Nerds yield to revenge of the cineplex

THE LATEST “Star Wars” epic seemingly presented a grand opportunity for indulging in geekdom, especially since missing the all-media screening meant I’d have to brave public exhibition. Alas, though, rebel nerds proved no match for the movie business’ stormtroopers, schooled in the dark arts of corporate efficiency.

At first glance, seeing “Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith” at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood sounded like a civilized solution to the prospect of rubbing elbows with (ick) normal people. Midnight shows are for zealots and teenagers. By contrast, ordering Saturday-night tickets in advance — down to choosing the exact seat location — reduced the chance of getting caught in line next to someone still lamenting the misuse of the term “parsec” in the original “Star Wars.”

In hindsight, however, this mechanized approach says something about the mechanized nature of the business, transforming a messy but often joyous enterprise into something orchestrated and bloodless, bleaching out unpredictability and buoyancy in the process.

There were no lines outside the ArcLight, and why should there have been? The movie was scheduled roughly every 20 minutes, creating little sense of urgency. When a film plays at the same interval as Southwest departures from Burbank to Las Vegas, there’s hardly reason to panic about missing the 7:30, what with the 7:55 just around the corner.

Similarly, thanks to the assigned seating, the theater itself was near-empty 20 minutes before show time, leaving scant time to build anticipation. Indeed, while this was Saturday night of opening weekend, the prevailing sense was that anyone itching to see the movie already had, maybe twice. One lone guy feebly brandished a plastic light saber but put it away as soon as the lights dimmed, depriving the audience the pleasure of watching security wrestle him to the floor.

THE MOVIE, for that matter, represents a testament to its own kind of efficiency. Although vastly superior to its recent predecessors, George Lucas’ mastery of technology has left behind a casual interest in characters and dialogue, and some action pieces — dazzling as they were — appeared to have been included strictly to move merchandise. Does the movie really justify an assortment of Wookie action figures, for example, given their limited screen time?

Each new convenience, in other words, from buying tickets online to that sprawling home-theater system, yields its own set of unintended consequences, just as the relentless focus on jaw-dropping opening-weekend tallies has made the dearth of theatrical legs virtually a self-fulfilling prophecy. Beyond repeat business and stragglers, those who can resist the initial barrage of marketing come-ons increasingly surrender to the comfort of the couch, content to complete even a saga such as this on DVD.

Against that backdrop, small wonder that the most committed “Sith”-heads subjected themselves to greater ridicule than usual by queue-ing up weeks early outside the wrong theater. Inane as that gesture was, they were clinging to the notion of film as an event and social happening, not just a workmanlike parade through the turnstiles.

MUCH HAS BEEN WRITTEN (most of it misguided) about diminishing box office, but comparing the “Sith” experience to “Return of the Jedi” two decades ago highlights the advent of this conveyer-belt mentality, treating movies like the fast-moving chocolates Lucy and Ethel struggled to wrap. Blame some of it, too, on a hyperactive media that builds insanely toward such milestones before immediately flitting to the next red carpet, an attention span dictated by the duration of a segment on “Access Hollywood.”

Lucas himself has attributed the emphasis on blockbuster-itis to the corporate ownership of studios as opposed to his previous creations, whose success certainly helped the movie world’s current overseers forge the template for mastering those possibilities.

Clearly, though, the passion that fueled “Sith’s” midnight showings also proved emblematic of a cinematic era where hype reigns supreme and too much rides on any of these major products to risk allowing the audience the trill of discovery that propelled the original through the summer of ’77.

Now that “Episode III” has taken wing, in fact, it’s time to lock those seatbacks, check the cabin doors and prepare for landing. After all, who has the luxury of enjoying the flight when boarding starts for those holding tickets to “Batman Begins,” “Fantastic Four” and a whole manifest of marketable heroes any minute now.

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