Return of the Jedi, return of the hype

Almost 20 years ago, buried in the back of the Daily’s A&E section, was a curt pan of a summer action movie. “It’s as good an excuse as any for air conditioning in the summertime,” read the review. “But if this is going to be the best movie of the year, as Time brashly estimated last week, then maybe the next development ought to be a computerized audience.” Maybe it wasn’t the best film of 1977, but it was the most enduring. When “Star Wars” hits screens again tomorrow, theaters will be packed with fans to see what is arguably the most popular film in history.
Reaction to George Lucas’ space opus has always been fervent and divided. Five months after its release, A&E conducted a poll to explore its phenomenal, ongoing success — “Star Wars” accounted for 20 percent of all movie tickets sold in the summer of 77. Responses ranged from “I’ve seen it 20 times and could easily see it 20 more,” to “it’s damned infantile and brings out the worst and gushiest sentimentality.” Whether touted for its ground-breaking special effects and rousing adventure or lambasted for its simple story and one-dimensional characters, the “Star Wars” debate has scarcely subsided in the last two decades.
Critics call it the film that ruined American cinema. Before Luke Skywalker, the argument goes, smaller and smarter movies from the likes of Martin Scorsese, Arthur Penn or John Cassavetes had a chance. Afterward, Hollywood simply pumped millions upon millions into mindless, derivative action flicks. But supporters, most notably scholar Joseph Campbell, saw “Star Wars” as a rich parable which provided a generation with legendary heroes engaged in a classic struggle between good and evil. “Star Wars’ is not a simple morality play,” said Campbell, “it has to do with the powers of life as they are either fulfilled or broken and suppressed through the actions of man.”
There’s also the juggernaut of merchandising to consider. “Star Wars” was the first film in history to earn more from action figures and product tie-ins than box office returns. Between a re-release of the original saga and a trilogy of prequels slated to debut in 1999, a familiar sound echoes from Madison Avenue: Cha-Ching! Pepsi has already paid $2 billion for advertising rights for the prequels. Meanwhile, Darth Vader duels the Energizer Bunny and treasured Boba Fett action figures fetch hundreds of dollars on the black market. Even the most devout fans admit some of the magic is dispelled. But don’t overestimate the power of the marketers — their mind tricks won’t work on us.
We won’t buy our tickets because we saw a Pepsi ad. Nor will we quibble over the cultural or philosophical ramifications of “Star Wars” when the curtain goes up tomorrow. We’ll stand in line just to see an old favorite on the big screen again, or perhaps even for the first time. Whether critics and scholars read too much or too little into “Star Wars,” they seem to forget that the fundamental appeal of the film is its unparalleled power to capture the imagination. We’re transported to a galaxy far away, peopled by strange creatures, imbued with detail and nuance. Equal parts western, fairy tale and sci-fi, with WWII-style dogfights and Samurai swordplay, its vast adventure suggests a grander scope. “Star Wars” endures because its swashbuckling escapade is simply the most fun we’ve ever had at the movies.