Thursday, March 15, 2012

Film # 76: Star Wars (1977)

Director: George Lucas

Initial Release Country: United States

Times Previously Seen: No idea for sure, but easily 25 times. (Last time – about 3 years ago)

Teaser Summary (No spoilers)

Backwater planet yokel gets swept up in intergalactic war. Learns spirituality and how to use a magic wand.

Extended Summary (More detailed plot synopsis, spoilers included. Fair warning.)

Note: OK. I’m going to assume that virtually everyone reading this has seen Star Wars. If not, first of all, you should probably have your United States citizenship revoked. Second of all, I’m going to make this relatively brief. Third of all, if you really need a blow-by-blow of the narrative, check it out at imdb’s site here, where some detail-obsessed Star Wars nerd has gone way overboard (right down to the make and model of all of the machinery and droids).

Long ago, in a galaxy far away, on the fringe desert planet of Tatooine, young farmer Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) buys a couple of droids for his aunt and uncle’s farm. Little does he know that these droids, C-3PO and R2-D2 by name, were sent by Princess Leia Organa of the planet Alderaan (Carrie Fisher) to abscond with technical blueprints for the Galactic Empire’s massive, planet-destroying space station known as the Death Star. Leia is part of a rebellion against the Empire, which rules the known galaxy with an iron fist. Leia had just been captured by Lord Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones), an imposing, black-clad prime figure within the Empire. She sent the droids away in a desperate attempt at assistance.

Following Leia’s orders, R2-D2 leads C-3PO and Luke deep into the desert, to the hermit Ben “Obi-Wan” Kenobi, who had long before been a Jedi Knight, an order of peace-keeping warrior monks. Obi-Wan seems to know something of Luke’s history, and after they retrieve Leia’s plea for help from R2-D2, they set out to help. Luke is reluctant at first, but his resolve is solidified when he discovers his aunt and uncle have been killed in his absence by the Empire, who are pursuing the droids. Obi-Wan also begins training Luke in the use of “The Force”, which is an energy field that binds all life and can be harnessed through concentration and discipline. It was this that Jedi used as their source of power, until they were all but wiped out by Darth Vader and the Empire.

In the desert wastes of Tatooine, the ever-patient Ben "Obi-Wan" Kenobi guides the whiny C-3PO and naive Luke Skywalker towards their destinies in the skies.

In the nearby space station of Mos Eisley, Luke, the droids and Obi-Wan hire the mercenary rogue pilot Han Solo and his companion Chewbacca, a towering, fur-covered alien with expertise in machinery and fighting. The sextet narrowly escape capture in Solo’s spacecraft, the Millennium Falcon. They head toward Leia’s home planet of Alderaan, only to find that it has been destroyed by the Death Star. They also find a massive Imperial “Star Destroyer” battleship, which captures the Millennium Falcon.

Through several tricks and some good luck, the six companions avoid capture on the Star Destroyer and rescue Princess Leia, though not without some help from Leia herself. Unfortunately, they also watch as Obi-Wan, after an extended light saber battle with his former pupil Darth Vader, is cut down and seemingly dissipates into thin air.

The remaining five companions and Princess Leia flee the Star Destroyer, though they have been, in effect, allowed to escape so that the Empire can follow them to the Rebellion’s secret base. Leia and the Rebellion use the Death Star blueprints to find a weak point, though it will require a highly risky and daring aerial assault. Luke, hungry to make a difference, immediately signs on. The self-serving Han Solo, on the other hand, takes the reward that he has been promised and leaves the Rebellion to its fate.

Luke, Leia, and Han Solo in the midst of their daring escape from the Star Destroyer. Leia insults Solo at every turn, but I think her hand in this still shot tells us everything.

With the Death Star approaching an attack window that will allow it to obliterate the rebel base, the rebel fighter squadrons attack. After an intense battle, Luke and his two wing men make a last-ditch attempt to hit the Death Star’s minuscule weak spot. With his wing men both shot down, and none other than ace pilot Darth Vader himself positioning his cross-hairs on Luke’s fighter craft, Han Solo swoops in and scatters the pursuing Imperial fighters. Luke, listening to the disembodied voice of Obi-Wan, turns off his targeting computer and uses The Force by relying on his instincts. Doing so, he hits the target and the Death Star is destroyed, saving the rebel base and fending off the Empire. At least for a time…

Take 1: My Gut Reaction (Done after this most recent viewing, before any further research.)

What does one of my generation say about this movie? In short, it’s still damn good, though some viewer maturity and the benefit of hindsight cast much more light on its shortcomings.

Star Wars is arguably the greatest pop culture phenomenon in history. Very few, if any, single entity, individual, or fictional realm in entertainment has become so famous, so widespread, and so embraced by so much of the world. Having seen this movie dozens of times, starting at age 4, it’s impossible for me to view it with fresh eyes. Yet try, I did. (Sorry, Yoda.)

It had been a few years since I’ve watched the movie (this time, I watched the original, theatrical version), and I am now 36 years old. This being the case, I can be slightly more objective than I would have been fifteen or even ten years ago. Please keep in mind that I am fully aware of the deconstruction of the Star Wars movies into their basic elements, and the fact that Lucas “borrowed” heavily from several major sources. Still…

Honestly, who wouldn't want to find out what these four chaps were up to?

Star Wars is still a lot of fun to watch, and I’m still impressed by the magic of the formula that George Lucas concocted. Until this movie, there had been absolutely nothing like it in movies. Sure, there were some highly innovative, creative, intelligent, and even visually stunning science fiction movies. However, there was nothing on Star Wars’ scale, in terms of epic storytelling and breadth of captivating elements.

True to the spirit of classic adventure movies, Star Wars tells a pretty gripping tale of a damsel in distress (though Leia is hardly helpless), fighting against tyrannical powers. The entire universe is a mystery in the beginning, but from that very first moment that you see the pursuit of Leia’s spacecraft by a gargantuan Star Destroyer, you want to know more. With every passing scene, we are given hints at a universe that is as much fantasy as science fiction. This mythical quality is given to us right away with the now-iconic phrase, “Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” With these words, high-tech is no longer equivalent to “futuristic”. Already, the tale has our minds expanding a bit.

The true trick of Lucas’s Star Wars galaxy was just how he blended the elements. There are cool gadgets and star ships for the techie, science fiction types. There is the mysticism and philosophy of The Force, the Jedi, and the Sith for the dreamier, more spiritual types. Most importantly for its mass appeal, though, is that there are all of the elements of a rip-roaring adventure story, complete with daring escapes and rescues, gun fights, and aerial battles. And of course, the light sabers. My cousin believes that it is the lightsaber that truly makes Star Wars what it is, and he has a point. If you take out those stately, blazing, “elegant weapons”, as Obi-Wan refers to them, then the Star Wars galaxy gets significantly blander.

The first lightsaber battle in the entire Star Wars movie franchise. These would become the hallmark ending of every single one of the six films in the series. One could argue that the lightsaber is the single most iconic prop in the history of film.

The main characters that everyone knows are almost all on display in this first film, save Yoda, who first appears in The Empire Strikes Back. Basically everyone on Earth is familiar with at least a few of the eight main characters in Star Wars. Oddly enough, in watching it this most recent time, I found Luke to be more annoying than anything else. He is rather whiny, but it’s easy to dismiss this, as he is basically a redneck farm boy who has no idea just what he’s stuck his dusty little toes into.

As much if not more than the characters, though, is simply the spectacle of the entire thing. From highly-functioning robots to bizarre species of creatures like the Jawas, Bantas, to the entire motley crew in Mos Eisley space station, so many things in the movie capture the eye and the imagination. I do have to say, also, that this is where the original, untouched theatrical release needs to be cherished. Lucas’s attempts to go back and give his own films facelifts met with harsh criticism from purists, and I wholeheartedly agree. There was absolutely nothing wrong with anything in the originals, in terms of the visuals. Simply using makeup and costumes, without the benefits of computer generated imaging, always makes those characters more tangible to me. Computer graphics are incredible these days, but let’s face it – we can always tell when they’re computer graphics. Not using these high-tech methods helps us suspend our disbelief a little more easily, in my opinion, and the original Star Wars was and is testament to this.

One thing that does not hold up over the years, or at least has become a more obvious weakness, is the dialogue in the movie. Now that most of us have seen the other George Lucas-penned scripts in Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, it’s even easier to see that the man was simply atrocious at writing dialogue. While Star Wars isn’t nearly as bad as Episodes I or II, it’s far from good. There’s a lot of hokum and very hackneyed attempts at humor. Probably the main reason that it doesn’t stand out as much is that the actors are talented enough to gloss it over. Hamill, Ford, Fisher, Guinness, and Jones are much stronger presences than Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, and the discrepancy in their abilities to sell lame dialogue shows it. The cast of the original Star Wars was, three-fingered hands down, far superior.

Even hungover with horrendous bed-head, Alec Guinness could out-act anyone else in the Star Wars series. He needed all of his skill to overcome the oft-lame dialogue.

So upon watching it this time, the movie is still great fun to watch. Perhaps I can’t really look at it with total objectivity since it captured a place in my heart at the time when all of our hearts are so impressionable – those magic years between ages three and ten when fantastic stories and movies can imprint themselves on our very beings. I suppose an older viewer who watches Star Wars for the first time may be a tad disappointed, considering just how massive the entire franchise has become. All the same, I think anyone can marvel at just how unique a potion George Lucas mixed up for us, and I know that I’ll never tire of the original trilogy.

Take 2: Further Thoughts (Based on the context of the entire Star Wars series & random factoids.)

Did you notice how, on the “All-TIME 100 Films” list, certain film series are put together and counted as one movie? Namely, The Apu Trilogy, The Godfather Parts I and II, and The Lord of the Rings? Notice how Star Wars sits alone, without either of its immediate sequels, The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi? Did you notice that? I did. So, why do you think it is?

My guess is that, while the original trilogy was just that, Star Wars can actually stand alone and separate from the latter two films, which rely on the other two. When any Star Wars dork is asked which of the six films in the series is the best, the answer is almost overwhelmingly The Empire Strikes Back, and I agree. I suppose that this movie wasn’t included because, unlike Star Wars, it did not end with any sense of closure. It was therefore connected to the slightly inferior Return of the Jedi (only made weaker by those silly little Disney puppets, the Ewoks). With the choice of either putting only Star Wars on the list or having to include the entire trilogy, I guess the list compilers went with the former option. It makes sense to me.

That's right, fellas. Your respectable series just got down-graded to pre-kindergarten levels. Don't worry in the back there, Luke. In a little while, you'll have an awesome lightsaber fight with your pops...

So, in light of Episodes I, II and III, what do I think? Basically, Episode I is nearly putrid. I remember how, back in 1999, as a 23-year old who was unspeakably excited about the new films, I was bafflingly disappointed. Like many of my ilk, the entire Jar-Jar Binks character was insulting to my intelligence (and, I assume, the intelligence of anyone over the age of four). Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor were fine, but Jake Lloyd as the young Anakin Skywalker was dreadful (I checked imdb and he hasn’t had an acting gig since then. Small wonder.) The film is only watchable because of the pod races and the three-way light saber battle at the end between Obi-Wan, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul. Aside from these few things, The Phantom Menace was a flashy mess.

After that debacle, things got a tad better with Episode II, and even closer to tolerable with Episode III. Still, none of these prequels could hold a Yoda-levitated candle to any of the original three, not even its weakest link, Return of the Jedi. To me, the reason is simple. George Lucas got too crazy trying to use modern movie magic to try and please every fan. Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back did things using special effects to greatly enhance an engaging, if simple, adventure story. When he went back and did the prequels, it was almost as if the effects became the story.

After Episode II, Attack of the Clones, came out, a friend of mine was disgruntled with it and told me that it seemed like George Lucas had basically read a bunch of fan emails and tried to satisfy every fanboy’s wildest fantasies. You want to see more of Boba Fett? Well, here’s his daddy, Jango Fett! You want to see Yoda use a light saber? Well, here’s Yoda bouncing around with a light saber! It continued in Episode III, but not as egregiously.

Yoda getting his game on in Attack of the Clones. One of several elements Lucas put in seemingly to appease many fans' daydream desires. Personally, I liked it better when Yoda's martial prowess was merely implied and never revealed.

When I go back and watch Episodes IV and V, I absolutely love how scaled down the effects are and how the tale itself is the dominating force. There are many things that are hinted at, but never completely explained. How did Obi-Wan and Luke end up in the Tatooine desert? How did Yoda end up in the swamps of Dagobah? What pushed Darth Vader to the dark side of the force? In truth, I didn’t really need to know the answers to these questions, though I wanted to. Now that I do know, I basically wish that Lucas hadn’t even bothered with the prequels and simple left it all up to our imaginations. It would have saved me a lot of disappointment and would have left Episodes IV, V and VI to stand on their own, something they can do quite well.

Now that nearly three decades have passed since Return of the Jedi was originally released, there has been no end of study done of the Star Wars phenomenon. By now, many people are aware that its tremendous success was no accident. In conceiving his “science fiction soap opera”, George Lucas consulted the renowned cultural anthropologist Joseph Campbell on just what constituted the ultimate story. In a thoughtful (some cynics might say Machiavellian) approach, Lucas used what he learned about popular myths to construct the overall drama of the Skywalkers. The archetypical protagonist that is universal to the greatest of human mythology became Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader – the flawed hero who falls from grace, then redeems himself in his waning hours.

We also learned long ago that the filming of the original Star Wars itself was far from original. In basic narrative and even in shot composition, George Lucas “borrowed” (many say “stole”) from Akira Kurosawa’s classic adventure tale The Hidden Fortress. Despite these borrowed elements, Lucas was one of the earliest to depict a science fiction universe that was used up and grungy, unlike nearly all of the sleek, polished looks of sci-fi TV shows and films that had come previously. Sort of like what Sergio Leone did to the Western picture.

A shot from Akira Kurosawa's 1958 samurai movie, The Hidden Fortress. In this shot, you see the "inspirations" for Princess Leia, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the droids C-3PO and R2-D2. Lucas also used the settings and locations in his first Star Wars movie.

Out of the countless other oddities and peculiarities about this series, there are two about the cast that have always intrigued me. Perhaps not surprisingly, they both deal with actors who were talented and professional, but didn’t really think much of their roles.

The first is Harrison Ford. He basically thought Han Solo was an idiot. And you know what? After watching the Star Wars movies as an adult, it’s obvious that Han Solo was not the sharpest tool in the shed. He was brave and funny, and he was an amusing rogue, but mostly he was a dolt. Harrison Ford has always said that he would always play Indiana Jones as often as possible because he liked the character, but that he would never play Han Solo again because he was a dunce. In fact, Ford tried to convince George Lucas to have Solo killed off at the end of either Empire or Jedi, to no avail.

The other is Alec Guinness. Anyone who has seen Alec Guinness in his film roles between the 1940s and 1970s knows that he was incredible. Whether it was as Fagan in Oliver Twist, his multitude of roles in Kind Hearts and Coronets, Colonel Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai, or any others, you know that he was an actor of incredible range and skill. As Obi-Wan Kenobi, he absolutely nailed the part as the wizened old knight who could quietly harness supernatural powers while mentoring the clueless young Luke. Guinness himself, however, seriously disliked certain things about playing Kenobi. One was that he found the dialogue to be atrocious, and could barely stomach delivering such hokey lines. He even succeeded where Harrison Ford failed – he convinced George Lucas to kill off Kenobi, ostensibly because he felt it strengthened Kenobi as a character (which it does). Later, though, Guinness admitted that it was also because he wanted to get out of reading dialogue that he found horrendous. More nuisance was to come in the succeeding years, as Star Wars mania grew to epic proportions. Guinness, a man of staggering accomplishment on both stage and film long before Star Wars, would forever after be known as “Obi-Wan Kenobi”.

In very limited screen time, Guinness played Kenobi so well that it became his blessing and his curse. This "silly role with terrible lines" overshadowed his previous decades of outstanding work. Oh well. At least he made serious cash out of it.

I used to feel sorry for Alec Guinness in that last respect. That was until I found out that he did something that showed great foresight. Unlike nearly everyone else involved with the original Star Wars movie, he thought that it would be highly successful. He therefore negotiated a contract that would pay him percentage royalties rather than a flat fee. As you can imagine, this ultimately led him to live very comfortably for the rest of his days. I guess in the end, it was a decent enough trade-off for him. Leave it to the Brit to show some foresight and do the responsible thing.

I could, like nearly any fan of science fiction and films, go on forever about the Star Wars franchise. Suffice it to say that it’s an incredible world that Lucas constructed, and it’s fun to go back into that world from time to time. These days, people can do it through novels, video games, role playing games, comic books, and myriad other sources. Still, there’s nothing quite like going right back to where it all started – with that massive, groundbreaking film in 1977 that set new standards for wondrous adventure movies. I’ll be shocked and amazed if the phenomenon of Star Wars dies out in my lifetime, and I know that I’ll go back and watch those original three every few years for as long as I live.

That’s a wrap. 76 shows down. 29 to go.

Coming Soon: Mon oncle d’amerique (1980)

This is one of the few “modern” movies that I know absolutely nothing about. It’s French and Gerard Depardieau is in it. That’s all I’ve got. Come on back in a week or so to find out what I think of it.

Please be sure to pick up all empties on the way out.