Long before people started lining up at Chinese Mann Theater in Hollywood for
Attack of the Clones, and even before die-hard fans stormed Kay-Bee Toy
Stores across the country at exactly midnight to buy Phantom Menace swag
that would soon end up in the bargain bins… there was the 20th anniversary
re-release of Star Wars. Since George Lucas's 1977 sci-fi epic was entering
its (at least) third theatrical release in twenty years, a chance to see it
in the theater wasn't exactly as rare as, say, the passing of Halley's Comet.
Nonetheless, moviegoers were treating it as a once in a lifetime experience.
I was in Washington, D.C. On opening weekend, I took my ten-hour shift in an
organized 23-hour military-style watch for first night tickets at the Uptown,
whose single oversized, floor-to-ceiling concave screen made it (and still makes
it) the theater of choice for D.C. Star Wars nuts. My group arrived at
eight o'clock the evening before to find themselves fourth in line. By seven
the following morning, two hours before the box office opened, the line stretched
around the block. At nine, a medium-paced stroll from one end of the queue to
the other took six minutes.
People crowded the sidewalks from dawn until after midnight, attracting spectators,
and cameras from every major TV station in the D.C. area. The air was filled
with good-natured excitement, the jubilant screams of fans as they received
their tickets, and occasionally the rabid frustration of those who had arrived
in the wee hours of the morning, only to find that they could not get seats
for the show they wanted.
Having participated in this movie circus, I felt that I had paid my dues as
a hard-core Star Wars junkie. And so, on Valentine's Day, two weeks after
the premier, I sauntered over to the Uptown to watch Star Wars again,
this time without the crowd and bustle. I arrived 35 minutes early for the four
o'clock matinee and found, to my surprise, that all but 15 of the 900 tickets
had already been sold. Disappointed at my prospects for getting a decent seat,
I left, resolving to return on Monday, much wiser and much earlier. But alas,
the Force was not with me. When I showed up at 11:15 A.M., both matinees were
already sold out. I bought tickets for the seven o'clock, and sat down underneath
the marquee, determined to get perfect seats (eighth row center, in case you're
On President's Day weekend, the Uptown's 900 seats sold out every show, from
the Friday 7:00 P.M. onward. This, two full weeks after the premier. Star
Wars: The Special Edition made 60 million dollars by its second weekend.
The question, then, is "why?" Why would audiences turn out in droves
to see the re-release of a twenty year-old movie?
Bigger than the Screen
To begin with, Star Wars is a movie made for the big screen. It was
a film which took full advantage of the theater environment to completely immerse
the audience in the motion picture. The makers of Star Wars used emerging
sound technologies, eye-dazzling special effects, and tightly-edited, fast-paced
action sequences to create a movie which captures the audience's attention and
never relinquishes it. George Lucas's style of visually-breathtaking film-making
revolutionized the movie industry in no uncertain terms. The blockbuster adventure
movie was born. Since 1977, countless films have made use of the techniques
Lucas pioneered. Many have had better special effects; few have had as much
soul, and as much staying power in the consciousness of the movie-going public.
And the theater experience is a key element in the appeal of Star Wars.
The movie is a little cramped on video. But in the theater, Star Wars comes
alive. The heart swells when the score rises and beats faster when the heroes
are in danger. Even those who have seen the movie a dozen times cannot help
but cheer at the end when the evil Empire's battle station explodes into a million
flaming fragments. To the moviegoer who understood, either technically or intuitively,
the magical extra dimension that a theater adds to Star Wars, the chance
to see it in its most becoming habitat was not to be missed.
Another element that drew moviegoers to Star Wars: The Special Edition was
the "Special Edition" part of the title, and all that it implied.
Star Wars underwent an extensive makeover for its re-release. The negatives
were restored, the sound effects were upgraded, and the space battles and laser
effects were cleaned up. Even though the extensive additions of scenes and CGI
effects was a point of some contention among old Star Wars fans, one
addition—the appearance of Boba Fett, whose image was digitally inserted
(not computer-generated) into one scene on Mos Eisley—drew a thunder of
applause from the opening-night crowd.
Of course, Star Wars would be nothing without its characters. For, in
the end, it is the characters in Star Wars that make it magical. When
the lights go up and the audience leave their seats, it is the characters that
they remember. Luke Skywalker, the naive, idealistic young hero. Han Solo, the
handsome, brash rogue. Princess Leia, the beautiful strong-willed heroine. Ben
Kenobi, the graying mysterious teacher. Darth Vader, the sinister, haunting
villain. Chewbacca, the bad-tempered, good-hearted beast. All of them are archetypes
made flesh, real enough to love and believe in. In the young, and in the young
at heart, these characters take root and flourish.
And still the question is, "Why?" Why this movie? What makes it so
special to so many people?
The Star Wars Generation
As I loitered around the Uptown theater on opening day, watching people approach
the ticket office like children running down the steps on Christmas morning,
two reporters were standing near me, discussing the "why?" question.
The tall gray-haired reporter with silly headphones gestured to the milling
crowds and asked,
"Do you understand all this?"
The younger reporter with the notepad shook her head and replied that she did
I wanted to say to them, "Ask me. I'm one of 'them.' I can tell you what
this is all about, why it's all so strangely important," but I didn't think
I had the right words to make it real for them.
Overlapping the boundaries between the baby-boomers and generation X, there
is another generation, stretching from the thirty-somethings to the early twenty-somethings.
This generation is the Star Wars generation. They grew up watching the
Star Wars movies, sleeping in Star Wars bed sheets, and wearing
Star Wars Halloween costumes. Nearly every American male, from age twenty-five
to thirty-five, has owned a Star Wars toy at some point in their lives.
Nearly every female in that same age group has played at being Princess Leia.
George Lucas is often quoted as saying that, when he created Star Wars,
he wanted to construct a new American myth, and (through at least some fault
of his own) he succeeded. An obscure, long-shot space fantasy caught the public's
imagination, and thousands upon thousands of children imprinted on it, the way
a chick imprints on the first thing it sees when it hatches.
Back in 1997—and now in 2002—the Star Wars universe draws
those people back to a place familiar and beautiful to them. It strikes chords
so deep in their souls that they are at a loss to explain why Star Wars holds
such a fascination for them. They are grown up, but the fantasy calls them back.
They go to see the movie. They take their children, and sometimes their parents.
Why Star Wars? There are certainly reasons. Some are fairly obvious,
others are ineffable. But do they really matter? Star Wars has grown
into something greater and more mysterious than a simple popular movie. It has
become a vibrant mythos, inhabiting the consciousness of thousands. To those
who love the movies, the characters are not only as familiar as old friends,
they are as cherished as old dreams. This is the force that powers Star Wars.