Why do people rise at 4 in the morning, skip their first-period class, miss their morning meeting or call in sick to work so they can stand in line for hours? Is it just so they can be the first in town to see a movie?

"It's not the movie," said Lawrence Motta, a 23-year-old art major at the University of Maryland, who arrived with friends about 1 a.m. to wait for an 8:30 a.m. screening. "There are better movies."

"It's the prestige," said his friend Andrew Mattox, "of being--what?--" He scanned the front of the line now stretching a block down MacArthur Boulevard, "the third group in line."

"Return of the Jedi," the final episode in the "Star Wars" trilogy, opened nationwide yesterday, and all over the country that meant the return of the lines.

At the Circle MacArthur Theater, one of 10 Washington area theaters showing the film, a 22-year-old woman who works at a Bethesda public library began the line for yesterday's first 8:30 a.m. showing at 9:15 Tuesday night. The next group arrived about 10:30 p.m., disappointed at having placed second. At the other District theater showing "Jedi"--the Jenifer on upper Wisconsin Avenue--the first person didn't appear until 3:30 a.m.--for the 11 a.m. showing.

Clearly, the fanatics with real grit were in the MacArthur line. Before the early-morning fog had rolled off the reservoir down MacArthur Boulevard, moviegoers stood a couple hundred deep, bundled against the cool air in wool jackets, sweatshirts, an occasional parka or blanket. Some came prepared for the long siege, toting lawn chairs, blankets, radios, Pepperidge Farm Star Wars cookies and a Risk board game. Later arrivals (after 7:30 a.m.) brought newspapers. Rob Hudson brought his dog, a cocker spaniel named Joe (as in Cocker), to accompany him while he waited to pick up tickets.

Members of the hard-core early set (predawn) brought almost nothing--no food, no blankets--and claimed they were neither hungry nor cold. M.K. Feld, the first in the line at the MacArthur, brought two Katherine Kurtz science fiction books, one of which she finished. She didn't sleep at all and looked none the worse for it, her green eyes cool and clear. She wore a black leather jacket and bandanna tied neatly around her forehead under a brush of bangs. Why did she wait 11 hours--during which she was interviewed five times--to see this movie? "I would like to see it before people come out of the theater saying what all the story lines are," said Feld, a veteran of the opening "Star Wars" line, who took the day off from work for this. "They gave me a funny look," she said of her employers.

"Do you think you could do a live interview with me at 7:06?" a television reporter asked. (Number six.)

"We're here mainly because we're lunatics," said Derek Ney, an 18-year-old senior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. But Washington's version of this is nothing compared to Hollywood, where the fans who lined up early came dressed as "Star Wars" characters and one eccentric couple even repeated their wedding vows in line. "R2D2 is the ring-bearer," said the groom. After the "wedding" the couple watched the movie. "We couldn't afford a honeymoon."

Those who began their vigil here late Tuesday night were, of course, ardent fans who had seen "Star Wars" and "The Empire Strikes Back" anywhere from five to 20 times and couldn't bear the thought that the culminating episode would play one full day without their having witnessed the revelations the film holds.

Clearly the line-waiters were not all high schoolers skipping (at least) morning classes or college students on vacation. There was Stanley Collender, the 32-year-old publisher of the Federal Budget Report, in pinstripe suit, in line since 6:15 to purchase 25 tickets to an evening show. "My girlfriend thinks I'm crazy," he said of his mission. " 'Why is it always you?' she says . . . When I walked out of 'The Empire Strikes Back' three years ago, I thought, 'God, I have to wait three years to find out what happens?' "

There was 34-year-old Leslye Schneier, in green sweats, who came with her husband, her four children and a friend. "The last time I did something like this was for 'Hair,' " she said. "I camped out all night in Times Square for tickets . . . We're all leftover '60s people."

On hand at the Circle MacArthur was a crop of young, suited theater employes--some no older than the college students in the crowd--giving directions and answering questions. But there was still confusion--for instance, when the 8:30 a.m. show sold out, people waiting in that line were allowed to buy advance tickets for later shows--much to the annoyance of people standing in the advance ticket sales line. The ticket limit went down from 20 tickets a person to 10 as the advance sales line progressed and many people bought large blocks of tickets (one requested 90).

Though there were a few predawn arrivals at the Jenifer, this crowd, awaiting the 11 a.m. show, had mostly slept in--the line didn't snake down Wisconsin Avenue until after 8 a.m. Here, the group came attired for late-morning sun. Brenda Lynch carried umbrella, portable chair and Sony Walkman.

"My question is, 'Don't these people work?' " said Barbara Cire on her way into the theater. "I'm unemployed. I have an excuse."

Whatever their reasons, Jenifer manager Dave McGrew was standing outside in the sun, happy to point them all to the right theater door or sales line. "I'm going to get a great suntan this summer," he said with a smile.