It stinks.

Let’s not build phony suspense by climbing strenuously up toward a verdict, dodging the public’s right to know along the way. If this were any other movie, the structure of relating one’s judgment would not be at issue—people want to know; you tell them. But the phenomenon of Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace is such that everyone it touches feels implicitly bound to George Lucas’ rules of engagement, to the sense of mystery he’s created and the acknowledgment that this subject is a very big deal.

Any dictator can tell you that the most effective way to control the masses is through the selective withholding of information, and these techniques of partial unveiling have kept the public salivating for Star Wars tidbits as they’ve been rolled out under silver domes—the first trailer, the second trailer, the toys, the tickets. Since negative critical response is one of the many areas of his ass that Lucas has primly covered, stating in interviews that he expects snotty writers to greet this venture with the same Luke-warmth with which they met the first three, it’s not heresy to say the film sucks. It’s just that it is louche and, frankly, hardly sporting to render a verdict in a way that doesn’t collaborate with Lucas’ self-generated sense of monumental importance.

Lucas’ demand that we all participate in his vision of himself and his film, that all citizens should want to see it, despite the fact that its levels of quality, coherence, and audience respect are of no significance, has taken the shape of what Charles MacKay’s excellent 1841 book of the same title called “extraordinary popular delusions and the madness of crowds.” Fanboys and other get-a-lifers rabid to stand in line, not for the film, but for tickets for the film, for toys related to the film, for the soundtrack to the film, and for the book (one book sold under cash-generating multiple covers) of the film, offer little reflection on why these pursuits might be a good idea. (“It’s Star Wars, man!” is a popular response.) Even the interested public’s explanation is about the stuff about the thing, the thing itself being practically nonexistent. (That’s why the reviews don’t matter, and Lucas knows it.)

The old objection to being ground helplessly under the wheels of hype in service of such an unimaginative cinematic ripoff would be that the empire has no clothes, but memetic theorists would argue that Star Wars mania is a particularly pernicious “meme,” or “unit of cultural inheritance” that replicates itself, brain to brain, the way genes replicate from body to body down generations. Although the theory has been scoffed at by those in the scientific establishment who hold that the human is the apotheosis of biological organization (Stephen Jay Gould and Jonathan Miller, for example), meme-theory popularists like Richard Dawkins and the University of London’s Susan Blackmore see it as a viable explanation for our continuing cultural evolution, such as it is.

Memes can be “good ideas, good tunes, good poems, or driveling mantras [paging Bobby McFerrin]…spread by imitation as genes spread by bodily reproduction or viral infection,” Dawkins writes in Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion, and the Appetite for Wonder. “[T]he conspiracy-theory meme has a built-in response to the objection that there is no good evidence for the conspiracy: Of course not, that’s how powerful the conspiracy is.” He goes on to say, “Just as a species’ gene pool becomes a cooperative cartel of genes, so a group of minds—a ‘culture,’ a ‘tradition,’ becomes a cooperative of memes, a memeplex, it has been called.” Provide the right environment for a meme to flourish by establishing the presence of other memes (The X-Files, for instance), and you have Matthew McConaughey, superstar, or The Phantom Menace, “the biggest movie of all time,” as numerous publications have been hypnotized into predicting.

In cruder terms, what has made judgment impossible for those relatively uninfected by this meme is the hype, although hype isn’t quite the concept at work in this case. Hype pumps up interest in a venture (usually an entertainment venture) with mass accessibility as its goal. Lucas, on the other hand, controls accessibility as a way of manufacturing interest, among not just the moviegoing public but the toy-buying, Happy Meal-eating, Internet-cruising, dinner-party-chatting, Western-civilization-existing public. His horizontal integration is perfectly suited for popular culture’s current flattened landscape, in which cult participation is the province of the mainstream.

The Star Wars cult is a crossover success of massive proportions, but the idea of the internal machine generating fodder for fanboys is not new, particularly in science fiction. Star Trek fleshed out the TV expediences of its universe with back stories and extraterrestrial trivia (like the horrifying vogue for Klingon-language experts) to sate its insiders; Phantom Menace Web sites fill in the film’s plot holes and speculate on the connecting threads between Episode I and the three extant sequels, as if it all makes sense. Unlike the appeal of other areas of commerce, in which artificially limited supply generates value—Beanie Babies and other self-anointed collectibles—the mystique of Star Wars isn’t economic but psychological: How close can the consumer get to the coveted object? After audiences hardened into skepticism by the psych-out gag trailers for the South Park movie and The Spy Who Shagged Me were honored with a peek at the real thing last month, when the Phantom Menace trailer opened wide, they were hard pressed not to feel somehow lucky.

When the hype—the mass cultural participation—reaches this level, movies are no longer entertainment. Dawkins argues that while genes build instruments like bodies—an elephant, say—memes manipulate existing bodies. Genes have no purpose in the absence of their goal. We are almost at the point, however, where memes do. As units of information, they can exist as satellites without a central planet—that is, the elephant doesn’t need to exist for us to harbor a wealth of elephant information. Movies never were solely entertainment delivery systems; it’s useful and necessary for a culture or many subcultures to descry meaning and importance in entertainment products, but the fulcrum of the products’ existence used to be their role as pleasures. With that core purpose removed, there’s nothing but the galaxy of merchandise, lore, ticket-scrambling, and reportage of the above that revolves mindlessly around a great black hole.

All the publications that have participated with varying degrees of gullibility take by now reflexively postmodern attitudes to the subject—the more skeptical, the more they can play both sides of the game. Newsweek’s May 17 cover story on “The Selling of Star Wars” (it also includes David Ansen’s decent and truthful but suspenseful review) relates in grotesque detail how Lucas and his flying monkeys controlled public interest and retail methods on the way to the film’s release, but signs off by noting that if “Phantomania has gotten out of hand,” Newsweek is as culpable as anyone—nudge nudge, wink wink. Now there’s a clever and meaningless escape route to pseudo-news respectability, exposing the entire enterprise as a way of striking a critical pose without genuine critical content.

The trouble with meme theory is, ironically, also the trouble with the Star Wars phenomenon—neither makes sense when observed closely, and neither considers the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the audience it seeks to account for. Sometimes people like stuff because they like it, and sometimes an accidental or purposeful collusion of media, cash-hungry string pullers, and the cultural climate results in what looks like mass hypnotism to the immune observer. It would be nice if there were a Darwinian basis for our occasional inexplicable swoons, because it would provide a rationale for the random, disorderly tastes of the public. But the theory, like the Phantom frenzy, lays a heavy hand on our decision-making faculties: You have no choice but to buy it. Surely Lucas will chalk up any grousing to Star Wars backlash—they’re jealous because I’m king of the universe—but he doesn’t understand that even in his world of Manichaean destiny and chosen ones, a little free will would go a long way.—Arion Berger

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