It didn’t just change the movies — it changed us. I was 18 years old, wrapping up my freshman year in college, when I walked into my local Michigan mall in May of 1977 to see Star Wars. The collective anticipation wasn’t like anything I’d encountered before. I remember passing a T-shirt store in one of the mall’s plastic corridors, a store that was already selling Star Wars T-shirts. The shirts, the mall, the movie: All seemed linked, part of a meticulous pop continuum. (The hype was already taking over the galaxy.) And the final link in the chain, of course, was the audience itself.
George Lucas built Star Wars, and we came. An ecstatically entertaining retro sci-fi adventure, fusing the clunky ”innocence” of ’50s outer-space serials, the oedipal design of the Arthurian legends, and the eye-zapping technology of a new era, the movie tapped into something at once superficial and deep, our yearning for a world in which good and evil could still stand apart with sublime clarity. Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader were like white and black chess kings; even their lightsabers were color coded. The ultimate popcorn movie, memorably dubbed by Pauline Kael ”a box of Cracker Jack that is all prizes,” Star Wars, with its eagerness and flash, its fairy-tale irresistibility, paved the way for a new era of demagogic comic-book moviemaking, one in which speed and action and special effects would take precedence over character, content, soul. Now, as the film is rereleased for its 20th anniversary, we’ll come once more, not just to see the newly enhanced ”Special Edition” but to reexperience the high of mass enthusiasm that George Lucas reintroduced to America.
To see Star Wars in a theater again, amid crowds cheering both the movie and their own propensity to cheer, is to feel an ambiguous surge of nostalgia, a nostalgia for the moment when we agreed to reunite as a culture by going back to the future. Star Wars, of course, was hardly the first movie to become a national event. There was Gone With the Wind. Psycho and The Godfather. And just two years before Lucas’ extravaganza, in the summer of 1975, there was Jaws, the original modern blockbuster, a virtuoso exercise in primal terror that generated first-weekend grosses so staggering they effectively turned the movie industry on its head. Yet by the time that Star Wars was released, there’d been a further shift in the national mood — a yearning, after years of fragmentation and upheaval, after Vietnam and Watergate, for something bold and official and empowering. With the election of the scoldingly saintly Jimmy Carter, America was like a kid longing for a hot rod. Thus, Lucas’ high-octane space odyssey. (Thus, a few years later, the feel-good presidency of Ronald Reagan, who came up with a PR coup in naming his cherished missile shield after Lucas’ film.) When you went to see Star Wars, you didn’t just go to a movie, or an Event. You went to become part of the Event — to merge with it. Lucas, in his creative innocence (if he had actually intended to do this it wouldn’t have worked), created a zippy techno-dreamscape whose meaning was crystallized by the fact of its unprecedented box office success. Luke Skywalker defeats the Empire by rising up out of himself to embrace something larger: the Force. The magic of Star Wars lies in the way that his triumph is mirrored, emotionally, by the audience’s sense of joining something larger than itself.