By CHRIS ALLBRITTON
AP Cyberspace Writer
NEW YORK (AP) -- In the summer of 1977, millions of kids sat in darkened movie theaters munching popcorn, eyes agog at screaming dogfights in space, heroes in white pajamas and a bad guy in a black helmet.
It was, of course, the summer of "Star Wars."
So many images and so many questions! How do light sabers work? Why does Darth Vader breathe so heavy? And what in the world is the Force?
In so many ways, and for so many of the "Atari Generation," George Lucas' movie left an impression that has yet to fade.
An impression so strong that the original fans of "Star Wars" found a new medium to hold their dreams and memories of the movie and for what it stood for: The World Wide Web.
The Web is bulging with "Star Wars" stuff, in anticipation of the May 19 premiere of "Star Wars: Episode One -- The Phantom Menace," Lucas' first of three prequels to his legendary trilogy.
It will be more than a movie; for some, it promises to be a refresher course in good and evil.
"Star Wars" provided a vision of wrong and right in, literally, black and white terms. Throw in a dash of the mysterious Force, and you had a moral touchstone for a generation, as vivid in many ways as the fire and brimstone teachings of an earlier age.
"With 'Star Wars,' I consciously set out to re-create myths and the classic mythological motifs," said Lucas in an interview with Bill Moyers in a recent issue of Time magazine. "The more research I did, the more I realize that the issues are the same ones that existed 3,000 years ago. That we haven't come very far emotionally."
These ideas, encoded on a thin strip of celluloid, brought the classic lessons of good and evil to a generation comfortable with technology, and one that realized the possibility that a "Star Wars" universe wasn't as "far, far away" as we thought.
So when the Atari Generation, as coined by memoirist David Bennahum, grew up to find itself as the vanguard of the World Wide Web, it was natural that "Star Wars" would be the subject of one of the earliest Web pages.
"Our generation is taking the Web and making it a part of our lives," said Paul Ens, senior editor of TheForce.net, a popular "Star Wars" site on the Web. "We're going to take the Web and what are we going to fill it with? Certainly, that film was a defining moment for us."
It is for these reasons that the Web is thicker than ever with Wookiees and Ewoks and Darth Maul and Skywalkers. It is both a place for the "Star Wars" stories and a gathering place for the faithful.
"Cyberspace is an empty hole to be filled in with mythologies," said Jon Katz, a frequent writer on Internet culture.
Some "for instances":
-- Apple Computer Inc.'s Web site, is host of the 25-megabyte file containing the trailer for "The Phantom Menace," which has been downloaded more than 8 million times -- more than any other trailer. That's about equal to downloading the entire printed collection of the Library of Congress 20 times.
-- Yahoo! lists 1,185 sites devoted to "Star Wars." On HotBot.com, a more comprehensive search engine, a search on "Star Wars" returns 143,060 pages. Other searches reveal more than two dozen Internet newsgroups and mailing lists devoted to the film and the mythos.
-- On Ebay.com, the popular online auction site, more than 9,000 "Star Wars" relics were on sale on a single day last week. Fans and collectors trade and sell Luke Skywalker action figures like they were the knucklebones of St. Francis -- something rare, valuable and powerful.
"Star Wars" fans may not know exactly what they're doing when they gather online to discuss how cool the movie is, but they're tapping into an act of communion.
Such discussions are reminiscent of the ancient debate of how many angels can dance on the head of pin. The "Star Wars" newsgroup, rec.arts.sf.starwars.misc, for instance, has been preoccupied since early April about whether Anakin Skywalker -- the future Darth Vader -- was a virgin birth or not.
A hot topic of speculation is midichlorians -- microbes which, it is whispered, are related to Anakin's birth and might throw new light on the mysterious "Force."
"The core of the net is that it's a collection of communities and they make it easier than ever for a group of people to come together," Katz said. "This generation of 'Star Wars' lovers has been prepped for this their entire lives."
The debates are heated. "How can you compare a virgin birth to midichlorians?" wrote one newsgroup participant. "A virgin birth is a cool mythological theme . . . while midichlorians seem to be a lame attempt at literalizing a spiritual concept (i.e., the Force) by explaining it 'scientifically.' . . . The former is very appropriate in a fantasy epic like 'Star Wars'; the latter belongs in 'Star Trek."'
There are similarities and differences between the two sci-fi epics. Both have a huge presence online, with "Star Trek" actually having a few more sites -- more than 1,400 sites on Yahoo! and 176,320 from HotBot. "Star Trek," however, takes a scientific approach to its mythology, while "Star Wars" is more spiritual.
This doesn't mean "Star Wars" fans are party to some religious cult. Most would never put their devotion in such terms, and Katz cautions against overreaching.
"When a movie becomes almost a religion, you're getting into some weird ground there," he said. "I think these religious ideas are very true and very real, but I think if 'Star Wars' becomes more than a movie, it will cease to be fun."
It's no surprise that a generation scarred by drugs, AIDS, divorce, moral ambiguity and self-indulgence would turn to the Web for signposts of right and wrong, friendship, loyalty and sacrifice -- all the values Lucas stressed in "Star Wars."
"The issues of friendship and loyalty are very, very important to the way we live, and somebody has got to tell young people that these are very important values," Lucas said in the Moyers interview.
"I think that a lot of those moralities have been degraded to the point that they don't exist anymore. But the emotional and psychological part of those issues are still there in most people's minds."