The debate, which has engaged film critics, academics and thousands of online fans, does not appear to have hurt Phantom Menace's fortunes - with more than $200m in revenue, it is the fastest-grossing film of all time, so far. But it could influence the film-makers when they decide who to leave out of Episodes 2 and 3, which are due for release in 2002 and 2005.
The criticism has focused on Jar Jar Binks, member of an underwater alien race called the Gungans, who theoretically provides the film's comic relief. With a head like a sea-horse, a whiplash tongue like an ant-eater and bulbous frog eyes, Jar Jar comes across as the idiot of the galaxy and utters lines such as "da force is maxi big" in a Caribbean patois that fans find inane and demeaning.
One Internet user observed: "He is the worst character in Star Wars' history, a pathetic excuse to sell toys." A 23-year-old comic-book shop assistant from Seattle has founded an International Society for the Extermination of Jar Jar Binks and set up a website called jarjarmustdie.com, which is lobbying hard for his exclusion from future episodes. Lucasfilm, which produced the movie, has denied any racist intent, but that has not dampened the furore.
Throughout the Star Wars saga, George Lucas has drawn on a wide variety of popular culture sources, particularly old Saturday morning adventure serials. His noseless leaders of the Galactic Trade Federation are clearly a throwback to the Yellow Peril characters popular in Flash Gordon and other series, but risk being interpreted as a racial slur just as much as a fond cultural reference.
Likewise the revolting fly Watto, a corrupt mechanic on the planet of Tatooine, might remind film buffs of the Greek car repairman in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly, but also looks like an eastern Mediterranean stereotype.