EXTRA: ‘Phantom Menace,’ Video Star

Today’s the day. The one you indubitably marked on your calendar months ago: April 4, aka the release of “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” on video (and video only). Unless, of course, you got the tape a couple of days ago.

You see, as is usual, unbridled “Phantom Menace” frenzy has taken the form of advance demands. But besides the publicly known convenience of preordering a copy, there were other — some clandestine, some not — ways of obtaining early-bird videos. And we’re not even talking about bootlegs (which, technically, have been available on a fine New York City street corner near you since, well, May).

From virtual stores to old-school plaster-and-wood stores, the official “Phantom Menace” video has been all over the place in recent days.

Consider the virtual junkyard that is ebay (www.ebay.com), where on Monday the online auction site was boasting an up-for-bid so-called “Phantom Menace” box set (“Collector’s Edition,” of course) that the seller says he has on hand. First posted March 31, the auction started a full four days before the video was to officially hit the shelves. (For what it’s worth, nobody bought the thing.)

And if pre-release scalping activities don’t attest to the desirability of the video, how about this report of leakage, as one Netizen on the alt.starwars.xvt newsgroup posted Sunday:

“I’m new to the group but I thought I’d mention that I just purchased the ‘Phantom Menace‘ at my local Walgreens drugstore in Waukegan, Ill. … I know it’s not suppose to be on sale till [sic] Tuesday but for some reason they already put the video out.”

And just to rub it all in, the aforementioned browbeater concluded the message with a victorious: “Woo Hoo.”

Needless to say, we also obtained an advance screener of the video — legitimately — under the professional guise of entertainment-news reportage. (Translation: No, we can’t keep the tape.)

Anyway, to share the wealth, we hereby offer a special time-coded video primer for “Star Wars” geeks as well as the unititiated — a way to fast forward to the good parts or fast forward through the bad parts (whatever the case might be). So get your remote control ready, here goes:

Note: Reset your VCR counter at zero when the 20th Century Fox logo appears for maximum accuracy.

00:03:35 — First light-saber battle for young Obi Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and veteran Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) against a small army of robotic soldiers.

00:10:55 — The debut of the famous, the infamous, the one, the only: Jar Jar Binks. Consider yourself warned.

00:40:20 — The redoubtable entrance of Darth Maul, aka the bad guy.

00:57:49 — The pod race (aka sort of like a chariot race except with flying ships) pitting kiddie Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) and a bunch of indistinguishable alien-looking beings.

01:46:58 — The ultimate light-saber fight between good and evil (aka Obi Wan/Qui-Gon and Darth Maul). Not to give away the entire ending, but we’ll just keep it semi-secretive by saying that two of three of the combatants die. So far, no reports of “Phantom Menace” DVD sightings. Of course, that’s probably because, as previously announced, the highest-grossing film of 1999 (and the second-highest grossing film of all-time worldwide with more than $900 million in the coffers) is not going the way of DVD.

Not yet, anyway.