Happy days are here again. George Lucas' 1970s masterpiece was the single most important film of the 20-something male's childhood, and seeing it again is like flipping the clock back two decades. Star Wars was a technological watershed which changed the way movies were made and marketed, but more importantly, it seized and shook our imaginations like precious little before or since. It's good - - no, great - - to have it back.
With its four-and-a-half minutes of new special effects footage, and its reinstated scenes, this 20th anniversary revamp is arguably an even better film than the version that changed our lives. "Arguably" because, though much is undoubtedly improved - - the newly remastered sound for one thing, and the cleaned-up sfx shots - - some of Lucas' more gratuitous tinkering adds little, if anything, to the movie. Worse, a few of the new CGI effects shots look like they're going to age very badly over the next five years. Which is sort of ironic.
After you've settled down in the darkened cinema, felt the shivers crawl up your spine as that giant Star Destroyer zooms overhead in the first scene, and thrilled to the slam-bang entrance of cinema's darkest ubervillain, a few thoughts strike you. First, and most remarkable, is how modern - or, rather, timeless - the film looks: take a bow, please, production design genius John Barry. Leave aside the odd Abba haircut, flashing-light computer and dodgy background alien, and Star Wars could have been made yesterday. One reason the film was so easy to fall in love with in the late '70s was that it somehow looked real - - like the first space adventure to be shot on location on a genuine alien planet - - and it's lost little of that strange visual authority. Barry clearly knew that simplicity is often the most effective tool - twin suns and the odd bit of weird architecture make for a remarkably convincing desert planet; clothes are, sensibly, constructed of cloth, not silver foil or spandex; small arms look hefty and businesslike because they are (real guns were modified and painted black for the principal weaponry); and everything is covered in a realistic layer of dirt.
The problem with many of the new special effects is that they undercut this prosaic realness, particularly during the early sequences on Tatooine. Most of the new bits are fine - the snazzy shots of the Jawa sandcrawler, for instance, or the Rebel fleet gathering in space - and add to the richness of the experience. Some of the CGI-generated creatures, however, are highly questionable. Yes, they're fun, but they move about too much and make too much noise, like adolescents needlessly drawing attention to their qualities. And the CGI people (chiefly stormtroopers) just look wrong - much as we applaud Lucas' decision to push the boundaries of sfx technology as he did with the original film, his (rumoured) plans to realise some of the characters in Star Wars Episode 1 as CGI models - - a virtual C-3PO, anyone? - - are, quite frankly, terrifying.
In addition to the new special effects, two new/old sequences, snipped from the original cut of the film, have been reinstated. First there's Han's much-trumpeted meeting with a younger, (relatively) thin Jabba The Hutt - - it's brief, and good to see for sheer novelty value, but it's not particularly convincing and adds nothing to the plot. Then we get Luke's "'Hi! Good to see you!'" reunion with old pal Biggs Darklighter just before the final battle - intended to properly establish the fact that the two are old friends, and make Biggs' final sacrifice more meaningful and emotive. Alas, it's over so quickly it'll mean little to anyone but the doggedly hardcore Star Wars aficionado.
The bottom line is that while the changes made to this new print add little to the film, they do nothing to diminish its power either, and less obvious modifications (the better sound and new effects shots) are generally welcome. More than anything, this Star Wars reissue emphasises what we already knew - that there isn't an adventure film to match it in terms of archetypal characters, gripping plot and fantastic film "world". For most modern filmgoers, this is our Robin Hood, our King Arthur, our Flash Gordon... and now it's back. That alone should be cause for national street parties.