November 2, 2011

#13: Star Wars

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away...

Okay, here's my deal: until this year, I had never seen George Lucas' 1977 space opera Star Wars. I know, right? How can this be? Part of it is that I had three older sisters who all grew up watching and loving the series, and I specifically remember peeking into the basement during one of their sleepovers to discover them watching it. Maybe I thought it was a girl thing to like Star Wars, and if so, I'd be the only one on the planet who maintained that theory. Otherwise, it was just laziness that I left them unwatched (still haven't seen either of the other films in the original trilogy) until this spring when my two friends (who have a half-bathroom entirely decked out with Star Wars memoribilia, including a photo of them riding some gliding aircraft thing) invited me over for Yoda Sodas out of their themed cookbook and a screening. So at least I was sort of prepared this time. 

Company: two of the most dedicated fans of this movie that I know: David, who knew the names of all the characters, even the ones with no spoken dialogue; and Andi, who rivaled David in the trivia department

Cuisine: cheese popcorn, aged bleu and cheddar Cheeto Disappointments that we tried to fix with underused spices (some success), pistachios, wine and Bailey's

One of the things that strikes me right away about this classic, beloved by millions, is that after the iconic prologue in which we are treated to a brief history, the film jumps right in to the middle of the action. Without knowing nearly anything about the universe, we are meant to really pay attention and immediately identify with this fantasy world. In comparison to the Harry Potter series, in which a regular boy is brought into a fantastical new realm, the audience of Star Wars is the only character in this story who doesn't belong. At least, at first.

A civil war has developed between a group of freedom fighters called the Rebel Alliance and the evil Galactic Empire. War rages through space. A super-duper bad guy, Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones), has created the Death Star, a mega-weapon that can destroy planets with its super blasters. See how awesome that is? It's a major deal. But he's not too nice and some people, like the rebel leader Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher in cinnamon buns), aren't too keen on letting him destroy planets at will. She and her spies have stolen the plans to the Death Star in hopes of finding a way to destroy it, but she's captured by Imperial forces and confronted by Vader. Luckily, she's hidden the plans and a holographic message in a droid. Clever girl.

That droid, R2D2, and his taller golden buddy C3PO (Anthony Daniels), escape to an arid planet called Tatooine and come into the possession of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who happens upon the message in the robot. Clever boy. Enlisting the help of several friends, the narrative follows Luke's "hero's journey" to save the day.

Luke is our Harry Potter in this way: he's a simple farm boy with no combat experience, thrust into this conflict by coincidence... right? Or is something more at work? Does fate bring the droids into Skywalker's hands, ordaining that he would become a Jedi knight? As the story progresses, he certainly seems born to do it... with the help of friends, of course. (My summarizing skills are good but with this story I don't want to try too hard lest I get made fun of by fans for whom leaving out details is a mortal sin.)

Leia mentions in her message that her only hope is Obi-Wan Kenobi (Oscar nominee Alec Guinness), a former Jedi knight who knew and fought alongside Luke's father, Anakin. The circle grows bigger when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), smuggler pilots on the Millenium Falcon, are enlisted to help with the secret mission.

"That's no moon."

Save the princess. Defeat the bad guys. Blow up the Death Star. All in a day's work, right? Hardly. Lucas created a colossal and detailed world in which to play out this epic battle of good and evil. I always come back to this quote from Roger Ebert: "The more specific a film is, the more universal its appeal." This holds true for Star Wars especially, since the detail work of this world (and the exhaustive research done by fans everywhere) creates layers to the story that simpler stories lack. By working with classic archetypes and Joseph Campbell's writings on mythology, Lucas seems to have created a "hero's journey" for the new age that appeals to the geek in all of us.

They gettin' trashed.

"If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine."

Not only that, but in this blog this film comes closely on the heels of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which redefined the science fiction genre and injected philosophical and religious discussions into the tired tropes of fantasy. In the 1950s and 1960s, if characters in a film went into space, you knew it was probably going to look pretty cheesy. But Kubrick and now Lucas knew that space was, to borrow a phrase, "the final frontier," and held great possibilities. 

If 2001 redefined the genre, Star Wars cemented it as a viable box-office draw. Spielberg basically invented the high concept film with Jaws, but Star Wars took over the all-time box-office crown from the shark movie, presumably because of its scope, not to mention its incredible and revolutionary special effects. Those light sabres still look pretty sweet today. It also combined science fiction with soap opera and romance, defining a new genre and leading the way in combining genres. It's because of the Star Wars series that we have action/romances. Think on that.

It is certainly exciting and engaging, and while it's not my favorite science-fiction or fantasy film, it certainly lead the way for other directors and visionaries like Lucas to create new worlds and explore what the movie-going experience to do for a people and for popular culture. What other main musical theme has penetrated our collective conscience the way John William's did here? (Also, how has John Williams done that SO MANY TIMES?) Oh, that all fantasy films were crafted with this much care and reverence nowadays. Hmm.

Let's leave the light sabres behind and head back to the early 1950s for one more Western. I know, I know. I'm not looking forward to it, either. John Wayne leads The Searchers.

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