NEW YORK – It was a Jedi night to end all Jedi knights.
After weeks of intergalactic hype, the much-awaited and last-ever "Star Wars" (search) movie finally opened at the stroke of midnight Thursday — and fanatics responded with zeal.
The most serious “force” enthusiasts took Thursday off work, waited for hours in line even though they already had tickets and eagerly poured into theaters overnight to see what all the fuss was about over George Lucas’ "Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith" (search).
"It's the greatest experience ever — it's a milestone in our lives," said Makeda Bunsie, 28, who emerged from the midnight screening at New York City's Ziegfeld Theatre with her boyfriend David Mendoza. "It's what we've been waiting for all these years. Our chests hurt from the emotion. It was heart-wrenching."
In fact, Bunsie and Mendoza, 23, were so overcome they couldn't get the words out when they were remembering some of the most moving scenes.
The couple bought tickets for five nights in a row and waited 16 hours straight earlier this month to get them.
"It's the end of an era," said Mendoza, shaking his head. The toy salesman said he'd probably call out sick on Thursday; Bunsie planned to come in "phenomenally late" to her job as a high school administrative assistant.
“Revenge of the Sith” — the final movie to be made in the six-film sci-fi series but the third one in the epic’s chronology — documents the villain Darth Vader’s journey from heroic good guy Anakin Skywalker to the “dark side.”
"It was definitely worth the hype," said recent grad school graduate Marion Vitus, 27, as she came out of the Ziegfeld Theatre with her sister, 23-year-old Stephanie Vitus. The siblings belong to a "Star Wars" fans charity called NYLine, which raises money for terminally ill children.
Many cult followers demonstrated their allegiance to the “Star Wars” series with props and clothing. They wielded toy light sabers, lounged on movie-themed beach towels and sported hooded brown Obi-Wan Kenobi capes, white-and-black Storm Trooper suits, frothy pink princess gowns and shiny black Darth Vader (search) costumes.
“I love ‘Star Wars’ — it’s like a lifestyle for us, a religion,” said Michele Higgins, 29, of Staten Island, N.Y., in line for the 3:30 a.m. Ziegfeld screening. “I took a personal day off from work. They all know. They think I’m insane.”
Higgins’ husband is even more of a die-hard: He shed tears when he saw the movie trailer on TV.
“He can’t even talk about it,” said Higgins, who works at an educational book publishing company. “He wells up.”
Though the buildup lasted for months, with droves of viewers catching the movie in special screenings and premieres, “Sith” opened to general audiences around the world at 12:01 a.m. Thursday.
But this “Star Wars” is so big, it didn’t only come to a theater near you, it came to most theaters near you in a host of different countries.
For weeks, fans who wanted the force to be with them waited in line for the coveted tickets, many decked out like “Star Wars” characters and some camping out for days and nights on end.
At the historic Ziegfeld — which projects its movies digitally — a steady parade of costumed "Star Wars" buffs crowded the sidewalk as opening night approached, though a limit of only 30 fans at a time was usually enforced there.
"This is what everyone's been waiting to see," said Ithaca College student Dan Dunbar, 21, dressed like a Bounty Hunter outside the theater Wednesday afternoon. "We get to see [Anakin] turn to the dark side."
After sleeping in a tent on the sidewalk overnight Monday, Dunbar snagged a ticket for the midnight Ziegfeld show. The masked man in full head-to-toe gear — complete with toy machine gun — posed for photographs with children and other fans Wednesday.
Devotees who couldn't get tickets to those first sought-after screenings, many of which sold out a month ago, snapped up seats for the 3:30 a.m. viewings instead. A handful stayed for consecutive showings so they could have double or triple the "Sith" pleasure.
"There has never been anything like this," said magician Mark Stone, 39, with a Conehead helmet and a bag full of snacks on hand for the second screening. "For some people, it's been around as long as they have. It's part of our popular culture."
Among the most hard-core fanatics are those who paid up to $500 a ticket at a few of the premieres and early showings around the world in recent weeks. Luckily, most "Star Wars" followers didn't have to fork over that kind of dough for opening night.
"I only paid $10," said New Yorker Jason Grotrian, 32, owner of graphic design studio Bluefuse Design.
For Grotrian, the last in the one-of-a-kind film series has a special significance — he saw the first "Star Wars" in the theater at age 4 and still remembers jumping into his mother's lap when Darth Vader appeared on the screen.
"I saw the movie at such a young age that I'm genetically programmed to see this movie," he said.
Germany native Florian Reichart traveled to New York from Washington, D.C., where he's spending the summer doing volunteer work, to get "Sith" tickets.
He took two days off and didn't sleep Tuesday night because he camped out for seats.
"I go to work next on Friday," said Reichart, 25, dressed in an Obi-Wan Kenobi (search) cloak and waving a blue plastic light saber. "I told my boss why. She understands. ... I consider myself a major 'Star Wars' fan."
“Sith” has gotten mostly out-of-this-world reviews for its storyline, acting, special effects and cinematography — and some have called it the best of the six-movie set, which began in 1977 with the original “Star Wars.”
But those in the film business are also looking to “Sith” to kick-start the slumping box office, or at least provide a temporary boost as summer approaches.
Moviefone (search), an AOL-owned online and telecharge film ticket company, reported that more than 65 percent of its total sales in the past week have been for the new “Star Wars,” according to the New York Post, and many general audience screenings are sold out.
"'Star Wars' is going to turn everything around in a big way," Paul Dergarabedian, president of box-office tracker Exhibitor Relations (search), predicted Monday. “Because it’s the final installment, it’s going to go beyond the typical sci-fi audience. It’s a cultural phenomenon. Virtually everyone has a vested interest in this movie.”
"Vested interest" is an understatement for some fans. "Star Wars" zealot and tattoo artist Eric Negron has movie-related tattoos all over his body, wants a "Star Wars"-themed wedding and hopes to name his firstborn Anakin.
He even broke up with his girlfriend of 10 years when "Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones" (search) came out in 2002 and she pushed him to choose between his movie mania and her. His answer?
"I said, 'Star Wars,'" Negron, 33, told FOX News. "No regrets."
Negron, whose beds are draped in "Star Wars" sheets and rooms in his house cluttered with collectibles, has a new woman in his life now and his first child on the way (though the chances the baby will be named Anakin are slim, since his girlfriend isn't gaga over the sci-fi films).
He plans to sell his movie paraphernalia once the child is born, and it's an appropriate time to do it: The release of Lucas' last "Star Wars" is the end of a three-decade chapter in Negron's life.
He thought the film was "awesome," but he came away with a black hole in his heart.
"It felt like my girlfriend left me or my dog died," he said.
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