Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Star Wars (1977)

           First off, the title of the damn movie is Star Wars, not Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. No matter how much writer-director George Lucas enjoys rewriting history, there was no way he could have known when he was shooting this film that he would get to make one sequel, much less two sequels and three prequels. Thus, despite its eventual status as the first installment of a long-running franchise, the beauty of the original Star Wars is that it’s a complete, self-contained statement about the thrill of a young man discovering his destiny—and one of the film’s many charms is the parallel between Lucas and guileless protagonist Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Just as Luke becomes an intergalactic hero by embracing previously unknown possibilities, Lucas changed the film industry by combining old-fashioned storytelling with groundbreaking FX.
          The basics of the story are familiar to most moviegoers: When agents of the evil Intergalactic Empire kidnap rebel leader Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), her trusty robots R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) are sent to recruit aging Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) to rescue her. Circumstances instead lead the robots to young Luke, a restless orphan living with his aunt and uncle on a remote farm but dreaming of life as a star pilot, and eventually Luke delivers the robots to Kenobi and discovers their true mission. When soldiers from the Empire wipe out Luke’s family, he joins Kenobi on the quest to rescue Leia, and sets out on the path to becoming a Jedi Knight, which is sort of an outer-space samurai with supernatural powers. Viewers also learn about the Force, an energy field binding everyone in the universe together; Jedis get their powers by channeling the Force.
          The heroic crew soon expands to include self-serving smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his hirsute first mate, a gigantic alien called Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). Their journey leads them to the Death Star, a massive space station, where they must confront villains including the Jedi Knight-turned-bad Darth Vader (physically performed by David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones). Along the way, Luke finds a surrogate father in Kenobi, a comrade-in-arms in Han, and a love interest in Leia. This is all fun stuff, of course, but the story is really just part of the appeal; with Lucas at the height of his visionary powers, the real magic of Star Wars is in the physical reality and the storytelling.
          At the risk of hyperbole, there’s simply no explaining what a thrill it was to discover this movie as a child of the ’70s. The production values were intoxicating, and the mixture of archetypes and classic themes made Star Wars feel like a tale that had existed for generations. Yet perhaps the sheer confidence of the filmmaking was the most overpowering aspect on first blush: Leaping from one colorful cliffhanger to the next, the movie was edited to travel as fast as any of the spaceships Lucas put onscreen. At the time, Star Wars hit youthful bloodstreams like a cinematic sugar rush, but with something deeper underneath.
          During my interview for the documentary The People vs. George Lucas, I was asked why I thought the first film had such an impact on kids my age. I noted that the mid-’70s was a murky time in American life, with Vietnam and Watergate topping the list of recent front-page downers, and Star Wars was a much-needed infusion of optimism. As a boy feeling the effects of social change (this movie was released around the time my parents’ marriage became a ’70s statistic by ending in divorce), I think I was primed for the hopeful idea that some Force for good existed in the universe. The movies staggering box-office returns, and the decades of devotion showered upon the Star Wars franchise by millions of Gen-Xers, indicate I wasn't alone in my reaction.
          You begin to see why it’s difficult to completely set aside larger examinations of this deceptively simple movie, since anything embraced by untold millions means something, whether good or bad—but beyond its pivotal place in ’70s sociology, Star Wars is simply one of the great rides in the history of popcorn cinema. The monstrous spaceship swallowing the tiny rebel vessel at the top of the movie. The otherworldly cantina. The outer-space dogfights. Han Solo’s last-minute heroism. Darth Freakin’ Vader. Escapist adventure doesn’t get any better, even if the actors (including the preceding plus Hammer veteran Peter Cushing) have to struggle through wooden characterizations and tongue-twisting dialogue. With John Williams’ indelible music giving coherence to all of Lucas’ mad-tinkerer ideas, Star Wars is pure cinematic pleasure from start to finish. And if it means something to you, as it does to me, then so much the better.



Dan The Man said...

It's been A New Hope longer than just Star Wars so let's get off that self-righteous bromide. It was changed after it was a huge hit. Lucas felt he wouldn't be able do sequels; he thought maybe the film would gross its budget back at the most... but once the re-releases came about, he changed it to ANH which was there in the 1979 release, so seriously... give it a rest.
My favorite movie of all time. I saw it at the drive-in when I was 5 in 1977- WOW! Even in such dire presentations, it made a huge impact. I could hear cheering from the cars parked that night...

Anonymous said...

Wrong. Episode IV was put into the title crawl in the 1981 re-release.

Anonymous said...

The other impact that "Star Wars" had was to make Dolby Stereo popular. It wasn't the first film in the process, "Tommy", was but it failed to impress audiences since it sounded no different than the vinyl record in stereo. In contrast, "Star Wars", featured a very elaborate and gimmicky stereo track that called attention to itself with ships zoomed past the viewer in the rear channel and lots of left/right laser sounds filling the theater. It was so successful that a few years later, most movies were released in Dolby Stereo which remained the standard until digital sound was offered in the nineties.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MovieLover1964 said...

The Greatest Movie Ever Made, in my humble opinion, and a watermark and a ground breaker in film special effects.