Reflections on the 30th Anniversary of Star Wars
Rendered 5/21/2007

Star Wars Thirty years have now passed since a movie called Star Wars premiered on May 25, 1977. It's a major milestone in pop culture history, though sadly this anniversary will pass without much in the way of significant commemoration. The last of the episodes got wrapped up two years ago, and the new television series won't start for another couple of years yet. The grand ultimate six-movie DVD box set anticipated for 2007 has apparently been postponed, and we can probably expect the films to show up on Blu-ray sometime closer to 2017. The theatrical re-release featuring revolutionary digital 3-D technology is similarly stranded in indefinite limbo.

It looks like about all Star Wars is getting for its thirtieth birthday is some postage stamps and R2-D2 mailboxes. To be fair, there's also J.W. Rinzler's monumental The Making of Star Wars book. As outstanding as it is, this massive tome is only going to reach a niche group of fanatics already well-versed in much of the behind-the-scenes lore. Speaking of written works of minor social impact, I won't be delivering my book-length analysis of the entire series this year, either. The timing would have been nice, but I have other priorities I want to turn my attention to first. Like the rest of the Star Wars fandom-marketing-industrial complex in general, I've got big plans lined up for later, but I'm not all that interested in doing much right now.

That said, it's nevertheless my duty and my pleasure to pause and mark the occasion of Fatherboy XXX. (For the uninitiated, here's some help with that obscure reference.) While this can rightly be considered the anniversary of Star Wars as a whole, I think it's a fine opportunity to honor the significance of the original movie. I was seven when it first came out, and now I am 37. I have seen it honestly hundreds of times, probably approaching a thousand. It's still just as much fun to watch now as it was the first time. But the experience has become undeniably extremely different over time, and by that I'm not just referring to the controversial amendments in the various special editions.

It's virtually impossible for us today to appreciate what a singularly weird and unlikely creation the world first beheld thirty years ago. It was the product of a million happy accidents. If you explore the genesis of Star Wars, as thoroughly documented in the Rinzler book and elsewhere, you can see how many enormous opportunities that first film had to fail. George Lucas's early drafts of the story and screenplay were incomprehensible rubbish. His clueless special-effects crew were just making stuff up as they went, with no idea what they were doing. Nervous 20th Century Fox executives cut the budget to the bone and threatened to pull the plug on the whole thing. By all logic and reason, Star Wars should have sucked. But somehow, in a miraculous symphony of serendipity, the story, the casting, the performances, the production design, the effects, the editing, the sound and -- God bless John Williams -- the music all coalesced perfectly as if bound together by some unseen galactic energy field.

But even this confounding miracle is not the greatest magic of the original Star Wars. Upon its 1977 opening, that film possessed a magnificent purity that can never be recaptured. The media hype, the merchandising and the subsequent films have transformed the initial phenomenon for better and for worse.

To help us get back to the seminal essence of Star Wars, let's perform a most unorthodox thought experiment. Imagine what it would be like if Star Wars was the only Star Wars. Say the movie came out in 1977 and became the same huge success we know, but that was the end of it. In this alternate realty, George Lucas decided he was content to leave the story there, and he successfully prevented Fox from producing any sequels or spin-offs without him. This Lucasfilm allowed some licensed books and comics, but only along the lines of Splinter of the Mind's Eye. The "true story" of Darth Vader's identity and Luke's destiny as a Jedi Knight was never told, much less the Clone Wars, the lava pit duel and all that other stuff. As far as we knew, Luke blew up the (one and only) Death Star and they all lived happily ever after. The end.

Yes, this is heresy of the highest order. Detractors far and wide have wished Lucas had never chosen to make the prequel trilogy, but I can think of few raped-childhood accusers hardcore enough to bemoan the existence of The Empire Strikes Back. But just stop to think about it. How different would it be if the opening crawl never needed the retrofitted tag of "Episode IV"? What if A New Hope really was, to paraphrase Princess Leia, our only hope?

The 1977 opening crawl

Obviously, the Star Wars enterprise would have been incalculably less profitable, banking on a mere fraction of the movie revenues and merchandising material. Though Lucas might have returned to artsy experimental films without the massive distraction of completing the Skywalker saga, my feeling is that he would almost certainly have led a less creatively successful career. The capabilities of Industrial Light and Magic would not have proliferated so dramatically, and the quality of cinematic technology today would be lagging a good ten or fifteen years behind. But all these external concerns are quite beside the point. Let's consider the impact on Star Wars itself.

In short, it would be a tragedy if there were only one Star Wars movie. The story would be far less profound and meaningful without the character development and psychological heft that the subsequent episodes incorporated. Without the plot complication that Luke Skywalker is the son of Darth Vader, who was a noble Jedi Knight until misguided emotions led him to self-destruction, we're left with a simple fairy tale where some good guys fight some bad guys and they both blow stuff up. We would be deprived of much more than five spectacularly fun and entertaining movies. We would be deprived of a modern-day mythology.

But ironically enough, by the very same token, I believe that if the 1977 movie stood alone, Star Wars would be more popular, more revered and more respected today. That's right: not less of a classic. More of a classic.

This is the conundrum. When it first appeared, this strange little movie from out of nowhere carried a tremendous freshness and purity. It really took us to a galaxy far, far away, and made us believe we were only seeing a small fragment of a complete world. It was easy for the viewer to put himself in the place of Luke, Han and Leia, using our imaginations to fill in the unseen details and intriguing backstories. When the later episodes came along to tell us the rest of the story, all of that immediately and irrevocably changed. The act of enriching and deepening the mythology also diminishes its universality and destroys that original purity that was so very much a part of the first film's appeal.

As the canon of Star Wars develops and grows more complex, the casual audience's willing participation and suspension of disbelief begins to wane. Cynicism sets in as viewers begin to question apparent contradictions and implausibilities. Think how it became stock fodder for stand-up comedians that everyone in Star Wars is somehow secretly related. First Obi-Wan and Yoda forbid Luke to confront Vader so he can complete his Jedi training, but they right turn around say Luke will become a Jedi only when he confronts Vader -- so which is it? And how come the Empire built another Death Star just so the rebels could blow it up again?

The original Star Wars was easily accessible without any prior knowledge. The episodes are progressively more challenging, built upon the audience's recollection and awareness of previous plot elements, and in the case of the prequels, subsequent plot elements as well. In other words, if you fully understood the story of Star Wars in 1977, you were cool. If you fully understand the story of Star Wars in 2007, you are a nerd.

So that's why I contend that Star Wars would be considered more of a timeless classic today if it consisted of only that one film. Though incomplete and underdeveloped it would still retain that 1977 purity, left clean and immaculate for three decades. Star Wars would merit higher respect among film critics and cineastes, sitting more comfortably alongside the likes of Casablanca and Gone With the Wind. Lucas would be admired for refusing to compromise the integrity of his visionary masterpiece with commercialized follow-ups. Conan O'Brien would have to find another group of movie fans to pick on for being obsessive geeks who live in their parents' basement and never kissed a girl, because Star Wars would never have become uncool.

Majik Market Star Wars ad If you're too young to remember this nostalgia-tinted "Star Wars purity" that I keep rhapsodizing about, I've got a perfect example to show you. The starwars.com site recently posted a video clip of a vintage 1977 commercial for Majik Market collectible cups, one of the very first merchandising items for the recently released movie. In all its cheap and unpolished glory, this ad represents a flawlessly preserved time capsule of old-school "Have you seen Stah Wahz?" excitement. Just listening to this dumpy guy in the Mister Rogers cardigan will remind you what it's all about. He's probably an actor reading a script, but his enthusiasm is utterly convincing. This guy loves the damn movie more than he can find words to articulate. Note how he's unencumbered by the quasi-incestuous nature of Leia's good-luck kiss for Luke. And it doesn't matter that he's unaware of the tragic history behind Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi. All he knows is that those laserswords were awesome. With all the millions spent in slick publicity and tie-ins for Revenge of the Sith, did any of those ads capture the same level of pure joy freely exhibited by the Majik Market schlub? Hell, no. And that time and place is gone forever.

But what we can do is remember that original thrill and try to keep some vestige of that flame burning in our appreciation for Star Wars. It's all too easy to be cynical and forget what a mind-blow this movie was back in the day. Like any true fan worth his weight in bantha poodoo, I'll be watching it once again on May 25th. But I won't be watching the digitally restored 2004 DVD, and I won't be watching last year's shoddy non-anamorphic release of the unaltered original. Nor will I be pulling out my old laserdiscs or VHS tapes to kick it O.G. style, fo' shizzle.

No, I shall be watching the best version of Star Wars currently available in any format in the world, the Darth Editous Ultimate Edition. This is a skillfully crafted fan edit that deletes the troublesome "Special Edition" additions, leaves in the agreeable enhancements and beautiful restoration, and corrects dozens of tiny mistakes that have always been present in the film. And it's all in proper 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen and 5.1 Dolby Digital. Please don't ask me to send you a copy, and please don't buy it from anyone. That would be against the law, and you'll just have to find out for yourself where you might download it for free.

I only mention the Darth Editous edition because thereby hangs a parable about real Star Wars fans and our passionate devotion. We take the best of the old, the best of the new, mix it all together, quit complaining, shut up, and simply enjoy.

And when I assert that Star Wars would hypothetically be more popular and beloved if there had only ever been one movie, of course I'm not suggesting that everyone would feel that way. I meant in the estimation of society at large. I know that I wouldn't be as huge a fan as I am in this reality -- I'd still have fond memories of the 1977 film, but I wouldn't have so much of a reason to be koo-koo about it well into adulthood. And I know equally well that there would be a large and vocal contingent of malcontents endlessly whining about that no-talent Lucas failing to get off his lazy ass and make some more movies about Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, declaring with hatred and vitriol that his neglect of those untold further adventures constituted a criminal violation of their childhood.

Some things you just can't change.

Happy birthday, Star Wars.

Cinema