If my passion for movies were a galaxy then Star Wars would most certainly be its brightest star. George Lucas’ seminal masterwork landed on America forty years ago today and its impact has never left us. It has certainly never left the panoply of my life. It’s still there in much the same way that it was when I first saw it. It’s been a constant companion for these four decades – heck it was at my wedding!
At the time of its release, Star Wars was easy to write off, a kiddie matinee piece with a silly plot and lots of action, but its burst of creative thinking made it something more. The movie sent such shockwaves through the culture that four decades later we still haven’t quite gotten over it – we can feel its effects. And for one tiny five year-old living out there on the western arm of Arkansas, the movie bred a grand and glorious love affair with the movies that continues to this very day.
Star Wars is an experience, something rare, something special. As Roger Ebert noted, it is not just a movie but a place in the mind. Forty years later it has risen above being just a movie and has become part of our cultural heritage. It is grand mythology, the inheritance of those of us lucky enough to have spent our formative years as tenants of the last third of the twentieth century. Certainly, it has become fashionable to make fun of it, but to dismiss it is overlook its impact. Take a look around you, at the movies you’ve been watching for the last three decades; at the video games; at the high tech; look at the television you’ve been watching. It all owes something to Star Wars.
Like all great movies, Star Wars was a product of creative thinking and good timing – and, as we know, in show business timing is everything. The late seventies were a strange time for creativity in Hollywood. The studio system that had given birth to Hollywood in the early part of the century had, by the late 60s, broken down giving rise to a vast number of creative filmmakers who would usher in the age of the auteur, wherein the director was placed on a pedestal as the creative engine that drove their vision to greatness. You might have heard of some of these young bucks: Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Steven Spielberg, William Friedkin, Woody Allen, John Cassavetes and, yes, even George Lucas.
The common thread running through all of these creative minds was the desire to make their own films without the hands of a thousand money-minded studio executives putting their hands in the creative soup. Often that meant auteur directors butting heads with the money men. Star Wars was no different. During production no one had any faith in what executives at 20th Century Fox were calling “that science movie.” Production was hit with so many problems that the studio put up a tax shelter and was already making deals to sell the film to television. The distributor couldn’t get theaters to buy the film unless they sold it as a package deal with a movie that they thought was destined to be a blockbuster – The Other Side of Midnight – Seen it? Me neither.
But then the public got a look at “that science movie” and beyond all expectations Star Wars shocked the world, becoming a $700 million worldwide phenomenon. No one had ever seen anything like it before. It was the containment of all the story elements that we’d been familiar with from Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Saturday serials, World War II movies and the works of Jules Verne and H.G. Wells wrapped up in a package that infused the hip-cool sarcastic tone of the times. Star Wars was bred from Lucas’ inability to obtain the rights to Flash Gordon. It forced him to turn in a different direction and dive into his talent for what we now refer to as “universe building.” The movie pulled us away from our own experience and took us to a new place while still holding on to the cinematic elements that we were familiar with.
One of the shockwaves that Star Wars sent through the culture was a reassessment of what the public wanted to see. At this moment many of the most successful films were personal dramas – Rocky, Five Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver, The Conversation, The Last Picture Show, Saturday Night Fever, American Graffiti. Up to this point in the decade, the most important genre pieces had been The Exorcist and Jaws. Yet, science fiction seemed to flounder. Wallowing as a nameless cinematic genre that blossomed in the wake of World War II, the science fiction genre had an uneasy time getting on its feet. It flourished in books where the mind could regender the words into images, but on screen it was held back by the limits of visual effects and un-adventurous storytelling
Most sci-fi films were cheap knock-offs made for the drive-in crowds but were only occasionally about anything important. Those that come to mind were The Day the Earth Stood Still, Planet of the Apes and, of course, 2001: A Space Odyssey. Most sci-fi movies seemed bound to earth-born problems and warned us about the fate of our world. Star Wars was different. It pulled away from our world and took us to a new place, a different place where war was still prevalent but it was a universe that felt as lived-in as our own. Here, you could walk through a busy small town and see aliens of every size and shape but it was no big deal. They were on their way somewhere and so were you. You could be best buddies with a six foot dog whose only vocabulary was made up of grunts and howls. You could go out to the edge of your property and buy a couple of robots to help with the chores. And you could jump aboard a spaceship and pop over to the next planet to smuggle some spice or maybe deliver precious cargo – for a price, of course. There were politics here, broken down by an evil entity sweeping away the peacemakers and keeping factions in line by building a weapon capable of rendering a single planet to dust.
Lucas offers a story that we can easily get comfortable with. He offers character types and gives them bold personalities: The callow youth, the hot-shot, the wise old wizard, the beautiful princess (needing to be rescued, of course) and the loyal support of the muscle and the bickering comic relief. He offers a villainous enterprise not a million miles removed from the Nazi regime. He places his heroes in the path of overwhelming odds so that tiniest dot in the universe ends up making massive a dent in the villain’s evil plan.
What Lucas had that other filmmakers in this genre did not was an eye for detail, and detail is key. It might have been easy to hammer together a series of cardboard sets and have actors stand in front of them but it was something else to go to the trouble to create a desert town populated by humans, aliens, creatures and droids packed into the background so that entire frame was populated. Not every alien was trying to eat your brain, most were just trying to eek out a living.
Lucas’ team also developed what has been called the “used future”, realizing that automobiles in his fantasy world should look used and rusted and aged, not sleek and looking as it if were created before the camera was turned on. You could see the logic of how everything worked – you could see bolts and screws, and also grime. Look at Luke Skywalker’s Landspeeder which has a thick coat of rust and dirt and a paint job that suggests it has spent it’s entire existence sitting in the hot sun. Also note Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon, a rusty hulk that seems hammered together from spare parts (the best in-joke is that the heroes keep noting how shoddy it looks even as it is constantly saving their butts). The villain is a hulking figure in a black mask who can choke his underlings without even touching them – but we (correctly) sense that the real measure of his strength is being held back.
Star Wars rides familiar rails only to the degree that we are familiar with its good vs. evil elements. I mentioned that this was the right movie for the right time and its rebellious spirit was a model for the mid-seventies. America, just out of the cultural rebellion of the 1960 had garnered a dismissiveness of authority at large. In the case of this movie, it presents that element only to the degree that organized authority has ballooned into a Nazi-style regime – right down to the uniforms. The order, the proclamations, and the plans can be seen as parallel to Hitler’s regime, right up to their development of a devastating weapon capable of excising whole civilizations at will.
Yet, there is another element of the anti-authority that Star Wars is famous for, and that’s it’s upending of Hollywood tradition. Lucas broke the rules by eliminating the opening credits (he paid a fine and then promptly dropped out of The Director’s Guild). The story took place in the past but looks like the future. He starts in the middle of the series progresses his saga forward then turns back and tells the preceding story up to the point where this film begins.
By starting in the middle he develops a story that already has a rich history with characters that are fleshed out to the point that we are always interested in their relationships. He develops a warrior spirit that is passed on from one generation to the next, from an old wizard Ben Kenobi, who is the keeper of a dying zen religion – The Force – that favors patience and a clear-head over mindless, random violence. He imparts it upon the young Luke Skywalker, a callow youth hungry for adventure that we only slowly understand is the one who will bring about the end of the Nazi-like Galactic Empire. The friends he takes along on his journey start as bold character types (a hotshot loner, a loyal dog-like companion, a feisty revolutionary and a pair of Laurel and Hardy-style bickering robots) but eventually their personality become more refined and we care about their journey. Lucas was generous in these details.
He was also generous in the landscapes that allow us to feel that we are in a place, and not on a set. We aren’t on a transplanted Earth, but on a terrain very far from anything we know – yet it looks familiar. Everyone is the movie works, everyone has to make money. Everyone has to survive. The Jawas survive by selling droids. The Farmers survive by bringing a harvest (of water, I suppose). The smugglers survive by moving cargo from one place to another. Even the Sand People survive by stealing and scavenging. There are tiny elements too: the desert rats, the giant lizards that function like horses, the tiny mouse droids and even a bulbous robot whose only apparent function is to deliver a truth drug. They all function to build a world that feels alive and Lucas’ generosity is even more potent when you realize that none of this was completely necessary. The rebel spirit of Lucas’ creativity is what set it apart.
And YET, even with that rebel spirit, one of the most unfortunate legacies left behind by Star Wars is that it would bring an end to the rebel spirit of American filmmaking. It’s success would help to usher an end to the era of personal filmmaking and bring back the studio-driven projects that everyone thought had gone away. It brought about a blockbuster mentality that we are still living through. In many ways, Hollywood has been trying to recapture the success of Star Wars ever since – even Lucas himself failed to recapture it.
Yet, it set set in place something is both a blessing and a curse, the culture’s dependency on forming an identity based around a product (and before you say anything, I’m guilty of this too). Whether it be Star Wars or Star Trek or Pokemon or video games or even SpongeBob, we have bred a culture that is dependent on it’s personal interests as identity. Is it a bad thing? I don’t know, but it seems to have bred from the phenomenon wrought by Star Wars.
In her book “The Princess Diarist,” Carrie Fisher has possibly the best analysis of the film’s impact: “Movies were meant to stay on the screen, flat and large and colorful, gathering you up into their sweep of story, carrying you rollicking along to the end, then releasing you back into your unchanged life. But this movie misbehaved. It leaked out of the theater, poured off the screen, affected a lot of people so deeply that they required endless talismans and artifacts to stay connected to it.”
Of course, you can’t blame the movie for its impact. It left a feeling in much of the culture to stay connected to it. Certainly, I stayed connected to it. When I was a child, I spoke and thought and reasoned as a child. But when I grew up, I put away childish things . . . except Star Wars. Like the film industry itself, I have been looking to recapture that experience again. Whenever I step into a movie theater, even faced with an impending cinematic disaster, some small piece of my mind hopes that maybe this will be the moment when I discover a film that will have the same impact on me.
Alas, Star Wars was a once in a lifetime experience that has colonized my imagination and poured off the screen in a way that no film experience ever has. That’s why I come back to it time and again. It’s the brightest star in my cinematic galaxy and it’s impact will be with me, always.