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Little is new in the 'Special Edition' of the Star Wars films. There are some amended explosions; some gratuitous extra scenes which grate with the older ones; a scene of urban rejoicing at the end of Return of the Jedi that looks like an airbrushed version of the New-Year's-Eve-by-Big-Ben footage we see on television each year; and more attempts to wow viewers with naff menageries, as if the original pub scene wasn't bad enough. Ultimately, the new matters less than the returning old.

Star Wars was always an exercise in combining the titillating future with resolute pasts. The most fundamental of those pasts was nineteenth-century romance, but the more recent ones are just as notable, such as the mythical American 1950s, part of which George Lucas had explored in his previous film, American Graffiti. Think of the cringe-inducing passages where Luke plays the frustrated teenager on his stifling uncle's 'farm' (the 'crops' and 'ridges' of which elude the viewer in the featureless Tatooine sandscape). 'But I was going to go and pick up some power converters!' whines Luke, in a way which makes Ron Howard's admiration of Lucas look spooky. Alongside fifties teen-ethnography sits the Bigglesesque depiction of the imperial characters. Star Wars was filmed in Britain but the 'Britishness' of the middle-managers of the empire goes beyond the contingencies of planning and budgeting. Consider the scene where Lucas presents a round table of generals and admirals arguing about policy, but not delivering the illusion of an outside world that the scene strains for (what is the political makeup of the empire? how do centre and periphery interact? what do the bosses actually gain from the empire?). They all come across as baddies from The Professionals or private school stereotypes, until Peter Cushing sweeps in to play the ultimate American fantasy of a classy, sinister villain, complete with the ability to roll his Rs.

The generals' scene is emblematic of one of the successes of the Star Wars trilogy as a whole: its engineering of timelessness (this is, after all, a film about 'futuristic' events which nevertheless happened 'A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away'). Aside from the haircuts - the most evident tie to the seventies - the film pulls in different temporal directions - the futuristic marvel of the Death Star, the World-War-II 'Englishness' of most of those inside it, the fullness of its heroism and redemption - and ends up in its own fantasy space.

This safe and fantastic timelessness plays a large part in the films' appeal, along with the melodramatic hamminess (especially in the form of Darth Vader) and Lucas's talent for extended, careering set-pieces (like the final battle in Star Wars, the Jabba sequence in Return of the Jedi, and virtually all the parts of The Empire Strikes Back that do not involve Luke). The promotional material for the 'Special Edition' played on a different kind of timelessness, the idea of Star Wars as something like a colourised Casablanca that you just have to see on 'the big screen'. The point? A 'timeless' film is one with a beach-head in two generations. The Star Wars 'Special Edition' did the same commercial trick as Mission Impossible, Batman and other remakes. Hollywood banks on such films because they have the potential to draw not only the young but also people who remember these films' previous incarnations.

But there was something else about the Star Wars films' route to their audience this time around that made them unusual. The multiplex audiences had doubtless included plenty of people (or boys, anyway) who remember every one of Obi Wan's lines in spite of themselves, but they didn't dominate the audiences. The marketing, or the general mood one picked up in queues or conversation, attempted to reconcile both loser fanaticism and mass appeal. It was acceptable for hordes to regard Star Wars as something worth getting embarrassingly cultish about. This co-option of nerd-chic has been tried with Star Trek, but without such success, and it should, of course, have been impossible: when something's mass-marketed, it's no longer a cult. After the X-Files craze, though, that's no longer a paradox.

Chris Hilliard
18 June 1997