Star Wars (1977)

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Star Wars
Dir. George Lucas
Premiered May 25, 1977

At the end of a long night of trick-or-treating, my dad nowhere to be found, my neighbor Carol Selkin dropped by to give me a VHS– she had been in the habit of giving me her old ones, but this was a brand new copy. “It’s a movie called Star Wars,” she told me. “There’s two funny robots in there that I think you’ll like.”

She was right, and on October 31, 1996, I became one of the last people to see the original cut of Star Wars. For a kid who had seen almost nothing but Disney and the odd Short Circuit or Black Stallion, it was an enormous leap forward in my relationship with the movies. Suddenly, I wanted to become a filmmaker– eventually. Although I wrote elementary school reports on George Lucas, videotaped my friends and I reenacting scenes from our favorite movies, and started going to theaters way more often, I had no interest in the technical aspects of filmmaking and virtually no critical eye. Even so, my fate was sealed.

Star Wars was also the beginning of my nerddom. I played Star Wars videogames, read Star Wars tie-in novels, repurposed my Lego sets to make X-wings (this was before Lego actually made Star Wars kits). And it came just in time for the Special Edition and then the prequels (about which more later). Though my fandom never went anywhere near as deep as others’– I never read any comics, owned any toys that weren’t gifts, or read any of the really important books like the Thrawn Trilogy– it set a precedent. I would quickly go on to form similar mild obsessions with Pokémon, Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings, and Lost, by which time I was nearly an adult and able to create my own stories to fixate over.

Just as I did with Lord of the Rings, Star Wars is such an overwhelming presence in our world that the only sensible way to approach it with fresh eyes is through my personal experience of having first seen it. Considering I was not quite seven years old, it’s telling that this is the first movie I can remember experiencing for the first time with intricate details. Consider this:

1. Mrs. Selkin gave me the VHS giftwrapped with Aladdin-themed Genie wrapping paper and exclaimed at how ravenously I opened it (“the genie paper!”), thus instilling a lifelong impulse, to the bewilderment of my mother, to unwrap gifts as carefully as possible.

2. Star Wars’ opening crawl is one of its defining features, and my mother fast-forwarded through it, assuming it would bore me. She was wrong. Thankfully, it didn’t matter in the long run, I eventually saw it as was intended, and for the moment, a new kind of movie magic took over. Let’s begin.

(Please note that my review is of the original 1977 cut of the film, as lovingly restored in the questionably legal Silver Screen Edition by Team Negative One.)

Star Wars is a surprisingly difficult film to summarize, primarily because of a very long first act. A fantastical galaxy has erupted into civil war between an increasingly despotic Empire and small band of rebels. As the film begins, the rebels have acquired the plans for the Death Star, a moon-sized space station that can destroy an entire planet. As a massive Imperial cruiser chases down the small rebel ship carrying the plans, the rebel leader Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) hides the plans inside a small robot– or droid– called R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), who flees in an escape pod to the desert planet below with his fussy counterpart C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) just as Leia is taken prisoner by a mysterious figure known as Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones).

Landing on the planet, R2 and 3PO are kidnapped by scavengers and sold to a poor farmer (Phil Brown) whose nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) wants nothing more than to leave home and join the rebellion, following in the footsteps of his late father. When Luke finds out that his new droids are part of the rebellion, and that R2 is carrying a message from Princess Leia to an old hermit named Obi-Wan Kenobi, he is led on a chase that leads him right to the man (Alec Guinness). Obi-Wan turns out to be the last of an ancient religious order of warriors known as Jedi Knights, who fought alongside Luke’s father before he was killed…by Darth Vader. With agents of the empire in pursuit of the droids, and Luke’s uncle and aunt killed in the crossfire, Luke agrees to go with Obi-Wan to bring the plans to the princess’ home planet of Alderaan, with the help of the scoundrel ace pilot Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his wooly first mate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

Together, they arrive where Alderaan should be, only to find it destroyed, the first victim of the Death Star’s catastrophic power. Soon, their ship is impounded in the Death Star itself. With Princess Leia due to be executed for her ties to the rebellion, the gang must find and rescue her, and bring the plans to the rebellion so that the battle station can be destroyed.

In spite of all of this, Star Wars is not actually that plot-heavy. The story that exists draws visually and narratively from other science fiction, westerns, samurai films, and war movies; is most heavily inspired by the theories of mythologist Joseph Campbell, whose work had become significantly more popular in the 1970s and whose influence would be severely played out within another decade; and is infused with a gritty, pedestrian aesthetic inspired by director George Lucas’ own interest in classic cars and aircraft. The characters are archetypes to be sure, but the casting choices, a frugal mix of young unknowns and British veterans, make even the most minor characters enjoyable.

What makes Star Wars special is its production value. Here more than anywhere else, Lucas demonstrates a visual understanding of film that more than compensates for his doctrinaire storytelling. With an adept mix of sweeping natural scenery, austere sets, and intricate-yet-utilitarian models, Star Wars creates a world that’s simultaneously fantastical and tangible, and does it on a far more massive scale than anything that had ever been done before. In a way, it’s never been done since, and certainly not for $11 million.

Star Wars is a family film in the best way: it’s great fun for kids, and it rewards growing up. As a child, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker, play with droids, fly X-Wings and wield a lightsaber. As a teenager, I could appreciate the artistry: the production design, performances, cinematography, and music, and marvel at how it didn’t have to be (and indeed almost wasn’t) as good as it was. Now, as an adult, I can discuss it here, through the guise of history, and explore its influences and influence. Literally all of you have seen it. So instead of recommending it to you, I’ll recommend it to your kids. Watch it with them for the first time if you haven’t already. I can imagine few things more fun.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Production design, production design, production design. I’ve heard some critics closer to my own age proclaim that Star Wars’ distinctive gritty, industrial look was a whiplash-inducing departure from the clean, optimistic future of existing sci-fi, but that’s not really true. While the props, sets, and models of Star Wars were far more ambitious than anything that had come before, they were all heavily informed by earlier movies like Forbidden Planet, 2001, and Silent Running, as well as real-world cars, aircraft, and ships. Neither Luke Skywalker nor Han Solo would’ve looked out of place walking down the street in 1977. Which is all the more impressive when you consider that every single model, vehicle, set, and piece of wardrobe– everything you see in the movie– had to be made from scratch.

How Did It Do?
Every couple of years since the late 1960s, one Hollywood film would set a new box office record. That was over. Grossing $775.4 million against an $11 million budget, Star Wars’ record stood for sixteen years, only to be beaten by the similarly industry-shaking Jurassic Park.

Critics at the time were divided, with New Yorker kingmaker Pauline Kael dismissing it as “an assemblage of spare parts.” But as indebted to the classics of film as Star Wars was, its own influence was greater than anything that had come before, and continues to be so. Roger Ebert adored the film, especially noting his adoration for the creature effects in the famous Mos Eisley Cantina set as a symbol of the amount of care and imagination in each frame. It was nominated for ten Academy Awards including Best Picture, and won six: Best Original Score, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Art Direction, Best Editing, and Best Visual Effects. Virtually every great filmmaker since who was alive at the time saw it in the theater. Without it, there would be no 1980s as we know it, probably no Disney Renaissance, definitely no Lord of the Rings, and no superhero movies today. Star Wars has captured our minds and our souls in a way that very few secular entertainments ever have.

Disillusioned with the challenges of making the film, George Lucas vowed never to direct again. The film’s sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, were written and directed by others, but still stand tall, with Empire in particular being regarded as the superior film of the three. Star Wars would inspire an entire universe of books, comics, games, and toys, and would continue to stay in the public mind, even as more recent cultural phenomena came and went. When Lucas did return to the franchise in the 1990s, he needlessly fiddled with the original cuts of his films to create the Special Edition, inserting scenes and digital “improvements” that were variously petty, out-of-place, awkward, and insulting; a fact made worse when Lucas discontinued prints of the original cuts. In 1999 he returned to directing and continued the Star Wars saga with the (rightfully) reviled Prequel Trilogy, and made increasingly bizarre word-of-god additions to the mythos he had created both on- and off-screen. Finally in 2012, the Walt Disney Company rescued Lucas from himself, threw away the extended universe, and revived Star Wars as an active– and palatable– film series.

There’s no shortage of writing about Star Wars, but I’ve seen little discussion about how the film and its sequels transformed science fiction. From its inception in the 19th century, sci-fi had almost always revolved around speculation, using fiction to marvel at the wonders and terrors of the latest technology, pondering where it might lead, and using that platform to examine the here and now. Science fiction in the New Hollywood, for example, typically used the then-new reality of space travel to explore spiritual and environmental themes.

But while Star Wars borrows aesthetically from that, the characters and story are more fantasy-based, and wouldn’t feel out of place in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien or the legends of King Arthur. Henceforth, science fiction would become less of a “genre” and more of a setting. In this way, Star Wars would have its greatest impact on the 1980s.

I once heard a critic say “Star Wars just feels like it’ll be around forever, like Shakespeare or the Bible.” That sense is why it lives on today. But why did it catch on at the time?

So, I’m moving to Israel soon, and in reading that country’s history, I’ve discovered that the founding fathers and mothers were pretty universally disinterested in religion. They felt that the old devotion to traditional texts and stories is what had kept their people down, made them victims, and were best forgotten. But after a generation of independence, young people increasingly found themselves drawn to that tradition, and the idea began to emerge that just because the past was flawed didn’t make it worth throwing away. It was a part of their heritage that had long been off-limits, and for what?

By the same token, while the look and feel of Star Wars reflected the New Hollywood that had created it, the epic scale, fantastical nature, and unselfconscious optimism within evoked the Old, which most of Lucas’ contemporaries abhorred. For this reason, Pauline Kael hated it. But it was also a breath of fresh air after nearly a decade under a filmmaking culture that valued  challenging the viewer above all else, and was rapidly metastasizing into an abstract religion (which I’ll discuss more when we get to Sorcerer). Suddenly, it was okay to have fun again. To quote a rookie filmmaker at the time named Robert Zemeckis, “we weren’t interested in the French New Wave. We were interested in Clint Eastwood and James Bond and Walt Disney, because that’s how we grew up.” It’s not for nothing that George Lucas defended Star Wars to his snobbish contemporaries as nothing more than “a Disney movie,” nor that the Walt Disney Company eventually acquired it.

Like most of Disney’s animated films, while those in the know may surmise the vintage, any child will see it and feel as if it’s brand new. It is timeless. It is like Shakespeare and the Bible. It is everyone’s and it is yours.

And let us pray that Disney comes to its senses and releases the original cut on blu-ray.

Additional Notes
Due to the uniquely challenging nature of watching Star Wars in the context of when it was first released, I wanted to put my additional notes after everything else.

Note that I refer to the film as Star Wars, not Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, as that title was the result of a 1980 repackaging in anticipation of the film’s sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. This being part of a series of reviews of films from 1977, I am reviewing the original 1977 cut, which is not easy, as no copy of that cut has been commercially available for twenty years; never in widescreen. In 1997, George Lucas was impressed enough with the advent of CGI in film that he re-cut his trilogy using the new technology and released it as the “Special Edition,” claiming that that was his definitive creative vision. It isn’t, and you can tell.

In writing a project yet to be released on the impact of 9/11 on film, I treated Minnie to the Extended Cut of The Lord of the Rings, released a year after each film, and she was rapt. Suddenly, she said, everything in the theatrical cuts that had seemed rushed, random, or underdeveloped made sense. Truly those versions of the films encapsulated Peter Jackson’s vision of Tolkien’s epic. By contrast, the Star Wars Special Editions are all petty, ugly, pointless, clash violently with the established visual style, and consistently bring the film to a crashing halt. Worse, Lucas’ insistence that this (and all subsequent edits to the film) were what he always wanted meant pretending that the original cut never existed, meaning that most of the people who have seen Star Wars have had no option but to watch a version compromised by decades of tinkering by a megalomaniacal old busybody, like coming home from college to find your bedroom turned into a giant model train set. Not that I would know anything about that.

What about the rest of the franchise?

The Empire Strikes Back (1980) is easily the best film in the series, vastly expanding the universe while maintaining the feel of the original. Lawrence Kasdan’s dialogue is far more personable and organic than Lucas,’ and the characters go from likable to beloved, including two (Yoda and the Emperor) who suddenly feel as if they’ve always been there. The big reveal is one of the great childhood rites of passage, like losing your baby teeth, and mostly lands. And the whole thing is beautiful to look at.

Return of the Jedi (1983), while not a bad film, is about the least imaginative sequel that the filmmakers could’ve come up with, and strains credibility on both a narrative and technical level. Blue-screen technology is used extensively and the actors have difficulty interacting with scenery that isn’t there. The revelation that Princess Leia is Luke Skywalker’s twin sister serves little purpose except to close a perceived love triangle and attempt to recapture the magic of the big reveal in Empire; its biggest effect is to make the world of the films seem disappointingly small, even with the most impressive battle scene in the whole series. And of course the inclusion of the ever-so-marketable Ewoks is almost as obnoxious as Lucas’ ridiculous geopolitical justification for it.

The Phantom Menace (1999) is a bad film. Aside from the music and some of the designs, every single creative decision is the worst one any filmmaker could possibly have made, from the plot to the performances to the visual effects, and demonstrate adroitly why Lucas should not have been left to his own devices. It’s a bizarre, convoluted, and ultimately pointless thrill ride that in no way resembles Star Wars as we know it.

Attack of the Clones (2002) isn’t much better, but it had a lot more potential to be good. It just wasn’t. It was dull, ugly, badly acted, and contradicted the mythology of the original trilogy in new and frustratingly random ways.

Revenge of the Sith (2005) is the watchable prequel, but only just watchable. The look and feel of the original trilogy is fleetingly present, which I guess is something. Like the others, the plot is needlessly complex; the dialogue is offputting, alien, and seemingly not proofread. The best that can be said for it is that it has a few moments of good and suffers significantly from a lack of proper buildup in the other prequels.

As a result of the prequels, The Force Awakens (2015) functions mostly to regain the public’s trust and start the series fresh. It succeeds on both counts, but the burden of having to do so also limits what it can do with the Star Wars universe. Definitely a good film, but I doubt it will be anyone’s favorite of the franchise. JJ Abrams’ direction is a perfect fit, as is the return to mostly practical effects.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) is a bit outside-the-box, expanding on the universe and conflict in the original trilogy. I loved that element of it, showing shades of grey in both sides, exploring the use of The Force beyond just the Jedi, and answering a lot of minor but interesting questions raised by the original films. It also has a lot of fun supporting characters, an amazing battle sequence, and a tremendously ballsy conclusion. However, the use of CGI in recreating some of the characters is unnecessary and unfortunate, the first half is an undercooked mess (likely the result of extensive cuts and re-shoots), and the two lead characters are not well-developed.

Nonetheless, I have high hopes for The Last Jedi and whatever comes next.

Next Time: Smokey and the Bandit

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5 thoughts on “Star Wars (1977)”

  1. No “underthinking” here! Thank you Sam. Your critique/essay is so well researched and eminently and engagingly readable. I had no idea how the tape (imagine–TAPE!) would shape your creative development, but I assure you, we all knew of your intense interest in film early on. P.S. I’ve been watching the entire Star Wars series (in the “new” order) with Solly (8), who is completely captivated with the whole S.W. culture (“Ask me ANY question about Star Wars, grandma… anything at all!”). I plan to read him your commentary, which I think will be valuable for him. P.P.S. I loved that 1976 trailer–it didn’t overplay the physical humor (C3PO falling over!), but got the adventure, comedy and weirdness just right, despite the really hokey, kind of old-fashioned, voice over. Let’s see what Solly thinks. –Carol

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    1. Thank you! The trailer was very spare for good reason— neither the music nor the special effects were finished yet! And don’t bother with the prequels— for all our sake.

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  2. I know people approximately my own age, their mid-30s, who completely love Rogue 1, even going so far as to call it the equal of Empire. I assume these people are also fans of the contemporary, Zack Snyder, gritty style, and they think that the dark ending means there’s something automatically deeper and better at play, as if that’s what made Empire great.

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