On the Dark Sidewalk of Manhattan

Two heavily made-up twins of Far Eastern descent, brandishing glowing plastic swords, charge Darth Vader.

NEW YORK - Two heavily made-up twins of Far Eastern descent, brandishing glowing plastic swords, charge Darth Vader. The emissary of evil whom they identify from the faraway galaxy looks a bit smaller and thinner, and altogether less threatening on this busy Manhattan street on a brilliantly sunny Sunday morning, but they still continue to stab him mercilessly. The twins' father captures the epic battle with a digital camera, but this only makes the winds of war blow harder.

The twin on the left latches on to the mask of the prince of darkness, who momentarily turns out to be a thin 14-year-old schlemiel, but then dad says it's not nice to stab him and commands them to embrace the embodiment of evil in the dark mask and suit. They run and hug and he keeps shooting with the camera. From there they head for the makeup station and within a few minutes one of the twins becomes a little green Yoda, though not as old and hairy as the original and with far smaller ears, while the other becomes a small Darth Maul whose red-black face is far from evoking the appalling character who appeared in "The Phantom Menace" six years ago.

Cavorting around them are other Yodas, with ears, and the other familiar characters from the "Star Wars" series since its genesis. They are all here: the headhunter Boba Fett holding a huge tape recorder; a stuffed and especially smiling version of Princess Padme; the Jedi knight Qui Gon-Jinn, played by a withered and pockmarked double of Liam Neeson; a robed white-haired man of about 60 who is the alter ego of the grimacing Count Duko; about a dozen armed stormtroopers clad in white armor and space masks; and another bigger Darth Vader.

He looks exactly like his Hollywood counterpart, down to the last detail, including the metallic voice that occasionally bursts out of the heavy black mask he is wearing - but after more than two weeks of haunting the New York street he doesn't frighten anyone. Like the other doubles on the sidewalk, the big Darth, who turns out to be Roger Olsen, a New York chef of 35 who has taken time off from work in order to be part of the happening outside the historic Ziegfeld Theater, will in a few hours shed his costume and abandon his threatening tone and blunt declarations.

He will then enter one of the tents that have been put up on the sidewalk, rest easy in an inflatable chair covered with space prints, and with his colleagues - eccentric mercenaries, dozing aliens and confused Jedi knights - the wonderful personality of Han Solo and the reasons that everyone abhors Jar Jar Binks, in the meantime munching on pizza, sipping Coke from a family-size bottle, and maybe watch, with the others, for the umpteenth time, a DVD version of "The Empire Strikes Back," "Return of the Jedi" or one of the other films of the series, which has now reached its end 28 years after being launched.

Magnificent legacy

For three weeks a clock that was installed in one of the tents outside the movie theater on 54th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues did an intensive countdown. Slowly - certainly too slowly for the dozens of fans who have made it the center of their lives since April 30 - the days, hours, minutes and seconds passed until the promised event for which they were all waiting. At midnight on Wednesday, when the clock finally reached zero in the United States (and around the world), the screening began of the last episode - "Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith," directed by George Lucas - in the most successful film series ever produced by Hollywood. The previous five films in the series, over which George Lucas has presided, though not always directing - "Star Wars" (1977, directed by Lucas), "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980, directed by Irvin Kershner), "Return of the Jedi" (1983, directed by Richard Marquand) and "The Phantom Menace" (1999) and "Attack of the Clones" (2002), both directed by Lucas - have left behind a magnificent legacy that not only set new standards for financial success and technological achievements in the film world, but also became an integral part of popular culture in the last quarter of the 20th century.

For nearly three decades, millions of children, who are now in their thirties, have been exposed to the world Lucas created - and the movies were only the beginning. Between them (and especially during the 16 years between the end of the first trilogy of films and the second trilogy, which chronologically antedates the first) hundreds of comic books and computer games appeared that expanded the film plot in new directions. A commercial continuum was created over the years, making it possible to market labels in the form of toys, dolls, table games, t-shirts, watches, hamburgers, mobile phones, cookbooks and whatnot, with sales totaling an incredible $9 billion.

The dark side

"Star Wars" became a cult from the day the first film opened, with a community of devoted fans that broadened from movie to movie. Mel Brooks based his parody "Spaceballs" (1987) on the series; key phrases from the films, such as "May the Force be with you" and "Don't go over to the dark side," have been quoted in numberless works (on "Seinfeld" and in the recent film "Sideways," for example); culture researchers have cited the series in order to explain various aspects of the consumer culture and about Judeo-Christian hang-ups; and even the president of the United States invoked the series. In the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan wanted to get a message across that Americans would have no trouble understanding, he did not hesitate to make use of the phrase "empire of evil," which came from the "Star Wars" series, to describe Leonid Brezhnev's Soviet Union. And not long after that, he took another step into the depths of pop culture when he titled his ambitious missile interception program none other than "Star Wars."

It's doubtful that the kids waiting in line to have their photo taken with Darth Vader know who Reagan was, but they are very familiar with Lucas's faraway galaxy. At first glance, the wait in line seems pointless, because those waiting have already purchased tickets over the Internet. But the line has long since become a tradition in the fans' community, another ritual meant to show respect for Yoda and his friends and to practice fighting with swords of light made of sponge.

Space is here

The official reason for the lengthy gathering outside the movie theater is a fundraising project for the Starlight Starbright Children's Foundation, which is doing well thanks to the fact that it is very hard to pass by the costumed adults in the center of Manhattan without stopping with them for a bit and then donating a dollar or two. But the real reason for the long wait outside leading movie theaters across the United States in dozens of big cities is the collective sense of connectedness to the magical world of space. There, in the small galaxy that is created on the sidewalk, everyone gives expression to the alien that bursts out of him. When they are with the other aliens, they each feel a bit less alien.

"I stand on line four hours a day," says Olson, who saw the original "Star Wars" at the age of seven. "Since then it has become a crucial part of my life. For me it's not just a movie, it's the struggle of good against evil. I love Darth Vader because of his Force. We are very excited to be waiting on line here. We are here because of the sense of community, we have something in common, without any connection with what people do in life. It's unifying."

Masses on holiday

Olson is not concerned about the void of the day after he sees the last film in the saga. For him, "Star Wars" has long since become not just a movie but a way of life, and he has no plans to take off the mask. "Even after the movie is screened, `Star Wars' will not be over for me," he declares. "A genre of fans has been created here, and I will go on being a fan. I have a two-year-old daughter and she will surely be a fan, too."

Colin Pactor, 30, with spiked hair and alien-style sunglasses, also looks completely at home in the main tent. A stockbroker in everyday life, Pactor has taken a week off work ahead of the film's premiere. According to data of independent research firms, he will hardly be the only whose work output will be affected by the new film. Analysts estimate that in the first two days of screenings the American economy will lose $627 million because of masses of geeks who will take time off to devote themselves to the Force.

Still, in the light of the marketing mania around the film, which beckons to consumers from very corner of the continent, the American economy is unlikely to have cause for complaint in the last analysis. Experience shows that there is no cause for concern along these lines. The five previous films in the series have grossed $5.7 billion, and "Revenge of the Sith," which was made on a budget of $115 million, will undoubtedly return the investment within days. The overall revenues from the empire that Lucas built (excluding the revenues from the new film and its associated products) are estimated at $20 billion. Pactor hurries into the tent and helps himself to a hot slice of pizza from one of the many trays that are streaming into the tent.

Where are you from?

"From Dagoba," he replies confidently, referring to Yoda's galaxy.

And in this galaxy?

"From Philadelphia," he says in a tone of acceptance.

A tour of his temporary home shows that the fans' tents have undergone a technological leap no less impressive than the films themselves. They are fitted with television sets, DVD machines, computers and game consoles that run the games on television. Among the wires and screens is a dog named Kenobi, a mini-bar, well-known brands of snacks and cups of Starbucks coffee strewn all over. "This is our base," Pactor says proudly. "On Saturdays we watch cartoons together. Every fan has his own way of showing his love. Some like to talk about the movies. I like to be with people."

He too does not need a ticket. In fact, he has already seen the movie twice. He is enjoying himself, but seems to get at least as much enjoyment from cuddling up to the fleshy Princess Padme, who approaches him with three steaming slices of pizza of her own. He believes that she and the other aliens will not abandon their private Dagoba, so he is not concerned that the "Star Wars" saga is coming to an end. "I will not be disappointed when it's over - that's how it is," he says, faithful to the pronouncement by his spiritual mentor Yoda in the new film, "Fear of loss is the path to the dark side."

The prophecy realized

"Revenge of the Sith," which the New York Times' chief film critic, A.O. Scott, declared this week ranks in quality with "The Empire Strikes Back" and is better than the original "Star Wars," is about how the Jedi knight Anakin Skywalker joins the Order of the Sith, which draws its strength from the dark side of the Force, and the adoption of his new persona - Darth Vader.

The series made use of a galactic backdrop to tell a simple story about a struggle of good against evil, about the plunge into the abyss of hatred and rage and about redemption in its Christian format. It began by describing the character of young Anakin, who appeared in "The Phantom Menace" (1999) as a small, pure boy who embodies a promise to restore balance to the galaxy; continued with the story of his maturation in "Attack of the Clones" (2002), in which he already showed his cruel inclinations; and goes on in the new film, the third in the films' chronological plot order, with the completion of the process of his transformation, ultimately becoming Lord Sith, the retainer of the emperor who leads the galactic empire of evil.

The first three films of the series (which are actually episodes four, five and six) describe the rise to greatness of Luke Skywalker, Anakin's son, who joins the Order of the Jedi and finally sets out to confront his evil father. In one of the last scenes of "Return of the Jedi" (1983), which is the final film chronologically, Darth Vader returns to his good personality as Anakin Skywalker, saves his son at the last minute from the cruel emperor and realizes the prophecy and the promise that were placed in him - to restore balance to the galaxy, to the Force and to the viewing public.

(S.S. and D.A.)