The Star Wars Special Editions hit theater screens 25 years ago. At the time, the advent of video rental stores and cable had rendered the big theatrical re-releases of the past moot. But when Star Wars returned to theaters for its 20th anniversary, it proved that George Lucas’ seminal space saga was not only best viewed on the big screen, but that after a long period of pop culture hibernation, that Star Wars was back for good. And it would never leave us again.
These days, people debate the merits of the Star Wars Special Editions based almost solely on their CGI upgrades. And there is merit to both sides of the argument. In short, some work ( the Death Star battle) and some don’t (Han and Greedo). But that is all an old and tired debate. What we’re here to talk about is how the Special Editions repositioned Star Wars from something that was once popular over a decade earlier, to something as ubiquitous to American culture as McDonald’s and Mickey Mouse.
The Dark Times
From 1977 to 1983, Star Wars completely dominated popular culture. But for whatever reason, once Return of the Jedi wrapped up its theatrical run, George Lucas didn’t want to continue much in the way of Star Wars. We’re not even talking about movies here. We knew even then the prequels were coming way later, if ever. But Marvel Comics canceled their comic series a couple of years later, per Lucas’ request. Kenner Toys wanted to continue the action figure line with non-movie-based toys, but Lucas said no to almost everything. It was his intention to let the sleeping banthas lie.
Outside of the Ewoks and Droids cartoons and TV movies in 1984/1985, there was almost nothing new in Star Wars for years. And toys for those series couldn’t dream of competing with new kids of the block like He-Man, Transformers, and G.I. Joe. For easily distracted kids at that time, as I was, Star Wars became of thing of Christmases past very quickly, even if it lingered in our hearts still. From 1984 to 1991, outside of Star Tours at the Disney theme parks, there was almost nothing new from Lucas’ galaxy. Star Wars was now a fondly remembered series of films, that we all owned on VHS. But it was no longer a living, breathing thing. Star Trek, formerly always in Star Wars’ shadow, now dominated TV, movies, and toy shelves.
A New Hope Emerges
But slowly, Lucasfilm tested the waters for Star Wars’ big pop-culture return. In 1991, the original Star Wars novel Heir to the Empire came out, and was a smash. Dark Horse Comics unloaded a new series of Star Wars comics, which were also wildly popular. And video games and RPGs started rolling out too. But still, all of these things catered primarily to hardcore fans (a.k.a. nerds). Popular movies like Kevin Smith’s Clerks referenced Star Wars, and reminded folks who’d grown up with the original how much we still loved it. But chances are, your parents and casual fans out there were unaware that Star Wars was “back.” But that would all change in 1997.
George Lucas had announced the Special Edition of A New Hope in 1995, but few were aware of it in the mainstream. The moment that most people realized Star Wars was returning to theaters was when they went and saw Star Trek: First Contact in November 1996. The first trailer for the Special Editions played in front of it, and it was a truly genius piece of marketing. It instantly reminded us that Star Wars was a theatrical experience unlike any other. And watching it on your little TV at home could never approximate what it was like seeing it in theaters in 1977. If you were a child at that age, you wanted to relive the experience. If you weren’t around then, you wanted to feel like what it must have been like for those of us who were. That one trailer absolutely did its job.
The First Time the Force Awakened
Would people flock to a movie that everyone owned on VHS, and was on TV literally all the time? Sure, Disney re-released their animated classics in theaters. But often, those movies were not widely available to own. And none were theatrical juggernauts. But on January 31, 1997, we found out just how much America truly loved this world. The Star Wars: Special Edition took in a whopping $35 million that weekend. That was the biggest January debut of all time. And it out-grossed the opening weekend of Star Trek: First Contact, a brand new movie. Adjusted for inflation, the box office take for all three Special Edition films would be close to $500 million today. Again, for movies everyone already owned.
At the time, a few people complained about the changes. Just about no one cared for a certain Cantina shootout. But we were so overwhelmed by seeing the trilogy again in theaters we let it slide. And with the return of Star Wars to the zeitgeist, came all the merch. Taco Bell had a special promotion for the films with collectible toys, and suddenly t-shirts and posters were everywhere again. Action figures were now flying off the shelves again (even if they looked weird and too muscled out). For a kid who grew up in the height of Star Wars mania in the early ‘80s, it suddenly felt like a spice-induced flashback. It all felt too good to be true, and surely would prove to just be a nostalgic fad. People would forget about Star Wars again, right? Well, not so fast there.
The Power of Myth
The arrival and massive success of the Special Editions was the beginning of Lucas’ world becoming a pop culture perennial. After reminding Gen-Xers how much they loved the saga, and introducing Millennials to what it was like to see them up on the big screen, there was no looking back. Two years later, the prequels began to roll out. Like them or not, they were omnipresent in culture. Even if now the Star Wars films had to fight for dominance in a Lord of the Rings/Matrix world, they were still huge.
When the prequels wrapped up in 2005, we got the Clone Wars for five seasons, and then a metric ton of high-profile video games, and more merch (and memes) we knew what to do with. The relatively quiet times of 1984-1996 seemed like a distant memory. And with the Disney buy-out of 2012, we knew that Star Wars would never quietly go away ever again. This surely annoys people who don’t know a Jawa from a Gungan. But for those of us who love the saga? It proved that what George Lucas wanted to do with his films worked. He didn’t want to create something that spoke to just one generation. He wanted to create something timeless. A modern myth, as Lucas’ idol Joseph Campbell would say. In 1997, the Special Editions and their great success proved that his plan worked.