Force fed

After two decades, Star Wars has become the cult film for the rest of us

The highly publicized changes Lucas has wrought for Star Wars Special Edition won't alter anyone's view of the picture--if anything, they're dismaying in how they betray the picayune level of his obsessiveness. He uses computer tricks to animate creatures in scenes that he always thought too static, to populate the streets outside the Mos Eisley Cantina more friskily, and to reincorporate the intended (but ultimately cut) debut of the loathsome, gelatinous Jabba the Hutt (now computer-generated) and bounty hunter Boba Fett. (He also includes a brief rah-rah segment pumping up Luke's reputation as a pilot prior to the screaming-eagle finish; the total of the "new" outtake footage amounts to 4 1/2 minutes.) The one Star Wars devotee in my viewing circle considered the new stuff classy and enlivening, and superior to what Spielberg offered up in Close Encounters--The Special Edition. I actually think that, apart from punching up one gag that now has Han Solo dashing headlong into a horde of Stormtroopers, the additions are a wash. They may draw one breed of "close readers" who'll scan the screen for the slightest alteration. But others will feel as if their long-term recall has been zapped.

And the slicker the movie gets, the more it loses character. Because Lucas pioneered seamless meldings of special effects into live-action footage, his trilogy has left a glossy afterglow, though one of its charms is how knocked-up its futuristic vision gets--even that golden boy C-3PO has a charming collection of dents. Part of the Star Wars appeal for a nontechnical, noncult audience came from its transposition of Second World War propaganda and baby boomer youth culture to that "long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." It was a daydream come true for many members of the Woodstock generation--fighting Nazi-like Imperial Stormtroopers as their fathers did, but with the vaguely countercultural Force as their weapon. One of the several spontaneous chuckles at the screening I attended came when Luke begs off cleaning up the androids because he's got to go to "Tosche station to pick up some power convertors," sounding for all the universe like a Valley Boy aching to get some new shocks for his jalopy. In Star Wars, Luke is thrust into an intergalactic civil war when he's nothing more than a kid from a desert nowhere-land who would fit right into the Modesto of American Graffiti--and he ends up triumphing over the evil Empire by sticking to his gut urges, as Lucas ended up conquering Hollywood. The movie's one heartfelt twinge comes when John Williams' music wells up like tears as Luke, profiled against a melancholy double sunset, laments what promises to be a fate of rural drudgery. (In general, Williams' score carries the emotional load: When you saw the film without the score, Carroll Ballard told Pollock, "you couldn't take it seriously. But the music gave it the style of an old-time serial.")

The filmmaker means for the fresh-faced innocent Luke to function as our stand-in. But he's inadequate except as a mirror image of Lucas, who was already an American success story after American Graffiti. The other human characters don't fill the bill either, at least not at this point in the saga. Harrison Ford hadn't yet gained the swashbuckling authority to pull off the role of a bluff gambler-adventurer. He may grimace and snarl like a rough, but he looks unmarked by experience, like a kid doing Bogart for Halloween. Carrie Fisher plays interstellar royalty like a summer-camp thespian, hitting every wrong note imaginable for a freedom-loving princess; even when she stoops to admiring Han Solo's gumption--"He's got courage"--she descends with a nincompoop's noblesse oblige. And Alec Guinness lathers on his trademark understatement as Obi-Wan Kenobi: He's so wise-old-owlish you half expect him to say, "Whoooo." Those few curious adults who'll be seeing the film for the first time may wonder, as a friend of mine did, "What's the difference between an archetype and a stereotype?" (In Skywalking, Pollock finesses the issue by calling the heroes and heroine "fairy-tale prototypes.")

The nonhuman characters heist the spectacle, including Han Solo's huge literal grease-monkey, the Wookiee Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew); C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), a mechanical, dithering gentleman's gentleman who's like a cross between Stan Laurel and Edward Everett Horton; and that short, stocky, can-do droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), who speaks in cascades of pulses, beeps, and flatulent static. ("Robonics," I suppose; the splendidly named Ben Burtt did the justly famous sound design.) At its peak, Star Wars is like a trick symphony by Haydn--in particular, of course, the "Surprise" symphony. Lucas is at his best after C-3PO and R2-D2 crash-land on Luke's desert planet, Tattooine, and wander through the endless sandscapes bickering; when C-3PO moans, "We seem to be made to suffer," it's like Beckett for kiddies. When the Jawas zap R2-D2, Lucas wrings a giggle from the squat droid's abrupt collapse. Along with the celebrated, orgiastic cantina scene, it's one of the film's uncanny strokes of humor; it provokes a laugh every time and shows off Lucas' grasp of the ineffable side of objects. So does the bit when the Wookiee howls at a miniature surveillance droid and it scurries off like a frightened Chihuahua. A fanzine called Cinescape, ranking Star Wars right after 2001: A Space Odyssey as the most influential sci-fi film of all time, noted that tiny flourish as an example of Lucas displaying "how much fun a movie could be."

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