Saturday, May 25, 2013

A Long Time Ago In A Theater Far, Far Away

Happy Star Wars Day! Star Wars (it wasn't called A New Hope back then) premiered an impossible 36 years ago on May 25, 1977.

I didn't see it on opening day, but I was there in the theater a week or two later. I remember going to see it on the last day of school. We got out at noon on Friday and a friend and I hurried to the theater to catch it. 

I knew a little bit about the film as I'd read about it in Starlog magazine. Starlog was the place to get info on upcoming movies in the dark times before the internet. I knew it was some kind of sci-fi space opera thing, but I had no idea what I was in for.

When the movie started and that Star Destroyer roared overhead for seemingly a full minute, my jaw was on the floor (among the gum and popcorn). I could actually hear audible gasps from the audience around me. No one in the theater had ever seen anything like that. 

I don't think I blinked during the entire movie. When it was over I didn't want to leave; I wanted to stay and watch it another ten times.

To say Star Wars had a huge influence on me would be a disservice to understatements. For months, maybe years after seeing it I would sit around and draw the ships and characters, which eventually got me to try my hand and designing my own ships and robots. 

I wasn't immune to the merchandising onslaught either. I eagerly bought every Star Wars reference book I could find and started collecting the action figures as well, activities that continue to this day.

You whippersnappers who weren't around in the late 1970s have no idea how revolutionary Star Wars was. I wish I could make you understand what what it was like to see it back then, and how things were before it came out. 

Nowadays there's a new sci-fi blockbuster spectacle released every other weekend. Back then films like Logan's Run were the epitome of special effects extravaganzas. Believe me when I say that before Star Wars, it's quite literally true that no one had ever seen anything like it before.

Try and imagine you're back in early 1977. Back then space ships in movies all looked pretty much like the image above. Sleek, smooth and boring.

Sure, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Silent Running bucked the trend a little with super detailed models, but Star Wars upped the ante exponentially, with utilitarian-looking ships like the Millennium Falcon and the gargantuan Star Destroyers. Finally, detailed ships that didn't look like a plain old missile.

And the way the ships moved was nothing less than astonishing. Before Star Wars you were lucky to ever see more than one space ship in a scene at the same time. Any ships you did see trundled slowly across the screen in a perectly straight line. Suddenly Star Wars came along and there were dozens of ships on the screen at once, all swooping and banking and zooming around like fighter jets. It may not have been scientifically accurate, but damn was it cool!

This freedom of movement was probably the most innovative thing about the film. Try and imagine what it was like to go from a ship on a string traveling from point A to B to seeing something like the Death Star Battle. By the time that sequence was over I couldn't summon the energy to gasp in amazement any more, as my brain had practically melted inside my skull.

The film revolutionized robots too. Before Star Wars movie robots tended to look like the one above. There were a couple of exceptions, like Maria the Robot from Metropolis and Robbie from Forbidden Planet, but by and large movie robots were all stiff, devoid of personality and dull.

Compare that to the droids of Star Wars, that not only were chock full of personality but looked like they could actually function.

Star Wars also pioneered the concept of the "lived-in" universe. Before, all sci-fi movie sets looked pristine and spotless and brand new-- which of course they were, as they'd probably been completed earlier that day.

In Star Wars everything looks old and used. Luke's landspeeder is dented and the paint is chipped. The Jawa's Sandcrawler is pitted and rusty. The Millennium Falcon has blaster marks on the hull where its gotten into scraps with other ships. Things were dirty and looked as if they'd been around for a long time, which gave even the most impractical designs a sense of realism. Whoever came up with that concept, and I have a feeling it probably wasn't George Lucas, deserves a huge pat on the back.

I will admit that some of the concepts and ideas presented in Star Wars are not wholly original. The plot and even many of the characters are lifted from Kurosawa's 1958 film The Hidden Fortress. The desert planet setting and the mention of spice mines are obviously from Dune. Obi-Wan sensing the millions of voices crying out during the destruction of Alderaan is lifted practically verbatim from Star Trek

Star Wars may have cribbed bits and pieces from other works, but no film had ever do so with as much style and panache.

It's really too bad that after The Empire Strikes Back that George Lucas started believing his own publicity and surrounded himself with yes men, resulting in the somewhat sub-par Return Of The Jedi and the execrable prequels. Ah well. We got two really good movies and one OK one out of the deal. 

Happy Star Wars Day! Or as Chewie would say, "ARrrrrrrRRrrrrruuuurrrrrraaarrrrrrrghhhh!"

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