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Thursday, March 20, 2014

Star Wars

This is THE watershed sci-fi film. It is the beginning of the end of the old era of sci-fi start of the “modern” sci-fi era. While many debate the quality of story, the writing, etc. few can argue against the cultural significance of Star Wars. The 50s had Forbidden Planet (’56). The 60s had 2001 (’68). The 70s had Star Wars: A New Hope. George Lucas wrote and directed a film that was both a product of its times and such a radical departure from its times that it took audiences by surprise. Star Wars catapulted the careers of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher. Alec Guiness, Peter Cushing and James Earl Jones were already established actors, whose stature helped the film. So very much has already been written about Star Wars already — indeed, a whole subculture exists around the film and its characters. This review cannot cover all the points there are to make. Instead, the focus will be on Star Wars in light of the continuum of sci-fi that went before it.

Quick Movie Synopsis
A small space ship flees from a giant imperial cruiser, but cannot escape. Aboard the small ship is Princess Leia on a mission to deliver stolen plans to the Empire’s new battle station, The Death Star. Before her ship is boarded and she is captured, she puts the plans inside a small droid, R2D2. He and his droid companion C-3PO escape to the planet below. There, both droids are captured by Jawa junk dealers and eventually sold to Luke Skywalker’s uncle Owen. R2 escapes, looking Obiwan Kenobi. Luke finds R2 and meets “Old Ben” and thus escapes Imperial troops killing his uncle and aunt while looking for the droids. Obiwan, and Luke hire Han Solo to fly them to the planet Alderon. They just barely escape imperial troops and ships, but the Death Star has turned Alderon to rubble before they can get there. Solo’s ship is captured by the Death Star. Luke, Han, Chewy and the two droids locate Leia in a detention cell. Through many turns of fate and laser-blaster battles, everyone makes it back to the ship. Everyone but Obiwan. He and Darth Vader engage in a light saber battle, which Obiwan voluntarily loses to aid the group’s escape. Solo does fly them away from the Death Star, but they were tracked. When Solo’s ship lands on the rebel base moon, the Death Star is not far behind. With the stolen plans, the rebel leaders think the Death Star can be defeated by small fighters precision-dropping a nuke down a ventilator shaft. The rebel squadrons form up and fly to the Death Star. Solo, takes his reward money and leaves. Imperial tie-fighters harass the rebel X-wing fighters. Two rebel groups make passes at the vent shaft, but fail. Luke, in the last group, fly in. Solo swoops in to save Luke from Darth Vader’s tie-fighters. Luke uses The Force instead of technology and gets his bomb down the shaft. The Death Star blows up. Darth Vadar escapes, however. Luke and Han are applauded as heroes and awarded medals by the beautiful princess. The End.

Why is this movie fun?
Star Wars is an action-packed comic book adventure. Archetypal good and evil do battle free from the subtle entanglements of deep character development. The lavish sets, the intricate models, the sheer variety of bizarre aliens, all create a fascinating “other” universe. Later sequels would get mixed reviews for being either too shallow, or too complex or too absurd, but the original film was fast-paced simple fun.

Cultural Connection
Malaise Antidote — The 24/7 atomic angst of the Cold War era was draining enough on the cultural psyche. The silly 60s gave some respite, but the Eco Doom of the 70s struck before the culture had regained its strength. Perhaps the world would not incinerate itself with nukes, but it was (the pundits predicted) going to shrivel, stink and starve us to death in just a few years — if the computers or rampant viruses don’t kill us all first. Where the Cold War was like being stalked by a serial killer, Eco Doom was like being told you had cancer. There was no hiding, no escape. Films of the 70s reflected that dark and dower view. Things were bad, and only going to get worse. This is the cultural undertow which President Carter tried to expose in his ill-fated “Malaise speech” in 1979. Carter chided America for — materialism, apathy and a ‘crisis of confidence.’ Carter did not point to a source, but part of that malaise was because the preachers of environmentalist hellfire had browbeaten America into a deep funk. The earth was going to hell in a hand basket because mankind was eco-evil. About all there was left for people to do was to ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die.’ Star Wars was a shot of adrenaline to an exhausted America — a hot meal in the belly of a culture starving for hope.

Not Out of Thin Air — As much as Star Wars was a radical departure from customary sci-fi films, it was not totally new. In fact, if Lucas had not drawn upon a deep reservoir of preexisting cultural elements and instead made things up out of whole cloth, the film would have failed. Lucas did say that Kurosawa’s 1958 film Hidden Fortress was one source of inspiration, Star Wars is not a remake of HF, set in space. Lucas’s notions of a “Used Future” meshed with others’ prior works. Moon Zero Two, for instance, had a cocky space pilot and his patched-together old ship doing some salvage and trading. Many prior films featured weird aliens. Many prior films had robots — both anthropomorphic (like C-3PO) and mechanical like R2D2. Other films had giant ships and laser battles. Loads of prior movies had shootouts — even with lasers. The light-saber duel stood on the shoulders of The Three Musketeers, Zorro, pirate movies and countless sword & sandal matinees. What Lucas managed to do, was overwhelm his audiences with the sheer quantity of everything. They were all things that had been on the screen before, just never so much at once.

Classic Villains — An example of how Lucas tapped into preexisting cultural icons was how he made the Empire a very thinly disguised remake of the Nazi Reich. The stormtroopers, by their very name, were retread-nazis. Their helmets and militarism could activate all those prior movies in which Nazi troops were the vile bad guys. Darth Vader’s costume has roots as old as Ming The Merciless from Flash Gordon days, but mostly, Darth is the ultimate SS trooper. His helmet evokes the WWII German stahlhelm. He is all in black (whereas Leia is in pure-goodness white). Films with actual nazi costumes were getting somewhat old by the late 70s. It was, after all, thirty years since the Nazis lost the war. How long could a culture keep beating that dead horse? Lucas refreshed the horse so it could get beaten again. Through Luke, Han and the rebels, America could once again whoop the Nazis -- sort of. John Williams’ triumphal score celebrated victory like it used to be in the old movies.

Galactica In Situ — One of the enchanting things about Star Wars was that it did not deign to explain itself to viewers. The norm for sci-fi since the 30s, or even as far back as Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, was to explain to audiences just what the strange things were. In lesser movies, long stretches of exposition were dedicated to explaining how the aliens came from this planet or that, and had to breathe air or water, or ate rocks or whatever. Time travel, or alien technology got explained as did the aliens’ ultimate motives (which usually turned out to be that they wanted our women!) In Star Wars Lucas just put his galaxy out there without all the exposition. Jawas were junk merchants. No reason why. Owen and Beru had a dirt-scrabble farm, despite all the technology. Just cuz. Speeders floated. No idea why. The Death Star had big trash compactors. Why? It didn’t matter. Lucas’s galaxy had the charming effrontery to exist without justifying or explaining itself.

Bottom line? Star Wars is a must-see. Love it, or loathe it, the film cast a long shadow over future sci-fi movie-making. It would become the yardstick by which others were measured. It would have many lame low-budget imitators. It put back the triumphalism which sci-fi had in the 50s, which became politically un-correct in the post-Vietnam world. The depressing gray shadows of that old world would not vanish overnight, but the new dawn had just broken over the horizon.


Randall Landers said...

Only thing I would add is that it borrowed from quite a few movies like "The Dam Busters" for its run at the exhaust port sequence, but it's a wonderfully entertaining film. It upset me that Lucas had it recut so Guido shot first, but it's still a genuinely fun film.

Nightowl said...

Randall, you're right about Dam Busters. That's a great action sequence in an old film. The Director's Cut of the film surprised me a bit. Part of the fond memories of the original was its -lack- of CGI. Seeing the '97 remastered version with CGI inserted (like slug-Jabba) was a little bit of a let-down. The scene with Greedo shooting first had its logic, but it seemed an unnecessary white-wash. A ruthless Solo turning into a hero is more dramatic than an ethical, but-debt-saddled Solo turning hero.