It's been 20 years since George Lucas' scrappy space epic "Star Wars" catapulted both moviemaking and marketing into a whole new galaxy. But the excitement for Friday's re-release is as palpable as when it first opened.
Whether people will wait hours in line at the premiere screenings remains to be seen, but it would seem that Lucas has created for himself a win-win scenario. He is giving an already remarkably successful franchise a booster shot, and at the same time building an audience for three more installments of the "Star Wars" saga now in production.
The plan is to re-release all three films in the original trilogy in rapid succession, with "The Empire Strikes Back" due out Feb. 21 and "Return of the Jedi" on March 7. The entire package is being billed as the "Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition," since Lucas and his wizards at Industrial Light & Magic have been tweaking the films.
For "Star Wars," this means an upgraded soundtrack, digitally enhanced space creatures (with some new ones grafted in), even (gasp!) 41/2 minutes of new footage. Expect to see Jabba the Hutt confronting Han Solo at the Mos Eisley cantina, and Greedo the bounty hunter firing the first shot before Han blows him away (two scenes not in the original). In "Return of the Jedi," there will be a flashier space-age dance number at Jabba's Palace.
In the close-knit, detail-obsessed science-fiction community, this is big news indeed.
Sucked into Lucas' carefully crafted "Star Wars" mythology through books, magazines, comics, CD-ROMs, computer games, toys and trading cards - not to mention videos of the trilogy released last year - a whole new generation awaits the chance to see the movies on the big screen, lightsabers blazing.
Then there are those who fondly recall seeing the movies when they first came out - an event that seems to stick in the memory as surely as the day JFK was shot. Many of those people now have children, and are anxious to introduce them to Luke, Han, Leia and Darth. The tagline on the "Special Edition" trailers says it all: "See it again for the first time."
Nor have merchandisers been left in a black hole. Sales of "Star Wars" stuff are approaching $4 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal, making it the most successful cinematic franchise behind Disney. Manufacturers' sales of "Star Wars" replicas are up 650 percent over last year, with Hasbro and Galoob toy companies poised to ship a combined $175 million worth of new product. PepsiCo Inc. has signed a $2 billion agreement to use "Star Wars" in marketing not only through its label, but through Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC and Frito-Lay.
The appeal of "Star Wars" is simple, really. It's a good story, well told, that touches on universal themes. Lucas borrowed heavily from Joseph Campbell's books on mythology in forging his epic world, giving us Luke Skywalker, a hopeful young hero; Darth Vader, the embodiment of evil; Obi-Wan Kenobi, a wise sage; and Yoda, a kind of Zen master. For comic relief there's the Laurel & Hardy droid duo, R2-D2 and C-3PO.
It's an appeal that goes beyond special effects, and certainly beyond the gravitational pull of its stars. When "Star Wars" came out, nobody had even heard of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher or Harrison Ford. So notes Kevin J. Anderson of Livermore, Calif., who has done 40 "Star Wars"-related projects, from writing novels, comics and a young-adult series to editing anthologies and art books.
"`Star Wars' has proven that if you have good characters and a really good story and everything's really well-made, that it's something that'll last for a long time," says Anderson. "The stories are based on classic mythic cycles and stories that human beings have been telling each other since the dawn of time. So it really has a resonance. And of course there are all those cool monsters, too."
He'll be at the theater Friday with his 9-year-old son, who has only seen the movies on the VCR. The great thing about the re-issues, says Anderson, is not just the enhanced effects and the few minutes of extra footage; it's being able to see the films on the big screen, the way they were meant to be seen.
"When you watch the Millennium Falcon rip off into hyperspace again with the star lines coming at your face, it's going to be, `Wow, this is a lot cooler than it was on my television,"' he says.
The man behind all this madness is in a curious kind of retreat mode, granting minimal interviews. Lucas' handlers say he is busy polishing up the "Special Edition" re-releases, and working on the three prequels, due out in 1999, 2001 and 2003. These will focus on the back story to the original trilogy, and will be directed by Lucas himself, who hasn't helmed a film since the original "Star Wars." There is a nationwide search in progress for the boy who will play the young Anakin Skywalker (before he went to the Dark Side); also for a character known as "the young Queen."
Mark Cotta Vaz, a senior contributor to the special effects magazine Cinefex, offers some insight into the enigmatic Lucas. He has written books about the Lucasfilm empire, and met with the filmmaker while compiling his most recent one (with Patricia Rose Duignan), "Industrial Light & Magic: Into the Digital Realm."
"I think he's a quietly intense person," says Vaz. "I think it should be noted that he didn't necessarily want all this. I think he's done Hollywood and the entire entertainment industry a huge favor by basically putting all his money into R&D (research and development), creating Skywalker Ranch, which was a facility to kind of bring creative people together. He could have gone off and built his own castle. He could have bought an island somewhere."
Like all contributors to the "Star Wars" saga, Vaz's work is cleared through continuity editors who track every twist and turn in the ever-expanding universe, from depictions of life forms, to planets, to weapons, to time frame, making sure it all fits logically into Lucas' Master Plan.
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One thing that sets "Star Wars" apart from other sci-fi enclaves (with the exception of "Star Trek") is the earnestness of its fans. The Star Wars Official Fan Club in Aurora, Colo., boasts 90,000 members nationwide (up from 25,000 just 21/2 years ago). Between 2,000 to 3,000 of those are from the Bay Area, says Jon Bradley Snyder, editor of the club's magazine, Star Wars Insider.
"These people are psyched, there are going to be lines, people are going to camp out, it's going to happen," he says. Especially in the Bay Area, home of the Lucas empire. At Flying Colors Comics in Concord, the shelves are already lined with C-3PO and Tusken Raider coffee mugs, plastic "Star Wars" figurines and Millennium Falcon Factory Set trading cards.
"It's going to do very, very well," says employee Sam Stewart, 25. Through his other part-time job, at Francis Ford Coppola's Zoetrope Studios, he landed work as an extra for reshoots on the original trilogy. "In one of the scenes I'm a pilot for some sort of hovercraft," he says. "It was neat, just to be there and say I was part of it."
Eighteen-year-old Devan Marar of Benicia is too young to have seen the original "Star Wars" in the theaters, but he remembers seeing "Return of the Jedi" when it came out in 1983, and having a huge collection of "Star Wars" toys.
"It's appealing to almost everybody, especially because the characters are so memorable. Even the bad guys are cool," he says. "I'm not like a fanatic or anything. I have a poster of Yoda on my wall. And me and my friends were at Toys 'R' Us and bought these lightsabers."
Kyle Sterbenk, a California High School freshman, knows about "Star Wars" through the videos, computer games, books and especially a game played with trading cards that basically pits the Light Side vs. the Dark Side. He and his male classmates trade cards daily, he says. Most coveted is Darth Vader, valued between $50 and $60.
Asked to describe the appeal of "Star Wars," Sterbenk is thoughtful: "I kind of like the clash between good versus evil," he says. "It shows how sometimes evil is victorious and how sometimes good is victorious. It's got lots of action and a good story."
Vaz chalks it up to good old "movie magic." "Star Wars" forever changed the shape of cinema, ushering in the blockbuster era and making product tie-ins de rigueur.
"It's like why is 'Casablanca' perfect? You can't imagine Humphrey Bogart not playing Rick or Ingrid Bergman not playing the love interest. And 'This is the beginning of a beautiful friendship,' all the lines of that movie that are so perfect. I think that's one of the reasons we're so fascinated with movies. When a movie works, it's a strange kind of alchemy; you can't really explain it."