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`Star Wars': The Force Is Back

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 31, 1997; Page N45

"STAR WARS," which was released in 1977, is embedded in our ever-expanding, electronic folklore. So are its sequels, "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi." Not only did the trilogy put America's moviegoers into a feeding frenzy (you had to see those movies or die), its enormous success begat a new age in filmmaking. For "Star Wars," creator George Lucas built Industrial Light & Magic, a special-effects production studio that introduced computerized filmmaking to the art. Its legacy can be seen in almost every major Hollywood production. ILM is Hollywood.

Now the force that reaped millions in box-office revenue for the trilogy, and billions in "Star Wars"-related figurines, toys and assorted merchandise, is back. Lucas never got the chance to employ the full array of technology in those works. Now (with the help of some $30 million in distribution money from Twentieth Century Fox), he gets to play again. In the spirit of Soviet redoctoring of official photographs, the three films have been remastered, redigitalized and recast. They're bigger, better and more sophisticated than ever. At least, that's the idea. And to make you feel better about putting money down for these "new" movies, the phrase "special edition" has been added to all three titles.

In "Star Wars," for instance, there's an entirely new scene in which Han Solo (Harrison Ford) bargains with extraterrestrial porker Jabba the Hutt to get more time to pay back his debts. There are new effects within existing scenes; and the various creatures, including reptilian dewbacks, are granted new presence and mobility. (See critter in background at left in the photo above.)

For the older generation (in other words, the ones who remember who was president before Ronald Reagan), this is a chance to relive the excitement, the mania that greeted "Star Wars." For the younger generation (my 14- and 12-year-old sons not included; they were more interested -- get this -- in the latest Chris Farley movie), this is a chance to see where their Nintendo-based lives actually began.

Is this Second Coming a cause for celebration? (The other two movies will be released in succession over the next two months.) Is it artistic tampering? Is it a rubbing away of history? Or is Lucas simply building public recognition and awareness among young moviegoers for his intended new trilogy prequel, the release dates of which are 1999, 2001 and 2003?

Watching "Star Wars" after some 20 years, I was struck by how "old-fashioned" and "quaint" the movie seems. Of course, this long-ago feeling is accentuated by the youthful, even dorky appearances of the young Carrie Fisher (as Princess Leia), Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill (an incredibly vapid Luke Skywalker). But even the movie's editing rhythms, sense of comedy and special effects look old hat, compared -- ironically -- to the modern age of filmmaking it has spawned. "Star Wars" comes across as an aging father among bright young sons. But it's a pleasant father at that. And I'd recommend the experience to anyone.

© 1997 The Washington Post Company