Star Wars (1977, 1980, & 1983)

Posted by on Dec 10, 2011 in The Best of the Best | 0 comments


Disclaimer: I don’t care if you don’t know she’s your sister; it’s not OK to look at her like that.

Can we get something out of the way? I’m not particularly a fan of Star Wars. There, I said it. But regardless of my feelings (more on those later), and whether you like it or not, George Lucas’ saga is very much a part of our culture and everyday life. Before the film phenomenons of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or Star Trek, hardcore fans lined up around the block to see the movies for the dozenth time, committing the languages, geography – absolutely everything – to memory. Erase Star Wars from our minds and you’ll still have Bill Murray’s lounge singer theme song, the working class debate in Clerks and racial diatribe in Chasing Amy, all the parodies (even full-length ones like Spaceballs and Fanboys), the list goes on and on. Hell, even some friends and I found ourselves enamored with Star Wars when the hypothetical idea came up for a hilarious themed café that would feature items such as Lando Casserole, Luke Chaiwalker, Darth Vaderade, Yoda Soda, Split 3-Pea-O Soup, Ham Solo (just ham on a plate), and Wookiee Cookies (Extra Chewie). The entire thing is a subculture unto itself, from the crawl of the opening text to the John Williams’ score.

Despite the stranglehold the series has on just about everyone, let’s say a child has no knowledge of Star Wars whatsoever. Isn’t it going to be difficult to understand? Not at all. The series, as some have described it, is a movie mongrel – or, as Time’s Richard Schickel wrote, “a subliminal history of movies.” Everything about it is familiar. Part fairy tale, part comic book, part science fiction, part western, part action, part swashbuckler, part samurai flick, part opera, part cliffhanger serial, part myth/legend, part blockbuster, part war epic, and even part comedy. Star Wars is, quite simply, Lucas’s homage to the films of his childhood (Flash Gordon, The Wizard of Oz, Buck Rogers, Superman, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Triumph of the Will, The Searchers, and Hidden Fortress, just to name a few). And though it takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” everything is familiar – from the landscapes, vehicles, and weapons to the religious beliefs, politics, and racial discrimination (“We don’t serve their kind here”). The general concept derives from a more specific source, that being Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.


Similarly interesting is the fact that one doesn’t need to know much about the bare-bones plot. Suffice to say it’s a story of a few good guys versus lots of bad guys. The themes are equally basic, and essentially a collection of dualities such as good and evil, black and white, father and son, etc. “The story could be written on the head of a pin and still leave room for The Bible,” wrote The New York Times’ Vincent Camby, who broke Star Wars down to an endless array of escapes, pursuits, missions, and encounters.

Most children can identify the stereotypical characters from a mile away. There’s the young underdog, an Aryan farmboy named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill); strong fairy tale princess Leia (Carrie Fischer); insecure sexist and dominant male Han Solo (Harrison Ford); kind sage Obi Wan Kinobe (Alec Guinness); pure evil Darth Vader (James Earl Jones and David Prowse); wise passive voice goblin Yoda (Frank Oz); KKK-looking storm troopers; teddy bear Ewoks; sidekick droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and friendly wookiee monster Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), together resembling the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion; and thousands of others (e.g. Gen. Ackbar).

The true stars – especially since nearly all of the actors were unknowns at the time – remain those involved in aspects like the special visual and sound effects, creatures, art direction, makeup, and costumes (people like John Barry, John Dykstra, Brian Johnson, Richard Edlund, Gilbert Taylor, and a host of others). Their efforts didn’t exactly go unnoticed, with Star Wars setting a new bar in visuals and, oh yeah, taking home 10 Oscar statuettes and another 10 nominations. With the help of 2001: A Space Odyssey, this franchise changed film treatment of science fiction and was the first major effort to utilize growing computer technologies. But not everyone was a fan of the CGI trend, as director Terry Gilliam bluntly stated, “It’s the death of film. I can’t watch those Star Wars films; they’re dead things.”

Not surprisingly, the studio predicted Star Wars was going to be an $11 million flop, and executives gave Lucas the merchandising rights without flinching. That was a $1 billion mistake. Ouch. Little did they know it would lead to two sequels, three prequels, two spinoffs, cartoons, games, toys, books, food, clothes, a Smithsonian exhibit, and all the other stuff. Every one of the movies occupies a slot toward the top of the all-time highest grossing films. Go figure.

A list of all the series’ positive accomplishments is hardly telling the whole story, though. There’s a laundry list of negatives that mostly explain my mixed feelings toward the saga. Let’s begin with the editing; the random wipe patterns suggest that a 15-year-old using iMovie made these films. How about merchandising? Was it enough to make you gag? If not that, what about Lucas’ reissued trilogy in 1997, complete with so-called digital “enhancements?” Oh yeah, and what about the prequels? Show me a loyal Star Wars fan and I’ll show you someone that wishes they could get a DeLorean, go back in time, and murder Lucas before he made those three.

Writer-director Paul Schrader credits Star StarWars3 Wars as signaling the end of an era in which studios would occasionally take risks. Afterward, it looked for big-budget replications and almost nothing but. “(Star Wars) convinced the studios to abandon their old financial model, wherein lots of money was earned by lots of films, and embrace a new model, wherein ever-increasing amounts of money and effort were devoted to developing more movies like Star Wars,” Matt Zoller Seitz wrote. Star Wars also signaled the end of an era marked by highly personal films, largely started by the French New Wave, and marked by directors like Antonioni, Godard, and Bergman. And though Lucas took a two-decade break from directing to produce Willow, the Indiana Jones series, The Land Before Time, Labyrinth, and Howard the Duck, studios churned out monstrous sci-fi and comic book adaptations (Alien, Star Trek, Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, etc.). The success of a film no longer depended on critical praise, but on its performance at the box office. Esquire’s David Thomson wrote a cinema essay entitled “Who Killed the Movies?” His answer was Lucas and Spielberg.

More than 30 years later, we’re still trying to strike a balance between filmmakers looking to break gross records and filmmakers looking to create the great American movie. And given the fact that Lucas has yet another trilogy of stories to work with (they succeed the original trilogy), lets just hope the possibility of more film adaptations is a long time off, in the mind of someone far, far away.

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