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 round 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 ranks right up there with the Second Coming of Christ. "Episode I," the first of three planned "prequels" set prior to "Star Wars," opens in the United States on May 21. According to the tentative release dates on the Lucasfilm site, "Episode I" will move into Asia and Latin America by early summer and travel to Europe in the late summer and fall (lucky fans in the United Kingdom may get to see it as early as July 16). Already it 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. In Britain alone, there are nearly 2,000 sites; 20th Century Fox notes that, per capita, folks there have spent more money watching the movies than Americans have. French fans, some of whom learned English by watching the "Star Wars" movies, have set up a Francophone Alliance on the Internet, including sites like Bilingual Star Wars and L'Academie Jedi. In Japan, biochemistry graduate student and self-proclaimed "Star Wars Evangelist" Duke Kobayashi carries out the sacred work of translating information available only in English into Japanese on his site.

The full-on fanatics will be first in line at movie theaters (many international fans are actually flying to the States for the May 21 premiere). From then on, 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 global box-office take to nearly $2 billion. One French fan who waited in line to see the movies at continually sold-out theaters called the atmosphere "tres football." Hollywood got an early taste of the demand for the prequels last fall, when films carrying the "Episode I" trailer saw their box office spike by as much as 25 percent. A British moviegoer told Time Out London: "It was the best 125 seconds since Moses parted the Red Sea." Membership in Japanese fan clubs began to climb. All this means that 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. Part of the work is coordinating the 30 or so lines that fans plan to form outside various stateside movie theaters a month before the film opens. "This will be something to look back on for the rest of our lives," says Gasking. "It's like our Woodstock." Several members of the European fan club Hobby One (that's the French pronunciation of Obi Wan) have already bought their tickets to New York City, where they plan to see the film dressed in full rebel regalia. The group, which re-creates "Star Wars" weapons by reshaping deactivated WWII guns with spare parts, recently traveled to Brussels with Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett) and Peter Mayhew (Vader) to meet and greet fans. In April they'll appear at Versailles to show off a homemade replica of the Storm Trooper cruisers used in "Return of the Jedi."

When Hobby One members aren't in costume, they're busy keeping up with "Star Wars" news produced by people like Roderick Vonhogen. 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 efforts of Lucas's fans. "Everyone said this was the most top-secret movie ever made, that it was tighter than Fort Knox, no leaks whatsoever," says Scott Chitwood, a 25-year-old from Houston, Texas, who's the emperor of TheForce.net, which recently posted a shot-by-shot description of the closely guarded second trailer for "Episode I." "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, 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, everywhere," 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.

But what if, amid all this frenzy, 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." 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 very young; 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 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 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, 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 fans would agree.