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Waiting For Star Wars

IN THE ANNALS OF ""STAR WARS'' LEGEND, THE young rogue Scorpio ranks well below the likes of Yoda, Chewbacca and R2-D2. But he's earned a place in the pantheon. Scorpio is an earthling--a guy from San Francisco, actually--and it was he who embarked last fall on a vital mission in service of ""Star Wars'' fans everywhere. With his trusty Handicam, he bootlegged a copy of the limited-release trailer for George Lucas's upcoming ""Star Wars'' epic ""Episode I: The Phantom Menace.'' ""A lot of fans had no idea how they were going to hold out until the trailer got to their theaters,'' says Scorpio, who, copyright laws being what they are, is sticking to his alias.

He wasn't ready, though, for what happened once his work hit the Internet. Within hours the trailer spread to more than 60 sites, and demand for an early peek at what would be the first new ""Star Wars'' installment in 16 years crashed servers around the world. Lucasfilm's official Web site scrambled to post the trailer itself and was promptly overwhelmed, receiving some 340 hits per second. Scorpio, a married, 33-year-old professional who owns every Boba Fett action figure ever made, became a hero among his fellow fans. Unimpressed, however, was Mrs. Scorpio. ""She thinks I'm the biggest geek,'' he says.

Some people just don't get it. But for a generation of young, mostly male, fans who were introduced to Lucas's original trilogy as impressionable grade-schoolers, the return of the ""Star Wars'' franchise May 21 ranks right up there with the Second Coming of Christ. The first of three planned ""prequels'' set prior to ""Star Wars,'' ""Episode I'' has been dissected and obsessed over like no other piece of unreleased celluloid in history. To call this film ""anticipated'' is like saying oxygen is ""useful.'' Fan-run Web sites, in contrast to the typical homages slapped up by, say, your average Burt Bacharach freak, are mind-boggling operations--some offer as many as five daily updates to a vast audience hungry for even the tiniest appetizer from Saint George's jealously guarded kitchen. Sure, hundreds of thousands of the ""Star Wars'' faithful have chugged along for years without a new movie to gawk at, but now this scattered community is enjoying a glorious moment of solidarity, coalescing on the Internet and preparing to burst forth as one from their far-flung basements and rec rooms. Many are responsible people. They've got jobs. They've got families. They've got a lightsaber in the closet.

The full-on fanatics will be first in line at movie theaters, of course, but as May 21 comes and goes, it'll be a rare household indeed that fails to feel the pull of the Force. The rerelease in 1997 of the original three films lined up a new generation of clamoring kids, pushing the trilogy's total box office to $1 billion. Hollywood got an early taste of the demand last fall, when films carrying the ""Episode I'' trailer saw their box office spike by as much as 25 percent. Rival studios are busy scheduling their big summer films well away from Fox's potential steamroller. ""If "Star Wars' did $200 million, I think that would be great,'' says Fox chairman Tom Sherak, perhaps too modestly. Among fans, it's an article of faith that the film will take the all-time box-office title. As StarWarz.com Web guru Lou (T'Bone) Tambone, 28, sees it: ""At this point you could have two hours of George Lucas's hairy butt and it would beat "Titanic'.''

The broad appeal of the ""Star Wars'' franchise is no mystery. It's hard not to like a blazing action sequence or slick special effects. And indeed, Lucas is promising to set new standards with the coming film's interplay of computer-generated and live actors. But according to most fans, it's the story line that keeps them hooked, as Lucas's pastiche of time-tested mythological motifs strikes a universal chord, especially among adolescents. Watching Luke Skywalker trace a path mythologist Joseph Campbell called ""the hero's journey''--in this case, from bored teen to Jedi Knight--they see their own aspirations spectacularly realized. What youth wouldn't give his right arm to wallop the old man with a lightsaber now and then?

Fandom also brings companionship. "" "Star Wars' is more than a movie. It's a whole culture,'' says Lincoln Gasking, 21, who often stays up until sunrise tweaking his encyclopedic Countdown to Star Wars Web site from an inn his parents own outside Melbourne, Australia. Like all cultures, Lucas's fans have their own icons, ethics and language, and in the parlance, the most devoted are known as ""fanboys.'' Ernie Cline, 26, an aspiring filmmaker from Austin, Texas, hopes to raise money to shoot a movie titled just that. His story centers around four pals on a quest to see ""Episode I'' before one of them dies of a terminal illness. Ain't It Cool News Web site operator Harry Knowles, the grandfather of Internet movie-sleuthing, has a cameo, slipping the foursome blueprints of Lucas's Skywalker Ranch. ""When I wrote this, I thought everyone was going to know what a huge "Star Wars' geek I am,'' says Cline. ""Now I know I'm just a novice. It's scary out there.''

Roderick Vonhogen isn't what you'd call scary, but he's certainly obsessed. The 30-year-old Dutch priest has spent 18 months piecing together an illustrated, almost shot-by-shot rundown of the first prequel's plot, using tidbits from the online info mill, official photos and his own elaborate artwork. Vonhogen, who's posted the results at his Virtual Edition Web site, particularly appreciates Lucas's ability to impart values through storytelling. ""Jesus often did the same thing,'' he says. ""Though his teaching didn't earn him the millions of dollars that Lucas is making.'' We're not going to rehash the full saga here--some fans revile advance plot tips as ""spoilers''--but see the sidebar if you're interested in the details. Most of what we know (or think we know) about the new film, we owe to the tireless efforts of Lucas's fans. If information wants to be free, as hackers are fond of saying, ""Star Wars'' information wants to dance naked down Main Street. ""Everyone said this was the most top-secret movie ever made, that it was tighter than Fort Knox, no leaks whatsoever,'' says Scott Chitwood, 25, who's the emperor of TheForce.net. ""Well, most Web-site operators knew the plot a year ago. That's all because of the Internet.'' To satisfy ravenous demand, Web sleuths have purportedly gotten their hands on everything from preliminary vehicle and scenery sketches to call sheets from the set. Spies have even snagged leads by checking records for copyrights and Internet domain names that Lucasfilm has registered. But as much as many fans enjoy the cat-and-mouse intrigue involved in prying out ""secrets,'' many nuggets are seemingly leaked by inside sources, who may or may not be acting with official sanction. Lucas, after all, has long understood the importance of stoking the fires of fandom--months before ""Star Wars'' came out in 1977, his emissaries plied the big science-fiction conventions, drumming up interest.

Back then, ""Star Wars'' was lucky to command a back room in which to wheel out a droid or two. These days things tend to be a little more elaborate. Ben Stevens, 32, of Plano, Texas, is planning the Imperial Cruiser of ""Star Wars'' conventions for the weekend of the movie's opening. He's already lined up more than a dozen actors from the original trilogy: Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian), Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Phil Brown (Uncle Owen), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), a couple of Jawas, some Ewoks and the guy who worked Jabba the Hutt's tail. For a hundred bucks, you can ride in a limo with one of the stars to an opening-night screening of ""Episode I'' in Plano, walk a red carpet into the theater (escorted by storm troopers in full regalia) and see the prequel. ""We've got people coming from Argentina, Brazil, Germany, Japan, everwhere,'' Stevens says. ""The Switzerland fan club called and said their entire base of 35 members is coming.'' That may not sound like a lot, but, then again, Switzerland's never been much for wars.

Still, overseas fans, particularly, are rending their Mandalorian battle garments--the film won't open abroad until midsummer. ""There is absolutely no possible way I could wait even a day,'' says Gasking, the Aussie. He's been helping coordinate the 30 or so lines that fans plan to form outside various stateside movie theaters a month before the film opens. Ty Durekas, 32, of Los Altos, Calif., says he plans to do the full month at San Francisco's Coronet Theater. ""My wife has said it's OK that I get out of diaper duty for a little while,'' he says. And God bless her. After all, says Gasking, ""It's not about the tickets. It's about the anticipation. It'll be something to look back on for the rest our lives. It's like our Woodstock.''

But what if Lucas is peddling a bummer? Early reports are mostly limited to Steven Spielberg's famous post-screening pronouncement: ""Oh my God. Your jaw will hang open for a week.'' Knowles, who says he's seen the script, told followers: ""It seemed so cool that I can't imagine not pissing myself in the theater.'' Fan opinion, in general, is extremely optimistic. ""The closer the film gets, the better I believe it will be,'' says Carl Cunningham, 27, who works for IBM outside Atlanta and helps run the JediNet Web site from a cellar strewn with the thousands of items of ""Star Wars'' memorabilia he's collected since 1978. ""There are those who, no doubt, will put it under a magnifying glass and rip it apart, but I know in my heart that people are going to accept this film just as much as the originals.'' Some people worry that Lucas might overplay to the youngest members of his audience; one new alien character, Jar Jar Binks, looks a little too cartoonish for the taste of some. The cute, furry Ewoks of ""Return of the Jedi'' are almost universally reviled by the film's older fans, who see them as a kiddie-pleasing sellout. ""They looked fake as hell,'' says Cunningham. ""You always looked for the zipper in the costume.'' John Benson, 25, Cunningham's co-Web-site-operator, has a more subtle concern about the new film: ""It will probably top the originals, but I don't think it can ever feel as good as them.''

At heart, it seems, most ""Star Wars'' fanatics are after more than a formula; they hope to recapture the amazement they felt as kids. When the phenomenon first hit, StarWarz.com's Tambone was 7, and his parents were careering toward a divorce. ""That was a really terrible time,'' he says. ""Lucas created a world for me to escape to.'' He's since seen the films more than 200 times. For many fans, the route to eternal wonder may be blazed by tiny footsteps. Chitwood is expecting his first child in April. ""There's already a Yoda doll in the crib,'' he says. Cunningham, too, has plans to relive his youth with his kids. In fifth grade, his mother picked him up early from school so they could see the first showing of ""Return of the Jedi'' together. Now he's planning to collect his 4-year-old daughter, Taylor, early from school for the opening of ""Episode I.'' When that day comes in May, Taylor will be the same age Cunningham was when he first saw ""Star Wars.'' ""That's too cool for words,'' he says. And a million fanboys would agree.

HERE'S THE STORY (WE THINK) Be warned! What follows are called ""spoilers'' on the Web--prequel plot points that some fans kill for and others avoid. Our unofficial source: fanboys. See how it all meshes with the originals.

THE PHANTOM MENACE

Look, we're not kidding: if you don't want to know what probably happens, don't read this. Still here? OK. An even longer time ago, in a galaxy far, far away: planet Naboo is under attack by the nasty Trade Federation. Two Jedi Knights, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) head to Naboo to protect embattled Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman). The trio flees Naboo for sand-swept Tatooine. There they meet wunderkind Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd), as well as evil Darth Maul (Ray Park), who flashes a bitchin' two-bladed lightsaber that your kids are going to want for Christmas. After a scrap, it's off to Coruscant--the ultraurban galaxy capital and home to the Jedi Council (starring Yoda) and upwardly mobile bad guy Senator Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). We'll stop there.

EPISODE II

Details get sketchier from here--George hasn't even finished the script yet. But here's what's likely to happen: it's 10 years later, during the Clone Wars mentioned in the original ""Star Wars.'' Anakin's a moody teen (rumor: Joshua Jackson of moody teen franchise ""Dawson's Creek'' might play him). He and Amidala are an item, possibly married. Boba Fett (maybe Jet Li, which would rule) will be introduced. That's all so far. Really.

Episode III

""Everything we've been waiting 15 years to see will be in this movie,'' says JediNet's Carl Cunningham. Like what? Anakin going over to the Dark Side, becoming Darth Vader. Palpatine installing himself as emperor. And the mother of all lightsaber fights: Obi-Wan versus Anakin. Ding! And maybe: James Earl Jones back to do Vader's voice and the birth of Anakin and Amidala's twins: Luke and Leia.

STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE

OK, we're back on terra firma. But note how the prequels fill in the blanks. Leia, now a princess, leads a rebellion against Palpatine. Luke's a sniveling whelp on Tatooine. Both are in the dark about Dad. First Luke finds Leia's droids, then aged (but still British) Obi-Wan turns up. Why's ""Ben'' on Tatooine? Could be he's waiting for Luke to grow up. With the aid of roguish pilot Han Solo, they blow Tatooine to save Leia, a captive of Vader.

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

This one's the fan favorite. Obi-Wan's ghost tells Luke to head for the swampy planet Dagobah and get Jedi lessons from Yoda. But Luke quits halfway to rescue his friends, captured on Cloud City. Vader freezes Han in a block of carbonite and hands him over to bounty hunter Boba Fett (see how it's all coming together now?). Vader whips Luke in a lightsaber duel, then rubs it in by revealing that he's Luke's father.

THE RETURN OF THE JEDI

Luke, now a full-blown Jedi, rescues Leia and defrosts Han. Luke returns to Dagobah, where Yoda tells him that Leia's his sister, then dies. On Endor, an Ewok-infested woodland that houses a force-field generator for the new Death Star, Luke maps out the family tree for Leia, finds Dad and tries to talk him out of being evil. They fight, and Luke spares Vader. Wounded Dad returns the favor by saving Luke from the emperor. Vader dies, but not before removing his mask and making nice with his son. Luke flees the Death Star just before the rebels destroy it, and there is great rejoicing across the universe. Hooray!

PREQUEL PORTALS Who's Qui-Gon? What's a Gungan? Find out online:

www.starwars.com The official site. Not much news, but followers flock.

www.theforce.net The giant of fan sites. Big staff, big news, lots of hits.

www.jedinet.com The original fan site. It's still a must for Jedi junkies.

www.countingdown.com A home for anyone planning to camp out for tix.

www.starwarz.com Spoiler city. If May's too far away, stop in here.

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