After months of relentless hype, fans stood in theater lines across the country on Wednesday as the latest installment of the space saga opened across the nation.
Theaters scheduled round-the-clock showings and some companies decided not to fight the Force -- they sent their employees to ''The Phantom Menace,'' which was on schedule to shatter Hollywood records.
''Everyone wants to see this movie, and we thought it would be fun to send our whole company,'' said Steven J. Lund, president and CEO of Provo, Utah-based cosmetics seller Nu Skin Enterprises.
The company has reserved a theater for all 1,600 employees and one guest each for ''Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace,'' which opened at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday after years of anticipation.
No official box office figures were available for the early showings, but movie analysts expected the movie to easily top $100 million by the end of the five-day opening frame on Sunday.
With a five-day opening window, ''Menace'' was expected to beat the opening record of $90.2 million set by ''Lost World: Jurassic Park'' in a four-day Memorial Day weekend in 1997.
''Menace'' also will be competing against its ancestors. The original ''Star Wars'' is the No. 2 movie of all time. Counting its various re-issues, it has sold $461 million in tickets domestically. ''Return of the Jedi'' has grossed $309 million, No. 7 on the all-time list, and ''The Empire Strikes Back'' has made $290 million, for ninth place.
For those who didn't get ''Star Wars'' tickets as a company perk, there were long lines outside the nation's theaters, dozens of which scheduled around-the-clock showings to accommodate crowds.
Brad Fyfe, wearing the brown robe of a Jedi master, was shaking and nearly unable to speak after emerging from a 3:30 a.m. screening Wednesday at Hollywood's Mann's Chinese Theater, where the original ''Star Wars'' premiered 22 years ago.
''I'm going to see it again today,'' he said.
The mainly male, 20-something audience that packed the theater for the 12:30 a.m. and 3:30 a.m. shows raved about George Lucas' $115 million prequel to the famed ''Star Wars'' series.
''It was so awesome. I think I'm going to hit double digits, and see it at least 10 times,'' said Larry Crouse, 24, who also wore a Jedi costume.
In Waite Park in central Minnesota, Mike Kunkel stood in line for more than 12 hours to get his ticket to the midnight showing. The 19-year-old Kunkel said he and his friend planned to see the movie repeatedly.
Sounding like a Jedi master, he summed up his philosophy this way: ''The first time to see it. The second time to notice things. And the third time to know it.''
The fans' raves were a far cry from most of the nation's movie critics, who have overwhelmingly panned the film.
Although there were fears of mass labor shortages due to ''Star Wars,'' companies with big Force fans -- particularly computer and electronics firms -- reported no serious problems, due in part to lots of understanding from management.
At River Park Computer Group, a consulting company in San Jose, all five so-called ''home and small office gurus'' said they would be pulling a Silicon Valley Skywalker Walk-Out during the next day or two, said owner Frank Martin.
''We're prepared for no one to be here,'' he said. ''I'm going myself.''