The news that George Lucas is to release the Star Wars sextet in 3D has been greeted with dismay - but then many die-hard fans believe the director betrayed the franchise years ago, writes Chris Wright. Of all the species to have sprung from the works of George Lucas, the one that most beggars belief has got to be the Star Wars fanatic. In the 33 years since the release of the first Star Wars film, the ever-growing George Lucas sci-fi franchise has spawned a generation of devotees who occupy a kind of alternate universe, complete with its own coherent belief systems, languages, moral codes and traditional costumes. The internet is rife with sites such as The Jedi Sanctuary, which outline the philosophy and rules of behaviour that govern the Star Wars movement:
"A Jedi should have a serious and realistic view of the world. A Jedi should not try to run away from reality, but should face the world bravely. We have to look at the facts. We have to size up the world for what it is. We have to wake up and smell the coffee. We have to ask ourselves questions like: What is reality? Why am I here? What is my purpose in life?" But it doesn't end with theorising. There are mock Star Wars military units, who recreate battles in much the same way that US Civil War buffs do. Fans have been known to get married under the watchful gaze of Jedi honour guards. There are also "Star Wars Widows" - women whose spouses have retreated so far into their enthusiasm that they are, in effect, no longer with us. One guy went so far as to name his daughters Emily Rose Princess Leia and Bethany Violet Skywalker.
It's easy to laugh at this stuff - too easy, according to some. Fanboys, the 2008 film that poked fun at Star Wars mania, was widely panned by critics - less for its comedic shortcomings than for taking aim at such a large and cumbersome target. As a reviewer in Wired magazine put it: "What's left to mock that hasn't already been assailed?" Meanwhile, as if sensing how fragile their self-created reality is, Star Wars fanatics are a remarkably nitpicky bunch, constantly attuned to the merest of slights and misinterpretations, and swift to respond when their worldview comes under attack. Oddly, perhaps, the most common recipient of fanboy anger these days is the Great Leader: George Lucas himself.
When Lucas recently announced that he plans to re-release his Star Wars sextet in 3D next year, for instance, many of his followers responded as if they'd just sat on a lightsaber. The prevailing sentiment among fans was neatly summed up by a source in the Hollywood Reporter: "George Lucas is a money-grubbing whatever." Lucas has been here before. Even among the filmmaker's most avid believers, there is a growing sense that he is more interested in generating revenue than creating movies. His so-called Prequel Trilogy - released between 1999 and 2005 - drew responses that ranged from the long-suffering to the frenzied. According to one report, an anonymous fan took out a hit on the filmmaker, offering $7,500 (Dh27,500) to whoever pulled it off.
This may have been meant as a joke, but the anger Lucas has provoked in recent years is very real. And, again, it seems clear that the fuss is about much more than whether or not his movies are any good. In a way, the Star Wars popularity cult represents one of the 20th century's more enduring movements. Its origins can, in fact, be traced back to pre-1977 - many of its fans were previously followers of StarTrek, who had simply switched allegiances.
Very early on there were clear signs that Lucas had tapped into something far deeper with his film - a fact he himself would later acknowledge. "With Star Wars I consciously set about to recreate myths and the classic mythological motifs," he told one interviewer. "I wanted to use those motifs to deal with issues that exist today." In the years following the original film's release, the myths were picked apart and then put back together in a stream of so-called "fan-fiction" novels. Schisms developed between followers of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker. While such arguments continue today - take a look at the Jedi Council Forums on www.theforce.net - it's becoming increasingly harder to deny that Star Wars is, in fact, less a modern parable than a lucrative action-film franchise.
This is why Lucas's Prequel Trilogy, which went full-tilt with its special effects but scrimped on myth-making, upset so many die-hard fans. In producing these unabashedly commercial vehicles, Lucas finally pricked the illusion that there was something larger at work here - this is what many of his followers find unacceptable: the "chosen one" made them look silly. The sense among Lucas's followers that they've been duped has been heightened further still by the seemingly endless series of re-releases and re-cut versions of Star Wars films, which are seen as providing unequivocal evidence that Lucas is in this for the money. And then, of course, there's the growing mountain of official merchandise: the Empire Strikes Back iPhone cases, the lightsaber pens, the Chewbacca baby tees.
George Lucas's personal fortune, meanwhile, is said to stand at a little more than $3 billion. Earlier in the year, disillusioned Star Wars fans were given the opportunity to air their grievances in the indie film The People vs George Lucas (tagline: "They gave him their love, their money and their online parodies. He gave them... the prequels"). "Don't ever say Star Wars is just a film!" screams one of the documentary's subjects, quivering with indignation. "It's. Not. Just. A. Film!"
Despite the knocks it has taken, the movement rolls on. This year marks the 30th anniversary of the movie widely believed to be the best of the entire Star Wars series: The Empire Strikes Back. To mark the occasion, thousands of fans recently congregated at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida, for what has been described as the biggest and brashest Star Wars party ever. "I wake up every day wishing I were still there," wrote one visitor afterwards. "I left a part of my soul in that place."