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.
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.
Film for the Reagan era
By the same reasoning, "Star Wars" was the perfect movie for the mid-'70s, as Americans and others prepared for the Reagan years by retreating to conservative attitudes. Drawing its energy from low-cost quickies of bygone decades, it looked back fondly on a nostalgic past when movies carved clear, unambiguous lines between the very things that '60s pictures wove into realistically complex tapestries - from nuances of behavior and personality to bedrock conceptions of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Lucas consciously intended "Star Wars" and its offspring to have a positive effect on society - claiming, for example, that including a few subtitles would make young viewers more enthusiastic about learning to read. In the conservative climate that continues today, many observers agree that his tradition-oriented approach turned Hollywood in a healthier direction than the alternatives posed by such '60s and '70s hits as Sam Peckinpah's bloody "The Wild Bunch," or Robert Altman's sardonic "Nashville," or even Mike Nichols's satiric "The Graduate," which is also due for a celebratory revival this year.
Like the Force, however, the "Star Wars" phenomenon has a dark side. In storytelling terms, Lucas's emphasis on action puts a low premium on thoughtful or contemplative scenes, distracting attention from the philosophical moments that do occur at times. In cinematic terms, his insistence on fast editing and continuous movement is as damaging to attention spans as the most manipulative TV shows. In acting terms, his affection for largely nuance-free performances made this one of the rare top-of-the-chart hits that didn't propel new talents to immediate stardom; even Harrison Ford didn't become a name to conjure with until the Indiana Jones series and more grown-up pictures like "Blade Runner" and "Witness" years later.
In economic terms, the movie's blitz of "action figures" and other spinoff commodities started a new epoch in film-related marketing, turning every possible element (including the journalism surrounding the picture) into a tool for spreading its name and creating a "must-see" buzz. It also made Hollywood executives less patient with releases that don't promise giant-sized returns on their investments.
And in moral terms, the frequent violence and bloodless killing throughout the series - at one point in "Star Wars" an entire planet is destroyed, marking a new high in Hollywood body counts - touched off a major wave of high-tech movie mayhem. Lucas's violence is far less gory than the death and destruction found in many other films, but this very "tastefulness" is seen by some critics as dangerous, since it separates antisocial acts from their hurtful consequences.
Such analyses matter little to the zillions of fans who have savored "Star Wars" and its offspring. As shapers and reflectors of the American cultural scene - and of world culture, since Hollywood movies are still the most popular around the globe - their impact is unsurpassed by any other event in modern cinema.
Since most younger viewers have made their acquaintance on TV, their reappearance in movie houses will be most beneficial if audiences are reminded that home-video technology provides only a pale shadow of the eye-filling splendor that full-scale movie spectacles are meant to provide.
Beyond this, let the Force sweep over us once again - and let debates about the underlying values of the trilogy continue with enough vigor to compete with the movies themselves.