Hold on to your hyperdrive, kiddies: Next summer's new "Star Wars" movie has a title. But you might not like it.
How does "The Phantom Menace" grab you?"You're kidding," says Mark Farr-Nash, my favorite comic-book store clerk in all the land, setting down his water bottle at Austin Books Monday afternoon, adjusting his Incredible Hulk T-shirt and scrunching up his face. "Please note my ire. `The Phantom Menace'!? Puh-lease. Maybe if the movie starred Commander Cody or Buck Rogers or even Red Ryder, then it wouldn't be a bad title. `The Phantom Menace'? Lord, give me strength."
Strange as it seems - and as unhappy as it's making some die-hard fans - that appears to be the movie's title. It was revealed quietly on an official "Star Wars" Web site last Friday.
Fans have been waiting several months for creator George Lucas to announce the title to the first of three "prequel" films that will tell the story of life in the galaxy far, far away before Luke Skywalker was born. The $115 million "Episode 1" has wrapped filming in Tunisia, Italy and England. Computerized special effects are being finished at Lucas' headquarters in northern California; composer John Williams is set to begin soundtrack recording this fall with the London Symphony Orchestra.
Perhaps the most eagerly awaited movie (and pop-cultural) event in Generation X's lifetime, "The Phantom Menace" will be released May 21.
The mysterious title, now working its way to logo designs for everything from toy packaging to Pepsi cans, was also quickly registered as a Web site address by the filmmaker. A Lucasfilm spokeswoman confirmed Monday that "Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace" is the film's actual name - although Lucas has changed his mind in the past. Episode 6, originally titled "Revenge of the Jedi," was changed to "Return of the Jedi" months before its 1983 release.
"My first reaction was `Huh?' " said Scott Chitwood, a 25-year-old Houston civil engineer who in his spare time runs (TheForce.Net), a Web site where fans share leaked prequel information and try to sniff out fact from rumor. "The title came totally out of left field. I'm glad they surprised us with it, but at the same time it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. I didn't care for it at first, but I'm learning to live with it.
"I don't have much choice," Chitwood added.
"I love it," said a giggling Harry Knowles, 28, the Austin-based showbiz Internet gossip king, who claimed several weeks ago that he's read a copy of the film's script - and likes it. "Nobody in their right mind would ever name a movie `The Phantom Menace.' All the fans are going nuts because of it. It sort of shows that Lucas will do anything, and I'm all for it. Remember, it's a serial. He's having fun with it, (and) it's a rollicking adventure."
Not everyone feels the Force flowing within them, though.
"Ugh. The more I hear it, the stranger it sounds. . . . I've spent over half my life waiting for something that will be called `The Phantom Menace'?" said Carl Cunningham, 26, an Atlanta fan who runs Prequel Watch, another unofficial Web site. "I'm really trying to be open-minded about it. . . . So far, no luck. I just can't imagine walking up to a box office in eight months and saying `Three (tickets) for "The Phantom Menace" please . . .' This is the first time I've begun to have any doubts or worries about whether or not this film will live up to any ex-pec-tations."
Savvy fans had batted around several rumored titles in past months. Some front-runners were "Balance of the Force," "Guardians of the Force" and "Knights of the Republic." Other rumored titles seemed quirky, but interesting: "First Hope," a nod to the 1977 "Star Wars" original title, "A New Hope," and "First Droid," somehow suggesting it all starts with the robot characters.
The title seems in keeping with Lucas' original vision of the "Star Wars" movies as a melodramatic serial, modeled on the matinee adventures of yesteryear. A peek at the new "Star Wars" movies shows a grander flourish than the original trilogy, filled with post-modern architecture, galactic castles and senate chambers, curvacious chrome spaceships, bug-eyed swampy things and vivid colors.
Chitwood's Web site reported Monday that Lucas - a chronic borrower of everything from Greek myths, Zen aestheticism and the Wild West cowboy - seems to be looking to old pulp novels for titles. "The Phantom" book series in the '30s featured such episodes as "The Phantom Strikes Back," "Torch of Doom" and "The Scarlet Menace."
Unofficial prequel-related Web sites, which have been spying on "Episode 1's" progress since the movie went into production in 1997, are alive with "Phantom Menace" backlash. As of Monday, more than 800 fans had weighed in on (TheForce.Net) - "Only a quarter of them have said that they like (the title)," Chitwood said. "Most of the fans either hate it, or say they can live with it."
So just what is a phantom menace? Know-it-all Knowles says it alludes to the movie's plot, where warring factions become allies, once they realize they've been tricked by a common enemy.
Knowles also polled visitors at his Ain't It Cool News Web site to see how "The Phantom Menace" flies with them. The results were a tad more hopeful. Of 4,000 fans, about 1,000 said they loved it. The rest showed varying degrees of acceptance, confusion and utter disappointment.
"Maybe George Lucas is just testing us," said Farr-Nash, mulling over the title in the comic book store. "On the other hand, he could call it `Voody Voody Klackto Vedastein' and people would show up."
Voody what? Spell that, please.
"You can spell it how you want," Farr-Nash said. "It's better than, than . . . `The Phantom Menace.' "
"The Phantom Menace" (the more you say it, the better it sounds) takes place 40 years before the events in the first three movies. It stars Ewan McGregor as a young, cocky Obi-Wan Kenobi. Jake Lloyd plays Anakin Sky-walker, a slave boy with a knack for racing desert pod cars and building robots. Liam Neeson plays the paternal Qui-Gon Jinn, a Jedi master; Natalie Portman plays a teenage queen of a planet being attacked by evil robots. The movie will feature several familiar characters, including Yoda, R2-D2 and Jabba the Hutt. "Pulp Fiction's" Samuel L. Jackson is in the supporting cast as a Jedi knight named Mace Windu. For spoilers on the Web, go to (www.theforce.net); (www.jedinet.com); and (www.aint-it-cool-news.com.) For official stuff, try (www.thephantommenace.com).