Star Wars is like a song you love. You hear the song and it takes you back to a special time in your life. It’s a soundtrack for your memories. You hear it and images unfold on the screen of your mind, accompanied by an array of sights, sounds, and sensations. For instance, within a few notes of “America the Beautiful” by Ray Charles, I’m back celebrating the 4th of July in the neighborhood where I grew up. I smell hotdogs on the grill and gunpowder in the air. I hear the cheers of baseball games, the sizzle and pop of sparklers, firecrackers, and Coca-Cola. I see star-spangled streamers flapping from bicycles, and breeze-kissed American flags waving from porches, washed golden in the sun, and then in the warm dusk, exploding gemstones of fireworks illuminating and patterning the sky.
Art works its magic on us in unique ways. Be it a movie, a song, or a painting, it isn’t rational. The art we love, like Star Wars, plays our emotional keys just so, and stirs inside of us a symphony of passion and sentiment that we are at a loss to fully understand. To try to explain it in a scientific way is impossible. To try to articulate it also falls short. Every Star Wars fan understands this. There’s just something about it, perhaps many somethings about it, that resonates deeply with us. It’s ineffable and nebulous, yet real and substantial, and every fan of the franchise has a connection with some aspect of it that provides them with meaning. Every fan is unique in this regard, everyone’s source of meaning is different. But what is the same is that everyone’s source of meaning inevitably evokes in them nostalgic, calming, peaceful, joyous memories. For me, that source of meaning is the Special Edition.
Released in 1997, the Special Edition has often been derided because George Lucas altered elements of the original films. Han and Greedo. Han and Jabba. Luke’s scream. And so on. But I wasn’t alive when the Original Trilogy was released, so none of the changes particularly bothered me. The Special Edition was my introduction to the Star Wars Universe, and the anticipation of its release was a delightful, exuberant experience. The folks at Lucasfilm trumpeted the revamped films with infectious fanfare, inaugurated by a tantalizing voiceover in the initial trailer. “If you’ve only seen Star Wars on the TV screen,” the voice teased, “you haven’t seen it at all!” I was hooked, and my friends and I gleefully devoured every ancillary product that poured out of Skywalker Ranch in the lead up to the film’s arrival. There were wonderful Pepsi commercials, Doritos tie-ins, “making-of” documentaries, toys, souvenirs, books, magazines, trading cards, and, of course, the glorious, stop-your-heart stunning Drew Struzan poster art.
I didn’t view any of this as crass advertising or the effort of a greedy marketing machine. I viewed it as a celebration, an invitation to a huge party attended by millions of like-minded enthusiasts from all over the world. The invitation said, in effect, “Hey, Star Wars is coming back! Isn’t this fun? Isn’t this a blast?” I sure thought so, and as a ten-year old, the Special Edition was my inauguration into the world of imagination and fantasy. I remember recording on VHS the documentary Star Wars: The Magic and Mystery, which aired on Fox during the publicity campaign. I rewatched that tape again and again, entranced by the wizardry of the digital enhancements and awed by George Lucas’s exceedingly calm and quiet recollection of the challenges he overcame to get the original film made. Plus, there were glimpses of the mist-covered Skywalker Ranch, that magic lamp of a Victorian mansion tucked in rolling green hills from which sprang all the wonders of the Star Wars universe.
One of those wonders was Shadows of the Empire, a multi-media storytelling endeavor released in 1996 in effort to build anticipation for the Special Edition. Set between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, the effort was described as a “movie without a movie”, and it featured a novel by Steve Perry, a video game for Nintendo 64, a soundtrack by Joel McNeely, a comic book from Dark Horse, along with toys and other merchandise. My friends and I spent many wonderful hours playing in that sandbox, enthralled by the adventure, dazzled by the immersive world-building, and hungry to see the films on the big screen for the first time. George Lucas had a keen idea about how to gradually introduce his franchise to a new generation, and his instincts proved absolutely right. Without the 1997 re-release, it’s unlikely that we would have the rich, ever-expanding Star Wars environment that we enjoy today.
Indeed, the Special Edition, and all its attendant excitements, launched my irrational love (a love, I gather, that is shared by all members of the fan community) of those idiosyncratic touchstones of the saga that have taken on the resonances of a familiar home, such as the pristine white corridor of the Rebel blockade runner; the dusty abodes of Mos Eisley; the ambiances and sinister rhythms in the bowels of the Death Star; the perpetual magic hour of Cloudy City; the orange steam and bluish haze of the freezing chamber; the hum of an ignited lightsaber; the whine of a tie-fighter, and on and on and on, (and I haven’t even mentioned the characters, the story, or the music).
Why do we care about any of this? Why do the sights, sounds, and sensations of Star Wars affect us so palpably? Again, it isn’t rational. But it has something to do with recapturing the wonderment and idealism of youth. The franchise is pure escapism, an entrance into a world where cynicism and pessimism have no power, a world sustained by an uncorrupted moral order, where villainy is defeated and heroism celebrated. It’s a world where, through courage and fortitude, everything will be okay in the end. And, perhaps more fundamentally, it’s a sheer delight. It’s simple, good old-fashioned fun.
Star Wars has had the same effect on people for four decades and counting, and everyone has their own keepsake elements, their own odd entry points into the universe. The Special Edition happens to be it for me. Whatever it is for you, cherish it. As you know, in difficult times, it can help sustain you. That’s probably the best definition of art that I can think of. In difficult times, it sustains you. That’s truly something special.