This year, CultOfWhatever is looking back on some of the most influential, transformative, genre-defining, and cult-favorite films of 1999. We began in January with a look at M. Night Shyamalan’s breakout hit: The Sixth Sense. It’s a horror-thriller that stands the test of time and works as a great movie that would have been great in any year of release. M. Night could have made this movie yesterday and he would have had a smash on his hands. He could have released it in 1989 and it would have been just as tremendous.
We then looked at Fight Club, a movie very different from The Sixth Sense. It was very much a product of its time and time has not been good to it. It’s obnoxious, pretentious, gritty but undramatic, and the twist at the end was flat compared to Shyamalan’s first big shocker.
In March we reminisced about the bygone fun of The Mummy, a film that has certainly held up, precisely because it leaned heavily on the past and on its Indiana Jones inspirations. Already we have a tremendously eclectic few movies. One modern-day thriller/horror, one gritty 90’s-esque macho-fantasy, and one 1920’s-set throwback. Then last month everything was thrown aside as we reflected on the revolutionary and genre-defining sci-fi feature, The Matrix.
It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of the Star Wars prequels…
…but we can’t let the twentieth anniversary month of The Phantom Menace go by without a mention.
Star Wars is (or at least for now, anyway) a generational affair. My mother was a fan during the Original Trilogy’s run in theaters. She enjoyed the adventures of Luke and Han, Chewie and R2, Yoda, Ewoks, Death Stars and Princess Leia. My son is enjoying the new movies these days. For him, characters like Rey, Finn, Poe, and Kylo are a critical part of the whole saga.
For my generation, Star Wars was defined by Jar Jar Binks, green screens, wooden acting, and shoddy screenplays. By the time Episode III ended its run, most were ready for the franchise to go quietly into the night. Many were fine forgetting the prequel movies ever happened and would just enjoy the universally-loved original films.
The prequel trilogy managed to take a pop culture institution that transcended traditional sci-fi barriers and shrink its audience down only to its core members. In seven years, Star Wars went from the it-thing in blockbuster cinema to a cross between a punchline and a cautionary tale.
But man that first trailer was something else…
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Try to forget about Episode III and its convoluted, rushed, and clunky plotting. Try to forget Episode II and its half-baked story, painfully bad acting, and mindless set pieces. Try to forget Episode I and its lack of a central protagonist, its style over substance mentality, and its poorly-conceived characters. Go back before May 19, 1999.
Go back to November 13, 1998, to the premiere of Meet Joe Black.
Remember Meet Joe Black? Few do; it was a Brad Pitt/Anthony Hopkins drama, a remake of Death Takes a Holiday. It wasn’t expected to be a big contender for many awards, nor did it have a strong pre-release buzz. But it ended up grossing a satisfying 150mm dollars. I’m sure some of that was just a positive word of mouth, but a lot of it was the result of the first Episode I teaser-trailer being attached to the release.
Star Wars fans, hungry after fifteen years, bought tickets to the movie, saw the trailer…and then left. After a month, theater chains began attaching the Episode I trailer to the end of the movie too, as an incentive to keep the customers in their seats (and presumably buying popcorn and drinks while they waited). Eventually, the trailer was released on the world wide web, in an era when such things were new and strange. If you wanted to watch the trailer you had to go to the Quicktime.com website, where you’d then search for movie trailers, and then finally, click on the link that took you to the 360×240 resolution video.
I remember downloading it on the Quicktime website, on my 56K Modem (that got way less speed than 56K/second). I clicked play, watched as the bar filled up a milometer, then left to do chores on the farm. I came back five hours later…and it was halfway done! After lunch, I returned to my chores and came back that evening…
to discover the modem had been disconnected about 60% through the video.
I was never able to download the whole two-minute video. I watched that first minute-twenty (right around the time Anakin and Obi-Wan shook hands is where the video ended for me) about fifty times before being forced to bed. But I remember going to see Star Trek: Insurrection in theaters not long after and, to my immense delight, the trailer played in all its glory.
It’s a magical bit of film editing and music scoring, beginning with the mysterious fog, the force theme, and the words “every generation has a legend…” You couldn’t start a video in a more tantalizing way for a fourteen-year-old nerd who’d been a Star Wars fan since he was much smaller. The rest of the trailer played out beautifully, with quick shots of action interspersed with the mystery of the child-Anakin. There was hardly any plot being shown; it was just about conjuring up feelings, evoking nostalgia, and promising a return to an old universe with brand new characters; for my money, it’s one of the best teaser trailers ever produced and is still the best Star Wars related trailer ever released.
Years later my tastes would evolve, my blind fanboyism would wane, and my love for Star Wars would turn a bit cynical, at least when thinking about the prequel movies. In 1998, however, I was a kid who had only ever known three movies and a handful of books. Star Wars was the rare, elusive, holy grail. Star Trek was everywhere, with hundreds of hours to consume. There were tons of computer games and Nintendo games regularly scratching all my nerd itches. For Star Wars fans…well, in 1998 Star Wars was this gem of a series from another era. And for a long time, none of us ever thought we’d see another one.
And then, in a two-minute flash, all the rumors were confirmed. All the Empire magazine articles came true. All the hopes and dreams of fans everywhere were finally realized: As the music swelled and Anakin’s pod raced through the rocky trenches of Tatooine, everything I ever wanted was happening right in front of me: Star Wars was back.
I haven’t watched Episode I (the movie) all the way through in probably five years, but I still watch that trailer from time to time, and when I do all my jaded cynicism melts away, and I’m back to being the wide-eyed kid that George made these silly movies for in the first place. The movie may not have held up over the years, but its first teaser is still goosebump-inducing, still nostalgia-tingling, still hopeful and fun, and still awesome, twenty(one)-years later.