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For Fans, Believing Is Seeing

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 20, 1999; Page C01

They came.

They waited. They waited and waited and waited and waited and waited and waited and waited and waited and waited and waited and waited.

In line, at night, in rain, in cold, in heat, they waited.

Finally, they saw.

And they were conquered.

At the 12:01 a.m. Wednesday screening of "Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace" at the Senator theater, 900 devotees surrendered to the Force. And how.

The first public showing of George Lucas's long-awaited fourth episode of the "Star Wars" saga, which has dominated American popular culture with both its controlled hype and its spontaneous anticipation, had finally arrived here and across the country.

The place blazes and pulsates with energy and love. The Senator, with its old-fashioned marquee, its art moderne styling, its familiar-from-childhood refreshment stands, its Buck Rogers foyer, its magenta wash lights and Empire State Building streamlines, throbs with humanity, as if waiting for a zeppelin to moor. Searchlights slash through the skies like light sabers looking for evil flesh to cleave. Even the Charm City cops, not your friendliest legionnaires in the world, seem to be smiling, at least a little.

The focus of all this energy is the line, where postulants, devotees, acolytes, flagellants and a few true Jedis have suffered for their purification by "Episode I." By near show time, the line has come to resemble some great creature from deep in the Lucas id, with 1,800 legs and 1,800 arms and 9,000 fingers and 9,000 toes and (roughly) 2,146 ponytails. But it is a benevolent beast, and it waits obediently to file into a building that houses a galaxy long ago and far, far away.

"It's my generation's Woodstock," says one of its cleverest representatives, 18-year-old Dale Beran, in his proud "I luv Chewbacca" T-shirt. "We sit in the dark and we don't talk to each other and we give all our money to a heartless corporation."

Beran, a student at the Park School in Baltimore and now seated and secure, is cooling down in the minutes before midnight as he decompresses from line universe and adjusts to theater universe. The place is full, the feeling like the party at the fall of the Berlin Wall.

He has found his place in Row 2, where the screen towers above him at the near vertical like the gate to Babylon. With the thick hair and hyper-intelligent, glasses-magnified eyes of a future contributor to the New Republic, he seems representative of the thing that is happening tonight: He has to see the movie, but he's also seen through it.

"It fills me with incredible nostalgia for my childhood, where I was raised amid the thousands of toys and all the merchandising. I had a wonderful childhood, thanks to capitalism. It's like the stupidest con, but it's neat and it's cool and it doesn't hurt anybody."

Beran's line story is like the stories of so many others here: the long nights, the community, the friendliness, the hope and, finally, the glory.

Beran is one of a crew of intrepid first-two-row sitters from the Baltimore private school system. Also present, towing his 10-year-old sister, Allie, is 15-year-old Dillon Nestadt, a student at the McDonough School. He is wearing a dazzlingly confessional "I am a Nerd" T-shirt.

When instructed by a reporter during the prescreening hubbub ("I want the smartest and the funniest guy to speak; the rest of you go away."), Nestadt is the first to issue a policy statement.

"The mythology of it is so fascinating," he says. "And the detail in the art direction, the imagination of the characters, it's all terrific."

"Yeah, and the explosions are cool," Beran adds.

Allie, clutching some sort of plush toy of a creature that apparently appeared in an earlier edition of the series, says this is the first time she's ever seen a "Star Wars" movie in a theater. Until now, it's been a purely video phenomenon for her.

"Is this the first time you've ever been up this late?" a reporter asks.

She makes a face like "Excuse me, what planet are you from?" and says "No."

But she's really excited because "You get to see Darth Vader as a little boy. And I like Queen Amidala."

Meanwhile, Pete Levin, 20, of Baltimore, a film student at New York University, is waxing poetic about the possibilities of it all:

"There's so much detail. He's creating a whole world. It's incomprehensible."

Even a young woman with all the talents needed for success in Washington, not Baltimore, seizes the moment. Seeing a reporter scribbling notes, she approaches on a mission of pure D.C.-style spin.

This would be the wondrous Maria Louis, 20, who returned home to Charm City from college in Indiana for the first screening. "I only skipped a couple of finals," she says, then admits she is joking.

After saying the requisite good things about the movie and the requisite bad things about movie critics--those harbingers of contempt who have tried, unsuccessfully, to rain on this big parade ("They came for the story line. You don't go to 'Star Wars' for story line!"), she gets to her main point.

"Actually," she tells The Washington Post, "what I really want to do is beat 'Titanic.' I hate the movie so much! 'Titanic' needs to be shot down."

At midnight, with tons of popcorn purchased, gallons of Coke filling cups to the brim and light sabers finally stilled, the audience gets ready.

But by 12:01:05, still no movie.

They begin to chant.

"We want the movie, we want the movie."

"It figures," says a cynic. "All their watches are exactly on time."

At 12:08 a.m., the legendarily loquacious owner and curator of the Senator, Tom Kiefaber, finally goes onstage to conduct the ceremonies. Kiefaber has never seen a crowd he didn't think could be improved by several minutes of instruction, and tonight is no exception.

But Kiefaber is merciful. He knows the pain. Instead of giving his unique philosophical insights into the nature of reality, he merely singles out a few champions--one fellow bought 12 tickets, received 18 and actually brought the extra six back, and was rewarded with a Skywalker Ranch T-shirt--and reiterates the history of his theater, goes through a groaningly pedantic exhumation of the various technical excellences of this particular print and the Senator's sound and projection system, and then steps aside.

Time: 12:18 a.m. Stardate 19 May 1999. Location: in a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away.

Results: pandemonium.

When the two words STAR WARS flash on the screen in that squared-off, cool-in-'77 logo, and the sky is velvety black and the stars an infinity of points, and John Williams's familiar-as-weather music hits all the big chords, the audience is unified into one primitive creature. You feel it rise and enter and make a connection with the picture so intense it's rather awesome.

Even the lame-o dialogue draws reverential silence. No one (except a benighted critic) laughs when Liam Neeson solemnly intones "I sense a disturbance in the force!"

On the other hand, some jokes so arcane no grown-up could be expected to understand them draw mega-laughs.

Many people even find Jar Jar Binks, the computer-morphed Gungan stumblebum, actually funny.

Everyone, even the most jaded, thrills to the final light-saber-on-light-saber whackathon between Neeson's Qui-Gon Jinn and the Chagall-faced Darth Maul, a Sith lord (I have no idea what that means) who represents martial-arts villainy.

When the movie ends and the words PRODUCED AND DIRECTED BY GEORGE LUCAS come up on screen, again hurled into the subconscious by Williams's thunderous music, the result is a tribal orgasm of enthusiasm. It is an explosion of rapture, a release of Dionysian energies, an affirmation of man as a storytelling and story-listening animal. People stand and applaud endlessly, giving themselves to this man's vision as if he is lord.

Our critics check in:

Allie Nestadt: "I thought it was great. But I did fall asleep for 20 minutes."

Dillon Nestadt: "It doesn't matter about the plot. 'Star Wars' is the pop icon of our time, and it was great."

Maria Louis: "It was great. It was much better than 'Titanic.' "

Dale Beran: "I loved it. It's a little disconnected, but you're always with it."

Outside, the father-son team of Russ and Nicholas Springham were ecstatic. It was a kind of special thing for Russ, who's been to the opening night of every "Star Wars" film since 1977, and even worked as a volunteer guide at the Smithsonian's "Star Wars" exhibit last summer.

"It was excellent," said Russ, 42.

"No disappointment," said Nicholas, 14.

"I'm bringing the whole family back tomorrow night for the 8 p.m. screening," Russ said, "and I can't wait."

Outside in the dark, the line stirs, another 900 hearty souls stretching around the block. It was almost their turn. It was almost show time. It was almost 3:15 a.m. on a street in Baltimore.

© 1999 The Washington Post Company