Tin man, a lion (?) and a wizard

February 08, 1997|By Andrew Ratner

TO GAUGE THE POWER of ''Star Wars,'' being re-released in movie houses this month, consider how the public would regard the return of other phenomena of the mid-1970s when George Lucas' science-fiction epic was born:

Disco music. Compact cars with fishbowl windows, like the ''Pacer.'' Farrah Fawcett ''flip'' hairdos for women and big Afros on men. Earth shoes. A governor from a small Southern state as president. OK, minus the last one, you get the picture.

Very little in life today resembles tastes of 20 years ago. When something from that era or earlier ones resurfaces to make a buck on nostalgia's warm fuzzies, it usually comes back as camp. We laugh at how much more discriminating we've become.

But Mr. Lucas' ''Star Wars'' trilogy isn't being resurrected as a joke. The Smithsonian Institution is even arranging an exhibit next fall at the National Air and Space Museum on its place in science-fiction lore. The three movies have earned $1.3 billion the past two decades, and spun off billions more in video and toy sales.

Most amazing about that tally is that the movies came before the cross-marketing of film, merchandise and fast food became honed to a frightful science. Mr. Lucas revolutionized special effects, but the evolution of ''hype'' followed his creations.

Twentieth Century Fox spent a few million dollars more to restore and readvertise these movies than the $16 million it cost to make and market the original ''Star Wars.'' Fox estimated the re-release could milk $100 million -- and that was before it soaked up $36 million the first weekend. Mr. Lucas is at work on the next trilogy (to be set in time before the original three films) for release in 1999 to 2003.

His brainchild has come in for criticism from more than a few reviewers. They blame its popularity for the flood of vacuous, blow-'em-up films that substitute pyrotechnics for plot.

Impugning Mr. Lucas for that is like blaming Alexander Graham Bell for phone sex. So obsessed is Mr. Lucas about the ''story,'' The New Yorker reported last month, that two people work full-time maintaining the Star Wars ''bible'' to make sure no spin-off product carries the story where he doesn't want it to go.

Contempt from Carson

I remember, as a college student, standing in line at a theater in Manhattan one midnight with friends waiting to get into this movie we'd heard much about. I returned for a matinee that fall, not for a more discerning review, just for an excuse to cut a class. But what I remember most about the ''Star Wars'' debut was Johnny Carson mocking it on ''The Tonight Show.'' Ed McMahon chortled along, of course, but the dismissive laughter did not echo long.

Nineteen years later, I chuckled softly myself, at the sight of my son and guests at his ninth-birthday slumber party sprawled asleep as the video flickered on. No doubt, visions whirred in their heads of Jabba the Hutt, Chewbacca the Wookie and R2D2 (reportedly so named because Mr. Lucas remembered an editor on his ''American Graffiti'' film calling, in code, for the "Reel 2, Dialogue 2" tape.

Mr. Lucas said he conjured the tale from boyhood memories of spaghetti Westerns and Flash Gordon; The Sun's movie critic thought it evoked Robin Hood and the Battle of Midway in World War II. To me, it's a spacey ''Wizard of Oz,'' complete with prissy tin man and neurotic lion. Both stories were conceived with children in mind, neither was taken seriously -- and each mushroomed into touchstones for generations of kids and adults alike.

The best in high culture endures, but pop culture is perishable by definition. When a piece of it burns for 20 years, it must be regarded substantively on some level, especially in a nation of fickle tastes and short memories.

Andrew Ratner is director of zoned editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 2/08/97

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