By Anna Merlan
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Opening (as if you didn't know) next Wednesday at 2500-plus North American theaters, Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace is an event that brings together religion, entertainment, business, technology, weaponry, and publicity the most powerful aspects of American culture in one brain-dissolving package. The true believers the children of Star Wars have been awaiting this moment for nearly two decades.
The hype, which took off last fall when fans began paying full admission to witness the two-minute Phantom Menace trailer, has long since reached warp speed; the rapture has nothing on this baby. The costumed ticket lines are almost two weeks old. The New York Post, owned (like distributor 20th Century Fox) by Rupert Murdoch, has been running a daily Phantom Menace countdown for a month. If anything in showbiz was ever a sure thing, this is it. Even so, the notoriously reclusive Lucas has been apublicist's dream, flacking The Phantom Menace on TV, granting interviews, and furnishing "exclusive" pictures of Planet Naboo and the lovable Gungan called Jar Jar Binks to half the glossies on the newsstand.
Some believe that Lucas's self-financed $120 million production will make back its budget during its first week, en route to an eventual billion and that's just box office. Merchandisers predict The Phantom Menace will sell a billion dollars' worth of licensed toys. Pepsi has already paid Lucas twice as much for a sponsorship deal that includes a custom-made, four-armed digital huckster hobbit called Marfalump and 24 collectible soda cans.
No one doubts that this still-unseen attraction is destined to sink Titanic, just as Star Wars swamped Jaws 22 years ago. Even the old "Star Wars" missile-defense scheme has been revived in scaled-down fashion to be operational by 2005 to coincide with the culmination of Lucas's second trilogy. (It is only a matter of moments before politicians begin to refer to Russia, China, or Slobodan Milosevic as the Phantom Menace.) Why is this blockbuster different from all other blockbusters? The Godfather, The Exorcist, and Jaws inspired repeat viewings, spawned sequels, and revitalized genres. Star Wars, however, was always something more.
Star Warswould establish a franchise, but back in May 1977, Variety was too awestruck to consider the bottom line: "Like a breath of fresh air, Star Wars sweeps away the cynicism that has in recent years obscured the concepts of valor, dedication and honor. Make no mistake this is by no means a 'children's film'. . . . This is the kind of film in which an audience, first entertained, can later walk out feeling good all over."
What is overdetermined now was spontaneous then. Lucas's geeky pulpfest caught the movie studios, the toy stores, and the media by surprise. As late as Christmas 1977, a month after Star Wars topped Jaws, theater owners were still fighting to keep it on their screens. Not since Chaplinitis swept America in 1915 had cinema inspired so heady a craze. Perhaps we can date the decline of mere movies to that moment. A year after The Rocky Horror Picture Showbegan building its fanatical midnight following, Star Wars established a cult on an unprecedented scale. Francis Ford Coppola wasn't entirely kidding when, according to Lucas, he suggested his onetime protégé turn Star Wars into a religion: "With religion, you really have power."
Coppola needn't have worried. Established faiths were already on the case. Lucas's creation was celebrated by Christian Century and The Lutheran. In The Force of Star Wars, an original Bible Voice paperback published while the movie was still in first release, a born-again former Disney publicist with the Dickensian name Frank Allnutt compared the plucky crew of the Millennium Falcon to the early Christian true believers. Allnutt expressed his belief that Star Wars presaged another imminent "invasion from outer space" namely, the triumphant return of Jesus Christ to Earth.
The Star Wars resurrection has been heralded by hundreds of Web sites, some submitting the Lucas text to scriptural exegesis and Talmudic interpretation. Lucas recently described Star Wars as a sort of drive-in McChristianity, "taking all [sic] the issues that religion represents and trying to distill them down into a more modern and easily accessible construct." Obi-Wan Kenobi may not yet be recognized as Lord Krishna's avatar, but I have seen a Darth Vader action figure incorporated into a voodoo altar just as it was fetishized in the bedrooms of 10 million American kids.
Star Wars may not have inspired the first sci-fi church (L. Ron Hubbard was already in business). Nor was it the first movie to bring divine revelation to the screen (although it did render DeMille's Ten Commandments obsolete). But, unlike any previous religion, Star Wars used late-20th-century technology to bypass church, state, and parental authority in mass-marketing its vision. But what was George Lucas's burning bush?
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away (is there any writing on the subject that can resist this cliche?), lived a little boy without TV: me. I remember the day that, after much lobbying, my dad brought home a boxy Emerson and installed it in a living-room bookcase. I even more vividly recall my pleasure as a five-year-old in the Wednesday night telecast of Disneyland and enormous satisfaction in the innocent belief that right then sets were blasting on all over America. Every kid in the country was watching Tinkerbell shake her booty around Cinderella's castle and, what was more, we were all watching it at the exact same instant the feeling that Benedict Anderson would eventually characterize as the "deep horizontal comradeship" of an "imagined community."