A Long Time Ago...Exactly 30 years ago today--May 25, 1977--Star Wars first showed to paying audiences. Looking back, its success seems like a sure thing, but that was hardly the case. George Lucas struggled to make his space epic. Many studios turned him down, despite his earlier triumph with American Graffiti. Filming was difficult. The special effects had to be invented on the fly. Even when the film was completed, few had high hopes. Here was a movie with a largely unknown cast in a genre that rarely garnered good reviews or big box office. There was no premiere and the film opened on a mere 32 screens. Lucas reportedly went on vacation to avoid hearing what he feared would be lousy early returns.
Thirty years later, it’s all so hard to believe. I could write pages about what Star Wars has achieved and how it’s become a permanent part of our popular culture. But you already know all of that. Besides, I can’t be objective about Star Wars. It’s the first film I ever remember seeing, and it’s been an important part of my life ever since.
Now many people have an attachment to childhood favorites merely because they were childhood favorites. One could dismiss my fondness for Star Wars that way. So I must put this in the proper perspective. For a long time when I was a kid my favorite sitcom was “Different Strokes” and my favorite TV drama was “Knight Rider.” If you don’t think that’s embarrassing, my favorite animated TV show was “He-Man: The Masters of the Universe.” Thankfully, I outgrew all of these (and I rarely even admit to the He-Man part).
Star Wars is different. You don’t outgrow it, or at least I don’t. Sure, I went through different phases. As a kid I collected the action figures and was an official member of the Star Wars fan club. Later, my membership lapsed and my mom gave my action figures away (for which I still haven’t completely forgiven her), but Star Wars was still with me. When the family got a VCR and I had enough money to buy my first videos, the choice was easy. Throughout college my first day home from finals meant the same ritual: Wake up at 2pm and, while still in my bathrobe, watch the entire Star Wars trilogy. After the stress of exams, I could not think of a better way to flake out.
My bond with Star Wars was renewed once again in 1997 with the film’s re-release. A friend and I were there for the first show at DC’s Uptown Theater. The showing was at 10 a.m. We showed up at 7 a.m. and the line was already huge. Many people in line were my age. Some were older, having seen Star Wars originally as teenagers. Some hadn’t even been born when the film debuted. The best part was that some had seen the film as kids and now had their own children with them. All of us were drawn to the theater that day for a 20-year-old movie. It was a rush like I’ve rarely felt. It was though I was seeing Star Wars for the first time.
Why? Why has Star Wars stayed with me and so many others? Many point to the special effects, which, for that time, were groundbreaking. Even today, the effects hold up well. Still, it has to be more than that. After all, we have seen many films in the past 15 years with effects well beyond Star Wars. The new Star Wars trilogy had effects that were far more encompassing and ambitious then the original. But do you think fans will be lining up in 2019 for the re-release of The Phantom Menace? Probably not.
So again, why? No one can completely put the answer into words, but it’s worth a shot. I watched Star Wars again a few days ago for some enjoyable background research. I was struck by how most of the action comes in the second half. Lucas devotes the first half to establishing the story, the characters, and the basics of Star Wars mythology. He does this very carefully, especially the character development. Yes, I know many people don’t think of “Star Wars” and “character development”in the same sentence. Watch the film again though, and you’ll see what I mean. All of the main characters get enough time for us to explore who they are and how they see the world.
So by the time the action comes you’re hooked and it’s not cheap thrills. You care about the characters, the plot, and the Star Wars universe. Now don’t get me wrong, the action scenes are terrific. Lucas and his crew designed the battle sequences brilliantly, leading the to the perfect climax with the Death Star explosion.
Much of the credit must also go to John Williams for his masterful score. Williams perfectly accentuates the key moments and deftly weaves in motifs for the key characters. His music elevates Star Wars, adding immeasurably to its stature and grandeur.
It’s also the smaller things that make Star Wars work, such as the aliens and robots you only see for a few seconds. Think of all the droids in the Jawas’ transport, or the creatures in the Mos Eisley cantina. Think of the lightsaber’s hum and Chewbacca’s howl. Think of the trash compactor that almost crushes our heroes. Lucas reportedly wanted to make the spaceships and robots feel “used” and they do look beat up. While we know that Star Wars is a fantasy its elements feel real within the film (what Lucas often refers to as an “immaculate reality”). It feels accessible. It feels human. Conversely, the new Star Wars trilogy did not have the same impact partly because it felt too pretty and too clean. All of the CGI made the characters and action seem more distant, lacking the intimacy of the original.
Lucas freely admits that he borrowed from many sources. The dark warlord, wise old wizard, and idealistic young hero have been part of storytelling for ages. The cynical, wisecracking but good-hearted warrior could come from any Western. Lucas took elements from Greek mythology, Arthurian legends, Eastern philosophy, Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films, WWII airplane flicks, and 1930s Saturday morning serials, just to name a few. Yet somehow through blending those disparate elements Lucas arrived at something unique and distinctive. In many ways this is the American ideal, combining the best of many influences and many cultures to produce a vibrant new being both separate from and connected to that which came before.
Perhaps the reason I’ve held onto Star Wars more than other parts of my youth is that the film represents the best of childhood. It’s fun and playful. It’s dreams and adventure. It’s a sense of wonder blended with true creativity. There’s a heart and a mysticism in Star Wars that I just don’t want to lose.
Thankfully there’s little danger of losing Star Wars, either globally or personally. My kid brother grew to love the Star Wars films as much as I do. On his wedding day he walked down the aisle to the film’s main theme. Later he and his wife named their first-born Leah. Yes, the name is spelled differently, and she was technically named after two grandmothers and a close family friend. But it’s no coincidence that from day one people called her “Princess.” Her bedroom features a signed photo of Carrie Fisher.
Maybe I can’t fully explain why Star Wars means so much. I just know that I can’t imagine life without it. Here’s to 30 years of Star Wars. It’s a force that will be with me, always.
May 25, 2007