DENVER — No matter what the critics think, fans say "Star Wars" rocks.
More than 40,000 of them lined up for hours in the rain April 30 to May 2 to attend the "Star Wars" celebration here.
The event was held in an airplane hangar at what used to be Lowry Air Force Base. Many came in fancy rain gear, others in plastic bags, and some just got wet. But they came, they saw, and, yes, they bought T-shirts.
Few of the fans were disgruntled, though they spent hours in the rain waiting to see some of the stars of "Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace." They included young Jake Lloyd, who plays Anakin Skywalker (later to become the dreaded Darth Vader) and Anthony Daniels, who plays the golden robot C-3PO.
Costume designers, an archaeologist, special-effects designers, and the most evil Star Wars villain ever - Darth Maul (Ray Park) - also highlighted the event.
Many fans came mainly to cheer the video documentary and catch glimpses of the movie, which opens May 19. "I'm waiting to see the video. I'll feel like my time was well spent if the documentary is good," said Keith Sprage of Cincinnati, as he stood in line outside for one of the special sessions.
"Cons," as science-fiction conventions are called, are the gathering place for sci-fi fans. But this one is special, says Star Wars fan club president Dan Madsen, who organized the event, because the new "Star Wars" is the most anticipated film in history.
And the fans will tell you, there is good reason for their fidelity. "We didn't grow up with King Arthur, we grew up with 'Star Wars,' " says Brandon Eckert of Fort Collins, Colo. "['Stars Wars' creator George] Lucas calls it a legend for our generation.... This film also speaks of the good and evil in everyone, that you must choose to be good." While the mythic dimension gives the story size and a certain grandeur, it is the "moral message hidden in the details," as Mr. Eckert puts it, that fans say make the stories last for viewers.
"Lucas drew on the writings of Joseph Campbell, and it shows through in his characterizations," says Gary Nelson of Denver, who attended with his wife, Amy. Both were elaborately dressed as Klingons of "Star Trek" fame. "It's a good fun adventure about the triumph of good over evil."
"I like the story too, because of the concept of good versus evil," says Mike of Culver City, Calif. He came dressed as a TIE Fighter pilot and shared his encyclopedic knowledge of special effects.
With a Star Wars movie, "You go for the special effects and the adventure, and to see a light saber battle in the end," Eckert says.
"But afterward, you can't help but reflect on it. Most movies end up too preachy or too action-y, but with "Star Wars" there's a blend. You have the ruthless Darth Vader and then you have Obi-Wan Kenobi, who gives himself up for the good of his friends. These are universal concepts. It's down on our level - don't get into fear, don't get into hatred."
Eckert's wife, Mariah (both are students at Colorado State University), adds, "Most movies are so complicated - you don't know who's good and who's bad through most of the movie. I think people like to know who they're cheering for."
Artist Jeffery Carlisle of Columbus, Ohio, has made elaborate drawings of the film's props and models. "It's a wonderful, simple story - children can follow it very easily," he says of the three movies in the series. "There are very defined differences between good and evil."
Fan-club president Madsen sees many positive messages: "Luke has a hard time believing that Yoda could possibly be one of the most powerful Jedi Knights ever, because he judged him by what he appears to be rather than what he really is on the inside. So [the film] is saying, you shouldn't judge a person by their looks."
Adds John of Aurora, Colo., "There is a message about commitment to something bigger than yourself."
Besides the triumph of good over evil and other positive moral messages, fans also point to the fully realized world that Star Wars has created as the most inviting quality of the movies.
"It's the attention to detail. The visual concept George Lucas built up around this imaginary world is very robust, very complete," says Mr. Sprage.
"I saw [the first movie in the series] 'Star Wars' the summer it came out - I was 4," says Mr. Carlisle. "I haven't been able to dream or imagine anything the same way since.
"For one thing, it is the clarity of the images - they really make an impression."