A long time ago in a cultural landscape far, far away, George Lucas rode a dinky space fantasy to stratospheric success. Twenty years later, he's raising the stakes with a risky reissue and plans for whole new trilogy. But is the Force still with him?

In the firmament of cinematic second-guessers, there are plenty of leading lights. Consider James Cameron, who has noodled around with expanded ”special editions” of Aliens, The Abyss, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day for TV and video. Then there’s Francis Ford Coppola, who revisited The Godfather not just in sequels but in multiple TV-miniseries editions, VHS cassettes, and laserdisc boxed sets. Even first-time auteur Kevin Costner retraced his steps for a four-hour Dances With Wolves.

But this month, George Lucas will outshine his fellow revisionists like a supernova blowing away so many dwarf stars. For the 20th-anniversary theatrical rerelease of Star Wars on Jan. 31 on approximately 1,800 screens — a far cry from the movie’s timid 32-screen debut on May 25, 1977 — Lucas has dispatched his special-effects artists at Industrial Light & Magic to tinker with and even flat-out remake bits of the movie. Only 4 1/2 minutes of new visuals are involved (though the entire soundtrack has been tweaked), but the restoration and filmmaking techniques employed are so complex, they cost $10 million — about the size of the original movie’s budget. And what a difference the few added minutes make: They mark the dawn of a new era in filmic hocus-pocus, where directors (and maybe hostile studio bosses) will be able to conjure new scenes out of thin air long after the sets have been struck and the actors have moved on.

Besides, with a movie as well-known as Star Wars, every ripple of change sends a tidal wave through the film’s fan base. ILM has souped up creaky, fake-looking creatures (debate rages on the Internet about whether this is good or bad), reinstated outtakes, and tricked out old scenes with new shots or added-in figures (a la Forrest Gump‘s fact-meets-fiction newsreel wizardry). Lucas has also orchestrated smaller emendations in the sequels The Empire Strikes Back (due for rerelease Feb. 21) and Return of the Jedi (March 7).

Is the world ready to fall in love with Star Wars as a communal experience all over again? At first, even Lucas’ faithful weren’t sure. ”When I heard we were doing this, I had reservations,” says Ben Burtt, the sound designer who won a special Oscar for Star Wars and who is remixing the trilogy in digitally recorded, bass-boosted surround sound. ”I didn’t want to deal with it again. I said, Gee, shouldn’t we put our energy into something new?”

In a way, they have, since Lucas hasn’t tuned up these space operas in a vacuum; they’re the prelude to a new set of arias. Next fall, the 52-year-old filmmaker will end a 20-year directing sabbatical and begin filming the first of three Star Wars prequels from his screenplay. He’ll then hire others to direct (and probably script, from his outline) chapters 2 and 3 of an intended nine-movie cycle (take that, Star Trek), in which Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi occupy the fourth, fifth, and sixth slots. Release dates for the new trilogy are set for May 1999 (the prodigious effects will take that long to finish), 2001, and 2003.

The multitasking logistics involved might overload even R2-D2’s circuits. Lucas plans to finance the new movies entirely through his own company, Lucasfilm Ltd. Supposedly, they’ll be made on low-fat budgets of less than $60 million apiece, thanks to a cast of bargain-priced unknowns and radical methods of combining actors with digital characters and scenery. In all likelihood, revenues from the reissues and a new blitz of licensed merchandising (a nearly $4 billion gold mine since 1977) will go right back into the new films.

Of course, with the prequel on track, there’s no turning the ship around if the reissues vanish into the black hole of low grosses. As Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) once put it: “I’m taking an awful risk, Vader. This had better work.”

To hear George Lucas tell it, mere commerce was never the guiding Force in the decision to touch up his original trilogy. In a video-recorded message that’s part of a new CD-ROM set of Star Wars games—the sort of electronic decree he prefers these days to press interviews—he says he’s a hostage to his perfectionism. “Whenever you do something that’s creative,” says the flannel-shirted auteur in this click-on communique, “and you end up having to rush through and finish it before it’s really completed the way you’d hope it [would be], it bothers you. There were a lot of things in Star Wars that bothered me a great deal.”

So, when Twentieth Century Fox and Lucas began working together in the early ’90s on a 20th-anniversary Star Wars push—Fox still owns the first film but merely distributes Empire and Jedi—Lucas suggested he might at last put his disco-era demons to rest. With a total of $15 million, provided mostly by Fox, to tweak all three films, he set out to engineer a digital face-lift.

Michael Jackson will be envious of the results. Deploying ’90s computer graphics to pull off effects his technicians couldn’t accomplish with models or puppets in 1977, Lucas has given mobility to the dewback beasties in scenes on the desert planet Tatooine, where we meet Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Instead of running into a handful of storm troopers on the Death Star, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) now faces a whole squadron, played by ILM employees digitally multiplied into a horde. In the dogfight finale, rebel ships swoop and swerve in a more turbulent, post-videogame style. A computer-generated Jabba the Hutt, who wasn’t in the original film, has even been superimposed into a sequence with Ford that Lucas had to drop in 1977, when the technology needed to finish the scene proved out of reach. None of the actors were called on to alter or redub any dialogue, though, and for better or worse, Carrie Fisher’s cinnamon-Danish Princess Leia hairdo remains unmorphed.

Although Lucas has had years to map out these changes, he has not hesitated, by his own staffers’ account, to up the ante as the final deadline nears. The ILM artists and technicians based in San Rafael, Calif., nestled between San Francisco to the south and Lucas’ Skywalker Ranch facility to the north, are racing to finish their work just a few weeks before the debut. Is their leader stuck in a past he can’t blast out of?

“George would look at a scene and approve one fix,” says ILM effects supervisor Dave Carson. “Then there’d be another shot that was now the new worst shot in the sequence. So, we’d fix that.”

To be fair, the perfectionism isn’t all coming from Lucas. Fox “has actually pushed us as hard as we’ve pushed them,” says producer Rick McCallum, who’s overseeing the logistics of both the reissue work and the new movies. The suits in L.A. insisted, for instance, that the indelible opening shot of that humongous ship passing overhead in Star Wars be put back together again from its original pieces, the better to remove some fine bits of dirt and grain from the scene. Says McCallum, “I’ve never argued with a studio about them spending more money than we have. They’ve been unbelievably supportive.”

Back in 1977, when he was struggling to complete Star Wars‘ breakthrough “motion control” shots of spaceship models, effects supervisor John Dykstra wasn’t so lucky. He and Lucas found themselves at odds when the director returned from his England shoot to find $1 million of the initial $2 million effects budget gone and, by Lucas’ account, virtually nothing in the can. (That was a trifle, of course, compared to the hard feelings when Dykstra signed on to ABC’s 1978-80 Battlestar Galactica series and Fox filed a suit for copyright infringement; it was settled out of court.)

“I hope the new work comes out great,” says Dykstra from the production offices of Batman & Robin, where he is visual effects supervisor. “I don’t know how the [computer-graphics material] will integrate with the film techniques applied at the time. But I’ll definitely see it. The curiosity would kill me, not knowing what got changed and whether it improved it.”

Now that Lucas has rebuilt the star field of his dreams, will audiences come? Industry sources estimate that Fox must be spending at least $30 million on prints and promotion, yet nobody’s sure viewers will line up for three movies that have been on video and TV for a decade. Fans have certainly been buying Star Wars books, bric-a-brac, and toys in rising quantities lately, after a major slump in licensing revenues in the mid-to-late 1980s. But one of the hottest recent items could hurt grosses: In 1995, FoxVideo released a heavily promoted “remastered” video edition of the Star Wars trilogy that sold 30 million cassettes worldwide.

“This [reissue] raises visibility,” says Hollywood Reporter box office analyst A.D. Murphy. “But even with whizbang Dolby Digital stereo and SDDS [Sony Dynamic Digital Sound] and DTS and all this other alphanumeric gobbledygook, people may say, ‘You know, I’ve seen this four times and I’ve got the video.'”

Fox Filmed Entertainment’s senior exec VP and official Lucas booster Tom Sherak disagrees. He insists that Lucas’ new editions are light-years ahead of home-video versions. “Hopefully, parents will bring kids to see Luke Skywalker on a big screen with sound you can’t get at home,” he asserts. If they do, it’s well past gravy time: The domestic gross for all three flicks is already $810 million. But regardless of the results, Sherak claims, “we’ve restored our Star Wars negative, which is 10 times more important than what it winds up grossing.”

Hollywood observers say Fox will in fact be watching the grosses carefully as a yardstick for bidding on the prequels. Though Lucas says he will talk to Fox first about distributing them, there’s been no real negotiation yet. Fox reps insist they’re not pushing the reissues as a vanity-project sop to Lucas, but certainly the cachet of the future franchise will increase if they do well.

And what happens to Fox’s brand-enhancement plan if audiences don’t like Lucas’ postgame quarterbacking? Lucas says he’ll be happy if the new versions supplant the originals. But tampering with classics is risky, and according to some sci-fi buffs who’ve seen an early print, the unquestionable thrill of seeing the new Star Wars with restored color is severely compromised by Lucas’ fiddling. “The insertions are incredibly distracting,” says Mark Altman, editor in chief of Sci-Fi Universe magazine. “Every new creature they’ve put in never stops moving or making noises. It’s ludicrous. Why do this? It sets a very dangerous precedent for the future. If I go see Casablanca in a theater, I want to see a great print. I don’t want to see a new computer-generated plane in the airport scene.”

Mark Hamill, who hasn’t yet seen the new edition, has editorial ideas of his own. He wishes Lucas would reinstate a deleted opening sequence, which pictured Luke in a Tatooine hangout with his pilot pal Biggs Darklighter. (It’s described in Lucas’ 1976 novelization but was cut and hasn’t been resurrected for the reissue; another Biggs scene later in the movie has been reinstated.) “Biggs eventually gives up his life to enable Luke to enter the Death Star,” says the 44-year-old actor, who now appears in CD-ROM games such as Wing Commander III. “The heroism of that act would be accentuated if that introduction was still in.”

Of course, such spirited talk of what should or shouldn’t be altered may help make the new flick a must-see. But the real question is whether Lucas’ primary goal is really to rewrite history by replacing his rough draft with this polish job. It may well be that the special editions are in fact more a Fox-financed lab experiment than a final word. “Some of this work was added specifically by George as a test,” says effects supervisor Carson. “It’s to see what kinds of shots ILM can and can’t do well as we go into the [prequels].”

As an example, Carson points to a new shot at the climax of Jedi. Part of an expanded montage showing rebel celebrations on several planets instead of just in the fuzzy-wuzzy Ewoks’ home forest, it reveals an Imperial city called Coruscant. The burg, rendered entirely in computer-graphic animation, figures in the prequels, and such CGI landscapes will dominate the new movies. “The end of Jedi doesn’t really belong to the middle trilogy anymore,” says Carson. “What you’re seeing is the first shot of the new trilogy.”

At Leavesden Studios in England, a vast facility northwest of London, producer McCallum is gearing up for the prequels even as he supervises the last daubs of digital paint on the revised originals. Lucas’ chapter 1 script, which focuses on the young Anakin Skywalker (who becomes Darth Vader) and a character McCallum calls the Young Queen, Luke and Leia’s mother, is now complete, as are outlines for episodes 2 and 3, which may be shot back-to-back like the Back to the Future series.

And who will be acting out these tightly scripted mythologies, guarded more carefully than a Death Star blueprint? Maybe one of thousands of actors already auditioned, maybe not.

Lengthy casting calls are nothing new for Lucas, who tested multiple trios for the Luke-Han-Leia triangle back in the ’70s. (The rejects, says one Lucas bio, included Christopher Walken and Nick Nolte as Han; Amy Irving and Jodie Foster as Leia; and Will Seltzer, who landed Lucas’ More American Graffiti instead, as Luke.) But a decade from now, there may not be a thespian on earth who won’t be able to say, “I read for the prequels.” In the past two years, Lucas and the casting director have considered 3,600 child performers just for the roles of Anakin (they’re looking for an 8- to 9-year-old Caucasian boy) and the Young Queen (an “exotic” 13- to 14-year-old girl).

Among the teeming hopefuls, as EW has reported, was Jingle All the Way‘s Jake Lloyd. His agent now reports that he got a single audition, “like every other kid in L.A.”

“You have to track kids,” McCallum says in defense of the enormous net Lucas has cast. “They can be brilliant at 7, then awkward at 9….We have 10 or so that have semifinalist status.”

While Lucas pursues juvenile leads, at least one grown-up actor has opened hailing frequencies unasked. On Dec. 6, Samuel L. Jackson told the host of a British TV show, TFI Friday, that he wants to “just…sit in a room with George Lucas and let him know that, hey…I’d be Lando Calrissian’s father…I’d be Luke Skywalker’s slave.” Says Billy Dee Williams, who was Calrissian in Empire and Jedi, “I guess [that’s] fine. He’s a pretty good actor. I don’t spend much time thinking about [the new movies], to tell you the truth.” With good reason, since the original actors aren’t likely to show up in them.

Whoever lands the coveted slots—there’ll be no announcements till shooting starts—will work in a virtual-reality environment where bitsy sets are complemented later with digitally rendered extensions in ILM’s computers. “They’re going to have to learn a whole new set of skills,” says McCallum. “It’s like when sound came in. It’s going to be a very basic part of the vocabulary, working against blue screen. It’s slow and laborious. You’re idle a lot.”

The point of such “digital matting,” says McCallum, isn’t just to enhance the new film’s planned complement of 1,700 special-effects shots, or to keep the budget down. It’s to give Lucas flexibility to make and remake finished scenes while still in principal photography.

“George’s loves are the story development and the editing,” says director-producer Ron Howard, who made Willow for Lucas back in 1988. Howard says he’d been “bugging” his former associate for a whole year to return to his directing roots, as had Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Robert Zemeckis. “The filming for him is a terrible chore,” Howard explains. “It’s not exhilarating for him the way it is for me. I love filming. George has more of an animator’s sensibility.”

Now that he’s gone back to the drawing board with such sophisticated, infinitely malleable rendering tools at his command, Lucas may prove more prone than ever to changing his mind after the cameras stop rolling. “It’s not for everyone,” McCallum says of what he terms Lucas’ “evolutionary” method. “But it’s the way we love to work. And it’s the way George absolutely needs to be. His vision’s strong going in. But the fun is to be able to chip away at it and change it, just like a sculptor.” Well, maybe not just like a sculptor, since George Lucas clearly dreams of a creative medium where absolutely nothing is set in stone.