That’s right, just Star Wars. Not Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope. Back then, when I first saw it, in 1978, it was just those simple two words that adorned the marquis of the theater that showed it, those two words which splashed across the movie poster which advertised it, and two words that emblazoned the packages of nearly every single toy I would receive for the next three years. Spare, simple – magical.
It’s safe to say that no singular film had the biggest impact on my life the way Star Wars did, and I know that millions of others can say the same thing. My childhood, in fact, can be neatly bisected in this way – before SW and after. Yes, I saw movies before SW, but back then all children’s entertainment could be summarized in one word: Disney. With very few exceptions, that was it – all she wrote – others need not apply. But mind you, you could subsist on a diet of Disney and still be a frequent filmgoer. In addition to the new animated features they were constantly reviving he old, and multiple times (I think I saw Bambi around five times this way). And the there was Disney live action, which generally ran the gamut from good to acceptable to atrociously awful. Of course, I knew no better; what other movies could I compare them to? And, actually, they come out looking pretty good compare to the drecked hat gets churned out nowadays.
So when I first heard about this must-see film named Star Wars, my appetite changed. My first exosure was actually not until the year after the film’s release, 1978, when I was at the back of the school bus in the Spring and someone showed me a few Star Wars Topps trading cards (one of the SW first products to be marketed). I was hooked, yet having no idea what this was really all about. That summer when they rereleased SW I begged my parents to take me. Free me from the shackles of Donald Duck and Tinkerbelle, I implored. Let me see a grown-up movie! (And it was, back hen, Star Wars had yet to become the stuff of childhood.) They finally relented and we al went to the Shore Mall Drive-In, where I sat in the back seat, breathlessly taking it all in. On time wasn’t enough, especially since I really didn’t get any of the plot, so Dad too k me to see it again at the College Twin in Glassboro. (I remember we had to kill two hours because the first show was sold out.) This time, with the help of Dad’s built-in Spark Notes, I got more of it plotwise, and it was even better.
And then the toys came. And the posters, ad the cards, and the books, and the magazines, and the comics, and the records, and the models, and the T-shirts, and the lunch kettles. I kept everything, even tissue boxes. When the second set of action figures came out, in 1979, I was a full-fledged aficionado, and when The Empire Strikes Back unspooled in 1980, I was right there, on opening day, with no intention of missing the boat this time. No longer a fetus with sneakers. And besides soaking up the Star Wars universe, I savored all sorts of different movies now, mainly sci-fi but also action adventure, comedy and drama, some of it more mature, like Airplane! Oh sure, I still attended Disney films (The North Avenue Irregulars is still one of my faves), but now I discovered there was another cinematic world out there, and it was worth waiting for.
When you understand Star Wars’ placement in the postwar pop-cultural landscape, you start to realize how much different things would have been without it. In the 40s and 50s, sci-fi in the movies was primarily represented by serials – weekly film installments of space heroes and their galactic exploits. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, Space Raiders, Commander Cody led the pack, readily devoured by bug-eyed eight-year-olds who’d spent the entire day in the dark. And then, in the 50s, producers realized sci-hi had metaphoric value, and thrillers like The Day the Earth Stood Still (also in this collection) taught a cautionary lesson about our own hair-trigger xenophobia, fueled by Cold War paranoia and distrust.
When the 60s rolled around, the U.S. was as militaristic as ever, but now with the Mercury and Appollo space programs, out space didn’t seem quite so mysterious anymore. The decade’s landmark sci-fi epic, 2001, A Space Odyssey, was a meditative look at our own place in the universe, tracing the evolution of humankind and connecting it to another great leap: space exploration. It was a perfect fit for a disillusioned generation trying to make sense of the chaos surrounding it, and if not they could always “drop out” to the stargate sequence and smoke some pretty serious weed.
But the late 60s and 70s was no time for fun, at least not at the movies. The New Hollywood movement was ready to make statements, not money, and sobering parables like Midnight Cowboy as well as antiwar black comedies like M*A*S*H were the ones that connected. What few sci-releases there were – Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Trumbull’s Silent Running were hardly what you would call pick-me-up’s. Who could celebrate with the Mi-Lai massacre and Presidential corruption on the 6:00 news?
Ready to put Vietnam and Watergate behind them, audiences by the mid 70s were primed for lighter although no less durable entertainment. (The mass success of blockbusters Jaws and Rocky was evidence of this.) But audiences were more sci-fi savvy now; postmodern culture now included cerebral works by Issac Assimov and Ray Bradbury, and comic books had suddenly become more detailed, more complex. How to achieve this balance?
Only one man knew how: George Lucas. He intuitively realized that such a film could be made, even if no studio in Hollywood, save Fox, did. Star Wars opened on May 25th 1977, and the genre, or Hollywood for that matter would never be the same again. Hordes of moviegoers, most young adults, bought their ticket went in, came out, and saw it all over again. Lines formed in front of theaters al across the country – it was exactly what we wanted, what we needed. Lucas’s space opera had it all – archetypal plot, spectacular characters, mind-boggling/never-before seen special effects… and the creation of an entire other-worldly universe, with completely different words, dialects, objects, organisms ad environments. But not ideas, and not emotions. Those were the same.
I hadn’t seen Star Wars in a while before viewing it again for this blog. The last time was probably the 1997 Special Edition rerelease, which is the version here. There’s probably no need for a lengthy synopsis – we all know the story. A rebellion, led by Princess Leia, has been fighting the evil empire, led by Darth Vader. Her recent victory has provided her with secret plans to the Death Star, the Empire’s ace in the hole, a space station capable of destroying a planet. When Darth captures her ship, she sends the plans with R2-D2 and C3PO to the desert planet of Tatooine, where Luke Skywalker, a farmboy who dreams of being a fighter pilot, finds the droids and delivers them to their intended recipient: aged wizard Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi. Ben is a Jedi Knight who informs Luke that his father was killed by Darth, and that he needs the boy’s help to fight the Empire. Luke resists, until he discovers the death f his aunt and uncle at the hands of Vader’s stormtroopers. They find a pilot, Han Solo, and his first mate, Chewbacca, to take them to Leia’s home planet of Alderran, where their plans can assist the rebels.
But Darth, now Leia’s captor, has decided to test the Death Star’s power by destroying Alderran, and so Luke and his crew discover nothing but asteroid field. Worse yet, they get pulled to the Death Star by a powerful tractor beam; inside they rescue Leia, almost die in a garbage compactor and disable the beam, but Ben faces off against Vader, Jedi to Jedi, with light sabers, and dies in defeat. They all escape in their ship The Millennium Falcon, and land on the rebel base, the fourth moon of Yavin. Luke suits up and gets in his X-Wing, along with his squadron, to attempt to destroy the Death Star by firing proton torpedoes into the station’s Achilles heel, an exhaust shaft which leads all the way into its center. After most of his comrades perish, Luke uses the force to succeed, although Darth, having gone out in his own Tie Fighter, survives. Han who had originally said he’d take the reward money and run, returns to help Luke and now attends the medal ceremony with Luke and Chewie – all heroes in their victory over, but not destruction of, the Empire.
So, first things first: Fox decided to include the 1997 Special Edition version of this film, meaning it has brand-new CGI effects, mostly in the form of new characters in the Mos Eisley scene and juiced-up explosions of Alderran and the Death Star (adding a nuclear “ring” to it). We also get a entirely new scene involving Jabba the Hit , using an old scene Lucas kept, anticipating future technology. The thing is: we don’t need it; Jabba is best left offscreen and to be waited for (until Return of the Jedi); he feels to nice with such a too-early introduction. (And besides that he would’ve killed Solo.) And speaking of killing, what can I say about the smoothing down of Solo’s mercenerial rough edges by having him shoot Greedo only in self defense? Horrible, but I guess enough ink’s been spilled on that topic already.
And it also looks like Lucas “cleaned-up” the whole thing with his digital wizardry too. I don’t have a side by side, but I’m sure he erased matte lines, made cleaner cuts here and there, and maybe even sped up certain scenes for a slicker look. And that I’m adamantly against – it makes me uncertain of what were actually 70s effectsand what were 90s embellishments. Part of the genius of Star Wars was how it advanced technology using models and specially-built motion cameras to make the spaceships move. An how hey did all that pre-CGI simply astounds me. And quite frankly, it looks better than any CGI effects could manage, and that’s because these models and space settings look real, like they’re lived in, not unlike our own universe.
And that brings me to my main observation, seeing it after all these years. Lucas managed to ride a wonderful balance between taking us to this fantastic universe, with all its gadgets and creatures and associated nomenclature, and ensuring that a strong sense of humanism is maintained. These human, and even nonhuman characters, act like people – we feel Luke’s yearning to get off his farm planet as he stands on a dune and watches the dual sunset. We can get behind Han Solo’s hotrod mentality as he takes pride in his beat-up spacecraft. We understand Leia’s spunky individualism, preferring loyalty to her cause over betrothal to a prince. Sure there are the prosaic dronings about the Imperial Senate and a lot of obligatory talk about the republic and the old days of the galaxy. But it’s followed up with more down-to-earth discourse of a more identifiable nature. Lucas knew this from his work on the character-driven American Graffiti, and then apparently forgot it when he started up the series again in 1999.
Credit must also go to John Williams’ score for humanizing these characters too. He has a theme for every character, and every setting, in the film, from Luke’s wistful yearnings to Darth Vader’s Imperial forces to the diminutive Jawas and their scavenging ways. It gives us an emotional connection to the fantastical goings-on, and it warms the film up in a way that so many sci-fi flicks, before and after, failed to do.
One other thing I noticed, and it has to do with a selection from this set about two installments ago. I recall going to Star Wars back I the 70s, and being part of a party atmosphere. News reports also reveal how audiences would chorally boo Darth Vader when he entered, cheer the Death Star blowing up, and laugh hysterically at the droids’ hijacks. Well, thid=s all comes from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and its legacy of audience participation. This was partially the reason Wars audiences went back over and over, much like they did with horror. The days of strictly formal filmgoing, with the straight-backed seats and insistence on dead silence, were over now. 70s audiences interacted with their entertainment, in a way that sort of died out in the 80s. It was a beautiful window.
I could go on and on and on – it’s such a groundbreaking watershed that reams could be spent on its analysis, both personal and academic. But I’ll stop here – any other musing on the film can be found in this article, which I wrote back when the magazine Entertainment Weekly compiled a list of the 100 greatest movie moments of all time. (Wars wasn’t #1, hence the article.)
I can’t possibly imagine anyone who hasn’t already seen it, but if you’re one of the few, run, don’t walk, to your nearest screen. Consider it your indoctrination into another world, and my world, and he world of millions of others. All of us who were never the same after seeing it for the first time.
May the force be with you.