Dark Times 11 – 1996 – Part 5

John Williams summoned the heroes at the Centennial Olympic Games, but a nerf-herder, her worshipfulness and a kid almost finding himself floating home equally prepared for victory: Star Wars continues its return to pop culture in 1996.

Star Wars was an intricate anomaly. Despite its close ties to 70ies zeitgeist it had superseded the regular status of a classic. Every generation that chanced upon George Lucas’ space opera felt instantly attracted to this peculiar property that grew independently of time and the concomitant limited fads.

The Saga really resembled a seed drinking from a rain-drenched soil, driven by the vision of a sea of green leafs dancing in the spectral curtain of light. Roots had formed and dug deep into earth with stern determination not even the rockiest of terrains could ever break. Swiftly weaving through the ground, they gained footing in rich environments whence the seed reaped the necessary strength to break free and reach for the sky. What if there were means to taste some of the future greatness in advance? Speeding up the harvest and teleporting off a rock are commendable attempts, yet hardly promising next to the incomparable ingenuity of Lucasfilm marketing.

Star Wars Screen Saver Utility, advertisement, 1996
Saving your screens from lurid bleakness, the timely release of the officially licensed Star Wars Screen Saver Utility turned average computers into marketing kiosks for the forthcoming Special Edition release.

The entertainment industry earns its fortunes by selling content, a type of product that depends on novelty value. The public still needs to develop an awareness of the forthcoming goods, for gently prepared masses are always much more preferable to clueless passers-by. It follows that a marketing campaign must tread a fine line between utter secrecy and mind-numbingly obtrusive ubiquity. With the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition, the task at hand seemed daunting, for anyone in possession of 30$ could have instantly purchased the 1995 THX videos, a proposition made even more fetching considering that the Special Editions were together merely 5 minutes longer than the vaunted originals. So how to manage a property that everyone knows and even owns to consume anytime?

Entertainment marketers veritably operate in the present, but they effectively act as modern-day sooth sayers, teasing and anticipating, whilst decidedly knowledgeable about the things to come. In such manner, Lucasfilm had been chiselling away at their Special Edition promotional efforts for many years with impeccable skill. By 1996 people were so enthusiastic about the re-release, one might have thought the Prequels had already opened.

Update on ILM's progress on the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition
Proudly displaying arguably new shots to breathless readers as if Episode VII were nearing completion: The impending launch of the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition allowed Lucasfilm and affiliated publishers to keep the public excited whilst in actuality keeping the clandestine preparations for Anakin’s first steps in a larger world secret.

Throughout this rather epic marketing process, the unique viral approach to the Prequel Trilogy had been closely tied to George Lucas’ steadfast refusal to feature the main heroes of Star Wars in any form of media other than books or games. Footage from a galaxy far, far away was an instant and ultimately almost perennial scarcity. Yet the multimedia arena had come into its own while the Prequels were gaining shape on Lucas’ trusty sheets of legal paper.

Game designers had wisely avoided blunt retellings of the movie narratives in their games, whose underlying narratives were embellished by original supplemental, often very brief and simple animated dramatic scenes. Despite somewhat critical naysayers, the raw, chunky nature of early narrative game elements set in the Star Wars universe all but whetted people’s appetite for the real deal even more.

George Lucas also understood that the great movie going tradition had been drifting into oblivion. The mystique of being ushered into an enclosed space where but the storyteller is enveloped by the light of a comforting hearth appeared forever lost. So Lucas seized the opportunity of the 20th anniversary of his groundbreaking blockbuster to market not just the Saga itself, but also the communal experience of watching the Force vanquish the Empire.

The teaser trailer sparsely glimpsed new footage on the one hand, while on the other, it squarely revolved around being enveloped by the thunderous applause of a cheering audience. No home theatre system on earth could beat that experience, and nothing summed up Lucasfilm’s approach as fittingly as the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition’s teaser poster: ‘Three Reason Why They Build Movie Theatres’.


Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition Celebration Poster, 1996 (www.vintagemovieposter.co.uk)
Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition Celebration Poster, 1996: “Three reasons why they build movie theatres (www.vintagemovieposter.co.uk)

As the world was anticipating a major event to happen in light of the impending Special Editions, a notable project emerged which crucially augmented the riotous public response: Lucasarts announced Dark Forces II, the sequel to the record-selling FPS featuring merc turned Rebel soldier Kyle Katarn, set for release in spring 1997.

Now any average company would have been bright enough to push products based on tried-and-tested formulas and related brands under Lucasfilm’s auspicious circumstances, but the importance of computer games to the return of Star Wars was never more obvious than in the subtitle of Katarn’s second outing: Jedi Knight.

Two years earlier, gamers had fretted over the absence of the Saga’s signature weapon, the Lightsaber TM in Darron Stinnet’s Dark Forces. A lesser developer would have made it a power-up item already in the original game, but co-designer Justin Chin resisted that urge then: ‘[F]or practical reasons it could not happen. [T]he story had to come first. By developing a strong story, we could be clear on how the Force and the ways of the Jedi would be implemented.’ Said storyline did not simply let players have a good ol’ swing at the odd Stormtrooper limb, but required them to learn Force abilities with Jedi-like foresight, and ultimately decide between the Light (telekinesis rules!) and Dark (destruction is awesome!) Sides of the Force.

Clip from 1996 Star Wars Galaxy issue featuring an interview with Justin Chin, lead designer of LucasArts' "Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight" game
The lead designer of the tantalisingly titled “Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight” teases readers with prospects of finally being able to master a lightsabre, explaining the thorough consideration that went into the integration of this signature Jedi weapon.

Chin further elaborated on that energy field that surrounds and penetrates us and holds this blog together: ‘The Force comes down to a system of beliefs: belief in yourself, in others, in the world. […] People need to understand what the Force is all about. […] They need to understand that they have responsibilities for their actions, and only the individual can shape his or her own destiny.’ (p51-2, Star Wars Galaxy Issue 8).

Jedi Knight would also rectify what some had perceived as a somewhat puzzling flaw in the predecessor, namely the lack of lavish cut scenes in the wake of 1994’s Wing Commander III. Lucasarts announced that it would employ live action clips produced exclusively for the Dark Forces sequel to tell the story as the player progresses through the game.

So in the spirit of the new Special Edition footage, Lucasfilm effectively sanctioned nothing less than a cinematic introduction to Jedi and Sith mythology, which would premiere the first lightsaber combat scenes featuring full-fledged Jedi, albeit only for computer screens, three years before the first Prequel would open.

It is naturally necessary to put Jedi Knight in a proper perspective. Prior to 1998, the world had had no idea of what a fully-trained Jedi at the height of his or her powers would be capable of. The OT featured only a man-machine hybrid, two aging, increasingly immobile masters and an inexperienced lad. Sir Alec Guinness’ unforgettable reminiscences, in particular the thundering ‘I was once a Jedi Knight, the same as your father’ instantly sent countless images of heroic warriors through one’s mind, visions that would finally spring to life in Jedi Knight.

The announcement of Dark Forces II and its live action approach to its cut scenes was such a bona-fide exercise in marketing excellence, it literally allowed eager gamers to anticipate the sweet taste of the glory days of the Old Republic.

As the seed of the Prequels thus already suggested its future grandeur, it would not go unnoticed by the media that plot details were still quite impossible to come by. Lawrence French took it upon himself to summarise all the rumours and whispers into a historically valuable article portentously titled The Clone Wars: Lucas directs the first episode of the prequel trilogy.

French iterates a then widespread belief that the first prequel would revolve around two young Jedi ‘in their early teens’, Anakin Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi. Lucas is mentioned for indicating that ‘the new trilogy will centre on Anakin Skywalker’s fall from grace, and the subsequent loss of freedom that occurs throughout the galaxy.’ The list of rumoured titles for the new film therefore includes Children of the Force, The Clone Wars and Balance of the Force.

Lucas well-known technique of casting virtual unknowns in key roles also receives mention although French lists Eric Lloyd (Tim Allen’s son in The Santa Clause), the future John Connor in Terminator 3, Nick Stahl, and even, while ‘highly doubtful’, Macaulay Culkin.

Since Leia was a princess in the OT, Lawrence French assumes that there is going to be ‘the Queen’, a potential role for the likes of Winona Ryder, fashion model Nina Brosh or, hot off Luc Besson’s classic The Professional (1994), Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! and Woody Allen’s Everybody Says I Love You (both 1996) a certain Natalie Portman.

Clip from "Star Wars: The Clone Wars", by Lawrence French, CINEFANTASTIQUE, late 1996
Lawrence French’s elaborate 1996 article on the future of Star Wars, suggesting that the first prequel would revolve around the friendship of teenage Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker.

Technology developed during the production of the ‘commercial and critical fiasco RADIOLAND MURDERS’ will be employed to create ‘spectacular sets digitally, on a modest budget of only $10 million dollars.’.

The article also considers Red Tails a red herring created by Lucasfilm to draw attention away from Star Wars principal photography as the infamous Blue Harvest did during production on ROTJ, regardless of the fact that the official Lucasfilm Fan Club Magazine had by contrast already featured the World War II project as a production Lucas was prepping in earnest.

French furthermore ventures the striking – and then far from unlikely – suggestion that George Lucas may award distribution rights to the new films to his old friend Steven Spielberg, who had just launched his very own studio Dreamworks. ‘In return,’ the author surmises with a strangely critical undertone, ‘Spielberg might direct the second or third episode of the trilogy, instead of a fourth instalment of the overworked adventures of INDIANA JONES’.

Lawrence French concludes his tentative outlook into the future of the Star Wars Saga by asserting with regards to the abandoned scheme to shoot all three prequels back to back: ‘Lucas obviously realized the plan was highly unfeasible to begin with, since the requirements of making three films at one time would triple his budget and cause a myriad of production problems’ (p28, Cinefantastique, Volume 28, 8).

What makes this article unique is its general assumption that the Prequels would focus squarely on the then much-fabled Clone Wars, an era in Star Wars lore that Lucas did not allow anyone else to deal with except himself. French even substantiates this by pointing toward the battle on ‘Concord Dawn’, in which Obi-Wan Kenobi serves under Bail Organa according to one of Lucas’ many story treatments.

French also affords his readers several stabs at Lucasfilm and George Lucas in particular, a stance made glaringly obvious elsewhere in the very issue of Cinefantastique that intended to celebrate 20 years of Wookies, Jawas and the Force…


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