With the re-release of the "Star Wars" trilogy, a story of the future marking an important point in the past returns to the present. The corporate interests orchestrating this resurrection are betting billions that all the folks who saw the movie as kids in 1977 will now take their kids to see it. If the bettors cash in, a blockbuster will be reborn as an even bigger blockbuster.
And what massively, unfathomably powerful force will be driving this billion-dollar vision? Simple. The same force that now drives so much of pop culture: nostalgia.
Just look at Madison Avenue filling commercials with artifacts of decades gone by or Hollywood producing a seemingly endless line of TV-themed revivals. In today's pop-culture marketplace, nostalgia is the hottest commodity going. The bull has apparently gored the bear, leaving nowhere for the market to go but up.
Not that "Star Wars" invented nostalgia. It was, after all, near the end of the 17th century when a Swiss scholar coined the word to approximate a German expression for intense homesickness. But from the film's first words, "Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away," George Lucas' future world was built on a longing for some faraway yesterday.
In the aftermath of "Star Wars"' phenomenal opening, much critical hay was made over the movie's classic clash between good and evil, and the country's post-Vietnam doldrums. "Star Wars"' first ring of nostalgia was easy to spot. For those who stood in the lines wrapping around theaters, the movie created a future that transported them back to the days of Westerns and World War II, to a time of heroes and villains, when lines were clear and choices simple.
"The urge for nostalgia, to reach back for the past, grows stronger the faster we rush into the future," says Thomas Doherty, an American studies professor at Brandeis University. "For people who saw it in the theater the first time around, it has become one of those `I was there' experiences. And coming in 1977, it was at a time when there wasn't much in the way of big, overwhelming experiences, like Woodstock or the moon landing."
So a space movie became one generation's moon landing, as we moved a little further along the virtual curve, from watching the out-of-focus real thing on television to watching a crystal-clear simulation on the big screen. But a different sort of nostalgia will pull the first generation of "Star Wars" viewers in the second time around. For those with children, the movie is a totem to be passed from one generation to the next. Once upon a time, elders told stories to children. Now they take them to a movie.
"That's one of the things that makes `Star Wars' extraordinary," says Brian Barry, associate psychology and sociology professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology. "There are certain rites of passage, things that generations pass on to another. Music has always been good in that way, the song that Mom and Dad met and danced to, that sort of thing. And `Star Wars' has that kind of resonance, something remembered and shared."
In this way, a second ring of nostalgia will spin around "Star Wars" when it reopens, felt by all those reconnecting with their 20-years-ago youth. You know, back when lines were clear and choices simple.
But what nostalgia will be at work amid the second generation of viewers? What vague longing in today's youth is stirred by this 20-year-old future world?
"I think young people today are looking for authority and discipline, which they find in abundance in `Star Wars,"' says Doherty, author of "Teen-agers and Teen-Pics." "Back in the '50s and '60s, when kids were growing up in a strict environment with oppressive authority figures, the movies that appealed to them were about rebellion. But just the opposite is true today.
"All those scenes of instruction and training and disciplining that occur through the `Star Wars' movies - I think in today's setting of divorce and AIDS and poor job prospects for college graduates, all of that uncertainty that previous generations didn't have, those scenes have real power."
And so a third ring of nostalgia will be set spinning by a generation of young people who have grown up with the industry that nostalgia has become in the wake of "Star Wars." Now that every new youth-trend repackages or puts quotation marks around some piece of the past, nostalgia has been transformed into an endless variety of new merchandise, snapped up by the generation that feels it was born after everything, longing for a past it never had, homesick for a place it has never been.
Like all nostalgic visions, "Star Wars" recalled an idealized version of the past. That's a big part of nostalgia's power: You can leave out the parts you don't like, that complicate the utopia. Consider, for example, the '60s as they exist in the nostalgia of teens today, as opposed to the '60s as they existed in the reality of teens then - everything cool and deeply meaningful, nothing brutish or utterly pointless.
One of the things Lucas left out of his ideal 20 years ago may strike a present-day chord. Amid all the futuristic gadgetry and gee-whiz technology, there is no media. None. No 3-D television. No television of any kind. No interactive magazines. Not even any Internet. The only glimpse of media is a holographic board game, and it is redeemed by appearing to be very much like chess.
Perhaps today's audiences will be struck by the absence in a way that passed unnoticed by original audiences. After all, in today's media din, the silence will be deafening.
In this way, a fourth ring of nostalgia may be set spinning, as a longing is stirred for a new kind of old world - a world liberated from media.