It was a long time ago when filmmaker George Lucas first took moviegoers to his mythical galaxy far, far away. Since the first "Star Wars" film appeared in 1977, residents of this galaxy have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on "Star Wars" tickets and video rentals, and billions more on movie-related products.

But the saga of Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and the Jedi knights has proved to be far more than a pop-culture phenomenon. It has become a cornerstone of our collective unconscious and, for good or bad, a modern expression of ancient religious belief, say theologians who study the interplay of religion and entertainment.

"Film is probably the most characteristic and influential medium of our current culture," said Robert Jewett, author of the recently released book, "Saint Paul Returns to the Movies" (Eerdmans). "The 'Star Wars' films, which millions of people have seen repeatedly as some kind of pop-culture ritual, deal with ultimate matters, and with the redemption of the world."

Lucas's latest installment, "The Phantom Menace," is the first of three "prequels" to the previously released trilogy--"Star Wars," "The Empire Strikes Back" (1980) and "Return of the Jedi" (1983). "Phantom" features the requisite battle scenes, high-tech devices and visually stunning characters and settings of its predecessors.

The film also serves up a familiar sampling of ancient religious themes (the battle between Good and Evil), Eastern philosophy (the all-is-one pantheism of the Force) and New Age human potentiality ("Concentrate on the moment," Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn tells future Jedi Anakin Skywalker. "Feel, don't think. Use your instincts").

And it employs such timeless motifs as the hero, the dream and the journey of transformation, all aspects of what the late mythologist Joseph Campbell called the Western world's "monomyth."

But "Phantom Menace" delves more deeply into Christian theology than the previous installments, Jewett and others say. It reveals that good kid Anakin (who grows up to be bad guy Darth Vader) was born without a human father, possesses "special powers" and is the prophesied "chosen one" who "will bring balance to the Force."

"Nothing happens by accident," Qui-Gon (played by Liam Neeson) tells his protege, the young Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). And according to Lucas, the spiritual lessons sprinkled throughout his films are intentional.

"I put the Force into the movie in order to try to awaken a certain kind of spirituality in young people--more a belief in God than a belief in any particular religious system," he told Bill Moyers in an interview for Time magazine.

John Wood, who teaches a "Christianity and Film" course at Baylor University in Waco, Tex., said that Lucas's space fantasies work as spiritual statements because they touch a "deeper chord" than most contemporary films. " 'Star Wars' says that you have the Force, you have the power and ultimately you can win over evil."

What's more, the films' extraordinary popularity might be an unflattering commentary on today's institutionalized religion, he said.

"Perhaps the church today doesn't communicate redemption and hope to as many people as it once did, and people are grasping for something," Wood said. "As a result, you have all these people spending the night outside the theater waiting for tickets because these films give meaning to their lives, which is kind of scary."

Other religious observers criticize "Phantom Menace" for what they call "a mythology of redemptive violence." The film, which carries a PG rating, features no blood and guts, and most of the story's "deaths" are suffered by inanimate battle droids.

Yet even the heroes of the "Star Wars" galaxy often use violence to settle their differences. Wearing simple, brown hooded robes, master Qui-Gon and student Obi Wan might resemble Saint Francis of Assisi, but their continual reliance on their trusty light sabers distances them from the peace-loving saint.

Some also criticize the elitism of Jedi spirituality. "The Force is for a select few," Wood said. "The Christian faith says that anyone who wants to deal with evil has access to the power of good."

The Institute for Creation Research, a California-based organization that promotes biblical creationism over evolution, sees more dastardly intentions in "Star Wars."

"The Menace of the Force," a program the institute has created for broadcast on Christian radio stations, portrays the film series as a celluloid Trojan horse, exposing unsuspecting moviegoers to anti-Christian theologies.

"Satan has used very modern tools to ease his New Age lies into the mainstream," according to the program's narrator.

But most observers see in the films a mix of good and bad theology. Roy Anker has taught a course called "Finding God in the Movies" at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., for a decade. He says the "Star Wars" films wrestle with classic Christian themes of evil and redemption.

"The films are about the fall," he said. "They answer the question, 'How do we end up with the Evil Empire?' And the answer, Lucas has said already, is greed. That is also the primal sin in the Garden of Eden."

CAPTION: Yoda incorporates New Age philosophy into his lessons for future Jedi Knights.

CAPTION: In "Episode I: The Phantom Menace," Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn, left, confers with Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Religious subtexts are sprinkled throughout the film.

CAPTION: Darth Maul embodies the dark side of the Force in a classic good-vs.-evil framework.