange lowrider van dubbed the Vaginamobile for reasons unknown.

My girlfriend was waiting for me. She'd been there in line with her brother D.J. since 8:00 AM. She came decked out in a complete Queen Amidala costume, white makeup and all.

Night fell. The cops came, apparently to monitor the crowd. They were pretty cool about it, though, and never gave anyone a hard time.

11:30 PM. The front doors opened. A cheer went up and brought chaos with it. Slowly, after much frenzied milling and agitated jostling, the crowd calmed down enough for numbers to start being called. Nicky and I got in somewhere in the middle. We used the restroom and then stepped into the theater and promptly went deaf. It was still ten minutes to showtime and frenzy reigned. People ran up and down the isles, pumping their arms, screaming incoherently for no reason at all. The theater operators were blasting Star Wars soundtrack music through the speakers, but it was barely detectable under the constant din.

Suddenly, the music stopped and the lights dimmed. Total silence. Then the Lucasfilm logo appeared, and the voices boomed so loudly and for so long that I shrieked along with them, savagely enough that my throat was sore the next day, and couldn't even hear myself doing it.

And there it was. Sixteen long years of waiting were over and I was actually watching a new Star Wars movie. It was really happening and it was like a dream. I honestly believe that it was one of only a very few times in my life that I could claim to have been in anything resembling an altered state of consciousness. The lack of sleep, the years of anticipation building to a head, the adreneline rush, the ecstatic screaming and howling. It wasn't so much unreal as extrareal. A 132 minute orgasm.

And the movie itself? Everything I'd hoped for and more. As exausted as I was, I still sat up until dawn that night, running it through my head over and over. I've probably seen it at least thirty times since then. Some people claim to have not liked it, but that's incomprehensible to me. Like not liking pizza or sex.

I still remember the Star Wars premiere as the last really spectacular moment of my old life, before it changed forever when I left for Air Force basic training in Texas a few weeks later. Even now, years later, I can honestly say that it's my favorite all of the Star Wars films.

But Why? Doesn't "Phantom Menace" Suck?

That's what they tell me, "they" being the louder and more obnoxious segment of Star Wars fandom. I'm of the opinion that this crowd has been allowed to dominate the fan dialog both online and elsewhere for far too long now. I'm tired of being lumped-in with the naysayers.

So this is where I say my peace once and for all. Not only is Phantom Menace a good Star Wars film, it is, to me, the best of them all.

The sheer rich, almost painterly lushness of the film's environments. In my opinion, no other Star Wars before or since has been so able to convey to the audience the feeling of a living, breathing world. Phantom Menace spent more time in development than any other Star Wars film, and nowhere is this more apparent than in the mind-boggling attention to detail apparent in the characters' surroundings. Re-watching the film, I find myself much more able to let go and lose myself in the sensation of being in that galaxy far, far away.

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