The Fandom Menace
One of them is out there right now. The skinny raver who wears a different T-shirt in every picture on his Web site sat down on the concrete a week ago with his Dell Inspiron laptop and sleeping bag. Right there on the sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard too, right outside Mann's Chinese Theater.
Others will soon follow. On Monday, more young men and women, maybe a dozen and maybe 50, will show up and sit down on the sidewalk. Each will carry tools for portable survival--sleeping bags and PowerBars and generators and DVD players. They are all in for the long haul. Thirty days and 30 nights. A month of their lives.
This same thing will happen a few miles away in Westwood in front of Mann's Village theater. It will happen, too, outside the UA Galaxy 9 in North Dallas, the Coronet in San Francisco, and the Ziegfield in midtown Manhattan. Packs of squatters will show up, carrying whatever they consider essential to daily life, to set up camp on the sidewalk. They will sleep there, brush their teeth there, live there. Some will switch off with partners, tag team-style, signing in and out with an organizer holding a clipboard. Over the following weeks, their numbers will swell. Thirty or so other cities across America, including Chicago and Denver and Austin, will spawn these urban campgrounds where hundreds and hundreds of people will talk, play games, and broadcast themselves on 24-hour-a-day live WebCams. Those living on the Hollywood sidewalk will shower across the street, in the Roosevelt Hotel, where a few have rented rooms. Some concrete dwellers will wear smooth white helmets; others will wear brown robes. They will hold small plastic representations of people in white helmets and brown robes. They will munch on Subway sandwiches, likely provided free of charge by the company, a rumored sponsor. A half-dozen documentary crews will film the scene from start to finish.
After two or three weeks, Hollywood Boulevard's population may rise into the thousands, and TV news crews will gleefully broadcast shiny white helmets and fast-food logos around the globe. Eventually, there could be as many as 13,000 people on the sidewalk outside the Chinese Theater, crowding out the footprints and handprints and tourists.
One month after The Line began--and five weeks after the skinny raver showed up--on May 19, the packs of nomads will start filing into theaters to watch a movie. Two hours later, they will emerge from the dark, and many will get right back in line.
And this is just the beginning.
There is a moment in Star Wars, the 1977 film about a bored teenager who left home to save the galaxy, when a tiny black spaceship gets blasted in the wing and spins off into space. It is not destroyed, and neither is its inhabitant, the evil Darth Vader. This happens late in the movie, just as Luke Skywalker, the hero, blows up the planet-eating Death Star and gets a medal.
Cecil Seaskull, then 7 years old and living in New York, saw Darth Vader's escape in the spinning ship and jumped up, grabbing for her father's hand. "There's gonna be another movie!" she told him, astonished, impressed, aware of the deepening plot even at the film's end. There's gonna be another movie!
And there was. In 1981, writer-creator-god George Lucas delivered The Empire Strikes Back, the continued story of Luke Skywalker's journey from farm boy to spiritually mature warrior. Darth Vader revealed himself as Luke's father, Han Solo got encased in a big slab of metal, and the bad guys won. A cliffhanger with a promise: There's gonna be more.
And in 1983, Return of the Jedi. Good regains ground, battles are won, hundreds of furry pagans dance, the father is redeemed. End of story. By this time, Cecil Seaskull and the millions of other young moviegoers by now seriously addicted to Lucas' space opera knew that the man had plans for the future. These fans could handle that Jedi was subpar, a piece of shit compared with the others, because they believed there would be six more movies. Three would have their action set in a time before the original Star Wars, telling of how a young boy named Anakin Skywalker became the evil Darth Vader; three would happen after Jedi, telling of the rebuilt Republic.
Yet for 16 years, George Lucas delivered nothing, except the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition in 1997, a remastered version with added scenes and updated computer graphics. (It took in $475 million.) For most of Cecil Seaskull's life, the great bearded god did other things, and a generation of kids who first learned of good and evil, of religion and relationships, of life and death from Lucas' movies were left to grow up alone. They held on to their faith that there would be another. During these Dark Ages, Seaskull returned again and again to the time when she first saw Star Wars, when that spaceship spun away unharmed, and the story arc was revealed to her--the first time something clicked.
"That was the defining moment when I decided I was going to be a storyteller," says Seaskull, now 29 and living in Silver Lake, California, just east of Hollywood. She relives the scene with wide eyes and two hands waving in the air. "That was the moment where my life's path was made, you know?"
Seaskull has built a small following as a folk singer, first in a band called Nerdy Girl and now just as herself. She's started writing children's books too, a la Judy Blume. And she has filled almost every crevice of her life with artifacts and knowledge mined from the holy trilogy. She sleeps under a comforter covered in Wookiees and TIE fighters that she got when she was a little girl, and she scours flea markets for broken plastic action figures, headless Darth Vaders, and cigarette-burned Boba Fetts. The title track on her first album, Nerdy Girl, describes her first experience seeing the movie. And after all these years, she still wants to marry that handsome scoundrel Han Solo.
She is a Star Wars fan. Never mind that she has a nose ring and lives a bohemian lifestyle. Never mind that she lives on $3 a day. She's part of a demographic so pervasive and so taken for granted that for years, few people noticed it was even there. Until now--the massive groundswell of excitement preceding the May 19 opening of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace that has begun to colonize every outlet of media on earth. The lifelong fans now stare into a mass-culture spotlight familiar to the likes of Clinton and O.J. and are asked to explain themselves. After a dry spell that has lasted more than half her life, the moment has come for fans like Cecil Seaskull to prove to the world that their passion goes beyond the basic truth: Pretty much everybody loves Star Wars. The fan is put on camera and asked to explain her passion; unfortunately, the Star Wars fan does not broadcast in full detail. As seen on E! or EXTRA, her world and her beliefs may not make sense. But they will.
With special effects light years beyond anything usually seen onscreen today, a cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson, Liam Neeson, and Natalie Portman, and commercial tie-ins with nearly every outlet of modern American life, Episode I will have no trouble attracting audiences or attention. But the hardcore, lifelong fans, those weaned on the original trilogy, those who grew up in the late '70s and early '80s, want to prove themselves now. Their time has finally come. So some of these fans plan to stand in line for a month, just to do it. They want to celebrate the tradition of line-standing, given a kick when the original film opened in only 32 theaters (Episode I will likely open in 1,800) and spawned spontaneous queues blocks and blocks long.
An international coalition of fans, most of them male, most in their 20s, all with a lot of time on their hands, has organized a massive stakeout of America's most prestigious theaters. They want to stretch the experience of watching a movie as long and as far as possible. The holy trilogy's usually amorphous and hard-to-pinpoint fan base is solidifying to perform a demonstration meant to outdo the "event movie" shenanigans of '90s Hollywood. Seaskull, reading about the plans on the Internet, decided immediately to join them, to stand in line for a month, despite "security" concerns from some of her guy friends.
"Fuck them, I'm doing it. I don't care," says the singer, all 4 feet 10 of her. "Just imagine being 95 years old and saying, 'Yeah, I lived on Hollywood Boulevard for a month to see Star Wars.'"
The extreme patriotism felt by the fans now has them devising ways of out-fanning each other: standing in line longer, seeing the film more times, knowing more about the special effects and plotline than anyone else, bragging that "their movie" will steal back the all-time box-office title from Titanic--which took that honor from the original Star Wars. They don't care, of course, how much money the movie makes, so long as it makes more than any other movie. A bankable validation of their passion.
"The people who are excited are so excited that it's almost making it seem abnormal," says Scott Chernoff, managing editor of Star Wars Insider, the official magazine of the Lucasfilm fan club. The glossy book (formerly the ragged newsprint 'zine Bantha Tracks) is based in Denver, but Chernoff lives in L.A., where he interviews actors who would be familiar only to fans, the people who played Admiral Ackbar and Dengar and Red Leader. Chernoff knows the fans; he has been one himself since 1977, since he was 5, and he reads every letter they write to the magazine. Star Wars groupies, he says, aren't what you call freaks and geeks. They're regular people.
"We have the stereotype of the extreme fan," he says. "They are an important part of the fan base, but it's amazing how many more fans there are. You can't become as huge as Star Wars by just appealing to a small slice."
Like most Star Wars fans, Chernoff has a real life. He's an actor living in Hollywood. He doesn't plan to wear a furry Chewbacca head and camp out on the sidewalk for the next month, but he empathizes with those who do. He understands the thousands who last November bought tickets to Meet Joe Black and The Siege just to be the first to see a preview for Episode I. He gets why fans would download tens of millions of copies of the film's second trailer from the Internet, the biggest event in Web history, not counting the Starr Report.
He also understands why Star Wars has endured and become even more powerful. Pretty much any theory or interpretation you throw at the original trilogy sticks, Chernoff says, describing that flexibility as "the hallmark of great art." It's The Iliad. It's the Bible. It's Flash Gordon without Flash Gordon. It's a '30s adventure serial. It's American Graffiti in outer space.
The fans, on the other hand, defy simplistic labels. You can't slap a catchall classification onto them. The Star Wars fan is not a "Wookieehead" or a "Warrior" or a "Trekkie" or an "Ackbarrian." The simple phrase "Star Wars fan" will do. Theories about their nature and devout allegiance are vast and strange, ranging from religious to Freudian to political. The holy trilogy turned on a light somewhere inside so many young people, people who grew up to become plumbers and directors and special-effects gurus, people who now run a piece of the world. They raise their own kids and write their own movies, and between 1977 and 1999, they helped mold our cultural landscape so that the traditional image of "geek" and "nerd" has forever been recast.
"Sci-fi fans are the silent majority," says Mark Altman, former editor of Sci-Fi Universe magazine and co-author of an upcoming movie about Trekkies. "The audience for this [genre] continues to grow and expand, the sleeping giant awakening. There's no telling how all-consuming this will become."
Take, for example, Ernie Cline. He, too, is a Star Wars fan and a rabid one at that, but he has a girlfriend, a real job at an Internet service provider, and a hobby writing screenplays. And he keeps it all in perspective. Last year he noticed the fan frenzy building on the Internet after Lucas, cloaked in secrecy, started filming Episode I in the desert of Tunisia. The fans mobilized. Leaks from the set provided daily fodder for budding Web sites. A simple snapshot of Ewan McGregor's hairdo would drive some fans nuts. The prices of action figures originally sold in the early '80s went through the roof (a $3 Jawa now goes for more than $300), and the fans finally had somewhere to channel their excitement. Another movie was going to happen.
"I heard of people who were really worried they might die; they were taking precautions so they wouldn't get run over by a truck before Episode I came out," Cline says from his home in Austin. "It's this huge motivating factor to stay alive."
Cline tapped into this idea and wrote a screenplay called Fanboys, not exactly your typical four-guys-in-a-van road movie: A Star Wars fan convinces his friends that he has a terminal illness and won't live to see the prequel. So the buddies pack up and journey across America with plans to break into Lucas' Skywalker Ranch in Marin County, California, just to sneak a peak or at least read the script. Cline hasn't found funding for the movie yet, but he has captured his own slice of prequelmania. "It's the only time I've written a screenplay and gotten in Newsweek just for the idea," he says.
Unfortunately, the first film to bring sci-fi fandom into the mainstream will be about devotees of Star Trek, lifeforms often considered strange and wrong to the Star Wars fan. Altman, along with director Robert Meyer Burnett, wrote Free Enterprise, an independent feature likely to be released in June. It boasts a cast of Trekkies who find William Shatner, Captain Kirk from the original '60s series, as an alcoholic mess and help him get back on his feet.
But for now, as humans colonize city blocks and George Lucas starts making public appearances, Cline believes we're entering an age of relentless Lucasmania, a repeat of what America saw in the late '70s and early '80s. A new layer of mythology and lore will be slathered onto American culture in the coming years. Names like Darth Maul and Qui-Gon Jinn and Jar Jar Binks will become pop flotsam, and everybody from preteens to Boomers will, he thinks, have an emotional stake in their story. Hell, there might be people living on the sidewalk in Hollywood for the next six years.
"We're at the tip of this iceberg for this new Star Wars mania," says Cline. "We're in for, like, seven or eight straight years of Star Wars."
The line, so far, has gone much more smoothly than the little "meeting" a few weeks ago. Then, Lincoln Gasking came to town and told everybody to meet him in front of the Chinese Theater at 6 p.m. Of course, he didn't realize that Drew Barrymore's Never Been Kissed was holding its premiere at exactly the same time, and a premiere at the Chinese is an all-day showstopper with crowds and limos and cameras and everything. Gasking was excited because he's from Melbourne, Australia, and since it was his first time in L.A., he sent an e-mail to all the fans on his mailing list, all the hundreds who've signed up through his Web site (countingdown.com) to join the monthlong lines in front of Mann's Chinese and Village theaters.
He said to meet in front of the box office. So fans from all over town drove in to see him, to find out how the line will work, and to at last meet the guy whom they had seen only on the Internet. The line was his idea. Episode I won't open in Australia until later in the summer, so Gasking, one of three twentysomething men who run the site devoted to counting down the days, hours, minutes to things they're really excited about (the first countdown was to Titanic) cooked up the line. His plan to get into the first showing of the hardest-to-get-into film of the decade at the best theater in the world: wait in line forever. He even showed up 10 days before the month began, a week ago, to make sure he was the first. And if anyone could pull it off, it would be someone like him--a fan with a Web site.
During the past year, Episode I has given fledgling film-geek Web sites what the Gulf War gave CNN: instant credibility and importance. A few bands of wired, obsessive fanboys just happened to be hooked up to the right form of media at the right time, and their Web sites flourished and blossomed into bankable media properties. The convergence of Lucas' legendary secrecy and a carnivorous fan base made sites like Jedinet.com, TheForce.net, Harry Knowles' Ain't It Cool News, and, more recently, countingdown.com essential reads for anyone covering the film industry, in particular the Star Wars phenomenon. What began as a bunch of self-dubbed film geeks posting diatribes about stuff they thought was "cool" has now become media mini-empires. You can't read a Star Wars feature without tripping over a quote from Knowles, now a minor-league celebrity with a book deal and movie bit parts. A COPS parody produced for TheForce.net, featuring Stormtroopers harassing Jawas, landed special-effects novice Kevin Rubio a nice production deal. Phillip Nakov, one of Gasking's cofounder colleagues who lives in L.A., boasts that he and his partners plan to parlay their little venture into a "major portal site," the sort of buzz phrase that Silicon Valley venture capitalists love.
But the countingdown.com crew has been thrust into the major world of Hollywood, of studios and theater chains and the government of the second-largest city in the country. Their idea to stage a monthlong sit-in outside the most famous movie theater on earth hasn't exactly been easy. Gasking and his pals don't work for Mann Theaters and don't actually have tickets to the first show--or any show. In fact, Mann management won't even confirm that they'll be showing The Phantom Menace. It took months for Nakov to smooth over relations with Encino's WestStar Cinemas, which owns Mann Theaters, after some overeager fans posted the transcripts of conversations with Mann employees who had no idea how the line was going to work.
Then came the meeting fiasco when Gasking summoned his minions. In spite of the melee in front of the Chinese Theater, a dozen of his followers found each other, lingered in the crowd, got interviewed by a patronizing E! reporter who literally drooled at the sight of one particularly pasty-skinned fan in a Star Wars T-shirt. But nobody saw the man who was supposed to be organizing the line. Gasking never showed, or, rather, he showed but spent his time chasing after Courteney Cox instead of conducting a meeting.
And now Gasking's already sitting on the sidewalk, more than five weeks before the movie opens. He hasn't worked out how to manage the other hundreds of people planning to live on the sidewalk of Hollywood--or how he's going to ensure they get into the first show or anything--but he managed to get on TV news the moment his ass hit the concrete. Meanwhile, he and the other organizers have turned the line into a charity fundraiser, partnering up with the Starlight Foundation, which helps out seriously ill children. This maneuver has allowed countingdown.com to get a charity-event permit from the Los Angeles Police Department, granting them some leeway to sleep on the sidewalk without getting arrested for loitering.
Mike Chockley, the line coordinator for the Dallas contingent of countingdown.com (located on the Internet at starwars.fans.net/events/dallas/core.htm), has also turned to charity, raising money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation for every hour he and his line-mates spend in front of the UA Galaxy 9 theaters. Chockley, who will be taking time off from his job at Hotel Reservations Network to stand in line, has also made a deal with the Galaxy, convincing the theater to put up banners and posters, getting the word out to other fans willing to put their lives on hold for a few weeks. It makes sense for both sides: The fanatics who want to be among the first to see The Phantom Menace won't get hassled, and the Galaxy gets a little cheap publicity.
Chockley, 25, has been involved with countingdown.com since the beginning of the year, when he contacted the Web site to find out where the line would be forming in Dallas. He just wanted to be part of it, but ended up smack in the middle. He knows that the Dallas line will pale in comparison to the ones that will start in Los Angeles on Monday, but as long as he's there, it doesn't matter to him.
"On the initial day, there will only be a handful, probably five or so," says Chockley, who lives in a Waxahachie mobile home crammed with Star Wars memorabilia. "That's all that's told me they will be going. However, by the time we reach opening day..." He trails off, imagining the scene. "The majority of our folks are adding to the line on the last week, within the last week. As of right now, we've got about 60, but we expect that to grow tremendously once we start our advertising."
Chockley's deals with the Make-A-Wish Foundation and the Galaxy are about the extent of his planning for the big event, aside from showing up himself. But the guys in front of Mann's Chinese have cooked up elaborate plans for the line: a live Web broadcast called Countdown TV, outdoor Internet hookups, an elaborate point system to determine people's place in line, documentary crews, contests, and what Nakov calls "programming." Nobody, however, will get their hands on tickets until the day of the first show. Lucas has banned all advance sales, even through MovieFone, to eliminate potential scalpers, and it looks as though those who stand in line the longest will get their tickets first. Lucas also moved up opening day from Friday to Wednesday to get the fans out of the way early.
"Star Wars is a culture, and this is part of it," explains Tom Sherak, chairman of 20th Century Fox Domestic Film Group, which will release the film. "What better way to see Star Wars than to stand in line with other guys who are as excited as you? We don't want you to see it with 20 other people on a tiny screen next to 20 other screens showing the same thing. We want to have fun with this."
Kolby Kirk wants to have fun too. The 23-year-old Best Buy employee from Fullerton, California, is seriously into the lore and mystique of the line, and when he talks about it, he takes every chance to correct the terminology. It's not really a line. He calls it "blockbusting." Taking over a city block, making it yours.
"I think people have lost the meaning of blockbuster. I mean, there's a Blockbuster Video right over there," he says, pointing out the window of the Fullerton Coco's, where he's having lunch. "But a blockbuster means that people lined up around the block to see a movie. So I call what we're doing blockbusting. We're not lining up. Lining up is just lining up. You're standing there, sitting there, waiting for a movie to start."
Again, just so we're clear: Lining up is just standing there.
"Blockbusting," he continues, "is going to be an event in its own right. The movie is going to be the encore."
Kirk speaks about the line with authority and dignity, as if what he's doing is noble. For three months, he worked with Gasking and Nakov organizing the Mann's line, but they recently parted ways because, basically, he wanted to get paid. (Gasking makes his living from the site, and Kirk, having worked 40 hours a week, spare time, for free, wanted a piece.) Now Kirk will run his own independent newsletter from the line. He'll call it "SOS--Sleeping on the Stars."
Kirk now describes the line as a 30-day festival, a hybrid of Lollapalooza and Woodstock, or a month on the road with the Dead--something like that. It's the new mass youth experience. He just hopes his fellow fans keep things in perspective.
"It's not wise to dress up like a Star Wars character for a full month," he says. "It would become scary to see a Chewbacca sitting next to me for a month."
Jeremy Bulloch knows the passion of the Star Wars fan better, perhaps, than anyone else. The fact that anybody would even know his name, recognize his face, or interview him for an article on Star Wars fans is a testament to the strangely detailed mind attracted to the trilogy. The British actor, who spent the early years of his four-decade career in Scottish soap operas and whom you'd most likely find today on a PBS broadcast of the BBC's Aristocrats, took a small part in The Empire Strikes Back more than 20 years ago. The role was for a bounty hunter, an intergalactic rogue named Boba Fett who would capture Han Solo and deliver him to the notorious gangster Jabba the Hutt. A small part. No big deal.
"It was like they were casting for cowboys," Bulloch says from his home in London. "I fitted the costume almost like a glove. I'm 6 foot tall, and I'm athletic."
And so he played Boba Fett. He wore a green suit of armor, dented and battle-worn, and a chipped helmet. Nobody saw his face. He spoke only four lines. ("As you wish." "He's no good to me dead." "What if he doesn't survive? He's worth a lot to me." "Put Captain Solo into he cargo hold.") His character died in the first half of Return of the Jedi and had no back story, no love interest, no big scenes. He was just another alien in a world of aliens. Or a man in a world of aliens. Nobody really knew.
But today, Boba Fett is just about the most popular character in the entire Star Wars universe, second only to Han Solo. To gain insight into Star Wars fandom, it is first necessary to understand Boba Fett. The cult of the bounty hunter developed during the dark age, between the early '80s and early '90s, when it looked as if Lucas had abandoned plans to make the promised prequels and sequels to the original trilogy and fans began to lose faith. They still spent a lot of time with the films, however, picking them apart and eventually falling in with the minor characters, the droids and aliens who got only a scene or two but who seemed so authentic, so cool, so real. Lucas overlooks no detail, mundane or otherwise, and neither do his followers. Some discovered the mystique of Boba Fett. They explored his past, debated his death. Today, he has several comic-book series and pulpy novels following his trail of cold, clinical killing and kidnapping. And Bulloch gets invited to science-fiction conventions and comic-store openings all over America.
The weekend after The Phantom Menace opens, Bulloch will appear at a special celebration of the Star Wars trilogy hosted by the Sci-Fi Expo and Toy Show at the Plano Convention Center. Fans from as far away as Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Sweden, and Switzerland have already purchased $60 VIP tickets to the event, which include tickets to a screening of The Phantom Menace. And it's easy to see why they're coming. Well, it's easy, at least, if you're a rabid Star Wars fan.
"A lot of people say, 'You changed my life. Thank you,'" Bulloch says of fans, who send him poems, paintings, drawings, and sculpted busts. "I say, 'Don't thank me; you must thank George Lucas.' I have to own up that all I did was wear a mask."
Bulloch now gets cast as bad guys--"psychopaths, crooked policemen, dodgy doctors, negligent scientists"--but describes the often misunderstood Boba Fett as "a fair man, the kind of man who'll walk up to you and say, 'I'm going to kill you now.'" The bounty hunter captures Han Solo, and he always keeps an eye on Darth Vader. He takes care of his own business. But who is Boba really?
"The serious people really want to talk about and analyze the peripheral characters," says Morgan Phillips, a fan who lives in New York City and admits to having a Boba fetish, an intellectual investment in the character. "What are these things that are hinted about but not explained? [The vagueness] allows you to project your own feelings onto the characters."
Phillips doesn't plan to stand in the line, but his passion for the trilogy has led him into a career of sorts; he works with Hasbro and creates dioramas of action figures for toy-industry trade shows. He's also a musician and has put together a CD called Star Wars Breakbeats, a collection of 25 "character treatments" mixed from dialogue, sound effects, and an eclectic array of dark, funky samples. Star Wars hip-hop and house music.
Boba Fett had become so popular by the time Lucas put together the Special Edition that he added two new scenes with the bounty hunter, a knowing nod to his fans. In an addition to the first film, Boba Fett simply walks across the screen, looking this way and that, not saying a word.
"I watched the Special Edition in, I think, Nashville," says Bulloch. "I was with Peter Mahew [Chewbacca], and I remember when Boba Fett appeared and people cheered. I got this spine-tingling!"
And in Return of the Jedi Special Edition, Boba Fett hangs out at Jabba the Hutt's smoky, loungy pad, taking in a band and flirting with three dancers. As he leaves, the Fett gently cradles a dancer's chin and gives her a peck on the cheek. This inspired Phillips to write a passionate essay called "Boba Fett is the Mack," which explores the more romantic side of the man behind the dented green mask.
"You never see Boba Fett do anything except handle his business," Phillips says. "And when you see him in a private moment, he's trying to get ass."
To anyone familiar with the two most popular, and different, camps of American science fiction, it seems silly and unnecessary to say so, but Star Wars is not Star Trek. While a few traitors cross over between the two universes, the most efficient way to define a Star Wars fan is to say, simply, that he is not a Trekkie. In Cline's Fanboys screenplay, the four heroes questing to Skywalker Ranch have to pass through Riverside, Iowa. "It's the future birthplace of Captain Kirk," says Cline. "There, they get into an altercation with Star Trek fans."
Few "civilians" know the difference, but the rift is deep and sore. The voyages of the starship Enterprise, a monolithic storytelling franchise that encompasses four decades, seven movies, four television series, and countless novels and games, claims the largest and most visible fan base in American sci-fi. The very snapshot of a science-fiction aficionado is the unfair Trekkie stereotype, a basement-dweller who defines his life by the Prime Directive and the lusty rantings of Captain James T. Kirk. Star Trek fans gather at conventions and have organized meetings in local chapters named after starships. The world of their fandom, like that of Star Wars, has elements of a loose religion, but more closely resembles a city council meeting.
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."
The trials of the Star Wars fan don't end with an understanding of the films and an action-figure collection. Growing up with Luke Skywalker took patience, belief, and faith. Between 1983 and the early '90s, the "Story by George Lucas" credit appeared a few times on other movies, but always as a false apparition, a test.
Since 1992, things have been different. Lucas began licensing Luke, Leia, and Boba Fett to sci-fi writers and comic-book companies. Keeping a close grip on what they could touch (mostly the post-Jedi universe), he eased America back into the Star Wars habit. For a year, almost every book released with Star Wars in the title was a best seller. Then came a new series of action figures, a remastered video release, the Special Edition, and, now, finally, next month, Episode I. The faithful will be rewarded. But to those behind the line, there must be more: a pilgrimage, a celebration, a fast of sorts--one month of their lives.
Additional reporting for this story was provided by Dallas Observer staff writer Zac Crain.
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