Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope (Special Edition)
Screenplay : George Lucas
MPAA Rating : PG
Year of Release : 1977 (re-release in 1997)
Stars : Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia), Anthony Daniels (C-3P0), James Earl Jones (voice of Darth Vader)
It's hard to assess just how much impact "Star Wars" has had on American popular culture. When it was re-released in January 1997, it became the highest domestic box office earner of all time, surpassing both "Jurassic Park" and the previous champion, "E.T." Yet, to look at its profit margins alone is to miss the big picture. "Star Wars" is so much more than a movie -- it's a piece of the American experience, a shared part of the childhood of millions. Parents took their kids to see it back in 1977, and now those same kids have children of their own who they are lining up with at theaters now in 1997.
I was a part of that first generation of children to grow up with the film. I saw "Star Wars" for the first time when I was four years old, and I spent the next seven years collecting "Star Wars" toys which I still have in boxes up in the attic to this day. Returning to see the film during its re-opening weekend, I felt like I was reliving a bit of my past that I really only have dim memories of. I can't say I explicitly remember seeing it when I was four; what I do retain is the feeling of experience. That's why I was so surprised when some writers wondered whether or not it would be a success the second time around. I couldn't see how it wouldn't be.
"Star Wars" has lasted this long and this strong because it is built around the human experience. It comes from a long line of story telling and mythology, and writer/director George Lucas refused to have his film forsake emotion for action. He realized that the only way to make an action scene really work is to make sure the audience cares about the characters in danger.
He took time to develop his characters into recognizable humans, even C-3PO and R2-D2. C-3PO's anal personality and R2-D2's ambling, child-like behavior are appreciable traits that allow the audience to immediately empathize with them. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is the epitome of the gee-whiz teenagers of the seventies; Princess Leia (Carrie Fischer) works hard as the lone female in a male-dominated movie; and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is the ultimate likable rogue, the selfish pirate who slips every once in a while and shows a soft heart somewhere under that tough exterior.
And, of course, there are the bad guys who we love to hate. Darth Vader, with his glassy black stare and raspy breathing is balanced by General Moff Tarkan's (Peter Cushing) sly political weasel. Seeing the film again, I realized the first half hour, which spends its time introducing these characters, almost borders on being slow. But, as the action began to pick up, I realized how indispensable it was to the action that follows.
The typical problem with most science fiction is that it sacrifices humanity for science. The space ships and the laser guns and the computers and robots all take precedence over the humans, and the whole thing feels devoid of emotion. Stanley Kubrick achieved this vacuum on purpose with 1968's "2001," and too many others followed without thought.
Not Lucas. Critics have pointed out that "Star Wars" actually hates technology and science. The most obvious point is that this isn't the future -- it takes place "A long time ago." The effect here is twofold: it keeps it from being a "futuristic" movie, and it immediately gives the impression of being a myth, a story that's been around for ages and has been handed down from generation to generation. Even the names refuse to be the meaningless collection of letters most often found in science fiction, and instead draw from ancient languages and earthy references ("Darth Vader" is Dutch for "Dark Father," "Han Solo" means "Lone Hand").
"Star Wars" defies science fiction by refusing to embrace technological advances the way "Star Trek" does. If anything, "Star Wars" sees technology as the tool of evil. The Empire has all the largest, most technologically advanced ships, and the Death Star is perhaps the ultimate in science used for destruction. The Rebel Alliance, on the other hand, is seen as a scrappy bunch using old, dilapidated equipment. Take the Millennium Falcon, for instance. When Luke Skywalker sees it for the first time, his immediate response is, "What a piece of junk." Do you think Kirk would ever utter such a statement about the beloved U.S.S. Enterprise?
In 1977, there had never been a film like "Star Wars" before. The cinema was ruled by the character-driven, hard edged films of Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman, and Peter Bogdonavich. What Lucas did is something a miracle that hasn't been repeated since: he melded those character-driven stories with the spectacle of Saturday morning action serials, and came out with a masterpiece.
And, because so many view it as a masterpiece, there will be endless discussion about Lucas' decision to alter it for the "Special Edition." Lucas has always been a perfectionist, and his claim is that "Star Wars" never met his vision because of a lack of money and advanced special effects. He said that aspects of the film have been bothering him for twenty years, and now he has the digital tools to "fix" these problems.
I, personally, have no problem with the new footage. Some of the updated special effects really did enhance the scenes, especially the final attack on the Death Star. And although I thought the new scene with Jabba the Hutt was a little clumsy, I felt it added to the story and set the stage for his appearance in "Return of the Jedi." The new footage amounts to all of four minutes, and because it never detracted from the overall impact of the movie, I can't see why anyone has a problem with it.
As "Star Wars" once again enters our national discourse, some will continue to press that it is too simplistic. It's black hat / white hat mentality is too ingenuous for today's sophisticated audiences. While there may be a ring of truth to that, so what?
One of the reasons "Star Wars" was so successful in the first place was because the cinema of the seventies thrived on moral ambiguity. Audiences were getting tired of it, and they wanted someone like Darth Vader they could unabashedly boo when he walked on screen, and a sequence like the attack on the Death Star where they could cheer like their favorite quarterback had just thrown a touchdown. In this way, "Star Wars" became a communal experience, best seen on the big screen with a large group of enthusiastic people. You don't watch the movie, you participate in it.
©1997 James Kendrick