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Star Woids
Reviewed by Kenn McCracken, ©

Format: Movie
By:   Dennis Pryzwara (director)
Genre:   Documentary
Released:   October 2001
Review Date:  
RevSF Rating:   8/10 (What Is This?)

That Star Wars is a phenomenon is well documented and well known. As far as science fiction goes, there is nothing with a more devoted following, with the possible exception of Star Trek and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings—and neither of these is as profitable or cross-cultural. The series has more than its fair share of fansfans who demonstrate that the word has its root in 'fanatic', and who spend better than a third world country's annual budget on toys, who wait in line for weeks to be the first to see the newest installment. Dennis Przywara's Star Woids betrays him as at least sympathetic to their beliefs, if not one of them; but it also shows that he is a filmmaker capable of telling an entertaining story.

Star Woids is not the first film to document fandom at what even a science fiction reader like myself would consider its ugliest (most famously, Trekkies set the bar for the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction world of obsessive behavior). Unlike the rest, though, Przywara's film manages to elicit sympathy for some of its subjects while managing to maintain a fairly objective point-of-view. It's difficult to imagine spending equal amounts of time laughing at the focus of a documentary and feeling for the subject, but Pryzwara has made a film that does just that. Given the subject matter, this is no small feat.

The film documents the weeks prior to the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. For anyone who spent 1999 in a coma, the movie was perhaps the most eagerly awaited and media-hyped film of the twentieth century. Lines for premieres of the film were staggering; show times were sold-out weeks in advance in spite of mixed reviews from critics and viewers alike. What we missed in Birmingham, though, was the group of fans so dedicated that they camped out for tickets, not overnight or a week beforehand, but for a full forty-two days. Star Woids spends those weeks with two camps: Daniel Alter, a young fan who took the high school proficiency exam into order to get out off school early enough to ensure he was the first in line; and the crew and viewers of CountingDown.com, a website catering to rumors and scoops about movies.

The two groups (one in Westwood, one at Mann's Chinese Theater) suffer through all the hazards of six weeks on L.A.'s sidewalksinclement weather, police, vagrants (as one person comments, "People with homes are taking over the homeless people's spots!")and in the process experience the effects of what could have been a great psychology experiment. What makes this compelling is both the participants' perspective on what they are doing (and why), and the competition that develops between the two groups. It is here that Pryzwara manages the improbable: while the temptation is to laugh and point at the 'fat kid that has nothing better to do but wait for a movie,' Alter's attitude makes him the underdog that you can't help but root for as the weeks progress.

The passing days are intercut with interviews and stories about other fans of the franchise, including a DJ who spins records dressed as Boba Fett, a frighteningly obsessed collector of Star Wars merchandise, and the duo who created and produced the stage musical interpretation of the first movie. These scenes are both entertaining and effective in further demonstrating the thought process that might underlie the desire to see the movie so badly that a six-week wait would be worthwhile. Fans of the series might spot someone they know, at least in spirit; the rest will have more ammunition for against science-fiction nerds.

If the film is missing anything, it's an opposing viewpoint. There are few people in the film that think the motivation of the two groups is crazy; even Daniel's parents support him whole-heartedly. At one point, when Daniel gets sick (presumably from sleeping in the rain), Daniel's father takes over for him in the line. While this is on one hand a noble moment of parental support, it also seems more surreal than the fact that anyone would wait in line that long for a film. There's also no mention of any disappointment at the end of the film, while experience showed that very few people above the age of ten found a film that lived up to the hype. It's enough to beg the question of whether a six week wait in such conditions would make a viewer more or less predisposed to liking a film; unfortunately, the question goes unasked and unanswered.

Ultimately, Star Woids walks a very fine line between documentary and entertainment: the viewpoint is not judgmental, but perhaps lacks a critical perspective. It is almost impossible to tell if the camera is on the side of the subjects, or making fun of themalthough blame for this belongs less to Pryzwara and more to the ridiculous behavior of the fans. The movie is like a ninety-minute Daily Show segment, an in-depth look at people who live in a place that none of us can understand, and they can't understand why. It's a funny and sometimes poignant film that, for the receptive viewer, can explain a lot of thingsbut probably not why anyone would do such a thing.

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    Images courtesy Dennis Przywara.

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