In the beginning (it was 1977), “Star Wars” seemed to come out of nowhere, and from its very first moments it blew audiences away. And thus was a pop-culture phenomenon born. Seattle Times movie reviewer Soren Andersen ponders its enduring appeal.
Early summer 1977. There was a new movie that had just come out: “Star Wars.”
My friends and I didn’t know much about it, other than it was directed by George Lucas, the “American Graffiti” guy, and word was that it was pretty good. We were living in Ventura, Calif., at the time, so not long after the picture’s May 25 debut we decided to head 60 miles south on the freeway to Mann’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood to check it out.
The Chinese is a huge venue, a true movie palace. Giant screen. More than 1,000 seats. Every one was filled that afternoon.
Opening shot. Blackness. “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” Followed by a screen crawl: “It was a period of civil war …”
Hmmm. This seems pretty cool.
And then …
A spaceship zooms away from the camera — followed by, descending from the top of that huge screen, filling it from side to side, majestically, in overwhelming white immensity, the biggest spaceship we’d ever seen. Descending, descending, as if there was no end to its massiveness.
The place went nuts.
We gasped. We cheered. We knew in an instant this was the movie we’d been waiting all of our lives to see.
From the get-go, “Star Wars” came at us full throttle. Space chase. Shipboard ray-gun battle. A damsel in peril. Two clownish robots, one a golden fussbudget, the other a grayish-blue trash can on rollers, booping and beeping. Unexpected comic relief in the middle of laser blasts.
And then he appears. Coal-black coal-scuttle helmet atop a grille-fronted mask. And that voice! Basso deep, courtesy of James Earl Jones, accompanied by ominous heavy breathing. Evil incarnate, moving with a purposeful stride, trailing a swirling black cape.
It’s all ancient history now. In fact, it’s hard to remember a time when there wasn’t a “Star Wars,” so thoroughly have the movie’s images and story embedded themselves in popular culture.
The connection was instant. And it was unexpected. Before “Star Wars,” Lucas had directed “THX 1138,” a sci-fi picture so chilly it almost gave the eyeballs freezer burn. Hardly anyone saw it. Everyone saw his follow-up, “American Graffiti,” a wonderfully warm, musical journey through late adolescence. It was a big hit and very well made, but it gave no hint of what lay in store with his third picture.
What lay in store was a movie made for movie fans by a filmmaker who was a deep-dyed fan himself. A film-school product, Lucas drew influences from sources in high culture and low.
From Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress,” in which two squabbling minor characters, one tall, one short, observe and comment on the action, Lucas in interviews said he got the inspiration for R2-D2 and C-3PO.
From the World War II air-assault drama “The Dam Busters” he got the template for the attack on the Death Star, with bombers swooping in on a heavily defended target.
There’s even speculation that Darth Vader was partially inspired by a character called The Lightning from a cheesy Republic series from the 1930s, “The Fighting Devil Dogs.” With his black cape, black outfit and shining black helmet mask, there certainly is a resemblance. And Lucas has made no secret of his fandom for old-time serials like “Flash Gordon.”
His casting of Peter Cushing, sepulchral star for many Hammer horror films, as the Grand Moff Tarkin, the only man who could reprimand Vader and not suffer remote-control suffocation as a consequence, was another homage to the lowbrow movies in which Lucas delighted.
He took all the many influences, which included the writings of mythologist Joseph Campbell and elements of Buddhism, Taoism and Zoroastrianism, and distilled them into something singularly original.
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The variety and diversity of alien cultures on view was astonishing, from the scavenger Jawas and their giant reclamation machine to the predatory Sand People to the bizarre denizens of the cantina scene in that “wretched hive of scum and villainy,” the spaceport of Mos Eisely.
The rogue Han Solo, the callow, questing kid Luke Skywalker, the feisty Princess Leia and the wise Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi formed a relatable ensemble. These were people we were eager to spend time with. Later would come criticism that the acting wasn’t very good and many of the lines the characters spoke were hokey. But all that was in the future. At the time, the sheer forward momentum of the story, the scope of the visuals and the stirring power of John Williams’ symphonic score swept all other considerations aside.
With the exception of 1968’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” most space movies before “Star Wars” looked pretty primitive, whether they were “The War of the Worlds,” “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” “Forbidden Planet” or, at the lower end of the spectrum, “Plan 9 from Outer Space” and “Robot Monster.” By contrast, “Star Wars” spaceships were shiny white and packed with complicated technology. Although it was made for a relatively modest $11 million, with the vastness and the originality of its images — from the double-sun sky of Tatooine to the sleekness of the X-wing fighters — the movie looked like it cost much more. This was top of the line filmmaking in every respect.
The mass congratulatory applause scene at the end following the rebel victory felt earned, and it mirrored the reaction of the audience that day. That, we said to each other as we filed out, was a movie!
And then, over the years “Star Wars” became what it has become. Now called “Episode IV — A New Hope,” the first picture has spawned countless books, toys and other merchandise, college courses, imitations, parodies, prequels and sequels. It also revived “Star Trek.” paving the way for “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” released in 1979, 10 years after the original TV series was cancelled. After that picture, “Star Trek” became a long-lived franchise that has certainly prospered.
Since ‘77, Lucas has become a billionaire and a controversial figure. Fueling the discord have been the changes Lucas has made over the years in the original trilogy, scenes augmented with special-effects creatures and other tweaks that weren’t possible to create with the technology of the day. One of those tweaks was the crucial altering of the confrontation between Han and the bounty hunter Greedo.
Lucas’ protestations to the contrary in the years since, Han did shoot first. It was a defining a moment for the character. He’s a tough guy in a tough neighborhood, and the shoot-first impulse was the product of a finely honed survival instinct. Changing the scene to letting the bad guy get off the first shot denatures the character (and besides, it’s ridiculous to think Greedo would miss at such close range). Lucas has insisted the movies are his and he can do with them what he likes, including withholding the original version from distribution. Doing that raises the issue of just who does a movie belong to anyway?
The name in the credits is Lucas’, but it’s the audience who embraced his original creation and propelled him to his fame and fortune. That movie is our movie, the source of cherished memories of a moment and a time now long gone, when the way to see a picture like “Star Wars” was in the dark, with hundreds of like-minded strangers, feeling the collective rush of experiencing something new and, frankly, wonderful. You don’t get an experience like that from watching it on a TV screen or a smartphone.
The memories are ours, Mr. Lucas. In tampering with them you’re tampering with something very personal and precious.