The lines started forming outside theaters in Hollywood in early April. By last week they had sprouted all over America, despite the fact that with just a few days to go fans can now get advance tickets online or by phone. Tickets for what? What event could possibly be worth waiting in line for six weeks to see? The answer, of course, is nothing; but don’t try telling that to die-hard “Star Wars” devotees, who will be in a state of collective animated suspense until May 19, the day “Episode 1: The Phantom Menace” opens in U.S. cinemas. One can only hope that the movie — for that is all it is — does not fall short of these people’s hyperinflated expectations, although advance reviews suggest that their 10-year-olds may get more out of it than they do.
Hype-inflated might be a better word for those expectations, in any case. Few movies have been accompanied by such a deafening drumroll of promotion or been prepared for by more fawning media coverage. U.S. media have “reported” the “insatiable hunger” for the “Star Wars” prequel — finally here 22 years after Episode 1 of the first trilogy hit the screens in 1977, etc. etc. — so extensively that the question naturally arises whether they have, in fact, created the hunger. Perhaps there is no hunger, as far as most people are concerned — just plain, old-fashioned curiosity. Even the fabulous original was not a near-religious experience for everyone. A recent Newsweek poll revealed that 33 percent of Americans over 16 plan to see “Phantom Menace” — that’s about 83 million people — which would certainly put the movie right up there with the top domestic money-makers. But it also means that 66 percent don’t plan to see it, or wouldn’t dream of telling a Newsweek pollster if they did. And may the Force be with them.
Not that they shouldn’t see it, although it would be refreshing if they all waited for the video. The first trilogy earned its now-legendary status honestly, with a rattling good story line, a handful of genuinely original characters and special effects the like of which audiences had never seen before. It would be mildly interesting to go back to the world of Darth Vader’s childhood, to see where he started to go wrong, where the seeds of future evil were sown. It would be fun to see what wise old Obi Wan-Kenobi was like as a young man. (Unfortunately, the word is not to expect much, if any, illumination on either score from “Phantom Menace.” ) Six — or, God forbid, nine — “Star Wars” movies may be overdoing things, but on the whole, the sense of distaste generated by the current excitement has nothing to do with “Phantom Menace” as a movie, or even with the idea of crafting a whole new trilogy. The movies will stand or fall on their merits: Remember the fate of the much-ballyhooed “Godzilla”?
Rather, the distaste has everything to do with the way the trilogy is being hawked, starting now. The cynicism of director George Lucas’ cannily orchestrated mass-marketing campaign, not to mention the iron control he has maintained over “Phantom Menace” ‘s distribution, makes “Godzilla” look like the outing of a B-grade indie. If Mr. Lucas has got his psychology right — he must tread a fine line between keeping the multitudes agog for all things intergalactic and over-promoting to the point where they spontaneously organize a mass “Star Wars” boycott — he stands to make billions. Never mind the box office: What with fast-food products, action figures, books, posters and the rest, the world will soon be awash in lucrative “Phantom Menace” spinoffs. One is reluctant to say it, because it is the kind of observation that is too often yoked to the most knee-jerk anti-Americanism, but America has created the template for such blatantly manipulative commercialism and it is Americans like Mr. Lucas — who doubtless thinks of himself as an artist — who are the world-beaters in the field.
It is not just Americans who fall for it, though. The rest of us will almost certainly put a few more dollars into Mr. Lucas’ pocket when “La Menace Fanto^me” or “Die Dunkle Bedrohung” or “La Minaccia Fantasma” or whatever finally comes our way. We can only hope we will have the strength of mind to stick to the movie and resist the Lego Tatooine set and the Kentucky Fried Chicken Jar Jar Binks Squirter and the two dozen Pepsi “collector cans” when they, too, appear.
Perhaps it will be a great movie. Perhaps it will be only mediocre, in which case it deserves to go down in movie history as “Star Wars: The Phantom Megahit” (a k a “the hit that walked”). Let Mr. Lucas make not a dime more out of all this than his screen artistry deserves. It would be nice to think that even a marketing wizard as powerful as he is can’t fool most of us most of the time — although he must certainly be given credit for trying.
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