Out of this world `Star Wars' returns: `Prequel' is a pre-eminent exploiter of the forces of cultural hype.

May 19, 1999

GEORGE LUCAS reinvented science-fiction movie making some 20 years ago.

Now he's helping remake the art of hype.

Anticipation of the fourth of his "Star Wars" movies, "Episode I: The Phantom Menace," which opened overnight, has been unparalleled.

Fans flew to the United States last winter just to glimpse a "trailer" a couple of minutes long when it was released in theaters. Thousands of cinemas have installed new, surround-sound systems, engineered by Dolby and a Lucas company. Among them is Baltimore's elegant Senator Theatre, which also added a computerized system to spit out souvenir ticket stubs.

Merchandise related to the movie couldn't be bought prior to a special midnight sale weeks ago. A toy collector in Tulsa, Okla., offered $1,000 for a store's promotional prop. And some employers fear high absenteeism today when the $115-million movie, at last, is unleashed. Even if Mr. Lucas divined the incredible mass appeal of "Star Wars" when the Tolkienesque vision first rattled around his brain in the 1970s, he couldn't have foreseen the levels of good and evil attributed to it.

Some questioned, for example, the appropriateness of holding a "Star Wars" convention in Denver recently, stretching a connection between the imaginary space battles and the real gunplay in Littleton, Colo.

At the other extreme, the movie is given credit for a crop of young classical musicians, to hear composer John Williams tell it. Students told him they were inspired by his original "Star Wars" score.

Can the movie equal the hype?

Early reviews say "no," but for fans of the genre, it probably only needs to be half as huge.

Pub Date: 5/19/99

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