Big buzz surrounds George Lucas' newest film -- Will ''Star Wars: Episode I--The Phantom Menace'' stand up to the hype?

By Steve Daly
Updated January 22, 1999 at 05:00 AM EST

PROJECT Like, you don’t know already? Hold on to your rebel helmets for the May 21 bow of Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.
THE DETAILS The movie’s opening crawl has history-lesson-style invocations of ”the taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems,” making The Phantom Menace sound like a gloss on America’s colonial-era travails; call it 1776: A Hyper-Space Odyssey.
AT STAKE Mainly bragging rights. George Lucas’ first new space adventure since 1983 is such a thoroughly presold event that everyone in the industry treats it as an all-but-guaranteed full eclipse on all fronts. Analysts say it could become the new box office champ. (Episode 4, the original Star Wars, has rung up a $461 million North American gross, including reissues; Episode I should outfly it, and may well steam on past No. 1 Titanic’s $600 million domestic take.) The toy-and-keepsake tsunami is swelling nicely, with Hasbro, Galoob, and Lego agreeing to deals that will reportedly guarantee Lucasfilm close to $1 billion in rights payments. About the only question marks center on the performers. Will or won’t this prove a career jump to hyperspace for Liam Neeson (as Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn), Ewan McGregor (as Obi-Wan Kenobi), and Natalie Portman (as Queen Amidala)? They’ll have to prove mighty charismatic to stand out amid the fantastic imagery, which concept designer Doug Chiang says includes ”ocean-liner-size buses” and a royal spaceship that looks like ”the chrome hood ornament on a 1950s car.”
IN 100 YEARS, IT’LL BE A RELIGION A beyond-rabid fan group plans to queue up at various screens, including New York City’s Ziegfeld and L.A.’s Mann’s Chinese theaters — a full month before the picture opens.