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'Star Wars' Trilogy Rockets Back

By David SterrittStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 29, 1997



NEW YORK

'A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...." That advertising slogan launched a science-fiction epic called "Star Wars" to the top of the box-office charts - surprising most pundits, taking its own studio by surprise, and beginning a new period in movie storytelling, aesthetics, and marketing that's still going strong 20 years later.

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Now the picture and its sequels are rocketing back to the screen, reissued by Twentieth Century Fox with small amounts of material not seen in the original versions. "Star Wars" arrives Friday, followed by "The Empire Strikes Back" on Feb. 21 and "Return of the Jedi" on March 20.

A clue to the success of "Star Wars" can be found in the tag-line that promoted it. Just as the slogan says, the picture is less about the future than about the past.

From start to finish, it's steeped in the same mythology of good and evil, heroes and villains, overlords and underdogs that fueled an uncountable number of swashbucklers and historical adventures before it.

In short, "Star Wars" is an old-fashioned western beneath its futuristic surface - even borrowing key ingredients from "The Searchers," a mid-'50s frontier classic that influenced many '60s and '70s entertainments.

The master stroke of filmmaker George Lucas was to recognize that modern-day audiences are hooked on the same action-packed formulas that pleased their parents and grandparents, but prefer imagining the future to rehashing the past. He also found inspiration in '30s matinee serials and '40s romantic dramas - Han Solo is Humphrey Bogart redux - and in Japanese film, transforming samurai swords to "light sabers" with the flick of a special-effects switch.

Few anticipated the success of Lucas's innovations. Science fiction was considered box-office poison in the mid-'70s, so the picture's budget was kept to a moderate $9 million by Twentieth Century Fox, which thought a now-forgotten melodrama called "The Other Side of Midnight" would be its big money-spinner for the year. Some reports claim the studio almost shelved "Star Wars" after viewing its first cut, only changing its mind because Lucas had proved his high-grossing potential with the teenpic "American Graffiti" a few years earlier. The picture's popularity was instantaneous, though, soon making it the highest-earning movie in Hollywood history.

It would be simplistic to state that "Star Wars" brought about a cultural revolution, or even an entertainment revolution, all by itself. No single movie has that much power to sway the socially, psychologically, and economically diverse individuals who make up the worldwide audience for American films.

But if it didn't cause an enormous change in entertainment habits, its popularity was a major indication that such a change was taking place at the time of its release. One way to understand this is to consider "Star Wars" alongside a very different movie, Alfred Hitchcock's thriller "Psycho," released in 1960.

"Psycho" was a movie that broke new ground by breaking old rules: killing the heroine halfway through the plot, fracturing a key scene into a barrage of lightning-quick shots, blurring appearances of guilt and innocence into such a fascinating muddle that even the story's psychiatrist has trouble sorting it out. Although folks could only sense it at the time, this was a perfect movie to usher in the 1960s, when all sorts of time-honored principles and received ideas would be scrutinized and questioned by a newly skeptical generation of cultural consumers.