A Long Time Ago
Young children require not-quite-endless repetition--the same game played over and over. When at last they begin to weary of exact repetition they demand slight variation: the game still easily recognizable, but not entirely predictable.
--Robin Wood, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan
TO SEE STAR Wars projected on a big screen in 1997 is to feel nostalgic about an old movie that, lo some 20 years ago, was itself nostalgic about old movies. It might also be to get a warm and fuzzy feeling about the time you wrestled your little sister for that neato Chewbacca doll. In any case, this digitally retooled "special edition" is designed to give a tint of newness to something comfortingly familiar--which, familiarly, is just how it felt back in '77. To quote from another venerable kids' movie: There's no place like home.
So pop eats itself yet again, swallowing another fortune in the process. And then, perhaps, it leaves a lump in your throat. At first, as I waited on line last Friday for the first show of the "new" Star Wars (the two evening screenings were already sold out), it seemed a pleasant surprise to find that, even in the age of home theater, an old movie could still inspire a communal gathering at the multiplex--one that might bring you in touch with folks you wouldn't otherwise see (or, as it turned out, with a lot of twenty- and thirty-something white guys, and a few older ones with long hair).
But the weird thing was this: As Star Wars unspooled for the umpteenth time, this collective blockbuster began to morph into the most private of cult movies, as the packed crowd took it in as solemnly asa session of intense therapy. And no wonder: The film remains (essentially) the same, but what's changed, profoundly, is us. So to see this escapist epic now is to have something more to think about than the first time around--like how it's not as easy to escape as it used to be. Bummer.
Ironically, the movie's appeal in 1977 was its magical avoidance of complexity, the way it soothed like a fairy tale ("A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...") while presenting a really fun war in which the enemy was plainly visible and the good guys were allowed to win. The unprecedented FX--weird creatures, whizzing spaceships, candy-colored lightsabres--were delivered with authority. But the film was just as striking for what it lacked. There was hardly any blood in Star Wars, a grand total of two women (a nurturing stepmother and a princess in distress), and not a hint of sex. The alien band at the "wretched" spaceport cantina played '20s-era jazz. And the "rebel" heroes were anything but: Although hairy Chewbacca and effete C-3PO made it a vaguely multiculti crew, the point was that white guys still rule the universe. Only Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Obi-Wan Kenobi get to feel the Force; Princess Leia Organa gets to smile prettily while presenting the boys with medals of honor.
Believe it or not, Variety's review hit the nail on the head in 1977: "Like a breath of fresh air, Star Wars sweeps away the cynicism that has in recent years obscured the concepts of valor, dedication, and honor." (Not for nothing did George Lucas, in the first of his re-release tinkerings in the early '80s, add the subtitle A New Hope.) Ingeniously, the story of Star Wars itself has to do with the triumphant recovery of what was lost: the rebels retrieve their princess, Luke finds a new father in Obi-Wan, and the old ways of the Force permeate the souls and lightsabres of a new breed.
But what exactly is this mystical power that "surrounds us and penetrates us and binds the galaxy together?" Though it certainly pulls from Christianity and New Age, the Force can easily be read as a metaphor for Hollywood ideology. Indeed, as the Force is said to work most strongly on "the weak-minded," the primary influence of Star Wars was to supplant the cycle of critical American films from the late '60s and early '70s (still the industry's artistic high-water mark) with the cheery kindergarten ethos of classic Disney. If we take pleasure in Star Wars, we do so at the expense of everything it inspired. Thereafter, movies not only spawned profitable kids' toys; they merged with kids' toys, and basically became toys themselves.
Credit the old wizard George Lucas with intuiting just the right time for his latest restoration. As the millennium draws to a close, Star Wars again meets an impressionable public at the tail-end of a fear-making disaster-movie cycle, and in the middle of another ineffectual Democrat's poor showing. Even after inventing the video game, inspiring the name of Reagan's strategic defense initiative, and supplying CNN with its Darth Vader-esque voice of reason, Star Wars still has the power to win hearts and minds. But only if you don't think too much about it.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.