The Force is with us

Twenty years after its release, `Star Wars' is returning to cinema screens around the world.

The atmosphere is more party than preview. Which makes sense. Just how do you "preview" a 20-year-old film? Even if the low, excited buzz spreading through the foyer is about the money spent on the overdue digital audio and visual clean-up ($15m - $5m more than the original budget) and the aggressively hyped, alternately praised and damned "new bits" - all four-and-a-half minutes of them.

Here: restored footage of Han Solo encountering a computer-generated Jabba the Hutt. The frolicking of leathery Dewback beasts on the sand planet of Tatooine. Legions of Imperial Stormtroopers confronting Luke, Han and Leia where previously there were a few men in moulded white plastic. Faster, snazzier X-Wing Rebel craft swarming around the Death Star. These and more updated sci-fi visions come courtesy of producer/director/wunderkind George Lucas's fabled FX outfit Industrial Light and Magic, post-de facto miracles hoping both to fulfil the perfectionist Lucas's need to "fix a lot of things ... that bothered me a great deal" and to elicit gasps that must, if this unprecedented gamble is to pay off, mingle child-like awe and adult recognition.

The lights go down. A cry goes up. The legendary tease unfurls - "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" - and John Williams's symphonic score surges into hyperdrive. Cheers explode as Lord Vader's Imperial Star Destroyer emerges, blasting the escaping Rebel Blockade Runner, the laser shots vibrating seats: thirtysomething, twentysomething, teenage, child, happily oscillating in the communal dark. And we are carried away, and we remember how fresh it was before imitation and rip-off ruined, or at least staled, our appreciation, and suddenly this audience realises - it ripples through the rows - that while Star Wars may never have been away, Star Wars is nevertheless back where it belongs. On the silver screen.

Or so George Lucas and 20th Century Fox hope. It's not that they mind paying for the $15m polish - a pittance that would barely cover Tom Cruise's upfront salary - for this isn't actually about money. Not yet. It's about testing the water. Coming to a cinema near you soon(ish): the next Star Wars trilogy, a series of "prequels" beginning with Episode One: The Balance of the Force, due for release in May 1999. Before cataloguing "the extermination of the Jedi Knights" what Lucas and Fox need to know is: will the sheer ubiquity of Star Wars and its offspring, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, work for, or against, the next three, repeatedly delayed instalments? Sure, there have been novels (26 bestsellers, to be precise), interactive CD games (Rebel Assault etc) and plastic frog-eyed Boba Fetts galore to reinforce astutely the myth and refresh the $4bn-dollar franchise operation, but 14 years - count 'em - have passed since an actual Star Wars movie went to box-office judgement. Star Wars' staggering success changed the marketplace in its image, and in the age of such direct, and infinitely more cynical, descendants as Independence Day, the marketplace might now dismiss Star Wars as passe.

So Lucas and Fox are doing what hasn't been done before - unrolling Star Wars, and, at weekly intervals thereafter, the sequels. It's not as if they haven't been here before. Wasn't the mantra at the original preview: "My God, what a disaster!" Didn't market researchers snort that "this silly fairy tale" would roll over and die? Hadn't Fox had so little faith that the top brass allowed Lucas to exchange his director's fee of $500,000 for sequel rights, and threw in the licensing because it was "valueless"? Hadn't most critics given Star Wars the thumbs down?: "trashy"; "pseudo- religious piffle"; "sterile ... chilly ... for people raised on junk food"; "synthesized from old serials and old comic books ... its only real inspiration is to set its sci-fi galaxy in the pop-culture past, and to turn old-movie ineptness into conscious Pop Art".

Which was missing the point, of course. Though plundered from Flash Gordon, Triumph of the Will, Star Trek and a thousand other sources (that thousand being mostly, as Lucas acknowledges, Joseph Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces), Star Wars' future was meant to be somehow familiar, just as its archetypes - Princess (Leia), Princeling (Luke Skywalker), Robin Hood (Han Solo), good wizard (Obi-Wan Kenobi), bad wizard (Darth Vader), wise man (Yoda), many magical creatures (Chewbacca, Jabba, the cast of the cantina sequence) - were supposed to be flat. Flat as icons. This was - is - Star Wars' trump card. A hit-and-myth history compacted into 121 minutes. A trick that could leap generations with one bound, and be played again and again ... couldn't it?

Cut to last weekend. Star Wars made its US comeback on slightly over 2,000 screens (a far cry from the apologetic 32 outlets allotted first time around) to a record three-day gross of pounds 37,321,000, the highest non- holiday, non-summertime opening ever. Fox released its collective breath - "We're stunned" - but Lucas is pleasantly unsurprised: "I always said that Star Wars was a timeless story."

Yes and no. In 1977 "this silly fairy tale" was the right title at the right time. America was hung over from Watergate, still reeling from Vietnam, watching paranoid movies like Taxi Driver and The Conversation as documentary, not entertainment, so unsure of its present and past that the moral staple of American movie-making, the western, had just been declared dead. If history was tainted, and the present lied, then the future at least remained free to be dreamed - American Dreamed. Lucas's earlier THX 1138 had taken the prevailing gloomy view in 1971 and vanished into cult status; hard-core sci-fi was never that big with the paying public. Now they had need of it: Star Wars subliminally took the western line - delighting in wide open spaces and right and wrong, meeting tyranny with action - and imagined America as confident again. If the Vietnam war couldn't be won, Star Wars could - a hope Ronald Reagan would later draw on blatantly when announcing his satellite defence system to tame another "Evil Empire".

It was a tactic Lucas instinctively understood: escape as well as escapism. His previous hit, American Graffiti, had looked back, not forward, in its search for a better US of A (the ads asked: "Where Were You in '62?"). That picture's nostalgia for the Fifties and for a nicer, more clear-cut culture had struck a chord as wholly unexpected as the entire harp Star Wars would twang four years on. Yet Universal loathed American Graffiti so much it was prepared to sell it straight to television; the film's eventual net tally was $120m. It caught everyone by surprise - except Lucas, whose already deep suspicion of authority would now blossom into a ruling passion, and an iron determination to control his own product, his own universe.

Why not? He was the zeitgeist. A baby-boomer himself, Lucas was perfectly in tune with younger and younger movie-goers who constituted the bulk of a once family audience whose last hurrah had been The Sound of Music. Brought up by television, he understood reflex visual literacy and shrinking attention spans. Forget plot; Lucas did. His subject in Star Wars is destiny and therefore structure, like dialogue - unless it's a gag - would only get in the way. Action, thrills, the kinetic is all; Lucas was paving the way for Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Not that he knew that. What he did know was that stifled suburban kids who had missed the Sixties had a genuine need for fantasy, and somehow Lucas allied that longing with their easy, growing infatuation with technology: Pac Man, Space Invaders, Star Wars. Moreover, Lucas grasped that the new order liked to repeat the experiences that gave them pleasure - the average American has seen Star Wars six times - and to collect mementos (talismans, almost) of the experience; a habit, Lucas recognised, that adulthood was no bar to. As the New Yorker critic Pauline Kael put it: "For young audiences Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jacks that's all prizes." Hence Star Wars, Empire and Jedi - the formalisation of the once despised sequel, as begun by James Bond. From this flows Industrial Light and Magic, the THX sound system, and a multi-media merchandising empire that powers the source every bit as much as the source powers the empire. Put it all together and a single phrase emerges: blockbuster mentality. Soon to degenerate into "high concept" and, more recently, the rightly contemptuous "no-brainer". Which explains how Lucas himself could tumble from Star Wars to producing the turkey that was 1986's Howard The Duck. By then even he couldn't disguise that what was once considered "different" by a moribund system had become pure, or rather, corrupt, formula.

But this sounds calculated rather than evolved. Besides, Jaws, directed by Lucas's friend Steven Spielberg, had already established the most important - and limiting - benchmark; a fast domestic gross exceeding $100m, building to $200m plus before end of release. Lucas couldn't have foreseen that Star Wars would forever transform the industry, or that the transformation, like the Force, would have a dark side: the dumbing of the culture. In the stampede to patent the next "rollercoaster ride" - a trend that would lead to a fight to sign up the Super Mario Brothers - the personal, challenging movie-making pioneered by Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola would be shoved aside, even though Lucas was considered an honorary member of that loose group, and an adherent to its aims of narrative subversion - of finding new ways to move forward. At its height Pauline Kael would call their work "open-minded ... at once sceptical, disenchanted, despairing and lyrical ... the most exciting period of American film-making". Star Wars was to bring a slow curtain down on that era, raising budgets and lowering expectations. And all because George Lucas's brainchild couldn't help making consumers out of customers - the right title at the right time, but possibly to the wrong effect. As he may be aware, for when Coppola came to tell the sad, thinly disguised tale of that terminated Golden Age with the movie Tucker - the story of an artist who lives to build a better motor car, but is destroyed by the auto-industry - the man he chose to produce it was ... George Lucas.

And now, as demographics segment, and the rollercoaster ride keeps having accidents, and "difficult" - ie, adult - work is coming back into style, what happens? The return of The Return of the Jedi.

Still, Lucas is proud of his achievement, as well he should be. He might think it "needed fixing" but it was never broke. It retains what its clones and grotesque offspring - see Judge Dredd - never had; the obviously complete realisation of a daydream. If the Force ultimately represents the Inner Child, Lucas, at 52, sees no shame in pandering to that Child, though one inevitably wonders if his reclusive refusal of the director's chair since Star Wars might have a little something to do with guilt. Certainly, as he prepares to direct The Balance of the Force, there's an edge to his statements about keeping the budgets down to $70m apiece, and to his carefully articulated distaste for current Hollywood haste and waste. Lucas isn't afraid to say that he has waited this long for the technology to catch up with his vision, and that his vision "is darker, more tragic and mature". But is maturity what audiences want? Maturity, after all, is what Star Wars shrugs away. Star Wars is the distilled, vivid, shallow essence of the eternally adolescent. It liberates. Never mind the digital makeover. That's what keeps Star Wars, and we who watch, frozen, if not altogether fresh.

`Star Wars' is re-released on 21 March, `The Empire Strikes Back' on 11 April, `Return of the Jedi' on 25 April.

Star Wars starlog: 10 essential facts

Christopher Walken and Nick Nolte were nearly cast as Han Solo, the part taken by Harrison Ford.

Carrie Fisher got the part of Princess Leia after Jodie Foster and Amy Irving were rejected.

The Star Wars script was written in pencil.

In Washington, the Smithsonian's big 1997 exhibition is Star Wars: The Magic of Myth.

The Star Wars fan club receives 10 to 20 letters a day on the theme, How Star Wars Changed My Life.

LucasArts, which makes Star Wars CD-Roms, is among the top five producers of video games for computers.

George Lucas's home is called Skywalker ranch.

The Internet is ablaze with fans who hate the new four and a half minutes of footage added to the film.

Ewoks - they're the cute, giggly, furry creatures - are, in fact ... cannibals.

A full-size Han Solo replica, caught in the pose in which he is Carbonite- frozen at the end of The Empire Strikes Back, costs $1,200.

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