They were the best of times, preceded by the worst of times. I vividly remember sitting in a movie theatre in Seattle, watching the first trailer for *Star Wars* back in 1977. It looked *really cool*. I was too young for R rated movies, but too old for G movies, and thus trapped in a PG landscape of dreary movies like *Silver Streak*, which my brother and I saw five times only because there was nothing else to see. The dismal *The Pink Panther Strikes Again* is where we saw that *Star Wars* trailer. We talked about it for weeks, waited for our salvation with eager anticipation. We weren’t the only ones.
May 1977, opening weekend, Seattle’s UA70 cinema. *Star Wars* is already an event. There are local and national news telecasts of the long lines of excited moviegoers. There is a vague sense that something important is happening, something bigger than just a cool new movie. As I walked into the theatre with my brother, someone handed us big blue buttons that read “May the Force be with you.” We didn’t yet know what it meant, and surely, no-one there that day had any way of knowing that that little phrase, along with just about everything else associated with *Star Wars*, would become a permanent part of the social landscape, while forever changing, for better or worse, the art and business of movie-making.
George Lucas probably didn’t figure on any of that. He was just trying to make an old fashioned space adventure with special effects that were a little better than state of the art. In that, he succeeded wildly. *Star Wars* was, at its release in 1977, light years ahead of anything that came before, even though it still utilized models and matting technology that was decades old. *Star Wars* made the old look new again.
*Star Wars: Special Edition*, with about five minutes of new film footage and a newly remastered digital soundtrack, takes advantage of the very latest in digital film technology. Lucas has inserted computer generated critters throughout the film, tweaked some of the special effects, and added a couple of scenes, at a cost of about $10 million. That same $10 mil made the entire movie back in 1977, a sum that about pays the catering cost on today’s effects-heavy adventure movies. Despite the tweaking, *Star Wars SE* is the same movie, with the same thrills and the same flaws, as the original.
*Star Wars* is still set in a white male universe; much of the dialogue is still wooden; John Williams’ score remains excessively bombastic, and those alien creatures in the Mos Isely cantina still look like guys in rubber costumes. It is still painfully obvious why Harrison Ford became a huge star, while Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher did not. On the other hand, the movie’s memorable, climactic battle scene is still truly thrilling, an astonishing technological triumph, a mindless rush of joy. Maybe it isn’t thrilling in quite the same way that it was in 1977, after the Bi-Centennial letdown, when our president diagnosed our national malaise, and we were still stinging from Vietnam and Watergate. Then, we were desperately bored, hungry for heroism, aching for thrills. *Star Wars* gave us everything we wanted, everything we needed, and the fact that it was a collective experience, a uniting experience, made it that much better. The Force was, at long last, with us, too.
As for Lucas’ new additions to the film, they distract as much as they enhance. (I’d like to report that the new edition looks and sounds way better than the original, but I can’t. The local theatre where I viewed *Star Wars SE* had tinny, mono sound and what looked to be both a bad print *and* a faulty projector bulb. It actually looked and sounded worse than I remember.) There’s a bit of irony, too, in the fact that even with the new digital fine-tuning, *Star Wars* remains a strikingly anti-technological movie. *Star Wars* at its heart is a story of old fashioned virtue battling cold, evil technology. Lucas was inspired by the adventure serials of the 30s and 40s, and the values of that age, minus some of the gee-whiz futurism, are evident in *Star Wars*. The heroes are essentially swashbucklers, cowboys in white hats, knights in shining armor, while the villains, led by man-in-black Darth Vader, all look alike, and all look like Nazis.
When young Luke Skywalker leaves his low-tech, sunny desert planet for the cold, dark reaches of space, it is to battle the totalitarian Empire’s most technologically advanced weapon, the Death Star (which, incidentally, is also the nickname of AT&T’s corporate logo). He travels in Han Solo’s broken-down freighter, along with a pair of fragile, limited robots (R2-D2 can’t talk, C-3PO can’t do anything else), and monkish mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi. Obi-Wan instructs Luke to harness the power of the Force, the ancient, heart-mind-soul-life of the Universe, and to use a light saber, “an elegant weapon of a more civilised age.” After rescuing plucky Princess Leia (what’s more old-fashioned than that?), Luke and the rebel forces ultimately beat the Death Star using technologically primitive (i.e. Earth circa 1977) weapons, and they do it because in their foolish, evil, technocentric hubris, the Empire thought their machine was invincible. The rebel spaceships are little more than hopped-up F-16’s, while the Empire has nifty, screamin’ Tie-fighters, but none of that matters because it is really Luke’s connection to the all-powerful Force, not computers and gizmos, that enables him to destroy the Death Star in the end, with a little help from his courageous, self-sacrificing friends.
Even stylistically, *Star Wars* contains remnants of an earlier age of filmmaking (long ago, in a galaxy far, far away...): Lucas used wipes to separate scenes, and the story is told in an episodic, stop-start serial style. *Star Wars* builds slowly, almost too slowly, like a movie set in a less hurried time, before it explodes in the last half hour into the fast-paced, high octane thrill machine that would eventually become the entire substance of later adventure movies.
In 1977, our biggest technological challenge seemed to be making big cars use less gas. The future was flat-lined. In today’s post-PC revolution age, we’ve come back around to a gee-whiz Futurama mindset, and a mixture of optimism, naivete and uneasiness about technology. In digitally “enhancing” *Star Wars*, it is as if Lucas were now buying into the very technocentrism that *Star Wars* warned against. In so doing, Lucas proves yet again that technology cannot conquer all. Better technology doesn’t equal better movies. The new improved *Star Wars* is just like the good old *Star Wars*, and no better for the added bytes.