The Phantom Media Blitz

Nobody makes you want it like George Lucas. I've been waiting for various "Star Wars" sequels since 1977, when I watched the first one, sitting on my father's lap in Grauman's Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard. After seeing "Star Wars" for the 14th or 15th time, you had to start obsessing over the next one. The best and worst part was the previews, exquisite in both the pleasure of seeing and the pain of waiting.

We're in that zone again. If you saw "Monsters, Inc." you saw the first teaser for "Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones." Last Friday, two years after the movie came out, the "Phantom Menace" DVD went on sale--played on a DVD-ROM drive it automatically links to new teasers on the "Star Wars" Web site. And this weekend the second longer, "full teaser trailer" will appear, preceding a small art film called "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." This kind of thing sets us geeks vibrating at very high frequencies.

But what's really interesting about the trailers for "Attack" is how little widespread panic there seems to be. Almost exactly three years ago, fans paid full price for "Meet Joe Black"--which starred the completely non-Jedi-like Brad Pitt--just to see the first trailer for "Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace" that was playing in front of it. Newspapers and magazines covered the frenzy. This time around, everything's quiet. Almost...too quiet.

It's not because the trailers for "Episode II" aren't good. On the contrary, as I've come to expect from Uncle George, the new footage restores me to my Grauman's Chinese Theater state of mind. I didn't particularly like "Episode I," and yes, I thought Jar-Jar Binks was a stupid, offensive character. There. Happy? Can I still come to the geek clubhouse for meetings? But these new trailers are pretty cool. I saw the one connected to "Monsters" in a suburban Virginia theater half-full of squealing kids, and the Lucasfilm logo alone induced a hushed awe. The kids--or was it their parents?--started whispering, "Star Wars ... Star Wars." Over the sound of Darth Vader's labored breathing, the teaser flashes images of the Jedi Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), thousands of white-armored stormtroopers marching onto some kind of vehicle, Princess Amidala and a (thankfully) older Anakin Skywalker (played by destined-for-stardom Hayden Christensen). To the delight of professional "Star Wars" geeks such as myself, the teaser also features Jango Fett, who looks a lot like the icy, butt-kicking bounty hunter Boba Fett. Boba Fett rules; Web site rumor says this guy is his dad.

The "Episode II" trailers accessible via the DVD reveal even more. There's an aerial chase on Coruscant, the galactic capital. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin banter humorously, like adventure movie heroes should. The sandcrawlers, the giant tanks driven in the desert in the first movie, make their return. There's a shot of Boba Fett's elephantine spaceship, the Slave-1. Obi-Wan has a fight in a cantina, like in the first "Star Wars." Anakin flirts with Amidala and tries to rescue a chained-up Obi-Wan. There's a lightsaber fight. And Yoda has a line: "Dangerous and disturbing this puzzle is."

Yoda is always right--it is a disturbing puzzle. Why isn't the world more crazed for these trailers? In my mind, it's the expectations game. If you play down people's expectations--as President Bush learned to do before his debates with Al Gore--then if you succeed (or simply fail to fail), everyone thinks you did great. Uncle George's minions may be setting up "Attack of the Clones" with the same kind of care.

The new "Phantom Menace" DVD--actually a two-disc set--has terrific home-theater sound, a slick interface and a big load of added extras. I was particularly interested in rewatching "Phantom's" initial trailers and TV spots. They're fantastic, hinting at a movie with an intricate plot--young Anakin is torn between staying with his mother or flying off to become a Jedi Knight. Princess Amidala fights for her people's freedom during a bloody invasion. Senator Palpatine plots to take over the Republic. Mind you, none of these concepts comes across in the actual movie. I only infer them from ancillary Lucas materials, like a fun behind-the-scenes CD-ROM Lucasarts put out soon after the movie.

On screen--in the only product that really counts--the cute little kid who played Anakin in "Episode I" didn't have dialogue that came close to expressing his conflict, even if he'd had the acting chops to read it. Senator Palpatine's machinations are buried behind a secret Dark Lord identity and nonsense babble about trade taxation. And the bloody invasion of Amidala's planet had no blood. Instead, we got endless scenes of computer-generated talking frogs fighting computer-generated robots.

Before "Phantom" came out, analysts predicted a box-office blowout and $1 billion in sales of licensed toys and other tchotchkes. And in the end, "The Phantom Menace" made $922 million worldwide. That is a distinctly nonsucky number, but reviews were vicious and retailers ended up with bins full of remaindered Jar-Jar dolls. So it's possible die-hard fans feel a bit burned--which would explain why they're not madly running to see the new trailer. But even a cursory surfing of the Web suggests a subculture that's pretty amped up, even though we haven't been waiting 15 years this time--only three.

What's most clear is that the folks at Lucasfilm aren't flogging the trailers as hard. The "Meet Joe Black" showing was a one-day publicity stunt, an early release of the trailer announced ahead of time on the "Star Wars" Web site. Fans were met at theaters by TV news cameras. This time around, it looks like a more measured publicity campaign. Maybe it won't be seen as a claim of inevitable blockbuster status, and maybe pointing it at the "Monsters" and "Harry Potter" audience will pull in the teenagers who make movies into "Titanic"-size box-office hits. And if we're really lucky, maybe "The Phantom Menace" was really just an hours-long teaser for a better movie to come.