Star Wars (1977)


It is hard to believe that there was a time before Star Wars was part of collective American culture.  It has since become more than a mere movie, but a touchstone that changed the way movies were made and marketed.  For better or worse it has influenced science fiction for over four decades, either with movies and television shows trying to ride its coattails or specifically trying as hard as possible not to be anything that resembles it.  From humble beginnings it has spawned some of the best films in American cinema, as well as some of the worst.

The truth is that its success was a confluence of a number of different things that made the movie go right.  Everything I have read about the development of the script to the production of the film walked a fine edge where this could have been one of those convoluted, glorious flops mentioned along with Howard the Duck and Heaven's Gate that probably would have received a midnight movie style cult following and nothing more.  The opening crawl was originally practically a short story for the audience to read, with a bunch of backstory that many Star Wars fans are familiar with now after all the books and films, but was such an information dump that Brian De Palma stepped in and cut it down to what it is.  Originally, once George Lucas had finalized what was going to happen, it would have plopped audiences in the middle of a world that existed in the mind of one person.  If Alejandro Jodorowski had managed to bring his version of Dune to the screen, it may have ended up looking mainstream to what Lucas wanted.

Yet, Lucas's wife Marcia stepped in, along with some other decent editors, and assembled this mashup of samurai films, Flash Gordon, Buddhism Lite and The Dambusters and made it something that appealed to almost everyone.  What was largely Lucas taking his money that he made from American Graffiti and assembling a film, often out of literal junk that was lying around, into a vanity project that even he thought was going to fail spectacularly became an inescapable phenomenon. 

Of course, as I write this, it is 2020.  Star Wars was released in 1977; for reference, some of its biggest competition that year was Smokey and the Bandit.  One of the biggest fantasy hits shortly before its release was The Golden Voyage of Sinbad, featuring Ray Harryhausen animation.  If someone did do actual science fiction, it wasn't Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers style action that was popular, but lower-budget, high concept pieces like Westworld or Silent Running.  It was thought that there really wasn't any audience appetite for science fiction, particularly as Logan's Run, which did put a lot of money into design (and, of course, still touched on current social issues) and production, didn't resonate like it was hoped.  Today the innovations started with Star Wars may seem quaint, although the company founded to actually make the impossible happen back then, Industrial Light and Magic, has been highly responsible for what we see on the screen even now.  Story-wise, and even effects wise, the original movie largely holds up. 

It's just a shame most people will never actually get to see the same film I originally did, in 1977, in a  theater that ceased to exist before the 1970s ended, or that I also got to see as an adult on a giant screen prior to George Lucas doing his "Special Edition".  Instead, I worry that most people will instead be forever stuck with a version that, while it cleaned up some of the effects to make them look better, also overlaid a large amount of elements that made the prequel series next to unbearable.

Darth Vader (David Prowse) is pursuing a ship to retrieve the plans to the Galactic Empire's new space station, the Death Star, which has the capability of destroying entire planets to keep the populace in line.  He captures Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) for interrogation, but not before she stores the plans in the droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), who with his companion C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) escapes and lands on the planet Tatooine, where the droids are purchased by a young boy named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill).  Luke discovers the message, leading him to Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi (Alec Guinness), a former Jedi Knight.  After hiring passage to Leia's planet of Alderaan with smugglers Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), they soon find out how powerful the Death Star is and find themselves captured by the Empire.

While on the space station they discover Leia is a captive, and manage to rescue her and return her to the Rebel Alliance's secret base.  However, the Empire is not far behind, but the plans may allow the Rebels to score a major victory.

I can somewhat understand what George Lucas was thinking in the 1990s.  He wanted to do a lot more with the movie when he was making it.  For what even then was a low to moderately budgeted film he was building props, like the Jawa Sandcrawler, that were actually pretty much the size of what they were supposed to be in the movie.  A good portion of the Millenium Falcon, for instance, was constructed, as were some of the other fighters, sine there had to be actual humans next to them.  Consequently, not everything worked; the dewbacks ridden by the Sand Troopers while searching for the droids, for instance, ended up being something in the background, while Mos Eisley looked like a barely populated city rather than the teeming outpost on the matte painting.  Also, in the original three films, there are lines around the ships showing where they were inserted into the background.  It wasn't as noticeable when they came out, but higher visual quality on later cameras made it obvious.

Unfortunately, rather than just cleaning up some rough edges, Lucas decided to add quite a bit of new digital effects to the movie.  They were quite jarring in 1997, but were since redone again in 2004, so the dewbacks actually do fit into the scene.  What doesn't is all the other stuff put in, which is largely slapstick humor.  Sure, the idea of finally seeing a major scene, Han Solo's meeting with Jabba the Hutt, was attractive, but redundant since the original film had compensated for having to cut it by giving Jabba's lines to Greedo (Paul Blake).  Also, knowing about the Hutts (and Jabba Disilijic Tiure in particular), purposely walking on his tail probably would have ended Han Solo's career then and  there.  While Jabba's actual appearance has improved in the newer cut, the rest of the scene is still there, and it's still embarrassing.  Not to mention Greedo shooting first, and then being corrected to both shooting at the same time, which was imposed by a force even more responsible for ruining movies than Lucas - the MPAA. 

Keep in mind this is a movie that had to add some light swearing to avoid getting a G rating when it first came out.  This is in a movie where we see the burnt bodies of Luke's aunt and uncle, Obi-Wan slicing the arm off a rowdy patron in a bar and countless good and bad guys with burning holes in their chests.  That isn't even taking into account about a million or so people on Alderaan gone in a flash.  To tell how times change, all the rest of this was still fine, but Han Solo shooting a bounty hunter under the table was going to kick this up to a PG-13. 

Much has been said about George Lucas's bad dialogue, but quite a bit of it was tempered by its cast.  Harrison Ford, no matter how much he felt about the role, was perfect as Han Solo, and would only become better at inhabiting it in The Empire Strikes Back.  Mark Hamill is the everyman that the audience can relate to, which is important in any tale of this kind, and while the character comes off as a whiny kid, that was kind of what Lucas was going for with the character early on.  What most people don't notice is how much the character of Luke grows up within just the course of the few days' time in which the movie takes place, after having to face more death and tragedy within that time than he ever thought he would see.  Carrie Fisher may seem clumsy in delivering her lines, but from all accounts she was afraid of being let go from the project if she didn't do as told, and so is doing her best to deliver Lucas's dialogue as written.  Anthony Daniels for his part is underused in most of the films outside the original three, which is disappointing as C-3PO and R2-D2 are the first two characters were are given an emotional attachment to, and Daniels is amazing (and genuinely funny) in the role. Alec Guinness may have hated t

Darth Vader is one of the iconic cinematic villains and, as much as David Prowse was upset about his voice being replaced by James Earl Jones, it was a wise move.  Prowse is still an amazing physical actor, having to work the whole time behind the mask, and Jones gives Vader that last bit of menace to put him over the top.  Although Vader carried on through the other films, Peter Cushing is obviously the big bad guy this time around as Grand Moff Tarkin, the man actually in charge of the Death Star.  His scenes with Carrie Fisher are among the most memorable, and he is able to handle Lucas's writing without problem. 

Down to the obvious, Star Wars is a wonderful film.  It was when it came out, and it always has been.  It's honest in its intentions to entertain, and in the end it was one of  those situations where everything came together.  There are flaws but, as Harrison Ford told Mark Hamill at one point when the latter was concerned about fine points of continuity, "Kid, it ain't that kinda movie."  And, yes, even with the special edition there are many things that mark this as 1970s, from the haircuts to the heavy use of dubbing.  Still, it has a certain look and feel in which one can see why it did what it did.  The decision to show the world, rather than inundate the audience with a load of backstory, worked.  For two hours you are part of this world that you feel must exist somewhere, and thus you become part of the story.  A good part of '70s filmmaking was like that; it was made so that you were an observer of events.  Star Wars goes that one step further, almost making you a participant, putting you in the cockpit of an X-Wing Fighter flying down a narrow trench as defense towers try to take you out, or sitting in the weapons section of the Millenium Falcon firing at pursuing TIE Fighters.  This sensation that it could be you as a character in the movie is something that got lost over the years, and definitely through the prequels, and that Rian Johnson tried to somewhat bring back in The Last Jedi

If you ever do get a chance to see a decent cut of the original, then do.  If you find this movie, in the way you have been forced to see it the last 23 years, inferior to the others, it may just change your mind to see what was originally intended.  For me, I still remember the original enough to see the real movie beneath the attempts to "improve" it.  To this day the Special Edition of this movie seems like the cinematic equivalent of the Monkey Jesus.  Happily, with Star Wars, not even Lucas's clumsy attempts to paint over it can totally obliterate the masterpiece beneath.

Star Wars (1977)
Time: 121 minutes
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing, David Prowse, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker
Director: George Lucas

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