It’s not the Battle of the Network Stars, that’s for sure!
May 25, 1977. After that date nobody would look at science-fiction films the same way ever again. Up until that point sci-fi films were at best an inexpensive model for making Saturday afternoon entertainment. Some studios had spent money and created some special films, but they were few and far between. Enter Star Wars, which would change the landscape of sci-fi film, and movies in general, forever!
The first trailer for Star Wars could have been any trailer for any sci-fi film of the time. An over exuberant narrator shares multiple superlatives about this upcoming film. “A million years in the making!” “A spectacle light years ahead of its time!” There is provocative imagery of space ships, monsters and aliens, robots, laser fights without any description of what the film is about. The narrator continues that it’s a space saga of rebellion and romance. It seems…different. Though perhaps the images shown here are just the best parts of the film.
Presented below is a restored trailer for the film.
The Fiction of The Film
Do I really need to explain what this film is about? Having received stolen schematics to a diabolical battle station, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) flees from the villainous Darth Vader (David Prowse, with James Earl Jones–voice), Lord of the Sith. His spaceship disables hers and she hides the Death Star plans in one of her two robots, a squat, friendly looking droid named R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) before she is captured. Artoo and his counterpart, a golden humanoid droid named C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) eject in an escape pod to the surface of a nearby desert planet.
See-Threepio, who speaks English, argues with his companion, who only responds in beeps and boops, about the direction to travel. They split up. Artoo-Detoo is captured by little brown-robed creatures in a giant tank-treaded junk machine, only to be reunited with C-3PO who was also captured. They stop at the moisture farm where a young teenage boy named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who lives with his Aunt and Uncle, buys the droids. While cleaning the smaller droid, Luke discovers a message for an “Obi-Wan” Kenobi.
When R2-D2 escapes, Luke sets off to find him. He is attacked by some desert nomads but is rescued by an old hermit, Ben Kenobi (Alec Guiness). Playing the full message for him, Luke discovers that Ben is part of a space wizard clan called the Jedi, as was his father. Ben offers Luke a trip to Alderaan to rescue the Princess but he declines, citing his chores. Returning home he discovers his Aunt and Uncle killed (by Imperial soldiers also looking for the droids), so he reticently agrees to join Ben.
They travel to the nearby town and enter a seedy looking bar containing dozens of strange aliens and creatures of all sorts. Ben introduces Luke to a giant furry Wookiee (which looks like Bigfoot) named Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who–along with his captain Han Solo (Harrison Ford)–will fly them safely past the Empire’s ships to Alderaan. They are nearly stopped by the white-armored Imperial soldiers, but Han fly’s them past the blockade in his ship the Millennium Falcon.
On board the Death Star, Darth Vader attempts to get the location of the Rebel base from Princess Leia using torture, but his master, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) has a better idea. He uses the space station to blow up her home planet of Alderaan. When the Millennium Falcon comes out of hyperspace, it can’t find the planet, and is captured by the Death Star. The heroes hide in hidden compartments under the floorboards and disguise themselves as Imperial Stormtroopers to find a way to escape.
Ben goes off alone to shut off the tractor beam, while Han, Luke, and Chewbacca–who have discovered the Princess is aboard–go to save her. During the escape attempt they are trapped and escape through the garbage system. When they return to the ship, Luke see’s Ben engaged in a laser-sword fight with Darth Vader, who was once a Jedi pupil of his. Vader kills Ben which allows the heroes to escape to the hidden Rebel Base.
The Death Star follows the heroes ship to a hidden base and is preparing to use its powerful super-laser to blow it up. Luke and a number of other fighter pilots blast off to attack the moon-sized space-station, utilizing the weakness provided in the secret plans. Luke hears Ben’s disembodied voice guiding him to “use the Force,” which he does and manages to send two proton torpedoes into an exhaust shaft, blowing up the weapon at the very last minute. Darth Vader escapes in his ship, and the heroes return to a medal ceremony where Luke and Han–who helped prevent Vader from killing Luke–get a medal.
“Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” – Princess Leia
History in the Making
And with that quote Luke Skywalker entered a larger world and set off on his hero’s journey. Star Wars quickly took the world by storm, emerging as a self-produced film from writer/director George Lucas, whose previous sci-fi work THX 1138 had received critical acclaim, while his ode to the 50s American Graffiti had been lauded by audiences alike. Obviously much has been written over the last 43 years about this groundbreaking and innovative film. This Sci-Fi Saturdays article will attempt to look at the film from the perspective of its release in May 1977. What did it change? Why is it important to science-fiction overall? And how did it change the world of cinema?
Star Wars did nothing new. It borrowed its plot, imagery, and ideas from dozens of sources. And in that, Lucas created something entirely fresh and new. The movie recycled ideas and tropes from many films that Lucas had grown up with. It was part war film, part adventure serial, part samurai film, and part mythic quest. And it captured the imaginations of audiences everywhere with its basic plot of good vs evil. Look at the last 20 articles in Sci-Fi Saturdays–the films since 1970–and you’ll see a group of films that have grown complicated, depressing, and overly cynical. Star Wars didn’t share any real-world issues. It wasn’t our future or our past. It was the archetypal heroes battling villains, where the good guys win, and the villains are punished. Along the way it also presented fantastic visuals, exciting battles, and most importantly characters that audiences could love, all mashed-up into an exciting “space-opera” that had fans coming back again and again.
In the history of cinema very few films have crossed beyond their genre-roots to change the way film is made. Early films were inventing the language of cinema through experimentation. But these were all dramas that told important stories of men and history. Their technological advancements were sometimes accidentally discovered, while others planned for the change to avoid convention. Films such as The Birth of a Nation (which created an epic drama more than 8 times longer than conventional film), The Battleship Potemkin (which showcased the editing of film in a dramatic way to heighten tension and lengthen time), The Jazz Singer (the first film to use synchronous sound), and Citizen Kane (created the use of “deep focus,” overlapping dialogue, flashbacks, and low-angle shots and more) all defined something new in film between 1915 and 1941. Science-fiction and fantasy films were also doing their part, from George Méliès’ 1902 A Trip to the Moon, which showcased fantastical trick photography, and Walt Disney’s 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a film that proved animation could make an engaging feature length film, to 1939s The Wizard of Oz, that showcased fantasy elements, technical achievements in sound and make-up, plus the epic reveal of a technicolor world. These films broke new ground with technology and audiences alike. Very few advancements in cinema had occurred in the time since. There were gimmicks, like 3D films, or advancements in sound, color saturation and aspect ratio. But few films had made use of those successfully, especially in the genre of sci-fi. Prior to Star Wars, 2011: A Space Odyssey was the most recent film to make a step towards making a “space film” that was more than Saturday matinee fare. Star Wars made the evolutionary leap towards the future in one film.
Like Citizen Kane, there were so many things that Star Wars was able to advance in one single movie that it boggles the mind. Aside from the story aspects which combines science-fiction, action, epic stories, movie serials, Japanese cinema, aerial dogfights, and mythic fantasy, it was also able to technically achieve these ends through other advancements. Lucas’s vision was not small when it came to Star Wars. He worked in the larger aspect ratio that 70mm film provided, just like 2001, and Logan’s Run had used. He made full use of the 6-track stereo soundtrack, filling it with classically inspired music from John Williams, and innovative sound design from Ben Burtt. And he, along with the special effects technicians at Industrial Light and Magic invented new processes of motion control photography, compositing, and miniature photography that would define a style of special effects for decades to come. Working outside of the studio system, Lucas had to rely on creating new props and costumes for the film rather than re-using existing assets. The same is true for the sound effects. The generic sound library of the mid-70s didn’t feature the hum of lightsabers, or the trilling notes of R2-D2. Ben Burtt had to invent an entirely new sound library to compliment the fantastic action onscreen. In essence, every technological marvel was created in order to make the film believable.
When it comes to weeding out the best sci-fi films from the bunch, believability–or the suspension of disbelief–is the key ingredient. When you think about bad sci-fi films (or maybe just bad films in general) there are probably several things that come to mind. It may be the hokey special effects where the strings are still visible on the model rocket. Or maybe it’s the wooden dialogue and over-acted moments of a horrible script. Then there’s often the sets. The “outdoors” is usually shot on a soundstage, while the interiors are all made of similar materials. Star Wars showed filmmakers how to create a wholly believable world made up of so many new elements. And most importantly, the camera did not need to focus on these elements. That was key.
Producers, it often seems, choose to focus on the elements that cost the most. If they spent $500,000 to make a set, then make sure to showcase every single aspect of it. Really get the money’s worth. Star Wars did just the opposite. Nothing was more important than moving the story along. Story, story story. Got a cool alien costume? Great! We’ll show it for a couple seconds to help set the scene, but then it’s just something in the background that people can look at more on the second, third, or fiftieth viewing. And that’s what fans did. They returned to look at all the fantastic, rich details in the backgrounds. Star Wars built a world thanks to the production designers, set builders, costume makers and teams of craftspeople working “just another job.” The worlds were not new and shiny, like Logan’s Run or 2001. They were used, greasy, dirty, and lived-in. Utilizing real-world locations (as Logan’s Run and the Planet of the Apes sequels had done) helped create the illusion of alien worlds. Who had shot a sci-fi film in the Tunisian desert before? Are you kidding? Sci-fi films are inexpensive movies to be released to make money, not spend it!
Obviously the success of Star Wars inspired filmmakers to change their mind about how things had been. From now on, Lucasfilm had the template for a successful movie and everyone needs to copy it. Star Wars became a template for how future sci-fi and fantasy films were put together. It inspired people to explore the writings of Joseph Campbell and create epic saga’s of the hero’s journey. So a successful film also needed special effects. Industrial Light and Magic inspired many to create new and exciting special effects. ILM shared it’s expertise in other films becoming an organization that not only worked on on Lucasfilm projects, but some of the finest sci-fi films of all time. What made the effects in Star Wars different, is the same argument used above: believability. The ships and the effects moved fast (for the time). Motion blur on the background was key to selling the effect that these models were actually faster-than-light spaceships. Interviews with Lucas have shown him trying to convince the artists at ILM that things need to move even faster. He utilized temp footage of World War II dogfights to help explain what he envisioned. And still, comparatively, the filmmakers couldn’t quite capture his need for speed.
Lucas also insisted on a new score for the film that is iconic as the movie. Who can forget the first few bars of John Williams orchestral overture? There had been few sci-fi film scores that made any dent in the public consciousness like Star Wars. 2001 utilized an entirely pre-existing score of classical works. Logan’s Run had an original score by Jerry Goldsmith (who had been a film composer for 20 years), but it didn’t make much of a splash. Williams’ Jaws soundtrack was much better known at the time. But as with everything else, Star Wars changed everything. Now a successful soundtrack could help boost your film. Williams would compose many more iconic soundtracks not for just sci-fi films, including E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Schindler’s List (he also composed the 1984 Olympic theme).
While the effects of the early 70s involvement in the Vietnam war and the Watergate scandal were fading, the United States still had an ongoing gas crisis, flare ups in the middle east to deal with, and civil unrest around the country. Film reflected this. For every uplifting film like Rocky or The Sting, there were dozens of others that were downers. They dealt with mental illness (Taxi Driver, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), one man fighting the system (The French Connection, Chinatown), or real-world politics (All The President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor). These obviously don’t reflect the dour and cynical aspects seen in the recent sci-fi films, as I’ve focused on the last few months. Silent Running, Soylent Green, Rollerball–all these films were so heavy and down. Star Wars provided a cathartic pick-me-up to the whole nation. It wasn’t overly complicated and heavy. Audiences knew who the good guys were and they were happy to cheer for them. It encouraged kids to be kids again. Here was a film the entire family could enjoy.
A large portion of this was due to Lucas utilizing a pastiche of film elements that would appeal to the widest audience. He pulled elements from old Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials, which would help draw an older audience. He put crazy monsters, aliens, and robots on screen, along with fast spaceship action to appeal to the younger market. His inclusion of Alec Guiness and Peter Cushing may have been to appease the studio with “bankable” stars, but it added gravitas to the film for older audiences. He provided unknown younger stars in Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher for the youth. They instantly became sex symbols for many adolescent girls and boys. But his biggest addition was the use of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Something that fans of the film (and the Saga) are continuing to unpack today.
Joseph Campbell was a literature professor that studied folklore and mythology. He boiled down the elements from cultures all over the world until he had what he called the monomyth. An archetypal story that shared elements from all cultures. A Hero’s Journey. Star Wars has elements seen in The Wizard of Oz (young farmer sets out for an adventure), the Arthurian legend (a young nobody performs an act no one else can), and fairy tales (hero saves the princess from the evil warlord). Lucas and Campbell would argue that these stories ring true based on elementary and fundamental knowledge inside all of us. Jungian philosophy believes that the human psyche is united and as such all peoples can experience a unity through these monomythic tales. Star Wars made people feel good, about the world and themselves. It provided a much needed hope in a time of real-world strife and chaos.
The Science in The Fiction
While many people look at Star Wars as the quintessential science-fiction film, it is more accurately a science-fantasy film. Removing the technological sci-fi elements leaves us with a fantasy film, a quest, wherein the young hero must overcome numerous obstacles in order to achieve his goal. It’s “The Odyssey” with spaceships. Or a new age “Lord of the Rings.” Either way you look at it, it did not take the science of its world too seriously. Unlike 2001: A Space Odyssey that was firmly set in our world, and should behave by our rules, Star Wars was set “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”
Previous sci-fi films (and ones since) have fallen short as they often feel the need to explain how their gadgets work. The 1950s is rife with these examples. Plan 9 From Outer Space tries to over explain everything about the technology therein. Star Wars didn’t feel the need to explain how a lightsaber worked. It was obviously a sword made of light. Han Solo makes the claim that he made the Kessel Run in less that 12 parsecs. What does that mean? It doesn’t matter (though fans have debated its apparent misuse of real world terminology, until it was explained in the 2018 film Solo: A Star Wars Story). The X-Wings and TIE Fighters make noise in space. That’s OK. It’s much more exciting! Try watching the trench run without sound effects and see how engrossing it is.
The main technological advancements for the film all came behind-the-scenes. Engineers and filmmakers invented new techniques to create all the marvelous special effects. Advancements on motion control (or computer controlled) cameras, the use of blue screen compositing (which the background can be removed and replaced with another), and rotoscoping techniques (hand drawn mattes around people and objects) created the next step forward in the science of motion picture special effects.
The Final Frontier
What else is there to say about this film? It’s a watershed film that launched the careers of hundreds of people (some not involved with the production, but inspired by the film alone), and created a film and media franchise that is unparalleled.
Star Wars, or A New Hope as it is now known, may be the most altered film in the history of cinema. It was not done being edited when it premiered at Mann’s Chinese Theater. It was revised for the 35mm print run. Then when special effects had advanced enough it was re-edited and altered again 20 years later. And then again for the Blu-Ray release. The most recent release on Disney+ (November 2019) has more changes still. Has anyone seen the real version? Perhaps it’s a way to stay relevant and in the conversation. Perhaps as a creator, George Lucas is never truly happy with his work. Either way its longevity is a tribute to its storytelling.
The story goes that George Lucas was negotiating the distribution of Star Wars with 20th Century Fox. He wanted to retain the merchandising rights for the film. The executives at Fox laughed and thought him nuts. There was no money in merchandising. Logan’s Run had netted a little money for posters, trading cards, comics and t-shirts. But nothing overt. They told him he was welcome to it. Cut to 40-plus years later and the merchandising of this 1977 film still tops the charts. Enough merchandise that fan-ambassador Steve Sansweet was able to open a museum devoted to everything related to Star Wars, called Rancho Obi-Wan. Toys, games, cards, books, posters, clothes, cars, kitchenware…and the list keeps growing. On October 30, 2012, Disney announced a deal to acquire Lucasfilm for $4.05 billion, the largest acquisition for a franchise ever. It, of course, was not just for Star Wars, but let’s face it, that is where the money is located.
Historically, a film like Star Wars only comes along once in a generation.From this point forward every sci-fi space film, every action moment with spaceships and laser guns, every alien creature in every alien world would get compared to Star Wars, for good or for ill. It was the film that launched a thousand imitators. And it continued. It created the genre’s first incredibly popular and successful sequel (more so than Beneath the Planet of the Apes) with The Empire Strikes Back. It showed that a trilogy is the best number of movies to tell a story across. It created the popularity of prequels, showcasing the backstory of characters and events spoken of in this film. The Force continues to be with it, always.
Having grown up on comics, television and film, “Jovial” Jay feels destined to host podcasts and write blogs related to the union of these nerdy pursuits. Among his other pursuits he administrates and edits stories at the two largest Star Wars fan sites on the ‘net (Rebelscum.com, TheForce.net), and co-hosts the Jedi Journals podcast over at the ForceCast network.