The trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was the white whale of my earliest days on the internet. In late 1997 and early 1998, it drove my every waking thought as I jumped from Star Wars website to Star Wars website waiting for news of its arrival. It finally arrived, in all its glory — and as of tomorrow, that was 20 years ago.
I don’t remember exactly where or how I found out, but I do remember, after months of speculating, that it finally became official. On November 17, 1998, the trailer for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace would debut in just 26 theatres in the US, along with the new Brad Pitt movie Meet Joe Black. And, better yet, it would do so not just before the movie, but after the movie too. So, for the price of a single ticket, you got to see the trailer twice. I made plans immediately.
However, due to my parents paying an exorbitant amount of money for my New York University education at the time, I knew I couldn’t skip class and go first thing. Instead, I settled on a time in the evening — but, before leaving, I noticed an interesting link in my IMs (AOL Instant Messages, for the younger crowd).
Someone in another city had filmed the trailer in their theatre and uploaded the bootleg. I was torn. Is this the moment? Do I wait? Thankfully, it was a large file and even with my ethernet connection, it was going to take a few hours to download. “Perfect,” I thought, “I don’t want to see it like that first, I want to see it on the big screen.”
I left my dorm room and walked a few blocks across Greenwich Village to what was then United Artists 14 in Union Square. During uni, this was my mecca, where I saw some of the best and most memorable films of the era. But really, what I loved about it most was once you got in, you could easily jump between theatres. And by God, that’s exactly what I planned to do that night.
I had a ticket for a 7:00 p.m. show but got there early to do some recon. I made note of all the other times Meet Joe Black was playing, its runtime, and which theatres each of those shows were playing in. The film runs just over three hours — and let me tell you, I was not going to watch a trailer I’d been waiting to see my entire life, then suffer through three hours of dead-eyed Brad Pitt before seeing that trailer again.
That was not happening. So, I did some maths. After I watched the trailer at seven, I could sneak into the show that started at 4:30pm to see the trailer at the end of those credits. From there, I’d hop into the 8pm to see it at the beginning of that show time, then the end of the 5:30, all the way up till around 10pm when my screening, the one I had a ticket for, was ending.
But before that, I had to see it the first time. Now, if you were a Star Wars fan in 1998, you know exactly where you saw this trailer for the first time. Maybe it was with Meet Joe Black like me. Maybe it was online or on TV. But you will never forget that trailer. I remember being nervous not knowing which trailer before the movie it was going to be. “Is this it? Nope. Entrapment. Is this it? Nope, The Matrix. Then… it began.
The 20th Century Fox logo, the Lucasfilm logo, and fog. The first shot of the trailer was a new alien race, Gungans, slowly walking through the thick mist, followed by the words “Every generation has a legend.” Composer John Williams’ music is softly playing, as we see a desert planet and a mysterious new ship, followed by the words “Every journey has a first step.” Next, a mysterious, bustling, European-looking city and its Queen looking out the window. “Every saga has a beginning.”
Finally, BOOM, the all too recognisable Star Wars fanfare explodes across the soundtrack and we’re in the middle of an ultra-fast pod race. Right about here is where the tears I suddenly felt on my cheeks began to jump off my face because I was laughing and crying at the same time.
I had some idea what I was looking at because of all the research and reading I’d done beforehand but nothing could touch the experience of seeing it larger than life on the big screen. For the first time in 15 years, I was watching new footage from a new Star Wars movie.
Those emotions still bubble up today when I re-watch the trailer. It’s packed with information and really compresses the movie down into two minutes. A highlight for me is the moment when Qui-Gon Jinn (played by Liam Neeson) says “Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi.” Even at 18 years-old, those six words slew me. That was the moment. The moment Obi-Wan met Darth Vader, the man who would kill him, but he’s only a boy. Moments like that were all the promise of the prequels rolled into one.
After watching that trailer, life changed for Star Wars fans. You had seen footage from a new Star Wars movie. A new trilogy of Star Wars films was coming — films you’d have for the rest of your life. After the trailer was over, the first thought was, “Can I time travel to opening night?” The second was, “Let’s watch it again.” So, as planned, I crept into the next screening.
There was no one at the door, the theatre wasn’t full, and I grabbed a seat near the back. It seemed like most people were legitimately there to see Meet Joe Black. I have literally no memory of that movie itself, just that I saw the end before I saw the beginning. I was in full, locked-in trailer mode. When the credits rolled, most people left the theatre, but a few people were still sitting. These were my people. The ones who sat through a three hour Brad Pitt movie for two minutes of Star Wars.
And so I watched the trailer once again.
I distinctly remember crying the second time too. Not as hard, but enough. And I proceeded to see the trailer six times that night, jumping from theatre to theatre to theatre. My mind raced thinking about the new characters, how the story fit together, and wondering if the movie could live up to the feeling I had at this moment. When I finally got back to my dorm, that large file had downloaded. I clicked play and watched it a few more times. “Six more months,” I remember thinking. “Six more months.”
We all know what happened six months later. Me especially, since I saw The Phantom Menace in the theatre nine times. But this isn’t about that. This is about the magic of the first trailer, which you can re-watch for yourself below.