The Star Wars universe has evolved and expanded (and in the case of the Expanded Universe, contracted) considerably in the last two decades, a process that took root in the mid-’90s and entered hyperspace in 1997. On the occasion of the franchise’s 20th anniversary, the original trilogy of films set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away returned to theaters for the first time since the ’80s, but they had changed—and soon enough, so would our perception of the franchise, and even the way we referred to its individual entries. But before all that, those who’d stuck with Luke, Leia, and company through lean years were rewarded with a period of peace, celebration, and ample merchandising tie-ins. Today, three A.V. Club staffers reflect on the year Star Wars came back to stay.
On March 29, 1985, Star Wars: Episode VI—Return Of The Jedi returned to movie theaters for a three-week run that added $11.2 million to the film’s lifetime box-office gross. Also released on March 29, 1985, beginning a 1,686-week (as of this writing) run with a lifetime gross nowhere near $11.2 million: A.V. Club TV editor Erik Adams. I entered the world just as Star Wars was exiting from it. The franchise’s popularity was on the wane, and the Jedi re-release would be the movies’ final theatrical appearance for more than a decade. The fan base was growing up, George Lucas was moving on, and other pop-culture phenomena were waiting in the wings. Two animated spin-offs and a second Ewoks TV movie arrived that fall, but none managed to renew the general public’s interest in a galaxy far, far away.
But no one was counting on the second generation of fans who, let’s say, were kicking and crying in a suburban Detroit maternity ward while the Rebel Alliance mounted its assault on the second Death Star one last time. I grew up watching A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return Of The Jedi on VHS, during a time when the movies had gone back to being just movies, the way that other, colossal cinematic events of years past were just movies. No Kenner action figures, no C-3PO’s cereal, no Darth Vader Halloween costumes—just the original texts that enthralled filmgoers in the previous decade, before fueling the imaginations of the world’s merchandisers. It was a bit of a hard pill to swallow at that age, when every other movie or TV show I loved came with an accompanying toy line and matching bedsheets. If I came into contact with Star Wars ephemera, I clung to it—like the book-and-record set Star Wars: Adventures In Colors And Shapes, which stuck around longer than the record or any of my parents’ turntables. Once, in kindergarten, I spilled milk all over myself and got sent home in a Return Of The Jedi iron-on T-shirt from the lost-and-found, which I begrudgingly returned the following day. Looking back on the incident, the T-shirt is a pretty good representation of where Star Wars stood as the ’80s became the ’90s: forgotten, reduced to rags, and covering up a dairy-soaked child.
So 1997 was going to be my year. I’d finally get a chance to see some of my favorite movies in a movie theater, with updates that made them look the way George Lucas wanted them to look the first time around. The latter attribute turned out to be a bust, but it takes none of the magic out of watching a Star Destroyer zoom in overheard, 50 feet tall, for the very first time. As the “Special Edition” releases rolled out, I caught each on opening day. Twelve years after I missed Return Of The Jedi because I was a dumb newborn who was just figuring out how to breathe (so I would’ve really felt a kinship with Han Solo after he’s freed from the carbonite) my sixth-grade class attended a matinee of Episode VI as a good-behavior reward. That day, I wore one of those Calvin Klein parody shirts that were popular at the time, the type that slipped a different pop-culture property’s initials into the familiar “cK” branding and punctuated it with a cheeky tagline. It said “STAR WARS REBELWEAR,” and before you ask, yes, I had zero business wearing any piece of apparel that suggested I was a rebel.
I spent my allowance on the action figures I’d always wanted, but couldn’t have. I collected the Pizza Hut posters with C-3PO, R2-D2, Yoda, and Wicket. I read Star Wars novels, played Star Wars computer games, bought a Star Wars customizable card game that pretty much never left its packaging because my brother and I couldn’t figure out the instructions. I read eagerly about the prequels that would trace the story of how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader. For years, Star Wars was nowhere. Now, Star Wars was everywhere. And it wasn’t going away.
That, more than Han shooting first or Harrison Ford’s uncanny levitation over Jabba’s tail, is what sticks with me about the Special Edition re-releases. It’s a bit of a monkey’s paw situation: I wanted to know what it was like to live in a world where Star Wars was a dominant cultural force, and I’ve now had 20 years to find out. Frankly, I can’t blame people for burning out on Star Wars by 1985. My enthusiasm from the Special Editions carried on through the lead-up to The Phantom Menace, but by the time I was cracking open Pepsi One cans with Boss Nass’ face on them, the novelty was wearing off. The omnipresence has only become more oppressive since Disney took the reins, but it’s a little easier to take when the movies are actually entertaining. It’s nice to feel a little bit of that spirit of ’97 whenever a new trailer hits YouTube.
I’ve only come to regret the Special Editions in hindsight, for the way they buff out imperfections that made the original cuts feel alive and lived-in, or how their digital alterations swelled up, multiplied, and eventually swallowed the prequels. And if I want to watch a version of A New Hope where Mos Eisley looks a little more scummy and a little more villainous, I can always fire up my old VHS copy. (Remember kids: Hang on to your physical media.) It’s a testament to the strength of the original movies that they’ve been able to endure all this poking and prodding, revamping and remastering, milking and monetizing. The first blast of John Williams’ orchestral score, Vader emerging from the smoke, Han swooping in to chase the TIE Fighters off of Luke’s tail—that stuff holds up whether it’s 1977, 1997, or 2017.
What a difference just a few years make. I was born in 1990, and so most of my childhood was spent in that post-Special Edition world where Star Wars was back and as big as ever. Where these re-releases were a chance for Erik to fully realize a childhood love, for me, they were the birth of one. When they hit theaters, I was the perfect age for George Lucas’ saga to really work its magic, and naturally, I was immediately obsessed. I also hoarded as much merch as I could, proudly plunking Shadows Of The Empire into my Nintendo 64 when I could have been playing Super Mario and stomping around the house in a voice-changing Vader mask. And hey, I’d never seen Star Wars before, so it’s not like the Special Editions could possibly disappoint me. As far as I knew, Greedo did shoot first and the performance in Jabba’s palace always included that big-nosed alien singer flinging his spit into the camera. (After hearing the original song later in life, I can see why that change pissed so many people off. It was awesome.)
But the Special Editions were more than the start of my love for a single series and universe. I’d credit them with making me realize pop culture could be a grand shared experience, and that film and the act of filmgoing were something worth celebrating in the most lavish of ways. At 7 years old, I’d been to plenty of movies before, but I’d never seen something with the power to bring people together, to be an event, to demand being seen, quite like Star Wars.
Part of that has to be chalked up to how I saw A New Hope for the first time. My dad, realizing what a special moment this could be, took me to see it at the now-defunct Cinema 150 in Syosset, New York. It was an enormous single-screen theater, and with a capacity of at least 1,000, a balcony, a huge curved screen, and a history as one of Long Island’s most prestigious movie houses, it was the place to see blockbusters like this. (It’s now a giant gym, in case you were wondering and wanted to be immediately depressed.) We waited in a line that stretched out the building, across the immaculately kept property, and down the highway in front of it. I remember standing there in disbelief at how many people were there just to see some old movie, a movie that, judging by the ages of everyone in line, they’d already seen before.
Of course, we got inside and the movie started, and I completely understood. Like Erik said, seeing that Star Destroyer crawl into view on this tremendous screen, hearing the wail of a TIE Fighter blare over my head, it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced in the rinky-dink dime-a-dozen cineplex theaters that were all over the place by 1997. It was fully transportive in a way only film could be and that few movies since Star Wars’ grimy, detailed reality have managed. For a dorky 7-year-old taking it all in for the first time, how could it not inspire a lifelong love, not just for the sci-fi spectacle in front of them but also for this exhilarating act of communal escapism?
It took many years before that Star Wars obsession waned. Attack Of The Clones might have been a disappointment, but I found my fix elsewhere, from excellent video games like Knights Of The Old Republic and Republic Commando or from Genndy Tartakovsky’s Clone Wars cartoon. As Revenge Of The Sith, which I found dreadful even at the time, came and went, so did all that great Star Wars stuff on the periphery and so did my frothing fandom. Even now with a couple of solid movies under its belt, I don’t get that twinge of childlike excitement whenever a Disney Star Wars lands, but every December I head to a theater with my dad to see it anyway because that’s what you do. It has as much to do with indulging in the ritual of cinema itself as any love I still have for Star Wars. Thanks to those Special Editions, the two will always be linked for me.
Hey, everybody, an old man is talking: Having been born in 1978, I was a year too late to ruin a screening of Star Wars—a movie I still crankily refuse to call A New Hope—with my newborn squalls. However, I was young enough to catch the tail end of its initial cultural dominance. By the time I was 5, I’d accrued an entire plastic Darth Vader’s head full of Kenner action figures, which seemed to naturally accumulate on middle-class kids’ toy chests like snowdrifts, and I drank almost exclusively out of Empire Strikes Back collectors’ cups from Burger King. In kindergarten, I was called out by a classmate for wearing my Star Wars Underoos shirt (the one made to look like an X-Wing pilot’s uniform), a public humiliation that forms one of my earliest memories. Like I wrote about here, I don’t really recall a life before Star Wars.
Oh, and I saw the movies, too—Empire and Return Of The Jedi, anyway—both with my dad, both of them at tiny theaters somewhere in Arlington, Texas, so neither were particularly magical so far as cinematic experiences go. But that was almost irrelevant. Star Wars was primarily an extra-textual passion, an obsession existing well outside the films themselves. And until about the age of 14, when I finally decided I might like a girl to see my bedroom someday, I pursued it with the all-encompassing voraciousness that others afforded sports or not being completely socially inept.
For most of my childhood, my bedroom was covered floor to ceiling with Star Wars models and posters and foreign variants of those posters and 8x10 movie stills I collected from Suncoast Motion Picture Company. I listened to John Williams’ scores on a rotation. I collected the Marvel comics and devoured the novelizations, The Han Solo Adventures, Timothy Zahn’s The Thrawn Trilogy, etc. At one particularly embarrassing point, I even began writing a “sequel,” one that picked up the very morning after the Death Star explodes in Return Of The Jedi. (Because what more fascinating story is there than one of the Rebellion reorganizing while Ewoks sweep up debris?) As I “matured” and started taking a budding interest in filmmaking, I also began repeatedly watching the documentary From Star Wars To Jedi, convincing myself that I now also appreciated Star Wars as an aspirational example of “the craft.” My Star Wars fandom evolved and stayed with me, even if, eventually, I only allowed a single photo of Cloud City on my wall.
All of which is a long prelude to say that, when the movies were rereleased in 1997—while I was briefly pursuing film school up at Boston’s Emerson College—my inner dork was very excited to see these things I loved so fervently on the big screen again, but my outer 19-year-old approached them with skepticism, colored by the film student’s snobby suspicion of their new CGI polish. Sure, maybe fix those ugly matte lines around the Rancor, but Jesus Christ, we don’t need a whole new Sy Snootles song—and needless to say, don’t completely change Han Solo’s character, for fuck’s sake. I don’t want to rehash the entire litany of other egregious changes here and retrace that well-worn internet groove, but that was pretty much my point of view on the Special Editions. They meddled—often needlessly, occasionally infuriatingly—with works that I knew every frame of, having slept beneath 30 or so of them for most of my life. And whatever joy there was in experiencing them in a big room with amped-up sound and a live, enthusiastic audience, it was often overwhelmed by my repeated inability to stop playing spot-the-difference, or to wonder why the hell George Lucas had to cover up half the frame with a computerized dinosaur.
And if that’s not clichéd internet crank enough for you, here’s where I will also admit that, in my own very petty way, I was jaded by the sudden mainstream resurgence of Star Wars fandom, when for so many years I had been completely ostracized for it. Star Wars is pretty far from a niche interest, but for the entire run of my adolescence, it was definitely not cool to talk about—let alone wear a Star Wars shirt to school. What I probably remember most about those ’97 screenings is how many people showed up in costume, or how even the hipsters I roomed with suddenly pulled their old Empire Strikes Back bed sheets out—and how it felt to see everyone openly declaring their lifelong love for this thing that, just two years prior, was still the province of people hanging out in chatrooms, arguing about parsecs. It was all a prelude, I suppose, to the complaints you hear today about the mainstreaming of “geek” and comic-book culture, and I also recognize that “I liked it before it was cool” is the most exhausting and risible of attitudes. I can’t help it: At the time, it felt intensely personal. Today I’m heartened by your story of how the Special Edition rereleases introduced you to Star Wars, Matt, and I also acknowledge that it was crazy silly to believe I had a personal claim on the most globally popular fictional universe ever created (one that kids who were actually there to see it begin in 1977 would probably scoff at me about). But that year, those rejiggered films and the renewed hype just rang slightly hollow, and I ended up feeling a bit less connected to them.
For me, the Special Editions represented the first ebbing of a lifelong devotion, right at the time it was sparking a whole new generation of acolytes. Lucas’ pointless tinkering—and his attendant disavowal of the originals—felt like the height of blinkered, mercenary arrogance to me, and my perception of him as a man too enraptured by empty technology was only ossified by The Phantom Menace, a film that all but crushed whatever remained of my passion. Today, I still love Star Wars, but it’s tinged with wistfulness for a time pre-’97, when it was just those three films, and everything else had more or less been left to the imagination. Logically, I can’t blame George Lucas for wanting to burnish his most lasting artistic contributions, or for wanting to reintroduce them to the kids (or even make a few billion in the process). Nor can I possibly fault the people, like you guys, for whom the Special Editions or the prequels revitalized that fandom. Still, in many ways, I sort of wish they’d never happened—that Star Wars had been preserved to be rediscovered exactly as it was, again and again. I’m pretty sure you guys would have loved it like that, too.