Star Wars

Luke's just not a farmer, Owen. He has too much of his father in him.

Looking back on it from more than 30 years, it’s hard to imagine a time when Star Wars did not permeate our culture. It informs both our popular arts as well as high-level policy debate during the Cold War. It rewrote the rules of summer movies only two years after Jaws wrote them in the first place. This one movie took merchandising from a tidy little sideline to a stratospheric cash cow for Hollywood.

In short, a little movie made for less than $10 million, of which the studio thought so little that they willingly parted with all the ancillary rights that studios normally hang on to until hell freezes over, ended up being the greatest single act of creative destruction in the history of the business since The Jazz Singer. After Star Wars, the artistically ambitious films that were a hallmark of the early-to-mid-seventies were shuffled off to the independent filmmakers, while Hollywood became a factory for blockbusters.

At this juncture, it’s pointless to review this movie like I would a “normal” film, other than to offer my conjecture on why this little movie worked like no other movie before it and few since. And yes, I’m calling it Star Wars, not Episode IV or A New Hope. The movie that hit theaters in 1977 was called Star Wars, so that is the name of the movie.

I doubt anyone needs me to summarize the story. Poor farm boy hears princess’ call for help, proceeds to save universe, etc, etc.

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No one is going to accuse George Lucas of telling a blazingly original story, least of all George Lucas. The writer/director freely cops to the film’s many antecedents. What we hadn’t seen were these ingredient presented with this level of energy and visual quality.

Before Stars Wars, movies like this usually looked like they were shot on a nothing budget in someone’s garage and backyard (usually because they were), and starred actors on their way down or on their way to nowhere. Somehow Lucas wrangled acting royalty in Alec Guinness, a veteran genre actor in Peter Cushing, and a promising up-and-comer named Harrison Ford, and raised the acting game for this kind of movie several notches above where people expected it to be, delivering their lines with a level of gravity and a lack of irony that sold the reality of their characters more than they would in another space opera. Maybe Mark Hamill was the kind of actor you normally found in these throwaway sci-fi drive-in flicks, but he was surrounded with such notables that people managed either to not notice and not mind so much.

What really struck me as a kid was that the world behind these actors felt real. The production design gave weight to the environment, made it seem more like a place and less like a backdrop. Immersing yourself in the fantasy required less imagination, less suspension of disbelief. And the universe didn’t just look real. It felt lived in, beaten up, worn at the edges. The story seemed to take place in a world larger than the movie itself.

And, yes, there were the special effects. Lucas was lucky enough to come along just as that industry was taking a quantum leap forward. The camera and the spaceships were unshackled and allowed to move freely. Pie plates on a string and old fashioned process shots were banished to the dust bin of history. One really only had to see that opening shot, and that Star Destroyer that kept coming, and coming, and coming, and you knew right then, this was something different.

None those things alone or even in combination with others accounts for the movie’s enduring appeal and influence. For that, it also had to be the right movie at the right time.

Of course, everything that I have just written applies just as much as, if not more so, to the little $10 million movie that appeared in cinemas in 1977. This is the movie that rewrote the rules, that spawned an empire and gave George Lucas access to billions of dollars and all the toys a filmmaker could want. If there had never been sequels, or prequels, or special editions, this movie would still be irreplaceable.

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