Thursday, May 25, 2017

Why "Star Wars" Continues to Endure 40 Years On

Scene from Star Wars
"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."

Those were the last 10 words everyone saw before Star Wars played its tricks on audiences on May 25, 1977. It was the calm before a storm that would only continue to rage on through many incarnations and in many forms. For a simple fantasy movie about good fighting evil, director George Lucas' vision managed to resonate in ways that have entered our lexicon, fashion, and general mentality. It was with the triumphant horns of John Williams' score that Star Wars announced once and for all that it was here to stay. There was cinema before it existed, but chances are that it will be the film to outlive everything else. It took a hold of pop culture upon its release and hasn't let go yet. Even if the franchise has had some highs and lows, there's no denying just how different the world would be without this movie.

The story is a bare bones execution of the hero's journey, and one that everyone knows almost too well. It is a journey for good, embodied in "The Force," against evil forces that have kidnapped Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). It's a rescue mission that features some great set pieces, such as Storm Troopers firing at heroes Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) as they navigate the hallways of the Death Star. With Williams' score hitting every last note that sticks to audience's core memories, it creates something that was new and exciting in the late 70's. Ironically, it was a space adventure that pulled as much from serials, history, and recent events such as the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon. While it's likely that Star Wars could exist without Watergate, it probably wouldn't resonate in the way that it does. After all, corrupt politicians was central to movies of the era. The only difference was that Star Wars managed to create a grander metaphor that appealed to audiences too young to get the nuance of Dog Day Afternoon or Taxi Driver.

Everything about the film was transfused from other places. But, as Quentin Tarantino later put it when describing where he got his influence from, "You steal from the best." For the young and aspiring Lucas, that was a lofty goal for a genre of cinema that was a risky gamble. How could a deeply political film full of lightsaber battles possibly make any money? The answer was simple. It too innovation that mixed puppetry and effects that were cutting edge for the time. Even the opening shot of the film where a ship crosses the top of the screen was awe-inspiring, creating a sense that there was something bigger out there than the audience. They were minuscule compared to the journey that they were about to go on. Ironically, that journey hasn't ended yet as the film enters its eighth official entry this Fall with The Last Jedi. Still, it's telling that the people now assigned to make the movies once looked at Star Wars and felt inspired to make movie magic like Lucas. Even if Lucas was "stealing" from history and film, he repurposed it very well, creating a universe that many wished they could create.

While the film's influence is inevitable in its modern presence, there's something cute about its roots in 1977. While the effects were cutting edge, the story feels oddly slow and calculated. Luke doesn't have a scene until almost a half hour into the movie. A large portion beforehand focused on two droids (R2-D2 and C-3PO) trying to escape the Death Star and find Obi-Wan Kenobi on Tattooine. The assurance in setting is an incredible feat, and one that has filled obsessives with plenty to dissect in its detail. Even then, there's something art house about the first quarter of the movie, especially as the film meticulously introduces characters in ways similar to how Steven Spielberg introduced Bruce in Jaws. There's a casualness to it all that it feels lived in. Even the Cantina band has become a part of pop culture, and they are no more than a background band with one cornball melody played on a loop. 

There's plenty to love about the film itself, especially for fantasy fans. It was a chance for human characters to interact with aliens and droids in ways that felt natural. For instance, Han Solo is introduced trying to handle business matters with an alien named Greedo, resulting in a controversial shoot-out that was later edited to make Han Solo go from looking awesome to defensive. It's small details like this that have made the franchise thrive. It's also the blueprint for how most genre movies would approach their subject matter. There might have never been a Star Trek movie series without Star Wars, even if it predates the film. The world was changing, and soon characters like Darth Vader would become iconic Halloween costumes, and whose voice would be endlessly imitated. 

The impact of the film is obvious beyond that. As of 2017, it remains the third highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation (right behind Gone With the Wind and Avatar). Its 2.8 billion intake is an incredible feat for any film, let alone for one that unexpectedly launched a million clones, fan tributes, spin-offs, book series, prequels, sequels, a religion, holiday specials, toys, video games, clothes, concerts, memes, podcasts, references in Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T., baby names, hairstyles, Comic Con panels, parody songs and remixes, sex dolls and adult films, and an incredibly hostile relationship with its creator. Until Lucas sold Star Wars rights to Disney, he was reviled for creating unflattering prequels that many considered to ruin the original story, and had notoriously edited in new footage that made the films more appealing to kids. It would only seem predictable that this would happen to a franchise as global as Star Wars, though its unfortunate impact on its creator may be its biggest mistake - forever pigeonholing him into not ever being able to make a film like American Graffiti ever again.

It would be difficult to remember Star Wars the film without thinking of the franchise instead. The original trilogy is still revered for its iconic story of a son coming to terms with his father's mistakes. Many love calling any "Part 2" of a franchise as "The Empire Strikes Back of the series." There's no denying that Lucas hit a nerve culturally that only continued to build and maybe has gotten out of control at times. Even then, the desire to chase the high that those young and old experienced when reading those introductory 10 words for the first time remains a national past time. There's a new hope every time another one of these movies come out. There's plenty to even speculate, as is the example with The Last Jedi, in font colors. Many worship at the altar of Star Wars, and it's likely that it embodies cinema better than any one movie could. It's not just what's in the 1977 film - which has been surpassed technically by other films in the years since - but how audiences embraced it and made it a part of their everyday lives. It embodies the joy and unity of what cinema should do. It's why the film will likely outlive humanity and be shown to the aliens who arrive on this earth a million years from now, wondering what life was like. They'll laugh at what we got wrong about space, but they'll only do it because of how ever-present it is on this Earth. 

No comments:

Post a Comment