They've queued for days and nights for tickets. They claim it is the Woodstock of their generation, a symbol of the eternal triumph of good over evil. Andrew Harrison touches down in an LA riddled with `Star Wars' fever. Photographs by Robert Yager
Wednesday, 12 May

Somewhere in America there's a woman called Obi-Wan Kenobi Briggs. Her name used to be Jennifer but last week she changed it. First she had to convince a North Carolina judge that, yes, she would indeed alter the name on her driving licence and other documents to that of the Jedi master. Then she collected a $1,000 prize from her local radio station for the Star Wars fan who had gone furthest for the Force.

I've met people who are fond of Star Wars before but I've never yet come across anyone who'd willingly erase their whole identity for it. I've lived with strange Americans and experienced their "major pop-culture events" too. Sometimes I've marvelled at their ability to rise above the yammer of promotion and make one of these engineered manias genuinely exciting. Sometimes I've wondered how they can deal with the whirling inanity of it all. But right now I'm not worrying about any of this because I'm squeezed into an economy seat 28,000ft above a country that is rapidly running out of tickets for Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace, and I want a pair very badly indeed.

I'm going to Los Angeles for a wedding and it is pure fortune that The Phantom Menace is opening the same week. Although I'm enough of a Star Wars fan to know my droids and aliens, my devotion does not extend to the purchasing of a bucket flight with some sweaty sci-fi nuts in order to dress up as Yoda outside Mann's Theater. They're geeks. I'm ... an enthusiast. But Star Wars got me at an impressionable age, as it did anyone between 28 and 38. Duty called me, in the disembodied voice of Sir Alec Guinness. So my wife was persuaded, our stay was extended and we prepared to abandon ourselves to the sticker-flecked, action-figure populated, signed, sealed and sponsored digital El Nino that is Star Wars mania.

It's now 8.20pm British time in the perpetual noon above the clouds. Star Wars tickets have been on sale in the USA for 20 minutes, through a nationwide touchtone booking system called MovieFone. There is talk that its system will seize up under the Phantom Menace demand. In the back of the aeroplane seat in front of me, there is an airphone handset. I try to balance in my head the potentially astronomical cost of a plane- to-earth call with the prospect that I might not get to see The Phantom Menace at all. Good sense, or maybe bad, prevails. For rumour has it that the movie is in fact not much to write home about, much less to leave it for. By focusing The Phantom Menace on Anakin Skywalker, the boy who will grow to become first a Jedi and then Darth Vader, it is said that George Lucas has given in to everything that is tyrannically child-centred about Nineties America.

But I want to see it anyway.

Thursday, 13 May

Local-TV news estimates that absenteeism from work on Wednesday 19 May could cost the American economy $200m. The station does not say on what precedent it bases this figure. USA Today's Cesar Soriano believes Star Wars gave his generation of Americans the Woodstock it never had. The paper then provides a Jungian analysis of every major Star Wars character and points out that Darth Vader represents "evil". Toys 'R' Us says it sold 1.25 million items of Phantom Menace merchandise on the toys' day of release. Total sales are expected to reach $1bn by the end of the year. There are no children to be seen in any pictures of the toy-buying frenzy. George magazine promises to reveal "Why Star Wars Will Change Politics Forever". MovieFone says it took four million calls yesterday and that 95 per cent of them bought tickets to The Phantom Menace. The Internet auction house Ebay offers two tickets for a one-minute- past-midnight showing at Mann's Theater. The opening bid is $1,000 for the pair. The New Yorker forecasts the sale of R2-Decaf (with Tart Vader to go).

I sit by the hotel pool in a jet-lagged fug, two tickets bought over the counter at a cinema in Santa Monica safe in my wallet, absorbing these and other stories. One in particular, from a what's-on paper called Ticket, seems to say more than the rest. Their writer describes how, many years ago, he swapped his toy X-Wing Fighter for a Swiss Army knife; he says he's never forgiven himself. It's here that I realise that if you take Nick Hornby and replace the football and music with stormtroopers and Jawas, you've got America's relationship with Star Wars. To them, George Lucas's universe represents everything that was good and certain, all those years ago.

Friday, 14 May

We're in a spacious, classy antique shop in Santa Barbara, which is above LA both geographically and financially. I've been drawn towards the cabinet with the old Star Wars toys in it (anything more than 10 years old is an antique in America). Two tubby guys in their mid-30s, wearing surf jams and baggy T-shirts, are pressing their noses against the glass, looking at ranks of Luke Skywalkers and Han Solos and Princess Leias in different outfits but uniform near- mint condition. These two look like archetypal Star Wars geeks. How much is that spaceship in the window? asks one. About $350, his friend guesses. Wrong. $400. For a big bit of plastic. These same four-inch action figures that lie under a bed somewhere in my brother's house - cat-mauled and dog-chewed - are here labelled at $40, $70 and $120 each. Making conversation, I ask, "What's the price on Boba Fett?" and they shrug. Boba who? Sheepishly, I have to point out the armoured bounty hunter who freezes Han Solo in a metal block in The Empire Strikes Back because, as it happens, I'm the geek in here, not them.

Saturday, 15 May

The on-line brokerage house E'Trade is attempting to persuade us to trade stocks on the Internet. Its TV ads conclude with the gnomic Yoda-ism, "Be not afraid."

Sunday, 16 May

With three days to go before opening night, CNN airs its big Star Wars package, breathlessly promising "a look behind the digital wizardry!" and describing the first movie as "medicine for a nation's ailing soul". America is desperate for Star Wars to mean something - anything - and everyone wants a piece of its portmanteau ideology. To this end, the CNN reporter visits first a Catholic priest, who equates the Force with faith, and then a Zen master, who says that Yoda is pretty much bang on the money when it comes to "letting go of your thoughts" and the annihilation of the conscious mind. I cannot take much more of this. I want to scream "It's only a movie!" but then we see the US Air Force using footage of the Death Star dogfights as part of its pilots' training, and I wonder if I'm wrong. Finally, George Lucas appears. He has a fat neck and tired eyes, and he tells CNN that the best part of making The Phantom Menace was the chance, at last, to see his work through the eyes of his six-year-old son. And finally, the reporter asks: Is there a serious movie somewhere in this gifted contemporary of Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola? A Schindler's List, perhaps? Lucas seems terribly weary when he says, "No, I don't think so."

Monday, 17 May

Driving back down the Californian coast we listen to Rush Limbaugh, the porky laird of Republican talk radio. Limbaugh is horribly right-wing, but sometimes brutally funny in ways liberals just can't manage. He will not let the Lewinsky story die. Today Limbaugh's show features a skit entitled "Starr's Wars: The Female Menace" starring Loose Skirtchaser. Accompanied by portentous space music, it goes like this:

Loose (in Bill Clinton's voice): Tell me the ways of the Big Lie Knights, Oh Albi-Drunk Kennedy!

Ted Kennedy: Use the False, Loose!

Voiceover: ... Also starring Al Gore as The Void Of Space.

(sound of Darth Vader-like heavy breathing)

Loose: Hey, it's Larry the Flynt! And is that you, See-Thru Peephole?

After the merriment dies down, Limbaugh addresses his audience more soberly. "This movie is about democracy," he thunders, "and taxation! You liberals are going to see yourselves in it, and you're not going to like what you see." Limbaugh then admits he has not seen The Phantom Menace. We drive on, through rocky mountains and green pasture, towards our appointment with destiny.

Tuesday, 18 May

11.30pm. Time to meet the fandom menace. The crowd waiting for the first midnight show at the Fox cinema near UCLA are adamant of one thing: the people waiting at Mann's are only there because they want to get on TV. "They're not there for the movie, they're there 'cause they like standing in line," I am told. The sidestreet has the atmosphere of carnival or end-of-term - seats are liberated from late-night diners and knots of three to six people playing five-card stud or Star Wars Monopoly. Tales of 12-hour waits are common. At the head of the line is Spencer Clark from filmbuzz.com, who has waiting an aggregate of 500 hours in order to give his place to the winner of a competition on his website. When he stood aside, other fans offered him their spare tickets in solidarity. Almost everybody here is white.

Only three fans have come in costume. Special-effects workers Steve Munson and Greg Feiler have come, respectively, as Menace's crimson-faced Vader substitute Darth Maul and its senior Jedi, Qui-Gon Jinn. Their pal is Obi-Wan Kenobi but they've lost him in the crowd, so they entertain the queue with lightsabre battles.

Surely they represent the saddest tendency of all Star Wars fans, the Trekkies and Rocky Horror crew for whom the film is only an excuse to dress up?

"No, man," says Munson, "I only put this outfit together when I realised I had a black bathrobe. And we're in the business, so it's OK. Anyway, we're hardcore. Star Wars is where our lives began." He brandishes his double-bladed lightsabre as people close in for snaps. Darth Maul is a hit with the fans before they have even seen the movie.

A straw poll reveals that most people in the queue have already spent between $40 and $200 on Phantom Menace merchandise, that promotional contests to win a car are "not very Jedi" and that the best film was The Empire Strikes Back. Which Star Wars character would the fans most like to have sex with? For the men, the clear winner is Princess Leia in the brass bikini she wore when she was Jabba's slave. Among the women, there is surprise support for Chewbacca ("I like hairy men") and precious little for Ewan McGregor. But then the guide-rope lifts and the queue starts to move and the excitement suddenly surges like a great disturbance in the Force. There is a light in everyone's eyes that says it doesn't really matter to them what the movie's going to be like.

As he stands up on aching legs, a student called Ed tells me that Star Wars is nothing complicated. It simply fills the myth-shaped hole in America. "Everything else here is artificial," he says. "So we had to make up our own legends too, about right and wrong and the things you go through in life. It really annoys me when I hear that Star Wars is some cynical, ironic Generation-X thing. It isn't. Generation X is the people born between 1961 and 1972. Star Wars isn't theirs, it's ours. We're Generation X-Wing"

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