Joel Bergen's parents had the Vietnam War, the Berlin Wall and the civil rights movement; he has the Clone Wars, the Republic of Naboo and the Dark Side of the Force.

Though most of the moviegoing public will have to wait until Friday to view the two-minute trailer for next year's "Star Wars" prequel -- perhaps the most anticipated movie ever -- Bergen, a 17-year-old Arlington high school senior, had to see it before everybody else. "It's a piece of history," he said.

At only 75 screens selected by 20th Century Fox, fans in the United States and Canada gathered yesterday for the first glimpse of "Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace." Summoned by Web sites like Lucasfilm's Star Wars page and Ain't It Cool News, the audiences consisted of high school students and college professors, self-professed "movie geeks" and slackers ditching work.

At an afternoon screening of "Meet Joe Black" yesterday at the Uptown Theater in Cleveland Park, fans -- mostly male -- sat in anticipation, reading comic books and scholarly texts about cinema. But at least a dozen people left before the film started. It wasn't the thought of three hours of Brad Pitt as Death that scared them away: They had come just for the trailer.

"Unbelievable," said a visibly elated Rob McNeese, 24, an Arlington college student. "I consider myself a harsh critic, but after the trailer I was applauding."

"It's going to be incredible," said Jim Herr, 31, after quietly escaping from "Meet Joe Black." Herr, who predicts the film will knock "Titanic" off its No. 1 worldwide box office perch, heard about the advance screening at a funeral. "That's pretty sad."

It is unprecedented for an advance screening of a movie trailer to attract so much curiosity -- it is unprecedented for a movie trailer to have an advance screening, let alone one that's covered by the BBC -- but everything about "Episode I" has been unprecedented. The fourth installment of the venerable "Star Wars" series (but the first chronologically), the film is George Lucas's first directorial effort since the original "Star Wars" in 1977. It is scheduled to open May 21.

Web sites and magazines have been busy for months speculating on every aspect about the production from the plot, casting and title to which fast-food restaurant will provide toys and how much advertising it will get during the Super Bowl (Taco Bell and 12 minutes, according to one site).

Some avid fans -- who have waited since "Return of the Jedi" in 1983 and have bided their time with "Star Wars" books, toys and video games -- have constructed their own scripts, outlines and images for the new film. But all of those were based on leaks and scanty legitimate information; the trailer was their first opportunity to actually see any of "Episode I."

Yesterday afternoon the Internet started buzzing with dissections and analyses. "The Internet is going nuts over this trailer," said Scott Chitwood, 25, a civil engineer in Houston. "Everything we gossiped about -- what Darth Maul looks like, for instance -- is shown." In case you've been living in a cave without a modem: Darth Maul is one of the bad guys.

The fast-paced trailer is slightly more than two minutes long and shows off stars Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson, Samuel L. Jackson, Jake Lloyd, R2D2 and Yoda. It contains the familiar John Williams score, lots of chases and special effects, and a line that undoubtedly sent shivers down many spines in the multiplexes: "Anakin Skywalker, meet Obi-Wan Kenobi." (Jedi knight Kenobi and Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, fight to the death in "Star Wars.")

Lucasfilm announced the screening last week on its Web site (www.starwars.com), and word spread online. "A special treat for the fans that have been checking the Web site regularly," Lucasfilm spokeswoman Jeanne Cole explained. When the trailer goes into wide release Friday, it is expected to give a boost to weekend movie ticket sales.

Since the advance screening was given in only 26 states, the District and Canada, some fans drove to other cities to catch the trailer, and even stayed for multiple screenings. It was shown both before and after Universal's "Meet Joe Black," Disney's "The Waterboy" and 20th Century Fox's "The Siege."

Theaters were chosen for their screen size and digital sound equipment, according to Tom Sherak, chairman of the 20th Century Fox Domestic Film Group. Theater owners had to splice the trailer to both ends of the features. (Trailers used to run after the feature was over, hence the name.)

"The true test of a fan is to stay to the end of the credits to watch the second trailer," said Chitwood, who sat through "The Waterboy," which he had already seen, in Houston yesterday. Chitwood is co-founder of theforce.net, one of the leading fan Web sites. Another site, jedinet.com, posted stills from the trailer taken by a fan who took a camera into the theater.

If one obsessed soul wanted to catch the trailer, say, six times, did he have to sit through nine hours of "Joe Black"? "Well, nobody's going to tie you to that chair," said Lucasfilm's Cole. "You could go out and have a three-hour dinner and come back."

On such a day of elation for him and his kind, Chitwood struck a more somber note by reaching out to the less fortunate. "I feel sorry for the people in Europe and Australia that have to wait to see the trailer," he said. "I really feel bad."

Adding insult to injury, the film will not be released worldwide until sometime after its May premiere. But, Chitwood notes, many Europeans have already bought their plane tickets to fly here and see "Episode I." CAPTION: In the Beginning: A poster for the new "Star Wars" film, above, and three characters from the original trilogy: Yoda, Darth Vader, and Chewbacca. ec