A year from now, on Memorial Day weekend, 1999, the next chapter of "Star Wars" will premiere in theaters. Currently in extensive post-production, the as-yet-untitled film will be the first in a new trilogy.
Officially, not much is known about the movie. We do know that it, like the rest of the trilogy, will be a "prequel" set before the events of the original "Star Wars" trilogy. It will introduce us to a 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker -- the future father of Luke and Leia who's destined to become Darth Vader. Other than who's starring in it -- Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman -- that's about it.
Unofficially, on the Web, much, much more is known about this film -- depending on whether you're willing to believe what you read. While scoops sent in by spies involved in a film's production have become standard material on movie-gossip Web sites, for the "Star Wars" prequel the process has been both more intense and better organized.
With the skill and determination investigators might use to solve a crime, online "Star Wars" fans have been assembling the prequel's entire story line a whole year in advance of the movie's release -- by stitching together official news about its production with insider scoops, gossip and plausible theories. At The Force.net -- one of two major sites solely focused on "Star Wars" prequel news and gossip -- you can even read an illustrated "Virtual Edition" of the movie. (If you prefer not reading plot-revealing "spoilers" of movies you might want to see, this would be a good place to stop reading. And definitely don't follow the links.)
Most of the scooped information, often debated among online fans for their veracity, has been trivial: The names of characters and planets -- if they're real or stand-ins for finalized, cooler-sounding names to come. Or: who or what is a "Gungan" -- and is it the same thing as a "battle droid"? (Final consensus based on additional scoops: They're different things.) Think Princess Leia's hairstyle in the original film was laughably bad? Wait until you check out the 'dos George Lucas has envisioned for Portman -- complete with ceremonial makeup that will make her look like either a mime or a geisha.
But some other scoops have been more tantalizing, and perhaps distressing to the filmmakers -- especially the revelation of a "pod" race sequence on the desert planet Tatooine in which young Anakin competes. This report lent further credence to speculation that the first prequel pays homage to "Ben Hur" by presenting Anakin's early life as a slave. Supposedly, Lucas himself was upset by this specific posting.
Most of the scoops didn't surprise the production company, Lucasfilm Ltd., according to a Web informant who uses the pseudonym "True Fan," who provides tidbits of information to the other notable "Star Wars" prequel gossip site, Prequel Watch. Corresponding with me through a third person's e-mail, True Fan describes her/his sources: "I have sources that work directly for Lucasfilm Ltd. and LucasArts Entertainment in many different departments. My main source of information has worked closely with Lucas and Lucasfilm for more than 15 years." True Fan says he/she is careful not to give away critical plot details -- like the pod race.
(For the record, a representative of Lucasfilm Ltd.'s Internet Development division could not answer specific questions for this article and, instead, issued his company's standard statement regarding fan sites: It has no official policy regarding them, though the company is generally supportive of fans' efforts on the Internet.)
"The Lucasfilm production staff wasn't caught off guard at all [by the online scooping]," True Fan writes. "They expected this to happen. Matter of fact, Lucas assembled an 'Internet task force' because he knew the implications the Internet would have on the film."
Another scooper for Prequel Watch -- who works for the creature animation division of Lucas' special-effects house, Industrial Light & Magic, and who chooses to remain nameless -- writes, "I can say that there appears to be a LOT of bogus [information] out there, but also a lot of 'real' stuff that has pissed off more than a few people here."
Paul Davidson, a 20-year-old college student and one of a dozen "Star Wars" enthusiasts who runs The Force.net, makes a surprising claim: "I'd say 90 percent of our confirmed scoops [regarding the prequel] are totally accurate at the time they're received (inaccuracies tend to involve the scooper's interpretation of the information rather than the information itself), and perhaps 95 percent of the information on our site at present is totally accurate."
Started in the summer of 1996, The Force.net has evolved into a sprawling conglomeration of fan-produced Web sites dedicated to various aspects of the "Star Wars" movies. Scott Chitwood, age 25 and one of the original founders of The Force.net, stakes the accuracy of his site's "unconfirmed information" on the screening process every scoop goes through: If something submitted sounds outrageous, it's immediately dismissed; if it sounds plausible, then other, reliable informants are consulted to confirm it.
Granted, this isn't scientific, and the site admits to having been duped before. "The most notable stuff we've posted that turned out to be false actually had some degree of truth in most cases," Chitwood says. "For example, we had one person come to us in 1996 saying they were a friend of Natalie Portman and that she was up for the part of Luke and Leia's mom. But after a while we figured out that the person was a fake. We publicly announced we had been had. But a few months later Lucasfilm announced that Portman actually won the role. Pretty bizarre."
"You really are only hitting about a 20-30 percent accuracy when it comes to 'leaked' information," True Fan says in her/his e-mail. "A lot of people are just trying to second-guess Lucas and his team, and then pass that information on as valid. So, unless you have an inside track of some sort, most information is just a lucky guess ... or false."
Regardless, it's not just the information itself leaked to the Internet that has proved to be revealing, but what the fans have done with it. When on-the-set spies sent in detailed descriptions of costumes used in the production, contributors to The Force.net drew up illustrations. Even something as seemingly insignificant as a photo released on the official "Star Wars" Web site, one of Lucas and a co-editor examining special-effects footage for the film, prompted a minor investigation by The Force.net: What were these men looking at on the video monitor? The blurry image on the monitor was enlarged, digitally enhanced and scrutinized on The Force.net as if it were a highly classified, fuzzy snapshot of a UFO flying over Area 51.
The most telling example of this kind of tenacity is the site's Virtual Edition, a fully illustrated, blow-by-blow breakdown of the prequel film's plot. If the process of digging up information on the "Star Wars" prequel proceeds in the fashion of a criminal investigation, then the scoopers are the eyewitnesses -- and Roderick Vonhvgen, the Webmaster of the Virtual Edition, is the prosecutor who's piecing the crime scene together. A 30-year-old Roman Catholic priest in Holland (yep, believe it or not, he says), Vonhvgen began the project in June 1997 by assembling official news, scoops and rumors into a coherent movie plot.
"Unfortunately, there were a lot of false rumors popping up in various places," Vonhvgen says of his early effort on the Virtual Edition. "I've done a lot of research since then (watching the [original "Star Wars" movies] again and again, reading the novels, etc.), and the more information I gathered, the more I was able to see which scoops made sense and which ones were probably false."
Vonhvgen creates the scenes for the Virtual Edition by using image-editing software to cut and paste pictures of the prequel's cast (culled mostly from non-"Star Wars" sources) against official production drawings and photos of the movie set, which he touches up digitally. Other ingredients include set and prop photos snapped by spies, stock photos, images from other films, original art and computer graphic models designed by another The Force.net contributor.
The result can look a little cheesy. But in terms of plot, it appears Vonhvgen has mapped out the whole movie, including major action scenes. Most who are familiar with both Lucas' personal style and thematic fetishes and the early drafts of the "Star Wars" screenplay (from which unused scenes have reportedly been repurposed for the prequel) may find the Virtual Edition unsettlingly credible.
"At present, I consider [the Virtual Edition] to be an informed plot analysis," Vonhvgen says. "Some plot elements are not entirely correct because there are some spoilers I don't want to make public, but there is little 'fan fiction' left in the current version."
The most impressive part of this work in progress is also the source of Lucas' grief: the pod race. Storyboarded with several images incorporating impressively designed computer graphic models, the sequence depicts young Anakin competing in a rocket-vehicle race that's reminiscent of the brutal chariot race in "Ben Hur." The event is presided over by a young, thinner Jabba the Hutt who intends to fix the outcome by sabotaging the racers' rocket pods, including Anakin's. Guess who wins despite the slanted odds?
"Some time ago there were rumors on the Web about a 'drag race' taking place on Tatooine [in the prequel]," Vonhvgen says. "Nobody knew what that drag race could look like. Because I try to visualize the rumors, I was challenged to make a 'virtual edition' of this, too. A German magazine published pictures they took while floating in a hot air balloon over the sets in Tunisia (Lucasfilm was furious, of course). One picture was labeled 'junkyard.' But when I looked for the 30th time at the tiny picture, trying to figure out what those blurry dark shapes could be [in the photo], it suddenly hit me! I enlarged and enhanced the picture: Each shape consisted of a pair of enginelike things, followed by a smaller dark spot. In fact, what I was looking at was not a junkyard but a bunch of 'pods' pulled by pairs of huge engines -- the 'Star Wars' version of the chariots in 'Ben Hur,' with engines replacing the horses! I made some pictures based on that observation, and it was like a bomb exploding on the Web; the number of visitors [to the Virtual Edition] skyrocketed because of this scoop."
All of this intensive investigative work raises the obvious question: Why do it? And won't it spoil the fun?
"For some fans, digging up little bits of info on the film is what they consider to be the fun of being a fan," says Chitwood. "Our site is for those who like to sneak [a] peek at their Christmas presents. I would hope that those who don't want to know anything would avoid our sites. We give them plenty of opportunities to stay away from spoilers."
Carl Cunningham, a 26-year-old office manager who runs Prequel Watch as a spoiler-free repository for news on the "Star Wars" prequel, says, "I believe nine out of 10 fans don't want to see or hear too much about the film until they see it for the first time in May 1999. Who wants to be looking up at the screen on that MAGIC DAY and think, wow, this is just like what I read on the Internet?"
By now you might be wondering whether Lucasfilm has ever orchestrated a disinformation campaign, either to throw off determined fans or to trap a mole -- as the production company of the new "Godzilla" supposedly did when it leaked "fake" concept drawings of the title character in order to catch a spy.
"I can say with 100 percent certainty that Lucasfilm has not leaked any disinformation," The Force.net's Chitwood maintains. "There are enough weirdos on the Internet to do that for them. Anything on the Internet now that is incorrect was either made up by someone not involved with Lucasfilm or was a mistake made by the person reporting the information."
Even without active disinformation tactics, plenty of questions remain about the accuracy of the fan sites' reports. True Fan writes: "A lot of people are going to be very surprised when the films come out because they think they know what is going to happen when actually they are just believing in a rumor. It is not hard to figure out the plots of the prequels, but Lucas has a few surprises up his sleeve that I don't think anyone is expecting."
And as the unnamed informant at Industrial Light & Magic points out, the movie is subject to Lucas' editing whims: "Mr. Lucas can change his mind on anything at any time ... and he purposely made sure that there are alternate avenues for a few of the most important things. Even we at the creature animation shop have been told to change and alter things already ... and I'm sure there will be more of that in the months ahead."
So what if it turns out that Chitwood, Cunningham, the priest and the rest of their gang were wrong about almost everything they thought they knew about the first prequel -- including the spoilers they chose not to reveal? What if the Man himself, George Lucas, has the last laugh?
"For them to have us and everyone else completely fooled when we thought we were 100 percent right would be incredible," Chitwood admits. "You'd have to admire that. We love 'Star Wars' so much I'd love to find that there was a tighter lid on things than there has been."
Cunningham sees this scenario as remote, too: "But, hypothetically, I would probably be almost relieved, believe it or not. Not relieved because we were wrong, but because the films would not have been spoiled by any of us fan sites."
That's the ultimate ambivalence behind the fan detectives' work.
"If I had known when I started [gathering prequel information] that it would be this easy," Chitwood says, "I would never have started the prequel site. I think I know more than I would have liked to have known."