November 14, 2013

Movie Review: Star Wars (1977)

“The Jedi are extinct, their fire has gone out of the universe. You, my friend, are all that's left of their religion.” – Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing)

Director: George Lucas

Writers: George Lucas

Producers: George Lucas, Rick McCallum and Gary Kurtz

Studio: 20th Century Fox

Major Stars: Alec Guinness, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing

I’m not going to discuss the plot here because, well, if you don’t know it by now you’ve either been in a 35-year coma or are an alien who has just landed on Earth. Whatever the case, go rent the DVD and see it now.

I led off with that quote from Tarkin for a reason. Contrary to what many people still believe, this wasn’t the first film in a trilogy about the growth of Luke Skywalker into a Jedi warrior. It was the first film in a trilogy about the redemption of Anakin Skywalker. And no one who saw the first film when it came out in 1977 ever saw that twist coming either.

I don’t even know if Lucas meant for it to happen. You read through the myriad rough drafts of what eventually became Star Wars and watch the film itself, and you never doubt for a moment that Luke became the centerpiece of the tale. And yet, by the end of the original trilogy the emotional center of the film is decidedly Darth Vader. And that says a lot about the universe the original film laid out, its flexibility and potential for depth.

Star Wars was a film that no one really saw coming. Fox moved it back to May from the summer because they were fearful Smokey and the Bandit would crush it. Only a handful of theaters originally wanted to run it; Fox had to strong-arm theaters into showing it. They threatened to withhold another film of theirs – The Other Side of Midnight – unless Star Wars was also carried.

From that it became a genre-defining film, the film that opened the door for sci-fi to come into the mainstream. Make no mistake; if Star Wars had been a bust the sci-fi genre would’ve been set back immeasurably in the film industry. Would Close Encounters of the Third Kind have been released that November if Star Wars crashed and burned in May? Does anyone take a chance on Alien in 1979?

It was also a cultural phenomenon that has been equaled only by Harry Potter, in my opinion. And in some ways, Potter still comes up short. Parents and children alike were lining up to see Star Wars again and again. Kids bought those action figures as soon as they hit the shelves. They were so popular that the manufacturer, Kenner, had to ship empty boxes with vouchers that could be redeemed for the figure in March of 1978. If you weren’t around for it you can’t even imagine how crazy it got.

And I must admit that likely colors my opinion of the movie to a degree. Let me put it this way; a year and-a-half later in November of 1978 they ran The Star Wars Holiday Special on CBS. This was one of the most insane things to ever run on television. A variety show with the Star Wars cast, Wookies galore and Han Solo straight-up murdering a stormtrooper (I shit you not). Lucas hates the thing; it has only aired once and Lucas won’t let a DVD come out.

That said, I defy you to find someone who saw that show as a kid who can honestly say they didn’t eat it up with a spoon. You could’ve had Solo read a phone book for two hours and we’d have watched it without blinking. That’s how big it got.

As for the film itself, it’s the second-best film in the series. Its sequel was far superior in tone, quality and storyline. But that doesn’t make this a bad film at all. Thirty-one years later, Star Wars is still more than equal to the vast majority of sci-fi films released today. You put this up against most of the sci-fi fare from the past ten years and Star Wars still easily holds it's own, and exceeds the current crop in most cases.

So where do you slot a film that is admittedly not the best film in its own series but a cultural lodestone? I don’t see how you can place Star Wars anywhere else than #1. AFI’s list from 2008 has 2001 enjoying that position for sci-fi films. I’m sorry, but no. 2001 is an ambitious, beautiful work of art. But my God it drags in spots. You can direct your hate mail to the email link at the top of the page.

Star Wars is the definitive science-fiction film. But I doubt you needed me to tell you that.


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