Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Star Wars Blogging: Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

I'm old enough to remember when this film (or this "episode") was titled simply...Star Wars.

Yep, I was in the second grade when I first saw Star Wars in May of 1977 and it was -- without exaggeration -- a film that changed my life. It is easy to be disdainful or dismissive of such claims, I suppose, if you weren't there, or didn't live through that time. How can any movie -- especially a "fantasy" about a "galaxy far far away" change someone's life? Well, part of what I hope to blog about today is the manner in which Star Wars got so many details right. George Lucas's film was carefully crafted, so intelligently conceived, it opened up a new universe of possibilities in terms of cinema science fiction and in that way, it inspired a generation (maybe two).

First of all, I'd like to begin the discussion with the idea of Star Wars' antecedents and the considerable creativity it draws from them. In making his spectacular film, creator George Lucas gazed back to the space adventures of yesteryear. In simple terms, this means primarily the 1930s adventures of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. In fact, Lucas had sought to option the Flash Gordon property first...before deciding on creating his own original universe.

In 1987, Lucas also noted (on stage with Gene Roddenberry) that he had watched Star Trek reruns while writing Star Wars. You can also point to many important similarities between Star Wars and other literary and film epics. In broad strokes, C3PO physically resembles the robot from Metropolis (1927). Luke's home world of Tatooine is not that different conceptually (down to the giant critters...) from Frank Herbert's description of Arrakis in Dune. Much of the space combat (deliberately...) evokes memories of the aerial battles in 1949's Twelve O'Clock High. And as Roger Ebert once pointed out, the characters of R2-D2 and C3PO pay tribute - after a fashion - to characters and situations appearing in Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958).

None of this matters, however, in the long term, because George Lucas made a derivative film in an inspired, utterly genius fashion. He re-combined diverse elements in Trek, Flash Gordon, Twelve O'Clock High, Metropolis etc. into something daring, original. swashbuckling and new. He did what the best artists always do: he took the best and left the rest. Lucas didn't steal "the essence" of those earlier (popular) productions and books, but instead captured their spirit, the things that people enjoyed about them. He thus emerged with something cereative and different.

Contrast for just a minute that approach with the one might have taken, had he re-made Flash Gordon. We are now living in the Remake Age, and know what that's all about, don't we? I see artists today remaking the things they loved as kids (as Lucas picked up on things he loved in various productions), but despite co-opting the property name, failing to capitalize on the spirit and essence of the subject matter. I must admit, I was highly disappointed in George Lucas when he sued Universal over Battlestar Galactica, because he was claiming that series "stole" his ideas in Star Wars when they really weren't his ideas to begin with. No, he took the ingredients from other productions, mixed them together...and emerged with utter joy and genius. Lucas shouldn't have attempted to deny others the same creative process. But that's a discussion for another day.

So one thing that Star Wars got very right in the final analysis, was its re-shaping and synthesizing of old influences into a new and creative original. Lucas picked remarkably well, if you think about it. He found a model for his space battles that made them seem realistic (from World War II aerial combat) rather than confusing; he granted his inhuman characters (droids) human characteristics thanks to Kurosawa's film, and so forth. Again, I'm not saying he stole anything. I'm saying he used familiar ingredients but mixed them in an original and creative way.

But Star Wars also got so many other things right. Foremost among these was his decision to create a "lived in" universe. Go back to 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or Space:1999 (1975-1977) -- two productions I love, by the way -- and you see a marvelous view of man's technological future. It is white-on-white, minimalist and also remarkably sterile. While I groove on that vision, it is not difficult to see how Lucas went in the opposite direction, imagining a messy universe where spaceships don't always operate right, where there are items stored in every corner, and where robots have carbon scoring and dings on their mechanical bodies. The brilliance of this is that the universe does not look like it was created in a day by a production designer; but that it has been there all along...aging, gathering dust, falling apart. That viewpoint adds tremendously to the "realism" factor of Star Wars. Make no mistake, Star Wars represents a huge shift in the cinema's visual paradigm. The next step (after Star Wars) was represented by Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982).

Go back and study the interior of the Jawa's Sand Crawler for moment to see evidence of what I'm talking about here. This cramped, dark locale is almost anti-futuristic in conception. It is home for droids of every possible variety and so looks like the greatest yard sale or flea market or thrift store in the galaxy. The level of detail is amazing, but more to the point, Lucas's approach to photographing this setting is amazing: he doesn't linger. He doesn't explain. He doesn't provide background, exposition or detail on who these droids are, where they were made, or how they got here. What's important is that they are here, and speak to the "history" of the Sand Crawler's journey. Each droid has a story, no doubt, but we are not privy to it. (Sequel?)

What I'm writing about here is the confident and dedicated manner in which Lucas creates in one film - from whole cloth - a universe that boasts a history and therefore resonates with viewers. Again and again, this is the case, and I find it rather amazing. For instance, look at the Dianoga (the creature in the trash compactor): it's somebody's pet alligator that got flushed down the toilet, right? How did it get there? When did it get there? Who, specifically put it there? Those questions are left unasked and truly unimportant. But from the setting ( a trash compactor), we get the idea, and the monster itself is just another shade of this highly-detailed universe.

Also, I love the shape and cadence of the dialogue preceding the final confrontation between Ben Kenobi and Darth Vader in A New Hope, because it's all about history. History that - the first time you saw this film -- you had no knowledge of. "You should not have come back," says Vader [italics mine]. "The circle is complete." "When last we met I was but the learner. Now I am the Master." Etc. These characters constantly reference situations which we, as audience members, know absolutely nothing about. This is the end of Ben Kenobi's journey and yet this first film in the Star Wars cycle (though fourth in the chronology). We are spoon-fed nothing. In fact, we're asked to keep up, really.

I suspect George Lucas doesn't get enough credit for the "generational" aspect of the Star Wars mythos. He had no idea if his film would ever spawn a sequel (or prequels, for that matter). He could have set the story simply in the "now" of Star Wars with no sense of history, scope or scale. But instead, he seeded the mythic, generational material deeply into the film, providing the sense of both an age past (the Age of the Jedi) and the age in process (the Age of the Galactic Empire). In some senses, Lucas might have made a simpler, more straightforward (and much more manageable...) film without all the references to "ancient religions" and "ancient weapons." But instead, he had his characters reference (unfamiliar...) history, in the process making his universe all the more realistic.

This element of Star Wars occurs over and over again. Leia reports that only Darth Vader could be "so bold," to attack her ship, meaning that she knows him, or at least knows of him. The big deal here is that the story takes place in media res, with no sense of introduction or beginning, and so there is the sense that we are "swept" up in it without knowing everything. Star Wars seemed to move at a breathtaking pace when released because it throws everything at you at once, new action and historical information alike. It's a film alive with information. Not necessarily, explained information, but information nonetheless.

I think this is important because before Star Wars it was much more difficult to believe in the worlds created by Hollywood sci-fi movies. Logan's Run for all its various and sundry wonders, appeared to be set in a futuristic shopping mall, and was based on 1970s apocalyptic/futuristic thinking. Star Trek, even by 1977, looked dated to my eyes. Space:1999 appeared very realistic but like the other productions I've mentioned here, it was grounded deeply in our pre-millennial reality (spaceships were a product of the 20th century, and so were the Earth men featured on the show).

By contrast, Star Wars seemed to create an entire universe of Wookies, Droids, Jedi, Sand Crawlers, Jawas, Tusken Raiders, and Empire from whole cloth. Had any single detail or effect been wrong, had any element of the movie appeared fake or superficial, the entire endeavor would have been scuttled. In my opinion, this is why Star Wars remains a great and watershed film. There are a million little things that the film just nails, from the moment when Ben pulls a light saber out of an old trunk (filled with other mementos which garner no attention...), to the big things, like the scale and complexity of the Death Star...which is awesome.

I could keep writing this post forever, but I just want to highlight a few other element that I appreciate about the film. For one, George Lucas is clever the way he sees the shape of the galaxy being decided not in halls of government, or in the hands of leaders, but on backwater worlds. Luke's ascent to Jedi Knight begins on a world that he describes this way: "if there's a bright center to the universe, you're on the planet it's furthest from." I think this important not just in terms of the hero's journey, but in terms of the democratic nature of Star Wars. Anyone can become a hero, if he or she believes (and dedicates one's self) to the Force, "an energy field created by all living things." It doesn't matter if you live on Tatooine or Dantooine for that matter, so long as you are in "touch" with yourself and your environment through the Force. What an amazing message (and one, alas, watered-down in the prequels; where you must have midichlorians in your blood to harness the force, which in my opinion is the ultimate in elitism...).

Lucas gets criticized as a director quite a bit, and after the staginess and green-screen awkwardness of some moments in the prequels, I understand why. But here, in A New Hope, he projects a wonderful and highly romantic sense of lyricism. The scene that involves Luke at the Skywalker Homestead by sunlight, with those two giant orbs setting in the sky, speaks to some universal quality of adolescent yearning. As John Williams' beautiful score fills your ears, and you see that young man standing there alone, gazing at the world beyond his grasp, you share his impatience, his youth. He wants to get on with it, to make his mark in the world. I submit we have all felt that way; all shared that emotion: that longing to do something important; to grow up. This has become an iconic moment for Star Wars fans and for good reason. Again, this is Lucas being clever: the story may be set in a galaxy far away, but the emotion is all human (and therefore, resonant).

I'm ticking through my notes here. Ah yes, next up: Han Solo. He is the greatest character in the film (and one of the great characters in film history), because he offers humor, arrogance and incredulity in the face of all the cosmic ups and downs. Without him, Star Wars would not feel nearly so much fun or light . Han Solo (as played by Harrison Ford) is the secular, skeptical voice of the 1970s viewer (which may be the reason he has no corollary in the 1990s-2000s prequels). "Better her than me," he tells Luke, when Skywalker informs Solo that Leia will die if they don't help her. Indeed. Well, Solo is the perfect representation of the Me Generation, isn't he? Dismissive of religion; just trying to get by; just watching out for number one. But - in the end - someone who will be there when the chips are down.

I can't end a discussion of the film without mentioning the famous opening shot. We pan down from deep space to a planetary system. Then, a small ship (the rebel blockade runner) is chased, and the Imperial Star Destroyer takes positively forever to cross the screen. The result is that we understand the menace of the Empire, and the scope of the attacking ship visually. I guess it goes without saying that this shot has been imitated and lampooned (Spaceballs [1987]) quite a bit.

A New Hope is a pitch-perfect space fantasy, and one of the most important American films produced after 1968. Star Wars changed the face of the movie business. In particular, it changed the ways films are marketed, and the way that science fiction films are created. Which isn't to say that there aren't some nagging questions worth asking about how and why things go down in the film as they do. Kathryn and I watched Star Wars two nights ago and maintained a running dialogue about the things that fascinated and tickled us. Here are a few:

1. C3P0 lies to a stormtrooper on the Death Star. When is it permissible for a Droid to lie? Is that ability included in a droid's programming? And if it were, wouldn't you feel rather nervous about having droids around in your house (especially while you're asleep)? This may finally explain the line: "we don't serve their kind here..."

2. This one had Kathryn up in arms: but why doesn't Chewbacca get a medal in the rebel ceremony that closes the film? In her words, 'Bacca should either be out of the ceremony all together (and off the altar), or he should get a damn medal. Then Kathryn went into a long discussion of "species-ism" in Star Wars. Was Chewie denied a medal because he's a Wookie and not a human being? Only three-fifth of a person, perhaps?

3. What's with Ben Kenobi's line (at the wreckage of the Sand Crawler) that "only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise" in their targeting? Obviously, he's never watched Star Wars, because the Stormtroopers have the worst aim ever! Exhibit A: In the moment before Leia and Luke swing across the chasm on a wire, about six troopers follow at point blank range to blast the rebels, and every one of them misses. Precision? Maybe the Force was just against them...

4. Okay, here's a question about The Jedi Mind Trick. In Mos Eisley, Kenobi utilizes this technique on a Stormtrooper. He tells Luke that it can be used effectively on the "weak-minded." Now correct me if I'm wrong, but aren't all the Stormtroopers clones? (Copies of one another?) So if one has a weak mind, they all have a weak mind, right? If this is the case, defeating the Empire should be easy. In proximity of the Empire's Infantry, Ben need only issue a directive like "Kill Each Other" or "Walk off a mountain." Lemming-like, they'd all have to follow, no? Hmmm...

Okay, so these questions are snarky, but that's only because I love Star Wars so much and have seen the film so many times that I'm left now to dwell on absurdities. I suppose it's only fair to go out of this post with a mention of the aspect I like best about Lucas's film: it's about activism!

"I can't get involved," Luke says at first, when implored by Ben to help him get to Alderaan. Ben replies that Luke sounds like his uncle, or some such thing. But the point of Star Wars, very explicitly, is: pick a side; choose to be a hero. Stop whining about Toshi Station from the sidelines and do something about the way things are.

That's a message that - unlike the hairstyles in A New Hope -- never goes out of fashion. Oh, and finally -- for the record -- Han shoots first. Greedo never fires at all. (I know, because I watched the film on laserdisc, a version that emerged before all the maddening special editions...).

May the Force Be With You (and with Me too) for a long, long time.

4 comments:

  1. jason2:40 PM

    So many things to respond to, so little time...

    I'd just like to point out that much of what we now "understand" about the SW universe wasn't necessarily present in the original film. One notable example is the nature of the stormtroopers (which ties into your point about the weak-minded and the Jedi Mind Trick). Now, because of information in the prequels, we believe they're all clones. But what evidence of that was there in 1977? There are variations in the troops' heights and voices that would suggest they're NOT clones (which of course, they're not, because there are different actors in the costumes).

    In addition, there is the famous cut scene of Luke and Biggs talking, in which Biggs clearly states he's not going to wait around for the Empire to draft him. Granted, this scene isn't in the film and so may be considered apocryphal, but I think it demonstrates where Lucas' thinking was on the subject in '77. (It also reflects, of course, the attitudes that emerged in many young people during the then-recent Vietnam War.)

    My own theory is that the prequel-era clone armies saw a lot of attrition during the Clone Wars and the subsequent assumption of Imperial control, and that by Luke Skywalker's day, stormtroopers were a mix of aging clones and unwilling conscripts, hence the overall decline in their skills.

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  2. Jason, thank you! I've had that theory about the difference between Clonetroopers and Stormtroopers (i.e., some stormtroopers are actually recruited) and I've been shouted down for it before ... by my know-it-all cousin. Glad to get a little independent verification.

    John, your blog is always great, but I really get a kick out of the SW entries. Here's something to add to your ESB when it comes out:

    Yoda's line about luke being "too old to begin" the Jedi training is clearly sarcasm ... an in-joke between him and Obi-Wan. Of course they're going to train Anakin's son!

    But even more remarakbly ... Yoda delivers that line as though it were an in-joke ... in 1980! Was that a specific bit of Kirshner direction, or did Frank Oz get lucky?

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  3. Great speculation here everyone. And John, thanks for the nice comment on the blog.

    I was just being playful about the Stormtroopers/Clonetrooper questions...but I like the idea of a mixed infantry too (recruits and clones makes sense...).

    Now...how come Ben Kenobi doesn't remember R2-D2? :)

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  4. jason5:09 PM

    "...how come Ben Kenobi doesn't remember R2-D2?"

    Because the backstory wasn't as well planned out as the Lucasfilm company line would have us believe. :)

    He could be flat-out lying to Luke for some reason, since Return of the Jedi establishes that he does embellish, withhold, and "selectively remember" certain things as he sees fit. As to what his reason might be, I have no idea.

    Another possibility: astromechs seems to be pretty common, even on Tatooine, and most people pay them no more mind than we would a toaster or other ubiquitous appliance. It's possible he honestly doesn't remember R2 as an individual...

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