In the firmament of cinematic second-guessers, there are plenty of leading lights. Consider James Cameron, who has noodled around with expanded ''special editions'' of Aliens, The Abyss, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day for TV and video. Then there's Francis Ford Coppola, who revisited The Godfather not just in sequels but in multiple TV-miniseries editions, VHS cassettes, and laserdisc boxed sets. Even first-time auteur Kevin Costner retraced his steps for a four-hour Dances With Wolves.
But this month, George Lucas will outshine his fellow revisionists like a supernova blowing away so many dwarf stars. For the 20th-anniversary theatrical rerelease of Star Wars on Jan. 31 on approximately 1,800 screens a far cry from the movie's timid 32-screen debut on May 25, 1977 Lucas has dispatched his special-effects artists at Industrial Light & Magic to tinker with and even flat-out remake bits of the movie. Only 4 1/2 minutes of new visuals are involved (though the entire soundtrack has been tweaked), but the restoration and filmmaking techniques employed are so complex, they cost $10 million about the size of the original movie's budget. And what a difference the few added minutes make: They mark the dawn of a new era in filmic hocus-pocus, where directors (and maybe hostile studio bosses) will be able to conjure new scenes out of thin air long after the sets have been struck and the actors have moved on.
Besides, with a movie as well-known as Star Wars, every ripple of change sends a tidal wave through the film's fan base. ILM has souped up creaky, fake-looking creatures (debate rages on the Internet about whether this is good or bad), reinstated outtakes, and tricked out old scenes with new shots or added-in figures (a la Forrest Gump's fact-meets-fiction newsreel wizardry). Lucas has also orchestrated smaller emendations in the sequels The Empire Strikes Back (due for rerelease Feb. 21) and Return of the Jedi (March 7).
Is the world ready to fall in love with Star Wars as a communal experience all over again? At first, even Lucas' faithful weren't sure. ''When I heard we were doing this, I had reservations,'' says Ben Burtt, the sound designer who won a special Oscar for Star Wars and who is remixing the trilogy in digitally recorded, bass-boosted surround sound. ''I didn't want to deal with it again. I said, Gee, shouldn't we put our energy into something new?''
In a way, they have, since Lucas hasn't tuned up these space operas in a vacuum; they're the prelude to a new set of arias. Next fall, the 52-year-old filmmaker will end a 20-year directing sabbatical and begin filming the first of three Star Wars prequels from his screenplay. He'll then hire others to direct (and probably script, from his outline) chapters 2 and 3 of an intended nine-movie cycle (take that, Star Trek), in which Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi occupy the fourth, fifth, and sixth slots. Release dates for the new trilogy are set for May 1999 (the prodigious effects will take that long to finish), 2001, and 2003.