Star Wars
directed by George Lucas
(20th Century Fox, 1977;
special edition, 1997)

Time travel is not only possible, it's easy. All it takes to transport me back to age 11 is a copy of Star Wars -- not the recent Episode 1, but the original, mindblowing movie that set the imaginations of an entire generation on fire.

Who can forget the feeling so many of us shared when we sat in the theater for the first time in 1977 and saw the immortal words, "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." scroll across the screen? Who would have guessed the impact the movie would have on the future of movies in general and special effects in particular? I remember not knowing what to expect; I turned to my father a few minutes into the film, as the Laurel and Hardy robots (now known as "droids" in the public consciousness) C-3PO and R2-D2 dodged laser beams aboard the rebel ship, and said, "I didn't know this was a comedy."

Ah, the ignorance of youth. Soon, I was completely caught up in the film -- which I, like so many of my peers, sat through repeatedly -- and Star Wars became a dominant factor in my life.

People can debate the story and film quality as it compares to the sequels -- there's no question that The Empire Strikes Back is its superior in many ways, even as The Return of the Jedi held so many disappointments -- and there's no comparison in quality between the old series and the prequel trilogy beginning in 1999 with The Phanton Menace. But Star Wars shines the brightest when it stands alone -- long before the subtitle A New Hope was added, back when Luke and Leia were young, would-be lovers and not siblings, back when Ben Kenobi was a great hero and not a failed Jedi and a liar, back when Luke was a simple everyman, a farmboy thrust into amazing circumstances who rose to greatness to meet them. (Making the sequels all part of Luke's "destiny" diluted the character's power, making it more a matter of genetics than anything else.)

This is one of those movies that truly belongs on the big screen, but failing a home cinema, the old VCR will have to do. And, yes, it's still possible to get swept up in the action and forget that you're sitting in your living room, den or bedroom instead of craning your neck in a movie house. Thrill to the swashbuckling style of the dashing Han Solo and Chewbacca! Cheer for the feisty and beautiful Princess Leia! Hiss the menacing Darth Vader and the even more sinister Governor Tarkin (who, I might add, is never called "Grand Moff" in the movie)! Go wild as Luke matures from annoying chinless whiner to star-struck hero!

The plot is simple -- a basic tale of good vs. powerful evil -- and some might even call it a formula film. Perhaps they're right. So what? A tale can be told many times and not lose its flavor so long as it's told well -- and writer/director George Lucas told this one well.

Lucas might not agree, however; hence, 20 years later, his reissue of the film with all new enhancements. Purists moaned and complained that he was messing with a classic, but hey, it made the Star Wars experience fresh and new for all of us, including a whole generation that had never had the experience of seeing it in the theaters. And sure, there are quibbles -- the scene where Greedo shoots at an unflinching Han Solo and misses from all of two feet away was one of the silliest decisions Lucas has ever made and, still, Solo's "maneuvers" to evade the pursuing Star Destroyers involves nothing more than flying in a straight line -- but all in all, the enhancements add a new layer of glory without spoiling what made it great to begin with. The grey blocking around ships in motion is gone. The "haze" under Luke's landspeeder has been erased. Mos Eisley now thrives with new life and activity; even the famous Cantina has some new faces. We get to meet Jabba the Hutt -- and catch a brief glimpse of the villainous bounty hunter Boba Fett -- in a scene previously cut from the film. And the dogfights in space have been improved immeasurably.

The special effects in the 1977 Star Wars were a giant leap forward for the day; the new version from 1997 brought A New Hope in line with special effects standards of the '90s. And, even knowing the outcome, the final battle above the Yavin moon is still a white-knuckle experience.

Even without all the hullaballoo and new enhancements, Star Wars remains a pinnacle in late 20th century filmmaking -- and I'm happy to know that all it takes is a TV and a VCR and, once again, I'm 11 years old, staring at the screen in rapt wonder.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

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