Notebook: Hey, it's only a movie, says Lucas - but who's listening to him?

After years of idle longing, and months of frenzied anticipation, the final release of the new `Star Wars' saga could prove an anti-climax

Three days to go before the US opening of The Phantom Menace, the new instalment in the Star Wars saga, and the most keenly awaited movie in film history has staged something of a disappearing act.

The long queues which began forming in early April outside Mann's Chinese Theater in Hollywood and other prime southern California locations have all but vanished. There is a rational explanation for this - tickets went on advance sale last Wednesday - but it still feels distinctly eerie.

The merchandise, which usually appears after a film opens, is already in the stores and, after the initial rush, beginning to assume the staleness of the fad before last. Even the critics, who usually wait until the very last moment to publish their reviews, have long since issued their pronouncements, many of them markedly negative.

Thanks to the internet, Star Wars groupies are already intimately familiar with the plot, the characters, the action sequences, the planetary backdrops and even the weaponry of the new film. Even without the benefit of first- hand exposure, they have begun to fetishise the villain of the piece, the devil-horned, red-and-black faced Darth Maul, and his double-bladed light sabre.

And they are hotly debating the merits of casting Jake Lloyd, the nine- year-old cutie-pie blond who - so they have been told - plays Anakin Skywalker, the boy who will eventually mutate into the super-evil Darth Vader. All of which begs the question: at this point in the extraordinary cultural phenomenon that is The Phantom Menace, is the film itself strictly necessary?

Certainly, the film's distributor, Twentieth Century Fox, has long since stopped worrying about attracting an audience and has devoted itself instead to the logistical problem of putting the largest possible number of bums on seats. As one internet fan succinctly if crudely put it: at this point the film could show "two hours of George Lucas's hairy ass" and the crowds would still clamour to see it.

Projections for box-office revenue on the opening weekend have been reduced to pure mathematics: if 35 million seats can be made available from one minute past midnight on Wednesday until the following Sunday, as Fox plans, then even with less than full houses - an unlikely scenario - the opening weekend takings should be well over $150m (pounds 94m) or so, twice the previous record held by the Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World.

In his rare public pronouncements Star Wars creator George Lucas, alarmed at the level of adulation, has pointed out that it's "only a movie".

But The Phantom Menace is much more than that. What other movie prompts students to cut classes and employees to risk getting fired so they can join an anticipatory street party in Hollywood lasting almost six weeks? What other movie prompts grown men to make toy light sabres out of PVC tubing, insulating foam and brightly coloured duct tape and stage mock fights in the streets of Los Angeles?

The Star Wars series (which the journal Variety endearingly describes as Lucas's "sprocket opera") has provoked bizarre mass behaviour in the past. The original film, which came out in 1977, profoundly changed the nature of the film business: along with Steven Spielberg's Jaws, it proved the existence of a mass audience far beyond the reach of any previous Hollywood product and paved the way for the modern "shoot 'em up" all- action blockbuster; it initiated the modern trend towards mass marketing, particularly on television; and it showed the power of merchandising, which had never previously been taken seriously but has now generated some four times as much revenue as the films themselves.

The Phantom Menace is breaking new ground all over again, this time in more idiosyncratic ways. Financed entirely by its creator's company Lucasfilm (Fox is merely under contract to distribute it), it is the first big-budget production ever to be funded entirely out of an individual pocket, making it, despite its mainstream sensibility, the most independent film of all time.

With the traditional media and the internet going bananas, it is also the first big-budget movie ever to be released without a significant marketing push - it is effectively marketing itself.

Perhaps most significantly, it takes the biggest leap yet on the path of blending animation and computer-generated imagery with live-action cinema. Far and away the most impressive thing about the new film is its marshalling of extraordinary feats of visual imagination - an underwater city, a planet entirely covered in skyscrapers, a dizzying chariot-style race between jet-propelled mini-rockets - suggesting that absolutely anything can now be put on a cinema screen and made to look convincing.

One of the reasons Lucas waited so long to return to Star Wars was that he wanted his special effects company, Industrial Light and Magic, to come up with a technology commensurate with his imaginative vision at a price that was not beyond consideration. (The final budget came out at around $110m.)

Some of the more traditional aspects of film-making undoubtedly suffer from the technical wizardry of the visuals - the dialogue is laughably bad, and the actors look like they don't always know what they are doing, since they spent most of their shooting time standing in front of blue screens interacting with invisible creatures.

These are the aspects that have prompted the lukewarm reviews, but it is unlikely that hardcore fans will care. The critics said the same things about the original Star Wars, and it made no difference. As the Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn tells young Anakin in the new movie: "Concentrate on the moment. Feel, don't think." That's good advice for the audience, too.

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