On May 18, 1999, Star Wars fans lined up to attend the midnight premiere of Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, the first installment in creator George Lucas' prequel trilogy about a young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), the future Darth Vader. When Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) are sent to settle an interplanetary trade dispute concerning small and peaceful planet Naboo, homeworld of Queen Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), they become aware of a shadowy threat against the galaxy involving Sith Lord Darth Sidious (Ian McDiarmid) and red-bladed apprentice Darth Maul (Ray Park).
"I remember being in line to buy tickets for the midnight showing (yes, this was the pre-Fandango stone age); it was a blistering hot day, and I waited for hours roasting in the sun, right alongside hundreds of other Star Wars fans — and all we could do was speculate," Star Wars fan and sci-fi writer Michael Moreci told StarWars.com in a 2019 retrospective celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Phantom Menace. "What could this new Star Wars movie really be like? What would see? What would we learn? It was a time when anything was possible, and I’ll never forget how amazing it felt to have the doors to so many possibilities opened in my imagination, which is something Star Wars does best, for all us fans."
Ending a 16-year gap started with 1983's Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi, the wait for Lucas' anticipated Star Wars prequel — exploring the tragic origin story of the fallen Jedi who was redeemed by his son, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), in the conclusion of the original trilogy — spawned hour-long lines filled with ticket holders.
Others, like then 24-year-old super-fan Jeremy Lorenz, camped outside their local theater for weeks before the midnight showing to purchase tickets and be among the first to return to a galaxy far, far away. As Lorenz told the SF Gate at the time, "I saw Star Wars when I was 5 and it took me to another place. It brings out the child in all of us and lets us relive our youth."
Southern California's KCOP 13 News captured footage from opening night, where Star Wars fans exiting first late night showings revealed mixed reactions:
"It was amazing, it was everything I thought it was gonna be and more," said one fan dressed as the horn-headed Darth Maul. Another moviegoer disagreed, telling news cameras, "Thumbs way down. I think I deserve a public apology from George Lucas."
Professional critics had similar disagreements. In a review published on May 18, 1999, Keith Turan of the Los Angeles Times called The Phantom Menace a "considerable letdown," while Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times called Lucas' big-budget special effects extravaganza an "astonishing achievement in imaginative filmmaking."
All nine episodes of the Star Wars saga are available to stream on Disney+.