By Kaplan, David A.
Newsweek , Vol. 129, No. 3
You've rented the videos, bought the toys, compared your boss to Darth Vader. Now, 20 years later, go back to the theater. `Star Wars' strikes back.
IT WAS A REVIVAL IN MORE THAN the movie sense. One night last week at the Gotham Cinema in Manhattan, several hundred fans gathered for a sneak preview of a movie they'd collectively seen thousands of times before on video. When the lights went down and "Star Wars" began to roll, the congregation of mostly twenty somethings cheered in delight. Behold that unforgettable opening shot of the Rebel Blockade Runner being pursued by the monstrous Imperial Star Destroyer! The score was a hymn, the plot a parable, and everybody in the audience mouthed the lines before they were actually spoken. ("When I left you, I was but the learner," Darth Vader tells Obi-Wan Kenobi in a pivotal scene. "Now I am the master!" Pretty memorable, eh?) But when the name of writer-director George Lucas appeared in the credits, people yelled the loudest. In the men s room during a break, one fellow with two earrings turned to a total stranger and exclaimed, "God, this is spiritual, isn't it?"
Get ready for this sort of stuff at a cineplex near you. Beginning Jan. 31, "Star Wars" is returning to theaters, 20 years after its release. Its two sequels, "The Empire Srikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi," will open in February and March. All will have sprucedup prints and some new digital surprises. But it's not that the movies ever really left. Videocassette versions, best-selling Bantam novels, fan clubs, collectibles, at least 963 sites on the World Wide Web, an incredible $4 billion in merchandising sales--they're part of an industry and a cult. The appeal depends on the fan. It;s a classic fairy tale about good and evil, evoking old-time mythology with futuristic intergalactic cavalries. It has religious, paternal and political overtones. "Everyone has an opinion," Lucas told NEWSWEEK. Maybe, he says, because it's about "universal themes like friendship, loyalty, morality." Or it's an "adrenalin rush." Or, most simply, because it's a ton of campy, corny fun, which is more than can be said for the cynical drivel coming out of Hollywood these days.
The triumph of "Star Wars" Isn't bad for a movie that almost didn't get made. (Or a story that a New York Times critic said "could be written on the head of a pin and still leave room for the Bible.") Studios shunned it. Lucas himself, over the course of three years, couldn't settle on a script; one version was only about robots (which is what critics said anyway of Mark Hamill's performance as Luke when the film came out). Finally, Alan Ladd Jr. at Twentieth Century Fox paid Lucas $15,000 to do a screenplay and then committed $10 million to make it--more out of loyalty to a young Lucas than faith that the movie, without any big stars, would sell. Lucas and his close friend Steven Spielberg had a bet over how it would do Lucas took the low number.
Now "Star Wars" is part of the culture. The Smithsonian next fall will open a big exhibition on the mythology and social themes of "Star Wars." Bartlett's credits the movie with adding "evil empire" to the lexicon; "Darth Vader" is the personification of evil, and journalists love him: in 20 years he's appeared in the lead paragraph of 1,239 articles (including 21 times in NEWSWEEK). An episode of "Friends" features David Schwimmer fantasizing about Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia; this season, Brooke Shields was called "tall as a Wookiee" on her TV show. (Same eyebrows, too.) James Earl Jones, who gave Vader his immortal voice, is now omnipresent as the bass embodiment of CNN. (Lucas considered Orson Welles but thought his voice too recognizable. Jones polished off the "Star Wars" voice-over in three hours. "I was offered a day's work," Jones says, "and I got paid a day's wage.")
When "Star Wars" opened, just before Memorial Day 1977, it obliterated box-office records. People waited in lines for up to six hours to watch Luke Skywalker fight Darth Vader in an epic comic-book adventure. …