Tuesday, May 18, 2010

May the Force Be With You: The Star Wars Blogathon

The Star Wars blogathon at Sci-Fi Drive begins today.

My good friend and brilliant film blogger, J.D. at Radiator Heaven, has already fired the opening salvo here, with his remembrance of the landmark 1977 film by creator George Lucas. He opens his retrospective with feelings I share:

"For many of my generation, the first Star Wars film (1977) was a defining moment of our childhood and so I always look back at it in a nostalgic way."

I agree with J.D. I'm part of "the Star Wars generation" (I first saw it when I was seven years old...) and the first three movies form part of my psychic gestalt in ways so deep that I probably can't consciously process or fathom them.

Here on the blog, starting in 2005, I began to look back at the Star Wars films with my "Star Wars Blogging" project. I watched all six films in storyline sequence (Episode I to Episode VI). Ultimately, I dropped the project after reviewing Episode IV: A New Hope, in part because I felt stymied by The Empire Strikes Back (1980). It's such a great, classic film, and whenever I set out to review it, I felt I wasn't doing it justice. But I know that some day, I'll get there (And then, finally, I'll get to Return of the Jedi.)

To celebrate the occasion today, here's some of what I wrote about the 1977 film back in 2008:

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 so 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 creative 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 rather 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 a 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, 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.


  1. "...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 rather that it has been there all along...aging, gathering dust, falling apart. That viewpoint adds tremendously to the "realism" factor of Star Wars."

    Well said, my friend! I think that this is also another thing that appeals to me about this film (and the EMPIRE and JEDI) is that the world Lucas created has a lived-in look. The Millennium Falcon is the equivalent of an old jalopy that needs a few good kicks to get it going.

    I also like how Lucas contrasts the sterility of the Empire's trappings - the ultra-sleek and cold looking interiors of the Death Star with the dusty, grungy Cantina in Mos Eisley or even the over-crowded hustle and bustle of the Rebel base in Yavin IV. I'm glad that Lucas carried that look over to the two other sequels.

    Thanks for the shout-out! I can certainly relate to how deeply ingrained these films are in your psyche. I think that's how many of us felt back then and probably still do despite Lucas' best efforts with the new prequels and the CGI makeover he gave the original trilogy.

  2. You are so right to mention the "historical" aspect of the original STAR WARS film; this gave it a heft and sense of reality other sci-fi/fantasy films lack... like the prequels. The Clone Wars as actually depicted in them are nothing to what my young mind conjured up when Kenobi spoke of them to Luke. Alas.

  3. A wonderful analysis of the start of this grand series, John. I'm older than J.D. and you, but my 22 year old head (at the time) was sure turned by this experience. It marked the start of journey that's still going on. Even now, decades later, my own children have leapt into the universe Lucas created -- and they are less critical than us (we Star Wars veterans of '77) of the changes that have taken place with the CGI makeover of the original series and the prequel trilogy, I might add. But, we still have this series in common. And for that, I'm grateful. Thank you (and J.D.) for this.