1997 was the year Star Wars came back and never left – A.V. Club
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 8×10 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.