1997 is a big year for Star Wars fans. To mark the original film's 20th anniversary, Star Wars director and creator George Lucas, using the latest technologies, has retooled the original film and the two sequels, adding some cut scenes, enhancing the special effects and reworking the soundtrack .
In fact, as you read this, the new version of the first film is playing on some 1,800 screens nationwide (compared to the paltry 32 screens of the original's debut). Star Wars fanatics won't have to wait three years this time for a sequel; a re-tooled version of The Empire Strikes Back hits theaters on Feb. 21, with a refurbished print of Return of the Jedi following on March 7.
Tweaking a masterpiece is a risky proposition. The results can be stunning, as was the case with the extensive cleaning of Michelangelo's frescoes in the Sistine Chapel or the director's cut of Blade Runner. But more often, the new rendition resembles something like Frampton Comes Alive II or the colorized version of Casablanca.
Nowhere has the debate over the new version been more fiercely deliberated than on the Net, where purists and revisionists have been trading salvos on the Star Wars newsgroups for months. If nothing else, the new films have given Star Wars aficionados bigger issues to discuss than whether Boba Fett is a woman or if Princess Leia could beat up Star Trek: The Next Generation's Counselor Troi.
So why mess with a classic? The answer seems to be twofold. George Lucas is notoriously press-shy, but he provides the following explanation at the Star Wars: Special Edition Web site (www.starwars.com): "There were various things, especially in the original film, that I wasn't satisfied with--special effects shots that never were really finished, scenes that I'd wanted to include that couldn't be included for some reason, mostly money and time. I really wanted to fix the films and have them be complete."
While Lucas may claim that his main purpose in retooling the films was to perfect them, clearly the special editions are being used to prime the pump of skywalker fever in anticipation of the release of the first film of a new Star Wars trilogy in 1999. The new trio of films are actually a prequel to the original trilogy and will focus on young Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader before he went bad) and his relationship with Luke's and Leia's mom.
On the Net, the Star Wars franchise ranks right up there in popularity with Star Trek and The X-Files in the holy geek trinity. For instance, the name Luke Skywalker returns a staggering 5,230 hits in the Hotbot search engine-- placing the young Jedi nearly neck-and-neck with Capt. Kirk (5,295) but well behind Fox Mulder (7,580) in this highly unscientific means of measuring Net popularity.
Better evidence of the film's online devotion can be found at the Internet Movie Database (www.imdb.com). There, Star Wars reigns as king at the top of a user poll of the 250 greatest movies of all time (Empire is 27th and Jedi is 64th). In addition, on a weekly basis, Star Wars is consistently among the top 10 visited pages among the site's 87,000-plus entries.
Col Needham, the IMDB's managing director, speculates that the film is so highly regarded by netizens because "(A) It is a good movie and (B) if you think about the average age of the bulk of Net users, most were kids when Star Wars was either in its first run or one of the re-releases, so it's a natural favorite--maybe it was the first big movie they got to see at a theater."
Glen Duchacek, Creator of Glen's Star Wars Archives (see review in sidebar), says that the Star Wars craze is not entirely a recent development. "I have been connected for almost two years and Star Wars was still really popular then. As the last two years have progressed, I have seen an increase in the Star Wars support on the Net."
Fandom permeates the entire Internet. There are hundreds of unofficial Star Wars Web sites (981 at press time, if you believe Yahoo!), not to mention five newsgroups, a mailing list and an IRC channel. "all of the kids (myself included) that were into Star Wars when it was first released are now earning money and have access to computers and the Internet. Which means they can purchase the new range of figures and can communicate to other fans via the Internet about various Star Wars topics," Duchacek says.
So, what makes a good Star Wars site? Jason Ruspini, creator of the Star Wars Home Page at UPENN (see review in below), which is often cited as one of the best fan sites, says there are three key elements: news of upcoming films, multimedia files, and obscure and irreverent files (trivia, bloopers, humor, behind-the-scenes stories, etc.). Beyond that, Ruspini says a good site should have "(an) excellent but not necessarily complicated graphical design and be as interactive as possible.
"I think that if a site has most of these core elements and chooses a unique focus, it is a good Star Wars site. Of course, you can do what I tried to do and build a totally comprehensive one. I think sites like that for any subject are important because they help to set standards for the depth of information content on the web."
And while Fox and Viacom have made recent overtures toward shutting down unofficial X-Files and Star Trek sites, it appears the creators of Star Wars fan sites can breathe easy, at least for now. Last April, Ruspini received a phone call from a Lucasfilm representative. Ruspini was told in no uncertain terms that his site violated copyrights and he'd have to shut it down. As soon as this news hit the Net, Star Wars fanatics quickly mobilized, forming the Star of Alderaan (named for the highest honor awarded to heroes of the Rebel Alliance) to protest the crackdown. Lucasfilm retreated, sending Ruspini a letter, which is currently posted at his site, that said they were by no means trying to shut down his site. "Lucasfilm appreciates Star Wars fans' support...Since the Internet is growing so fast, we are in the process of developing guidelines for how we can enhance the ability of Star Wars fans to communicate with each other without infringing on Star Wars copyrights and trademarks."
Lucasfilm has yet to furnish those guidelines to Ruspini or the Net community. Perhaps they realized that rather than chase down college students who copied and pasted a picture of Chewbacca to their sites, they should concentrate their efforts on making their own official site vibrant and indispensable. A look at the official site reveals that the decision paid off (see review below).
Cool Star Wars Site of the Week
Evan Strikes Back
Glen's Star Wars Archive
Jeff's Guide to the Star Wars Drinking Game
Star Wars Action Figure Web
Star Wars Collector Circle
Star Wars Encyclopedia
Star Wars Home Page at UPENN
The Star Wars Role-playing club
Star Wars Trilogy: The Official Web Site
Star Wars Web Ring
Trek vs. Wars
The Wedge Antilles Worship Page
You Know You're A Star Wars Geek When...