Little is new in the 'Special Edition' of the Star Wars films. There
are some amended explosions; some gratuitous extra scenes which
grate with the older ones; a scene of urban rejoicing at the end
of Return of the Jedi that looks like an airbrushed version of the
New-Year's-Eve-by-Big-Ben footage we see on television each year;
and more attempts to wow viewers with naff menageries, as if the
original pub scene wasn't bad enough. Ultimately, the new matters
less than the returning old.
Star Wars was always an exercise in combining the titillating future
with resolute pasts. The most fundamental of those pasts was nineteenth-century
romance, but the more recent ones are just as notable, such as the
mythical American 1950s, part of which George Lucas had explored
in his previous film, American Graffiti. Think of the cringe-inducing
passages where Luke plays the frustrated teenager on his stifling
uncle's 'farm' (the 'crops' and 'ridges' of which elude the viewer
in the featureless Tatooine sandscape). 'But I was going to go and
pick up some power converters!' whines Luke, in a way which makes
Ron Howard's admiration of Lucas look spooky. Alongside fifties
teen-ethnography sits the Bigglesesque depiction of the imperial
characters. Star Wars was filmed in Britain but the 'Britishness'
of the middle-managers of the empire goes beyond the contingencies
of planning and budgeting. Consider the scene where Lucas presents
a round table of generals and admirals arguing about policy, but
not delivering the illusion of an outside world that the scene strains
for (what is the political makeup of the empire? how do centre and
periphery interact? what do the bosses actually gain from the empire?).
They all come across as baddies from The Professionals or private
school stereotypes, until Peter Cushing sweeps in to play the ultimate
American fantasy of a classy, sinister villain, complete with the
ability to roll his Rs.
The generals' scene is emblematic of one of the successes of the
Star Wars trilogy as a whole: its engineering of timelessness (this
is, after all, a film about 'futuristic' events which nevertheless
happened 'A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away'). Aside from
the haircuts - the most evident tie to the seventies - the film
pulls in different temporal directions - the futuristic marvel of
the Death Star, the World-War-II 'Englishness' of most of those
inside it, the fullness of its heroism and redemption - and ends
up in its own fantasy space.
This safe and fantastic timelessness plays a large part in the films'
appeal, along with the melodramatic hamminess (especially in the
form of Darth Vader) and Lucas's talent for extended, careering
set-pieces (like the final battle in Star Wars, the Jabba sequence
in Return of the Jedi, and virtually all the parts of The Empire
Strikes Back that do not involve Luke). The promotional material
for the 'Special Edition' played on a different kind of timelessness,
the idea of Star Wars as something like a colourised Casablanca
that you just have to see on 'the big screen'. The point? A 'timeless'
film is one with a beach-head in two generations. The Star Wars
'Special Edition' did the same commercial trick as Mission Impossible,
Batman and other remakes. Hollywood banks on such films because
they have the potential to draw not only the young but also people
who remember these films' previous incarnations.
But there was something else about the Star Wars films' route to
their audience this time around that made them unusual. The multiplex
audiences had doubtless included plenty of people (or boys, anyway)
who remember every one of Obi Wan's lines in spite of themselves,
but they didn't dominate the audiences. The marketing, or the general
mood one picked up in queues or conversation, attempted to reconcile
both loser fanaticism and mass appeal. It was acceptable for hordes
to regard Star Wars as something worth getting embarrassingly cultish
about. This co-option of nerd-chic has been tried with Star Trek,
but without such success, and it should, of course, have been impossible:
when something's mass-marketed, it's no longer a cult. After the
X-Files craze, though, that's no longer a paradox.
18 June 1997