To "Star Wars" fans who grew up with Luke and Leia, light sabers and the Millennium Falcon, "The Phantom Menace" was a sign that director George Lucas had been drawn to the dark side of moviemaking.
The 1999 movie's emphasis on snazzy special effects instead of a gripping story, the incessant jabber of the Jar Jar Binks character, and a merchandising splash that reduced The Force to the toss of a Darth Maul fast-food Frisbee, left longtime devotees grumbling.
With "Episode II: Attack of the Clones" opening next Thursday, these fans are hoping that Mr. Lucas, like Darth Vader in the final scenes of "Return of the Jedi" (Episode VI), will redeem himself.
Indeed, "Attack of the Clones" could prove to be pivotal for the beloved science-fiction series. This fifth "Star Wars" installment wants to connect with three decades of fans through its theme of good versus evil, elements of ancient myths, religious undertones, and light-speed chase scenes. Yet the challenge for Lucas will be to woo fans who since "Star Wars" debuted in 1977 have grown as diverse as the droids, Wookies, and Ewoks who roam his galaxy far, far away.
Many fans feel the series' emphasis on merchandising has cheapened its meaning, says Les Friedman, a film and pop-culture lecturer at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Lucas was once seen as a rebel, motivated by idealism and opposed to the commercial forces of "big Hollywood." When "Star Wars" debuted in 1977, Mr. Friedman says, no related action figures were on store shelves, whereas 22 years later "Phantom Menace" seemed designed for selling toys.
For "Clones," Lucasfilm is toning down the marketing hoopla (including fewer licenses for related products than for "Phantom") and trying to spread the word that the movie is better. The buzz around "Attack of the Clones" has been largely positive, raising hopes that the beloved series is back on track.
"Clones" also is competing with a flood of glossy new high-tech films. "Spider-Man," for instance, broke the all-time weekend box-office record last weekend, taking in an astonishing $114.8 million. That, in turn, has sent expectations for the May 16 opening of "Clones" soaring.
With "Episode I: Phantom Menace," "[Lucas] lost a lot of fans with Jar Jar.... He was clearly trying to create another generation of 'Star Wars' fans by aiming at kiddies but that's not how he got the first generation" of fans, says Andre Galiber, a 20-something fan from the Bronx, N.Y., who adds that he "lives by the Jedi Code."
Mr. Galiber predicts "Clones" "will be a classic. There will be drama ... a love story, fierce battles, ingredients that were barely in ['Phantom Menace']. I'm excited just thinking about it!"
With his new film, Lucas reportedly answers the cry of disappointed series fans, promising "a darker" film with a deeper plot. The role of Jar Jar Binks, the annoying, chattering sidekick, is diminished. The number of companies licensed to sell "Star Wars" paraphernalia reportedly has been cut by a third and they include no fast-food restaurant tie-ins.
Lucas, who crafted "The Phantom Menace" script on his own, also worked with writer Jonathan Hales to enliven the "Clones" screenplay.
"People see [the next film] as an opportunity to return to the meaning and messages of 'Star Wars' because we will begin seeing a turn from good to evil in one of the characters," says Anne Collins Smith, an assistant professor of classical studies at Susquehanna University in Selinsgrove, Pa. " 'Phantom Menace' didn't have the same depth."
"Clones," the second in a three-part prequel to the original "Star Wars" series, picks up where "Phantom Menace" left off, probing the origin of the black-masked Darth Vader as a good, golden-haired boy named Anakin Skywalker, and exploring why he turns evil. In the first three movies (released from 1977 to 1983), the adult Darth and a wicked emperor battle freedom-loving Jedi rebels.
To long-term, light-saber carrying fans, it is the appeal of the Jedi heroes' quest against a vast, oppressive empire that got them hooked.
" 'Star Wars' means the world to me because of The Force," Galiber says. "It's consistent with all self-help techniques: [It requires] patience, controlling your anger, being focused on the task at hand." The film's heroes use The Force as an intuitive guide to help them overcome evil and resist the temptations of the "dark side."
"I just like the idea of The Force it's like a religion that accepts everyone, and you're all one with the galaxy," says Chris Tellez, a fan from Carson, Calif.
He and dozens of others are camping in line to see the "Clones" première at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, Calif., where the footprints of Darth Vader, R2-D2, and other "Star Wars" characters are embedded in a nearby sidewalk.
Mr. Tellez, an IT manager, hangs out at the campsite after work and on weekends. Some in the group have been in line since early April, rotating in shifts.
"[Star Wars] is like the old fables about good and evil: People have to make choices, and whether things turn out well depends on your choices," he says.
Just as Luke Skywalker was taught about The Force by Yoda and the grandfatherly Obi-Wan Kenobi, the heroic warrior Achilles had tutors with mysterious powers, says Carl Rubino, a classics professor at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.
"There is something in those ancient mythological themes that resonates with people," Professor Rubino says. Lucas "needs to recapture that simplicity," he says.
Nick Seidler, a fan from Milwaukee, credits "Star Wars" with teaching him about diversity. For example, the fierce-looking, but benevolent Chewbacca, he says, showed him that appearances can be misleading.
"Star Wars ... made me think about what's right and wrong what could I do with my life: Could I be like the ... farm boy that wound up saving the world?" says Mr. Seidler, who has seen the films 100 times. But he's worried that "Clones" "won't teach those same lessons. The hero [is going to] become the biggest bad guy in the universe."
"Star Wars" is also a story about fathers and sons with Yoda and Obi-Wan as mentoring figures and Darth Vader as an evil dad corrupted by power who later proves to have a good heart when he saves his son.
"My son and I had discussions after 'Star Wars' when he was only 7 or 8, and they were about ethics-based kinds of decisionmaking," recalls Jim Farrelly, a professor from Dayton, Ohio.
It remains to be seen whether today's children and teens will see "Star Wars" films in the same romantic light of nostalgia as their parents do. They are Lucas's target audience.
Standing in a Danvers, Mass., movie theater, a group of 13-year-olds say they are interested in "Clones" but add that films such as "Lord of the Rings" and "Spider-Man" hold more allure.
"I want to see 'Spider-Man' over 'Star Wars,' " says Carly Cameron. "I don't like the whole alien-creature thing.... 'Star Wars' is too far-fetched."
When "Star Wars" came out in 1977, there wasn't much competition from other fantasy and sci-fi films. Today, Lucas is in competition with other movies in this genre, the "Star Wars-ettes" he helped create, Friedman says.
In 1999, "Phantom Menace" rode the coattails of the series' initial success to become one of the top five films ever in box-office sales, earning $431 million domestically. To keep pace with his competition in 2002, Lucas has reportedly spent $110 million on special effects.
Whether or not the darker script, new marketing strategy, and big budget work will soon be evident. But even if "Clones" fails to stir him on deeper levels, Galiber will go just for the action. "There's always something attractive about the sound [of] a light saber igniting," he says.
Gloria Goodale in Los Angeles contributed to this report.