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'Star Wars' revisited

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It didn’t just change the movies — it changed us. I was 18 years old, wrapping up my freshman year in college, when I walked into my local Michigan mall in May of 1977 to see Star Wars. The collective anticipation wasn’t like anything I’d encountered before. I remember passing a T-shirt store in one of the mall’s plastic corridors, a store that was already selling Star Wars T-shirts. The shirts, the mall, the movie: All seemed linked, part of a meticulous pop continuum. (The hype was already taking over the galaxy.) And the final link in the chain, of course, was the audience itself.

George Lucas built Star Wars, and we came. An ecstatically entertaining retro sci-fi adventure, fusing the clunky ”innocence” of ’50s outer-space serials, the oedipal design of the Arthurian legends, and the eye-zapping technology of a new era, the movie tapped into something at once superficial and deep, our yearning for a world in which good and evil could still stand apart with sublime clarity. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader were like white and black chess kings; even their lightsabers were color coded. The ultimate popcorn movie, memorably dubbed by Pauline Kael ”a box of Cracker Jack that is all prizes,” Star Wars, with its eagerness and flash, its fairy-tale irresistibility, paved the way for a new era of demagogic comic-book moviemaking, one in which speed and action and special effects would take precedence over character, content, soul. Now, as the film is rereleased for its 20th anniversary, we’ll come once more, not just to see the newly enhanced ”Special Edition” but to reexperience the high of mass enthusiasm that George Lucas reintroduced to America.

To see Star Wars in a theater again, amid crowds cheering both the movie and their own propensity to cheer, is to feel an ambiguous surge of nostalgia, a nostalgia for the moment when we agreed to reunite as a culture by going back to the future. Star Wars, of course, was hardly the first movie to become a national event. There was Gone With the Wind. Psycho and The Godfather. And just two years before Lucas’ extravaganza, in the summer of 1975, there was Jaws, the original modern blockbuster, a virtuoso exercise in primal terror that generated first-weekend grosses so staggering they effectively turned the movie industry on its head. Yet by the time that Star Wars was released, there’d been a further shift in the national mood — a yearning, after years of fragmentation and upheaval, after Vietnam and Watergate, for something bold and official and empowering. With the election of the scoldingly saintly Jimmy Carter, America was like a kid longing for a hot rod. Thus, Lucas’ high-octane space odyssey. (Thus, a few years later, the feel-good presidency of Ronald Reagan, who came up with a PR coup in naming his cherished missile shield after Lucas’ film.) When you went to see Star Wars, you didn’t just go to a movie, or an Event. You went to become part of the Event — to merge with it. Lucas, in his creative innocence (if he had actually intended to do this it wouldn’t have worked), created a zippy techno-dreamscape whose meaning was crystallized by the fact of its unprecedented box office success. Luke Skywalker defeats the Empire by rising up out of himself to embrace something larger: the Force. The magic of Star Wars lies in the way that his triumph is mirrored, emotionally, by the audience’s sense of joining something larger than itself.

In the new, remastered Star Wars, the added effects, which range from leathery desert beasts inserted into already existing shots to an awkward new scene in which Han Solo bargains his way out of a jam with a computer-generated Jabba the Hutt, don’t do much besides call attention to themselves. In general, I can’t say that I’m wild about directors mucking around with our memories by fiddling with their classic films. In this case, however, the tweaking doesn’t matter much, since the first half of the movie, where most of the changes take place, is meandering and coy to begin with. I found I had less affection this time for the Mutt-and-Jeff antics of C-3PO and R2-D2; and Mark Hamill, with his gee-whiz ’70s doofiness, is, at first, a shockingly callow hero—we might be watching the intergalactic coming-of-age of Richard Carpenter. To give Lucas credit, though, much of the innocuousness is actually by design. Part of what’s ingenious about Star Wars is the way the film seems to start out in the shaggier cinematic era it’s about to leave behind. When Luke commences his training as a Jedi, hooking up with Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford, who never again looked like he was having this much fun), you can feel the testosterone leaking into the movie. Lucas’ “serialized” plot has a capricious elegance: Once they’re inside the Death Star, our heroes execute their moves as spontaneously as James Bond. And Darth Vader, the man with the machine face, remains an awesome image of future-shock fascism, with James Earl Jones’ electromagnetized threats calling up a subliminal echo of the Wizard of Oz’s lordly malevolence.

More than any other single sequence, the climactic dogfight is the one that made Star Wars revolutionary. A miracle of editing and special effects, it remains an elating action spectacle. Having revved up the pace notch by notch, Lucas now leaps into the joy of sheer momentum. Like Luke Skywalker himself, we start to take in the action not with our minds but through our senses. It’s literally a rush. You can feel yourself turning off your brain and getting sucked into the movie’s vortex, into a whole new age of cinema as sensation. Of course, that same thrill-ride rush is what Hollywood has been desperately repackaging for 20 years now. Only in Star Wars, however, was the Force this powerfully with the audience. We succeeded in making a movie so popular that just to sit there and watch it was to share in the victory.

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