‘Star Wars’ Gets Forceful Unveiling


They don’t tell you where the screening is. You get on a bus, which whisks you to the theater, in a multiplex in lower Manhattan. There you’re led through several checkpoints, past unsuspecting masses arriving to see “The Mummy” or “The Matrix.” At an unmarked theater on the upper level, one security guy examines your pass under an ultraviolet light. Another stamps “20th Century Fox” on your right hand. Then you’re in.

Before the lights dim, a man walks on stage to implore the audience, “If you are sitting next to someone who is camcording the movie . . .”--well, turn ‘em in. “It would be horrible for this movie to appear on the Internet.”

Only then do those familiar words cross the screen: “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away . . .”


Thus begins what the movie people call the “rollout,” but not just any rollout. This was publicity weekend for “Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace,” bringing together media from around the world with the creators and stars of the long-awaited “prequel” to the sci-fi series that ushered in a new era of special effects, introduced the globe to Wookies and Jedis and laid out the metaphysics of “The Force.”

Three days--of screenings, “round tables” and assembly-line interviews--provided an occasion to go over everything from whether the unique lipstick of young beauty Natalie Portman, aka Queen Amidala, will become the rage of teenage girls to how an arena was “filled” for the death-defying, 10-minute “pod race” (80,000 Q-Tips dipped in paint).

Not to mention whether George Lucas’ film will be able to knock “Titanic” off its $600-million throne as domestic box-office champ.

“It is only a movie,” Lucas himself insisted near the end of the long, grueling weekend. “We have tried hard not to let the film get over-hyped. . . . [It’s] a film for 12-year-olds . . . a Saturday-afternoon serial for children. . . . The chances of this film beating the original”--much less “Titanic”--”are slim to none.”

He spoke of how his original “Star Wars” trilogy got “generally bad reviews,” and how he expects nothing different this time.

But he also recalled how he set out originally to create nothing less than “a modern mythology,” and how he’ll be disappointed, to be sure, if “Phantom Menace” does not become “one of the top 10 grossers of all time.”


If ever a film did not need more buzz, this would seem to be it. Crowds began lining up outside movie houses absurdly ahead of the May 19 opening. Bosses have been warned to expect mass hooky. The Internet has 1,400 “Star Wars”-related Web sites, recording more than 8 million hits a day.

Even so, the “Star Wars” people were not taking chances. “If you don’t open big . . .” fretted producer Rick McCallum, clasping a cigarette and looking frazzled Sunday.

The weekend was dubbed the “press junket.” Centered at the Regency hotel on Park Avenue, it revved up Friday, when foreign journalists got their shots at actors such as Liam Neeson, the serene Jedi warrior in the film.

By 7 p.m., the Irish actor’s makeup woman, clad in black leather pants, was shaking her head at how “everyone asks the same thing, whether they’re from Hong Kong, Israel or Australia.”

“What they all want to know,” she says, “is where he was when the first ‘Star Wars’ came out.”

“He tells them, ‘I was 22 in Ireland and there were bombs going off.’ But he enjoyed it.”

The buses leave for one of the high-security screenings off Union Square. The audience includes top critics--from Time, Newsweek, Variety, the Los Angeles Times and the like--eager to get in their official look-see before flying to the Cannes film festival. But it’s a subdued screening. The critics are trained not to tip their hands, and they hardly fit the profile of Lucas’ target audience.


Though “Phantom Menace” weaves several plots at once, the central one involves the discovery by Neeson’s character of a precocious young boy, Anakin Skywalker (played by Jake Lloyd), who is enslaved on a far-off planet but whose destiny is well known to the audience: This angel-faced youth will become the father of Luke Skywalker, and also evolve into the dreaded Darth Vader.

“I’ve never seen secrecy like this,” says the Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert, who has become a celebrity with his thumbs-up, thumbs-down TV reviews. “In a way, all of this skulduggery helps make it into an event.”

On Saturday, the TV crews get interview time. All but a select few are instructed to leave their cameras at home--the equipment is provided in suites where the actors hold court. A videotape is popped in for them, the lights go on and they get five minutes with Portman, say. Then they head to a suite with Samuel L. Jackson, who plays a member of the Jedi Council, alongside Yoda. At the end of the day, the TV people get black bags with all their tapes.

In a hotel hospitality suite, Dennis Michael, who does one-minute entertainment spots for CNN, boasts to a producer from MSNBC that he negotiated extra time--eight minutes a stop--because of his news network’s worldwide viewership.

“It’s still not enough,” he says. “It’s like what Woody Allen said in ‘Love and Death’: I’m going to be executed at 7 in the morning. It was going to be 6, but I had a very smart lawyer.’ ”

Sunday is the print media’s turn, and Lucas, the 54-year-old writer-director, the creative daddy of “Star Wars,” faces them all at once in a packed ballroom. He promises that the two episodes to come--scheduled for release in 2002 and 2005--will pursue the issue of how such a child, and mankind, can get caught up in evil.


“ ‘Star Wars’ . . . is like a little tar baby I stuck my fist in 23 years ago. And I’m a little surprised at how big it got, and how much it’s sort of dominated my life.”

Still, Lucas insists “nothing really” is at stake for him with “Phantom Menace,” though he worries how the “beat ‘Titanic’ ” talk is raising expectations.

“I’ve taken some chances in the storytelling,” he acknowledges, and there’s less humor and less romance. “The romance comes in the next film,” he promises.

After the press conference, he gives a hint of worry about one way he has taken a chance: slower pacing, in places, than might be expected from the man who helped make the “Star Wars” and “Indiana Jones” trilogies master classes in roller-coaster entertainment. In experimenting, he says, “you never know when you go a little too far.”

Sunday afternoon, it’s the actors who go room to room, facing the “round tables” of print journalists.

Jake Lloyd says he has no trouble playing the boy who becomes Darth Vader. Darth, he says, was “really cool [and] he kills the Emperor. That’s enough to redeem him.”


Neeson says he was joking when he suggested that he was giving up films because he feels irrelevant performing in front of a blue screen so the special effects guys can fill in the action later.

“I want to be a sheep farmer in Tibet,” he says straight-faced.

Why? “I love sheep.”

Portman, who made a splash on Broadway recently playing Anne Frank, told of having anxiety about autograph hounds but of reveling at the prospect of the next episode, when her relationship with Anakin involves more than saving a planet.

So what if a romance with a “younger man” sounds strange. “The whole movie’s not normal.”

Last up is producer McCallum--definitely wired, dying for a smoke. He acknowledges that the screenings seemed a bit flat. That “middle-aged . . . twisted . . . mean-spirited” crowd just may not get it, he joked--or half-joked. “You’ve got to learn the dark side early on.”

“This is only Chapter 1,” he added. “I leave tonight. Tomorrow morning, we start preparing for Episode 2.”