Film: Slug it to us

Star Wars: Special Edition George Lucas (U)
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The Independent Culture
A couple of decades ago, George Lucas made a science-fiction film that had a powerfully distinctive look to it - a thriller that could boast some genuine surprises in its narrative and some very effective performances, but also had considerable formal interest. That film was not Star Wars - now being re-released with a facelift into a storm of nostalgic acclaim - but Lucas's first effort, THX 1138. Since Star Wars, Lucas has not directed a film, although he will be back in harness for the scheduled "prequels". (Star Wars famously describes itself in an opening title as "Episode IV - A New Hope".) His curious early retirement seems to have been the product of his exasperation at the difficulty of making the film at all (there was little enthusiasm for the project at the time), but perhaps he has also feared that box-office lightning won't strike twice. If so, the figures for the American re-release should reassure him.

The strange thing about Star Wars is that so influential a film should contain so little that is distinctive. The plotting is thin, the dialogue flat, the acting rarely more than adequate. It uses hackneyed devices on a large scale, but without any particular flair. When we see a group of starfighter pilots preparing for a dangerous mission, it is as easy to deduce the order in which they will be shot down - on the basis of their physical attractiveness, the number of lines they have to speak, and their closeness to the hero, Luke Skywalker - as it is to spot the jobbing actor who will be vaporised in the first 10 minutes of a Star Trek episode. The race against time at the end of the film is a piece of assembly-line suspense film-making: will the starfighters drop a bomb into the Death Star's one weak spot before the evil Empire destroys the rebels' planet? The only deviation from war-movie norms is Luke's decision to turn off his computer and trust the Force - a piece of bargain-basement Zen that sits oddly with the film's unbridled lust for boys' toys.

The climax of THX 1138 is fascinatingly different. The hero must outrun his robotic pursuers, but in this repressive futuristic state nothing is spontaneous. A budget has been set for the operation, so if he survives beyond that point the pursuit will fall away. This gives the chase sequences a different underlying logic - literally an economy - and a greater plausibility. But there is also an irony: his society wants him dead only if the death comes cheap. Even his rebellion can't force the culture away from its calculations.

Some of the three years' work on this "special edition" of Star Wars was the routine restoration needed after 20 years, even if a film has been kept in a vault in Kansas at the optimum temperature of 50-53 degrees. Advances in audio technology have been exploited to ensure that the music, with its strip-mining of The Planets suite and The Rite of Spring, is louder than ever before. Lucas wanted to make the visual effects - state of the art in their day but pre-digital - properly seamless. He can perhaps be forgiven for tinkering with imperfections that few viewers will have noticed, like the wheels awkwardly rubbed out on Luke's landspeeder (now it floats the way it should). Other tinkerings may cross the fine line between perfectionism and downright cheating: the Dewbacks, beasts of burden on the plane Tatooine, have now been animated to swish their tails convincingly.

The word "restoration" becomes a definite understatement when Lucas inserts glimpses of a number of new creatures on to the streets of a space port. These scenes in any case duplicate the original film's bar sequence - the wittiest in Star Wars, as all the film's wit is in the design anyway - where the eye keeps catching sight of weird creatures: a four-eyed white owl, for instance, smoking a cigar.

In 1976, Lucas filmed a scene between Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his creditor, Jabba V Hutt, played by an actor, but wasn't satisfied with it. Now he has computer-generated a more convincing alien, a vast talking slug, and inserted it into the existing footage. And still the scene doesn't work. It's partly that Ford's interactions are a little off - they might well be, as at the time he was interacting with a different creature - and Jabba doesn't quite look solid. Great texture, shame about the bulk. At one point, the creature gives a squawk and a startled look, and we are led to believe that Solo has trodden on its tail. Humour in Star Wars is fairly basic - usually a matter of R2D2 burbling or the Wookie roaring, and C3PO or Solo reacting amusingly to what they've "said" - and broadly pointed up. Audiences are likely to be mystified by Ford's apparent down- playing of a gag that didn't yet exist when the cameras were rolling.

A technician agitated wet towels in a dustbin to get a suitable slithering noise for Jabba's movements on the soundtrack. What nobody seems to have noticed is that the scene makes no narrative sense. We've just seen a debt collector employed by Jabba try to kill Solo for non-payment. Solo pulls the trigger first. Now Solo says, "Give me some more time, I'm your best pilot", and Jabba says, "OK". That's it. So why was the debt a matter of life or death a moment ago? All the computer generation in the world can't doctor an inept script.

It's a mercy that George Lucas has resisted the temptation to update the colour of Princess Leia's lip-gloss, or to replace her famous Danish- pastry headphone hairstyle - one of the few hairstyles in the movies that no one has ever wanted to copy. Here, again, THX 1138 was ahead of the game. All the characters in that film, male and female, had their heads shaved, and so its look hasn't dated.

These days people want to know in advance exactly what they're going to experience in the cinema. That must be the reason for the debasement of the modern film trailer - once a minor art form in its own right, now a crass anthology of plot points and action climaxes. And that must be the explanation for the runaway success of the re-released Star Wars in the States. You know exactly what you're going to get: the same old movie with an upgraded sub-woofer boom track, new laser ricochets and a special bonus giant slug that talksn

'Star Wars: Special Edition' opens tomorrow