What’s the appropriate opening to a “review” of Star Wars?
Do you start with the cultural impact the saga has had on the world? How it has ingrained itself in societies from North America to the Middle East; from the southern tip of Africa to the northernmost villages of Nepal. Before Star Wars, the myths and legends children grew up learning and enjoying varied from region to region. After Star Wars, everyone knows of the Force, the story of Darth Vader and the myth of the Galaxy Far Far Away.
Do you discuss the technological achievements we enjoy as cinema-goers thanks to George Lucas and THX, which increased the standards (and standardized them in general) of audio and video quality enjoyed in movie theaters? Before THX, you would sit down at the movies with no way of knowing whether the sound you were hearing was faithfully reproduced (from the creator’s intentions) by the equipment on hand. After THX (which launched alongside the release of Return of the Jedi), you can be sure that the sound you hear meets the approval of the mixer hired by the filmmakers and the picture you see meets the approval of the cinematographer who filmed it.
Do you open with the influence of the movies in the field of visual effects? Before Star Wars, ships moving through the vacuum of space looked amateur, no matter how impressive a budget the movie was given. Not even Kubrick’s “2001” knew how to give a sense of realness to the spaceships (though his movie came the closest of the pre-Star Wars era). After Star Wars, the idea of computer-controlled motion-photography became the industry standard. It’s impossible to appreciate now, but the opening scene in Star Wars—with the Star Destroyer chasing down the small Rebel cruiser—was unlike any effect-shot ever before seen. The fluidity and weight of the vessels was the biggest game-changer to special effects since the advent of stop-motion.
If all movies were to cease production and all cameras were shuttered for good, history would—as it always does—amalgamate the entire enterprise into “pre” and “post” categories: There would be “before sound” and “after sound.” There would be “before color” and “after color.” There would be “before computer-effects” and “after computer-effects.” And there would be “before Star Wars” and “after Star Wars.”
So what’s the appropriate opening to a review of Star Wars? As we approach the formal relaunching of the saga with the release of The Force Awakens, what’s the best way to begin a reflection of the mythos? Why not start with the beginning?
It began with Flash Gordon. As a child George Lucas enjoyed reading the adventures of the space-faring adventurer and later watching the serialized short films at the cinema. Flash Gordon, even then, was cheesy and childish, but to its legion of fans it didn’t matter: It was fun. When he became a director, Lucas sought for the rights to make a Flash Gordon feature film, but found those rights had already been acquired. Instead he set out to create his own movie, with the same hokey fun that he had enjoyed with Flash Gordon growing up. Universal Studios, who signed Lucas to a two-picture deal (American Graffiti and the movie that would become “Star Wars”) rejected his science fiction pitch as too complex. The executives at 20th Century Fox, however, loved American Graffiti and secured the rights to Star Wars, putting their faith in the young and ambitious Lucas.
The story went through countless revisions, and it was, as the Universal Studios’ executives declared, too complex. Multiple rewrites whittled the core concept down to its most basic archetypes, until the story itself became a celebration of those archetypes: The young and reluctant hero, the princess held in the tower and awaiting rescue, the dark wizard who holds her, the noble wizard who takes the young hero under his wing, the scoundrel anti-hero who helps the good guys but really is only looking out for himself…all of the most cliched elements of fantasy are there, and when you watch the movie that today is called “Episode IV” it is surprising how little “mythology” there is.
The reason, of course, is because the well-known mythology of the series simply wasn’t present in the writing of the movie. “Episode IV” or “A New Hope” (titles which would be added after the movie’s initial release) was designed to invoke the old Flash Gordon series, with a thin “fantasy-themed” plot that strings together the real meat of the movie: The action set-pieces.
The first Star Wars movie introduces us to “the Force,” the backstory of the “Jedi” and the “Clone Wars” but with only the first movie to go on, these words and phrases are just window dressing to give the story its other-worldly feel and to provide motivations for the characters. The idea of the Force as a zen-buddhist-like spiritual frequency to tune into for deeper insight into existence was not established until the next movie. The almost-divinely providential nature of the Force wasn’t added to the mythos until Return of the Jedi. The concept of the Midichlorians, which brought the mystical nature of the Force down to the “real world” came with the first of the “prequel” films, decades later.
But in the beginning, “the force” was just “an energy field created by all living things.” It was a plot device. It was a one-word description of the power of the light and dark wizards who floated around the periphery of the film. It was nothing more than a trademarkable substitute for the word “magic.”
The same is true of “Jedi” (a substitute for “wizard”) and “clone wars.” The wars which would later become a huge element of the mythos were mentioned in the first movie as a way to establish the connection between the young hero, the old wizard seeking to train him, the dark wizard who has captured the princess and even the hero’s father (previously killed by the dark wizard). The invocation of “the clone wars” is entirely a plot device; it’s a one-sentence way to link all the major players and motivations together in order to move the story forward.
That’s the true magic of the first movie: It has a non-stop forward momentum. It doesn’t allow itself the time to “tell” so it forces itself to “show” (which is always more exciting in a movie, anyway) while its on the run. Watching the movie without thinking about the mythology that would come later, its easy to see that the writer, director (same man, George Lucas) and editor (his wife Marcia, among others) were uneasy and not entirely confident in the story. They wanted you to feel, not think. Because thinking would mean asking questions, and questions would lead to scoffing at the silliness of it all.
Considering that the movie was rejected by Universal and other studios, was criticized by the actors reading the lines on set, and before that was written and rewritten by Lucas multiple times, it’s not a surprise that the creators had worries that the story was too “out there” for mainstream audiences. The solution was to thin the plot out as much as possible, emphasize the adventure aspect of the story and do as much “show don’t tell” as possible. By the time Lucas got around to making the prequel movies, he was in full-on “tell” mode, being supremely confident in the mythos that had been established. Those movies suffered, in part because their pacing was too muddy. The original movie, however, was a tightly-edited action flick that moved at breakneck speed. There was no time to laugh derisively at the Death Star door that rises open one foot at a time, when you’re grinning from ear-to-ear at the sight of Luke and Leia swinging across a chasm in a scene ripped right out of an Errol Flynn movie.
Elements of the mythology that are now essential to the story have to be read into the first movie, because they simply weren’t there in the beginning. Darth Vader is now one of the most iconic baddies in cinema history, but here he is the lap dog to Governor Tarkin, openly derided by both hero and villain alike and having only a dozen minutes of screen time in the entire picture. His role was increased substantially for the sequel, initially because he was so popular in the original. From that, the idea of making him the hero’s father (which is now the linchpin of the entire “mythos”) was added in a late-draft of Empire Strikes Back. Originally though, Darth Vader was to “Episode IV” what Boba Fett was to “Episode V.” A cool-looking mini-boss, nothing more.
Names and places that would later become hallmarks of the series are only given a passing mention here. The Emperor, the Senate, even the nature of and scope of the “rebellion against the Empire” is brushed over without any significant attention paid to it. Their brief mentions in the movie are not examples of clever “set up” or subtle “foreshadowing.” This is simple world-building (galaxy-building to be exact). Taking away the preconceived notions we have doesn’t do an injustice to the first film; on the contrary, it allows us to better appreciate how fully-realized this stand-alone story is.
After Star Wars, there would never be another “Star Wars” movie so self-contained. Every other movie was created with the next one (or ones) in mind. Empire Strikes Back was written to be a cliffhanger with a finale yet to come. Return of the Jedi had to wrap up both the events of the previous cliffhanger, as well as put a cap on the entire trilogy as well as tell its own story. Episode I was built to be the first of a three part story, while also being the first in a larger, six part story. Episode II had to create the pivot point that two trilogies would look back on, and Episode III had the task of finishing one story and starting the next one while also thematically bridging the gap between twenty years of backstory (most of which would still be unshown).
But when you watch “Star Wars” and you follow Luke’s journey to rescue the princess and defeat the Empire, all of the story that came afterward is immaterial. This is the true post-modern fantasy. Luke is the new Alice, stepping into Wonderland. He’s the new Dorothy, seeing the wonders and terrors of Oz. He’s the new Flash Gordon, fighting evil-doers in the far reaches of space.
Today, Star Wars is a multi-faceted saga that tells the story of the rise and fall and redemption of Darth Vader. The new movies seem, in part, to continue that theme, with the “legacy” of Darth Vader apparently set to be a critical plot element.
But back in 1977, as audiences watched, enraptured at the sight of the Millennium Falcon shooting down Tie Fighters, Star Wars was not concerned with its future sprawling-mythology. It wasn’t trying to build a generation-defining universe for multiple stories to play in. Back then it was about one thing: Fun.
And it’s still just as fun today as it was then.