Originally created 01/30/97

"Star Wars" is back - and better than it's been in a long time



The Force is with us.

Twenty years after R2D2 and C3PO first trudged across the Tatooine desert and Obi-Wan Kenobi patiently explained everything except Princess Leia's hairstyle, "Star Wars" is back - and better than it's been in a long time.

The negative has been restored, and the soundtrack upgraded to Dolby digital stereo. There are even a few new scenes - a little more than four extra minutes of footage.

But, most important, there's the venue. Two decades after its premiere, "Star Wars" is back in theaters, where it belongs.

The film's return to theaters has been a long time coming. After its blockbuster release in 1977, "Star Wars" hyper-drove to pay TV, where it became a premium attraction. Once the novelty faded, it moved on to basic cable, screening endlessly during special Sci-Fi Channel marathons and USA weekends.

Unlike "Alien" and "Blade Runner," however - two other visually visionary movies - "Star Wars" never sought a second life on the revival-house circuit. Unlike "2001" - its most important predecessor - it buried itself under an avalanche of ancillary merchandising.

Both decisions were profitable, but neither helped the film's rep. Without theatrical engagements, memory of the movie's big-screen pleasures faded. Downsized to TV, interrupted by commercials for action figures, the epic began to feel like an elaborate ad campaign.

How nice it is then to see it again, the way it was always meant to be.

Visually, the film is still impressive, and if that opening shot of the spaceship flying over the audience's heads no longer makes fans gasp, it still has all the charm of a cocky grin. "Star Wars" signaled a new era in special effects, and that first sequence was George Lucas' way of announcing it. More than "2001" and "Silent Running," "Star Wars" got the massiveness of space and space travel up on the screen; unlike any sci-fi movie before it, "Star Wars" then made that technology believable by giving its rockets the just-held-together look of things that were used every day.

It is not surprising, perhaps, that Lucas felt obliged to go back and fiddle with this, his most famous film. Given his perfectionism, it was practically inevitable. Yet although there is a complicated story in that artistic revisionism - will Lucas now use a computer to insert more teen-agers into "American Graffiti"? - there's no real story in the new scenes themselves.

Perhaps, in the end, only the most observant of fans will even notice the changes. Some background detail has been added; a new scene with Han Solo and Jabba the Hutt shows up, and briefly slows the movie down. Only a quick conversation between Luke and his friend Biggs before the assault on the Death Star adds anything, by providing a context for the sacrifice Biggs is about to make. The rest of the additions boil down to some extra storm troopers and a few enhanced special effects.

None of them changes the film much. But then "Star Wars" was always more than just a high-tech blockbuster; those who blame it for the current avalanche of mindless, expensive adventure movies miss the point. (If a scapegoat needs to be found, blame the tired James Bond pictures of the same era, which inflated budgets while substituting stunts for story and quips for wit.)

"Star Wars" doesn't deserve its mind-candy rep; watch it again, and the differences between it and the shoddier movies that followed jump out. Unlike "The Rock," say, Lucas' adventure doesn't lurch from chase to chase; unlike "Eraser," it doesn't depend on carnage to provide thrills.

As for its characters, Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia is refreshingly plain and plain-spoken; Harrison Ford's Han Solo was such a charmingly fallible swashbuckler the actor used it to build a movie-star career. They are not complicated heroes, but at least they are appealing ones. Memorable, too. After all, 20 years later, nearly everyone can remember the names of the characters from "Star Wars" - but who can recall anybody at all from last summer's "Twister" or "Independence Day"?

No, the greatest special effect in "Star Wars" was always Lucas' script. There were some serious mythic archetypes behind his story and colorful cut-outs; a recent New York Times article suggested that Luke Skywalker was an allusion to Loki the Skywalker, a Norse god of fire. (It also pointed out that "Luke S." sounds remarkably like his creator's own name.) But Lucas' real achievement was to move beyond arty symbolism and in-jokes; his real genius was to base "Star Wars," not on one other story or movie, but on all of them.

Lucas was among the last of the film-school brats to end up a Hollywood player, but he shared Coppola's, Spielberg's and Scorsese's love of old movies. You can see that love on the screen here. There is a little bit of "The Searchers" in the scene in which Luke returns to find his home razed; there's also a funky hint of "The Wizard of Oz" in the scenes to come, with the princess a stand-in for Dorothy, and C3PO, Chewbacca, Han Solo and Obi-Wan Kenobi filling in for the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow and Professor Marvel.

Mostly, though, "Star Wars" resembles no film as much as it resembles a whole genre of chivalrous adventures. Like "The Adventures of Robin Hood," "Ivanhoe" or any number of sword-and-scandal movies, "Star Wars" is about evil usurpers, oppressed commoners and brave but dispossessed royals. It is no accident that Luke dreams of being a knight and wields a high-tech sword, or learns about war from a monkish man in robes; it's more than a clever plot device that the trilogy's deepest story revolves around mistaken identities and hidden parentage. "Star Wars" is the ultimate Arthurian epic; it's "The Sword in the Stone," dressed up for adults.

Or, at least, for young adults. Lucas' intention had always been to make a happy, teen-age kind of movie; he had already put all of his misfit teen-age fears into Toad, in "American Graffiti." "Star Wars" was meant to be simple fun; it was meant to be the kind of film that kids like Toad could see again and again with their friends, on those dateless Saturday nights.

Sometimes this epic's desire to please them can end up only annoying. The "Star Wars" films always had an unfortunate taste for cuddly aliens, a weakness that, at its worst, gave us the fur-ball Ewoks of "The Return of the Jedi." If the warm-and-fuzzy moments didn't bother you back in 1977, they won't trouble you now. If you gritted your teeth even then, however, be advised that C3PO is as tiresome as ever, and R2D2's adorable squeaks still grate like rusted steel.

The ending is still slightly disappointing, too; Lucas has the great Peter Cushing aboard the giant Death Star, and an amazing nuclear reaction about to take place, and yet he rushes the climax. He's in such a hurry to get to the big finish that the pacing takes over; he lets his villain die in ignorance, rather than in full knowledge of what's about to happen, and that cheats both actor and audience. (Look at a similar scene in "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," in which Ricardo Montalban realizes he's been outwitted, to see how much more satisfying the payoff becomes.)