'The Phantom Menace' Ruined Midnight Screenings

When I was 12 years old, my father made my brother and I stand in line at midnight sandwiched between strange men carrying toy weapons and other confused children like ourselves. We stood, bored out of our minds, feet aching, tummies growling — all in the hopes that we might be some of the first people to ever see what has been universally hailed as the worst Star Wars movie ever. Yep, I attended a midnight screening of Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace when I was in sixth grade. And it taught me one of most valuable lessons I have ever learned: Midnight screenings are the worst.

Of course, this lesson didn’t hit me right away. As a 12-year-old with her father and brother, standing along the concrete corridor of the San Marcos, California movie theater built to mimic one of the California missions (if missions were big enough to house the crashing and banging that comes along with a lightsaber fight between two Jedi and a Sith lord) I was thrilled. I’d been waiting for this.

My dad had allowed my brother and I to pick out brand new T-shirts for the occasion — he’d chosen the terrifying visage of Emperor Palpatine’s minion Darth Maul and I opted for Queen Amidala in all her adventurous lipstick and hair crown glory. We lined up, figured out the best way to lean against the rough stucco for the next few hours and settled in. The fact that my father took us to get fish tacos beforehand certainly helped with our complacency, but we were pretty thrilled to find out what happened in a galaxy far, far away before Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia were tasked with saving the universe. This was going to be an incredible movie.

After two hours of coveting the toys grown men had managed to nab and bring to this very public event while we only had our Taco Bell kids meal spinners — I remember one gentleman had somehow managed to get his hands on the impossible to find double lightsaber wielded by Darth Maul — my brother and I were somehow still pumped. Yawning with every step, we followed the theater attendants as they urged everyone to stay calm and enter the theater. There were clouds of excited chatter wafting throughout the theater as we piled in and some actual adults pushed and shoved to get ahead of children in the shuffle to grab seats. But it didn’t phase me: This was a midnight screening. It was insane that we were allowed to be out this late at a theater in the first place, why not let the rules of decorum go out the window too?

Finally, we strapped ourselves in and the lights went down. The feeling was not unlike the first time I rode Disneyland’s Star Tours: I was entering this other world and I couldn’t wait. The film began, the iconic Star Wars theme hit me so hard a tear eked from my eye — it could have been the delirium from lack of sleep, but I was genuinely happy to have my generation’s own Star Wars. Between that giddiness and my disastrously low level of brain power, I was impossibly charmed by The Phantom Menace. I didn’t notice the fact that generally top-notch actors like Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor seemed to lose their ability to speak like normal humans in this film. I didn’t think about the fact that midiclorians are complete bullshit. It didn’t even bother me that Anakin Skywalker’s pod racer defied every law of physics or that his immaculate conception was the most obnoxious plot point in the history of Sci Fi. Even Watto, the disgusting flying slum merchant, didn’t seem to bother me. This was my Star Wars and I’d just stood in line for hours to see it. It had to be incredible. It just had to be.

Above: Me expressing my love for The Phantom Menace alongside my brother and our friend.

And it worked. I walked out of the theater, sleepier than I’d ever been, and pumped as the iconic Star Wars music echoed through the theater and into the parking lot. I wore my Queen Amidala shirt to school the next morning — even though I knew it would elicit cries of “NERD!” from the peanut gallery. I begged my father to take us to see The Phantom Menace two more times and he obliged. I hung up the film’s poster in my room and listened to the soundtrack — even though it contains what might be the most terrifying Star Wars song of all time. It wasn’t until that obsession gave way to another that I finally realized how terrible “My Star Wars” was. I’d been duped.

I’d become enrapt by the marketing frenzy surrounding the new Star Wars movies. I’d wanted to so badly to be able to match my dad’s stories of seeing The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi when they first came out. Instead, the midnight screening had sealed the deal and I’d become a slave to one of the most disappointing movies of all time.

Of course, I didn’t stop. This nerd found herself at the midnight premieres for each of the subsequent Star Wars films — though even I knew that the "death sticks" scene was one of the worst crimes against cinematic writing ever. I went to the Pirates of the Caribbean midnight screenings, where lightsabers were swapped for dice-based games and floppy pirate hats. I went to Harry Potter midnight screenings, where the souvenirs were books, grasped by readers eager to soak up the last bits of Potter knowledge before seeing it on the screen. Sure, it was fun, but time and again, I wound up thinking that a movie as terrible as Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End was actually good. I cried legitimate tears when Keira Knightley watched Orlando Bloom disappear in a green flash in the ocean. And it was all thanks to the delirium of a midnight screening.

So while waiting in that line and obsessing over what might go down in the long-awaited Star Wars sequel trilogy remains a great memory, I'll be skipping future midnight screenings. It's like a drug that makes terrible movies seem amazing and ain't nobody got time for that.

Image: Courtesy of Kenton Stahler