It may seem like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but "Star Wars" blasted into our consciousness a mere 20 years ago. Lines around the block and down the street, return trips to the theater every week, bedsheets, action figures and holiday TV specials - even the flashy trailers gave a gleefully ominous hint of something never before experienced.
China is the traditional 20th-anniversary gift, but "Star Wars" disciples will be happy to forgo the plates and bowls when they see what's in store for the coming months. "Star Wars" creator-director-Jedi master George Lucas and his Industrial Light and Magic wizards have souped up the original "Star Wars" trilogy, adding new footage, applying some digital touch-ups to old scenes and giving the soundtrack a crisp new oomph.
Installment No. 1 of the "Star Wars" "Special Edition" touches down Friday on about 1,800 screens nationwide (the original debuted in 1977 on only 32). The new, improved "Empire Strikes Back" arrives Feb. 21, followed by "Return of the Jedi" on March 7.
The hype, now building to intergalactic levels, puts Lucas back in the spotlight - and gives the rest of us a chance to reflect on how this space-cowboy flick changed the face of the movie industry.
"There were a lot of things I was disappointed about in that movie," Lucas said at a news conference in Los Angeles. "I wasn't very happy with it when it came out, and I never felt it really got finished. I never expected to be able to fix it."
Guess again. "The original reason for (the reissue) came about three years ago," says Rick McCallum, who produced the new editions and will also produce the first of the long-awaited "Star Wars" prequels, tentatively due to hit theaters in 1999. "We asked, `What do you wanna do for the 20th anniversary?' I think George was primarily concerned with having the opportunity to see it, because he had been bugged by so many people who had seen it originally who now want to share that collective experience with their kids in a theater with a big screen."
So what does it take to spruce up a classic? First, the entire soundtrack was digitally remastered, giving those blasters and X-wings more bang for the '90s buck. Then restorers took on the original negative, which had faded by 20 percent to 25 percent over the years. Finally, Lucas longed to go back and add new computer-generated visual effects - touches that "would allow George to get closer to the original vision he had when he wrote the script," McCallum says.
The touch-up tab for "Star Wars" alone reached about $10 million - or approximately the entire budget of the original film (20th Century Fox was happy to pony up, as it jockeys with other studios for the right to distribute the upcoming prequels). Most of the changes are minor - a dialogue scene with Han Solo and a digital Jabba the Hutt is the biggest addition - but the legions of "Star Wars" fans young and old should savor the event as a second coming.
Not that anything can match that buzz created May 25, 1977 - a date that effectively moved summer back before Memorial Day in Hollywood. Lucas probably didn't know he was defining the blockbuster/merchandising scheme we now take for granted when he unleashed "Star Wars" on an unknowing nation. But with two decades of perspective, it's easy to see how "Star Wars" inaugurated the concept of movie-as-event.
It's not just that the film shattered all box-office records (it made $322 million domestically, a mark since topped only by "E.T." in 1982, "Jurassic Park" in 1993 and "Forrest Gump" in 1994) or that it launched a mind-numbing array of subsidiary products and sent studios and directors on a quest for a bigger, better imitation that continues to this day ("Independence Day," anyone?).
Previous films had done boffo box office, spawned toy lines or launched a search for the Next Big Thing. But none had ever provided the package represented by Luke, Han and Lucasfilm - the combination of imagination and marketing savvy that lifted the ante-up film industry into a new era.
"It's interesting that `Star Wars' didn't really invent anything," says Robert Kolker, an English professor who has taught film for 25 years at the University of Maryland. "Films have always had tie-ins, going back to the studio system. What `Star Wars' did was extend this into a lot of different places - to the world of toys and fast-food cups. It really tried to organize a cultural event of which the movies were just a part."
"Lucas is an interesting combination of toy maker and myth maker," says Anthony Gordon, an English professor at the University of Florida who has written widely on "Star Wars" since its release. "He's a toy maker in the sense that he manufactures these creations out of his fertile imagination. Then he markets them."
Indeed, "Star Wars" has helped Lucas build a virtual licensing/merchandising Mecca. The value of his companies has been estimated as high as $5 billion, thanks in no small part to the multitude of "Star Wars"-related goodies still available at your local Target and F.A.O. Schwarz. As Kolker points out, McDonald's probably wouldn't be barking over those little dalmatian giveaways if it hadn't been for the trailblazing blitzes of "Star Wars" and its offspring.
"There's nothing that compares to `Star Wars,"' says Lenny Lee, editor and publisher of Lee's Action Figure News and Toy Review, who saw the film five times the day it opened and now credits it for creating an unprecedented boom in the collecting business. "There's nothing that brings in so many different people for different reasons. There's just a huge part of the population that has seen `Star Wars,' and a lot of them seem to collect the merchandise."
That huge part of the population also helped turn "Star Wars" into the forerunner of our current summer blockbuster culture. Again, the word event comes to mind: The countdown for films such as "Twister," "Mission: Impossible" and "Independence Day" begins months in advance, whetting our appetites for spectacle as the trade journals place wagers on the eventual winner. The numbers speak for themselves: In the decade before "Star Wars," only one film - 1975's "Jaws" - grossed more than $90 million. In the decade after, the total ballooned to 10. And in the last year alone, 15 movies made more than $100 million.
Many are quick to blame the fallout from "Star Wars" for a decline in "serious" films from big distributors. "Movies have started to price themselves out of the business, until you get ridiculously bloated films like `Waterworld,"' says Gordon, the Florida professor. "There should be room in the science fiction field for all kinds of different films, more small, mundane efforts as well as the popcorn extravaganzas."
But McCallum contends that the blockbuster mentality has actually helped build the current boom in independent films.
"A lot of the media have a naive perspective in relation to the blockbuster and how it has destroyed filmmaking," the producer says. "That's a false place to begin an argument. If you were to really zoom out and take a look at all the films since the blockbuster era began, it's really only in the last 10 years that studios have reached an economic level where they've been able to help and distribute independent films."
After 20 years of analysis and shifting market trends, it's often easy to overlook the magic of the movie itself. A combination of past and future, Western and space odyssey, myth and dream world, "Star Wars" may be the most enduring piece of escapism ever put on film. Even now, when it feels over-the-top and almost campy, "Star Wars" has the kind of universal appeal that allows us total recall of our "first time."
"There are films that tap into the collective Zeitgeist," says McCallum. "When they do, they're huge celebrations. `Star Wars' is so basic a story, and the characters are so likable.
"We live in a much more complex and dubious world now, but at the end of the day we're all pretty simple in the choices we have to make. That's why it will be so interesting to see if the film works again."