The new Star Wars film, Episode I: The Phantom Menace, is still weeks away, but it’s already setting records that are out of this world.

One example: Web-savvy sci-fi fans across the globe gobbled down the recent online debut of the film’s second trailer (simultaneously unveiled at and The Web premiere set an Internet record, with more than 3.5 million downloads in five days.

Apple boss Steve Jobs – whose company co-sponsored the Web premiere – called it "The biggest Internet download event in history."

Now, I love Star Wars, but I wasn’t one of the many eager fans who watched the 2 1/2-minute trailer’s herky-jerky Web video feed. No, The Phantom Menace (or TPM, as die-hards call it) is now just seven weeks away, and I’m saving the space opera surprises for the big screen on May 19, thank you very much.

Evidently, not all Star Wars enthusiasts agree with my traditionalist position.

In fact, an enormous number of unofficial Star Wars Web sites do more than just provide famed director George Lucas with free publicity for his films. They spill the proverbial beans about what’s clearly the most anticipated movie in screen history: plot, scenes, script ... everything.

And Force-starved Star Wars junkies are eating it up.

For example, the slick Jedi Net site features the comprehensive and obsessively updated "Prequel FAQ," which, in addition to answering such questions as who’s in the cast and crew, contains a number of fairly major spoilers.

Spoilers, for the uninitiated, are interesting story tidbits and (sometimes major) plot points revealed to the world.

Although, as the FAQ warns, "Many mischievous individuals spread many, many false rumors," I’d recommend avoiding spoilers at all costs if you care to be surprised come mid-May.

As site co-editor Jar-Jar (don’t ask where he gets his pseudonym – you don’t want to know) warns in a recent online editorial, "If you don’t want anything spoiled, you should NOT even be here."

Besides, the quality of information on sites such as Jedi Net is becoming increasingly more reliable.

This wasn’t always the case; in its March 19 Phantom Menace cover story, Entertainment Weekly quotes director George Lucas saying that during most of last year, "80 percent of everything on the Web was completely bogus." But through a series of recently stolen scripts and the Internet’s formidable ability to spread gossip, the secret is definitely out.

Should you read the spoilers, crack the movie’s code and blurt out key Phantom Menace plot devices at cocktail parties? If you’re tempted, then you’re definitely close to crossing over to the Dark side.

Or at least you’re close to surfing over to The Star Wars Link Engine. At this excellent site, you’ll have your choice of hundreds of different Star Wars Web destinations – some light, some dark.

For example, I found the innocent-but-fun, which promises to be "spoiler free or your money back!" It sports a clever countdown clock ("51 days, two hours, 31 minutes and 10 seconds until Menace"), information about ticket sales, and several other offerings, including the original 1977 New York Times review of Star Wars.

This is pretty proper stuff ... C-3PO would be proud.

But beware of Roderick Vonhögen’s Virtual Edition, which features sneak photos, spaceship blueprints and the completely amazing virtual editions themselves – full-color online story boards of the entire Phantom Menace film.

Using digital photo-editing software, the creators of the Virtual Edition site have crafted a full set of film stills with running text narration of the entire movie’s plot. Or at least the plot they were able to cobble together from rumors, leaked scenes and industry gossip.

Actually, two versions of the Virtual Edition are posted: The first one – created last year – is rumored to be hilariously inaccurate. But the one dated March 1999 ... well, let’s just say that if you’re loyal to the light side, you should steer your landspeeder in the opposite direction.

It wasn’t easy compiling this column without learning more than I wanted to know. I had to keep an eye open for spoiler warnings, and at times, put my hand over half of the computer screen.

In many cases, I’d completely avoid clicking on links that looked, well, dangerous ("Just what is the Phantom Menace? Click here to learn TPM’s biiiig secret!").

Not to say I wasn’t tempted. The Dark side of the Force is strong.

But I have learned well. I have watched the original Star Wars films many times. I have learned the power of quiet restraint.

Besides – if all you want is a bit of harmless Star Wars fun to tide you over, there is a new hope.

Check out Park Wars: The Little Menace. Every bit as clever as 1977’s Hardware Wars (the infamous Star Wars-done-with-kitchen implements low-budget short), Park Wars is a masterful full-motion Web video re-creation of the Phantom Menace trailer, using "South Park" characters.

Cartman instead of Yoda? Well, if you’re impatient, it’ll have to do.

And may the farce be with you. Always.

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