There is a moment in Star Wars, the 1977 film about a bored teenager who left home to save the galaxy, where a tiny black spaceship gets blasted in the wing and spins off into space. It is not destroyed, and neither is its inhabitant, Darth Vader--the bad guy. 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 seven years old and living in New York, saw Darth Vader's escape in the spinning ship and leaped 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 so 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, but with a promise: There's gonna be more.
Indeed, in 1983 came 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 seriously addicted to Lucas's space opera knew that the man had plans for the future. These fans could handle the fact that Jedi was sub-par, a piece of shit compared to the others, because they believed that 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 sixteen years George Lucas delivered nothing. For most of Cecil Seaskull's life, the great bearded god hid and 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's movies were abandoned to grow up alone. They held onto their faith--There will be another. During these Dark Ages, Seaskull returned again and again to the time when she first saw Star Wars, when she saw that spaceship spin away unharmed and the story arc revealed before 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. 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."
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--Judy Blume-type stuff. And she has filled almost every crevice of her life with artifacts and knowledge mined from the holy trilogy. She sleeps under the 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, put out on L.A.'s now-defunct No Life Records, 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's got a nose ring and lives a bohemian lifestyle. Never mind that she writes and sings and lives on $3 a day. She's part of a demographic so pervasive, so common, so taken for granted that, for years, few people noticed it was even there.
Until now. Until 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. 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 that pretty much everybody loves Star Wars.
Using the Force
Now, with special effects light years beyond anything usually seen on-screen today; with a cast that includes Ewan McGregor, Samuel L. Jackson, Liam Neeson, and Natalie Portman; with commercial tie-ins with nearly every outlet of modern American life--Episode I will have no trouble attracting audiences or attention. But the hard-core, lifelong fans, those weaned on the original trilogy, those who grew up in the late '70s and early '80s, want now to prove themselves. Their time has finally come. So some of these fans plan to stand in line. For nearly 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 over 2,500) 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 now want to stretch out the experience of watching a movie as long as and as far as possible. In dozens of cities across the country, the trilogy's usually amorphous and hard-to-pinpoint fan base is solidifying to perform a demonstration meant to outdo the "event movie" standard 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 diminutive singer, who, along with hundreds of kindred spirits, began her camp-out in front of Mann's Chinese Theater in Los Angeles two weeks ago. "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: of standing in line longer, of seeing the film more times, of knowing more about the special effects and plotline than anyone else, by bragging that "their movie" will steal back the all-time box office title from Titanic, which took that distinction 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, newsprinty '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's been one himself since 1977, since he was five, 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 just appealing to a small slice."
Like most Star Wars fans, Chernoff has a real life. He's an actor living in Hollywood. He was a Groundling. He was on a sitcom, Guys Like Us, for a while. He doesn't plan to wear a furry Chewbacca head and camp out on the sidewalk for tickets, but he empathizes with those who will. 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.
He also understands why Star Wars has endured and become ever 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." Theories about their nature and devout allegiance are vast and strange, ranging from religious to Freudian to political.
The trilogy turned on a light somewhere inside so many young people, people who grew up to become plumbers and directors and special effects gurus, that they 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."
For many, the Phantom Menace feeding frenzy began last year 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 websites. 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 can now go for more than $300), and the fans finally, finally had somewhere to channel their excitement. It is going to happen! There's gonna be another movie!
"I heard of people who were really worried that they might die," says Ernie Cline, a fan from Austin, Texas. "They were taking precautions so they wouldn't get run over by a truck before Episode I came out. 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's Skywalker Ranch somehow, just to sneak a peek, or at least read the script. Cline hasn't found the funding for the movie yet, but he's 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.
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.
"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."
Phillip Nakov is co-founder of countingdown.com, the website that coordinated the sit-in for the first tickets at Mann's Chinese Theater. What began as a cyber-groundswell has turned into a media circus outside the theater, complete with TV and Internet broadcasts, documentary filmmakers, contests, charitable fund-raisers, and other "programming," to use Nakov's term.
"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 are? We don't want you to see it with twenty other people on a tiny screen next to twenty other screens showing the same thing. We want to have fun with this."
Fun, like fans had waiting to see Lucas's other Star Wars films. A story passed from fan to fan around the Internet recounts a day in 1977, when Lucas and his then-wife Marcia were eating at the Hamburger Hamlet on Hollywood Boulevard a few days before Star Wars opened, and they saw a line forming outside the Chinese Theater. The lines happened again in '81 and '83, and again in '97 with Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition, a remastered version with added scenes and '90s computer graphics. It took in $475 million.
Breakbeats and Boba Fettishes
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 twenty 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 six 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 five 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 the 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. And 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 Ages, 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.
In the early days of the Internet, a group of fans latched on to a toaster-like power droid named Gonk and made him a farcical deity. Hundreds of pages of text were spilled (now, thankfully, lost) on the subject. Others 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, comic store openings--all kinds of things, all over America.
"A lot of people say, 'You changed my life, thank you,'" he says of fans, who send him poems, paintings, drawings, 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 he 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 Fettish, 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 one of the seemingly infinite ticket lines, but his passion for the trilogy has led him into a career of sorts. He works with Hasbro, creating 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. One track is devoted to the fish-headed Admiral Ackbar and another to the sand people of Tatooine and their hairy, mammoth-like Banthas. One mixes the wisdom of Yoda on top of sitar music, for "that mystical feel," he says, and another gets to the core of Billy Dee Williams's suave hustler Lando Calrissian. "He's sort of like a blaxploitation character," Phillips explains. "Lando's a pimpy, Colt 45-type guy, so I sampled some Isaac Hayes music from the Truck Turner soundtrack, a movie about evil pimps and racist bad-ass cops."
And this makes sense. The Star Wars universe is deep enough, accessible enough, detailed enough to allow a '90s DJ to mine '70s black-action-hero funk from it and emerge with art. And nothing from the '70s has remained so cool, so consistently and pervasively hip, for twenty years. Not disco, not polyester, not Isaac Hayes, not Taxi Driver, not peace and love. (OK, maybe Taxi Driver.)
"There's nothing created in our lifetime," says Phillips, "that you can reference as hard as Star Wars." Like Boba Fett.
The bounty hunter had become so popular by the time Lucas put together the Special Edition that he added two new scenes with Boba Fett, 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 that, simply, he is not a Trekkie.
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, resembles a loose religion, but only where it differs from 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.
Star Wars's lineage is the western and the road movie. The action takes place in a dusty, dirty, faraway land where gangsters kill to make a quick buck; vehicles don't sell for what they used to; danger, mystery, and enlightment lurk around every corner; and kids are bored out of their minds. Sound familiar?
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 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 together form 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 Gospel According to Lucas
The best Christmas present Cecil Seaskull got last year was an action figure--a molded piece of plastic about three 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, that of 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, believe it or not, on May 25, 1977, a religion was born, and its followers spent years filling their rooms with artifacts and icons and, to this day, all these 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 fledging 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."
Guys like Cline and girls like Seaskull knew the wisdom of Yoda, the tiny green Jedi master, with his fractured English haikus about the Force that surrounds us ("Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter."), long before studying philosophy, Eastern or otherwise.
"I don't think you would find any psychologist or religious leader who would disagree with Yoda's tenets of life," Chernoff says. "And, of course, they were delivered by a cute crazy little green creature, so it was a bonus."
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," Chernoff says, "and that is--how can I say this without sounding dumb?--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 a holy 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, but always as a false apparition, in disappointing movies like Tucker, Howard the Duck, and Willow.
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 top-ten bestseller. Then came a new series of action figures, a remastered video release, the Special Edition, and now finally, finally, next month, Episode I. The faithful will be rewarded.
But, as those who will stand in line for tickets believe, there must be more. A pilgrimage, a celebration, a fast of sorts. Chernoff explains the massive ground-level swell of fan fever seeping into ticket lines as the fulfillment of many childhood dreams. For those who grew up with Star Wars, the past sixteen years have been a long journey through the desert, a hell filled with doubt and denial.
"As a kid, you imagine your own future, the way you're going to be as a teenager and an adult," Chernoff says. "The older you get, the more disillusioned you become. Your parents won't get back together. Jim Henson dies, and there are no more Muppets."
Parents stay divorced; you age, get a sucky job, raise kids. Reality sets in. But now that Star Wars is coming back, so is childhood. The real world can be shoved aside, for either two hours in a dark theater or for weeks outside a movie theater: You decide. The ticket campouts will separate the faithful from the idle, the hard-core from the wannabe, the trendhopper from the fan. When the fans start sitting on the sidewalk, a new era begins.
"And this is where my highfalutin theory comes in," Chernoff says. "For our generation, for people in their mid-20s and early 30s, it's almost as if Star Wars is the one thing in life that is coming through.