These people put the 'fan' in galactic fantasy

Thousands of prequel viewers camped out for the best seats at the

Late, late at night at a theater far, far ... oh, you get the idea.

It's here.

After years of anticipation and enough hype to embarrass even Han Solo, yesterday America received the cinematic equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls: the first prequel to George Lucas's space opera.

At the Showcase Cinemas in Randolph, Mass., fans are talking about the movie in terms usually reserved for the birth of a first child. "We've been waiting for this our whole lives," says Boston University senior Pete Ianos, sporting a Yoda T-shirt.

"It's something to tell your grandchildren," agrees Texan Sarah Myers, who dressed up as Darth Vader for the 1997 "Star Wars" rerelease and whose family owns five complete sets of the trilogy.

People have been lining up since 3 p.m. Tuesday.

By 11:45 p.m., the crowd is so keyed up, they're cheering the manager, people looking for a fellow named Eric, and a guy in front with a Wookie mask, who obligingly stands up and claws the air every time the audience chants "Chewie! Chewie!"

Both the 12:01 a.m. and 12:30 showings of the $115 million epic have sold out, and some determined night owls are tackling the 3 a.m. screening, just to make sure they've experienced movie history by the time the morning papers hit doorsteps. Ticket revenues for yesterday's showings were expected to hit $45 million, an opening-day record for films.

"I don't think anything has the same mass appeal," says Chris L'Etoile. "Even people who hate sci-fi will see this movie. It's not confined to a small group of geeks. This movie makes everyone a geek."

Part of the reason is that for anyone born after 1970, " 'Star Wars' has become symbolic [of childhood]," says David Lubin, professor of art and American culture at Colby College in Waterville, Maine, who has a book on "Titanic" coming out this fall. "It was the first movie they remember seeing; they played with the toys when they were growing up. Dressing up and standing in line and getting all excited and childlike is an injection of the enthusiasm they had when they were 10."

Indeed, the movie theater - one of 2,011 across the country hosting midnight screenings - looks a little like a Halloween party, with some ticket holders walking around in Obi-Wan Kenobi's burlap gi or sprouting horns, la the new film's villain, Darth Maul.

When you ask what causes people to skip work and lose sleep, it's not the special effects or the "Star Wars" lunch box they had as a child that they cite (although they mention those, too). It's the philosophy underlying the movie.

"The thing that impresses me is the deep meaning and undertones of vision [in the original trilogy]," says Matthew Antonizick, who purchased the last ticket to the midnight show. He spent 1-1/2 hours turning his face into Darth Maul's black-and-red visage. Perhaps reflecting on the three horns jutting out of his forehead, he grins. "Don't get me wrong, I like action, just like anybody else."

Most people have come in groups of four or five, and some drove as long as three hours to share the event with their friends. For many, losing sleep is part of proving what devoted fans they are.

But Sean Coyle, who camped out on an air mattress a week earlier to buy tickets, has a practical reason for being first. Otherwise, he says, "you just know some schmo is going to come up to you and say, 'This is how it ends,' " and ruin the movie.

Although that may be impossible. Despite mixed reviews, fans here have already crowned the movie a success. And "even if this one stinks, I'm still going to see the next two," says Mr. Coyle.

Mr. Ianos agrees, saying the only way he wouldn't like "The Phantom Menace" is if it turns out to be "the sci-fi 'Ishtar.' " He and his pals got psyched up by watching the trilogy back-to-back the night before. They look at it as almost a rite of passage. "It's a nice graduation gift," he says. "We were born at the first 'Star Wars' and we're graduating with the fourth."

As the projector begins to roll, history is made: For perhaps the first time ever, the Emergency Exit notice gets an ovation. By the time the familiar gold words scroll across the screen, one almost can't hear John Williams's famous score over the applause.

After two hours and 10 minutes of light- saber duels, pod races, and an Obi-Wan sporting a braid and a kicky ponytail, some still were not ready to let go of the Force. Mr. Antonizick came back later the same day (sans face paint), taking his friends and sister at a more reasonable hour.

While not everyone was completely satisfied, the majority of those interviewed said "Phantom Menace" was a worthy addition to the classic epic. "Parts of it were slow, but about three-quarters of it was real 'Star Wars,' " says Jeff Pepi.

And most said they were coming back. "It takes three times to really digest everything," says Robert Vandenburgh.

As the clock strikes 3 a.m., Mr. Pepi injects a note of reality to the proceedings. When asked what he was going to do now that it was all over, Pepi, whose painted face has turned a streaky pink, announced: "I'm going to wash my face and go home."

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