The Fandom Menace

Living on the sidewalk for a month. Sleeping with Wookiees. Thousand-dollar action figures. Think the new Star Wars is just a movie? You poor fool.

To simplify and boldly stereotype: Star Wars fans play drinking games and fantasize about Princess Leia in a metal bikini or Han Solo in a leather vest. Star Trek fans wear synthetic alien skin on their foreheads and speak a language they learned on television. Yoda speaks of the all-powerful Force around us; Spock talks of logic.

The philosophy toward technology is the key difference between the two faiths, says Phillips. "In Star Wars, you have to hit something to make it work sometimes. In Star Trek, it's this cold, abstract backdrop of silent machines. They're just sucking atoms out of the air to make you dinner." When kids first see the holy trilogy, they recognize the blasters and starships and see that they are "cool." But, Phillips explains, as you grow older, new levels of meaning play out into something more complicated. Technology always pales and fails compared to what the human mind can do. Luke switches off his fighter's targeting computer just before making the shot that destroys the Death Star, using his instinct and the Force. In Return of the Jedi, Luke removes his father's hefty robotic helmet, revealing the man inside.

"For his love of his father, he was able to penetrate that black, evil machinery and find what was human, and that's inspiring," says Phillips. "That's why I don't think it's corny."

But the two camps have started coming together, argues writer Altman of the Trek-positive fan flick Free Enterprise. He argues that many fans now fluctuate between the franchises, favoring one or the other every few years and forming a burgeoning subculture. "What's ironic," he says, "is that Lucas is a big fan of Star Trek.

"It amazes me that these Star Trek fans and Star Wars fans have this animosity toward each other," he says. "There's a need to constantly pit people against each other--it's either the Yankees or the Mets, Connery or Roger Moore--there's always these artificial rivalries."

But as demonstrated in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, passion and faith run deeper than with baseball or Bond, and after all, this is religion we're talking about.

The best Christmas present Cecil Seaskull got last year was an action figure--a molded piece of plastic about 3 inches high and cast vaguely in the shape of Samuel L. Jackson. A friend of hers had managed to wrangle an advance version of the first toy from Episode I--Jackson's Jedi master Mace Windu. Seaskull knows, as do all the fans who grew up playing with the pervasive Kenner dolls with light sabers embedded in their arms and guns the size of gnats, that the figures are more than toys. They're idols, traditional totems of worship.

Like it or not, on May 25, 1977, a religion was born, and its followers spent years filling their rooms with artifacts and icons; to this day, years later, they still have these things in their homes. To most people born into the world at or about the same time as Star Wars, the Bible and The Odyssey and 2001 are all derivative from Lucas, not the other way around. And in the coming months of 1999, we will see the first true test of a fledgling religion: resurrection. Episode I.

"In this day and age, we're sorely lacking for good stories and good mythology," says Morgan Phillips. "For most people I know, the Bible doesn't cut it. But for our generation, Star Wars came to us at a time when we were still developing. It came right when I was in a vacuum."

The description of Star Wars as the basis for a modern faith is so rudimentary, so powerfully simple, so obvious that it sounds corny. But for anybody who did not experience a world war or the "invasion" of the Beatles, the story of Luke Skywalker is the one event that binds and melds together the mess of modern life. For those who did not learn right and wrong from Vietnam or JFK or Selma, Alabama, for those who never fought in a war or marched on Washington, for those of us who didn't experience the '60s, there is Star Wars.

"If I go to a party with a bunch of people I have nothing in common with, like Republicans, I can always talk to any guy my age about Star Wars," says Cline, the writer of Fanboys. "It's our mythology, like fairy tales or religion that other people had. And now, it's like a new chapter of the Bible is being sent down to earth and is being released."

From the moment Luke Skywalker chooses to follow the old desert-dwelling hermit Obi-Wan Kenobi until his final defeat of the Emperor, through three long movies, he makes all the hard choices and makes them correctly. He becomes a man. The prequels will tell a gloomier tale, that of Luke's father's seduction by the Dark Side, his fall from grace, his (and Obi-Wan's) failure to stay on the right path.

"It speaks to something that we know deep down or want to believe in, and that is--how can I say this without sounding dumb?" Chernoff pauses. "It presents two choices: the light side and the dark side. It sounds silly to discuss it that seriously, but call it what you will; those are real choices we all have to make in life."

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