Friday, 8 November 2013

The 5 things some people don't get about Star Wars

Star Wars first time around

I sometimes speak to people – especially young people – who just don't get Star Wars. It's not just that they don't particularly like it; it's that they can't comprehend why it looms so large in the lives of the first generation of fans.

Up to a point, I can understand this. We're now 36 years removed from the first Star Wars. For a lot of people, the first film has always been there, and many have seen the sequels, the spin-offs, the imitators, before they've seen the original.

But I think there are a number of things that people need to understand before they can appreciate why Star Wars was such a big deal.

Star Wars mania: How could you not join in?

1. Star Wars dominated the culture in a way a film can't today.

It's possible for a movie today to make much more money than Star Wars. Plenty have done it. But I don't think any movie could quite take over the popular imagination in the way Star Wars did.

You have to remember that this was a world with fewer TV channels, fewer radio stations, little or no home video. That meant it was easier for a popular hit in any medium to attract everybody's attention. It was pretty normal for people who didn't care much for pop music to know what the number one single was. Television shows entered the consciousness much more easily; people even watched shows they didn't like, for lack of alternative.

For an example, take the sad death in 2009 of Farrah Fawcett. It was a big deal because Farrah Fawett-Majors (as we knew her in the 1970s) was one of the biggest stars of her era. You'd have been hard-pressed to find anyone who didn't know who she was. But her stardom was really based on being in one season of Charlie's Angels. Charlie's Angels – a very popular show, but it would hardly have made the producers of I, Claudius think they ought to raise their game a bit. That's how easily a success in any medium could dominate the culture.

At a time when cinema audiences seemed to be in terminal decline, Star Wars attracted wild enthusiasm on day one – and the phenomenon snowballed from there. The long lines waiting to see it fuelled interest from the news media, which in turn fuelled longer lines, and so on. The character names were soon common currency, referenced and joked about in other media.

A contemporary review by Russell Davies of London's Observer, which I quoted previously in this post, sums it up: “The man who doesn’t like Star Wars puts himself instantly at the centre of an HM Bateman cartoon. All around him are raised hands, shocked faces and cries of ‘Shame!’ “ Like it or not, you couldn't fail to know about Star Wars.

2. There was nothing else like Star Wars around.

Young Lady Chatterley: Shall
we see that or Star Wars?
Today, a fantasy blockbuster comes along pretty much every week. In 1977, there was nothing like Star Wars.

The last big science fiction film had been Logan's Run in 1976. There had been the Planet of the Apes cycle, whose budgets grew smaller along with their box-office receipts until the series fizzled out in 1973. There had been the fashionably downbeat, ecologically minded SF movie Silent Running in 1972. But these were a few isolated examples of SF on the big screen, and whatever their merits, none of them were big rousing adventures for all the family. In fact, there was very little to challenge Disney in the family market.

Take a look at the films reviewed the same month as Star Wars in Britain's Monthly Film Bulletin: Dead of Night, The Dirty Half Dozen, Emmanuelle and Francoise, Equus, March or Die, Oh God, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Pumping Iron, Rabid, Shatter, Valentino, Welcome to Blood City and Young Lady Chatterley. As far as family fare was concerned, Star Wars pretty much had the field to itself.

3. Star Wars was unfashionably optimistic.

It's easy to forget how downbeat many movies of the 1970s were. There was a slew of films in which the heroes were not easily distinguished form the villains and in which endings were at best ambiguous.

Chinatown, the movie critics tend to rate as the best of the 1970s, is a fine film, but pretty bleak. One of the decade's biggest hits, The French Connection, features as its protagonist a violent, racist, corupt cop, while the drug-dealing villain is suave and stylish. All very clever, but you can have too much of that kind of thing.

Beneath the Planet of the Apes nears its cheery ending

Even the few examples of early 70s science fiction on screen were pretty downbeat. Take a look at how each film in the Planet of the Apes series ended. (SPOILER ALERT, by the way.) I: Our hero discovers he's trapped on a future Earth where nuclear holocaust has put the apes in charge. II: The world ends. III: The characters who time-travelled away from the end of the world get shot to death along with their baby. IV: A violent revolution erupts. Only in V do we get the prospect of an uneasy peace between man and ape. I quite admire the bleakness of those endings, but it's amazing the films were successful.

Silent Running, meanwhile, had an almost gratuitously bleak ending (Bruce Dern effectively commits suicide, taking one of the cute robots with him because it's not much good at watering plants). At least Logan's Run found hope among the post-nuclear wasteland.

There had been some notable exceptions to this gloomy trend – witness the big success of Rocky in 1976. But there was clearly a feeling that being downbeat was the same as being sophisticated.

Then along came Star Wars. A movie in which the good guys were good, the bad guys were bad, and the little band of democratic heroes defeated the evil Empire. No wonder the public loved it, or that the critics never forgave it.

4. Star Wars looked and sounded like nothing else.

We had literally never seen anything like Star Wars.

There had been some fine special effects on screen before, but never had there been so many, flitting by so fast. And never had a film created a series of locales and characters that were so alien and so exotic. What's more, Star Wars didn't treat them as exotic. Many of the strangest things in the film are just discovered matter-of-factly. And the characters in the movie don't regard them as surprising. Negotiating with a Jawa or taking care to avoid the Tusken raiders is just a hazard of life on Tatooine. Robots go wrong and need cleaning. Space travel is nothing special; it even makes robots ill.

No one in Star Wars thinks sights like this are exotic

The sheer variety and strangeness of what was on screen was matched by the soundtrack. Ben Burtt's sound effects were not the clean electronic noises of other SF films; the movie was full of real world sounds – motors, heavy machinery, guttural languages. Even Artoo-Detoo's robot noises sounded organic, and the TIE fighters emitted a scary barking noise. And then there was John Williams' score – not the synthesised, self-consciously 'futuristic' music of some science fiction films but a full-blown 19th century romantic symphony. Nobody had made SF like this.

5. Star Wars was more than you could take in at one viewing.
Star Wars as recreated by
John White at

There was so much dazzling incident and detail packed into Star Wars that you could not possibly appreciate it fully in one viewing. But one viewing is all a lot of us had.

Yes, many people went back to see the film again and again. But not everybody could. Today, of course, if you're knocked out by a film at the cinema, you only have to wait a few months before you can own a copy forever. But in 1977, there was no home video, and films took years to appear on television. So those of us who could not see it again had to recreate the experience the best we could. We relived it through the novel, the comics, the Story of Star Wars LP.

This is one reason I love John White's website Star Wars Age 9 – in which John presents the comic book adaptation of Star Wars he created in 1977-78. At age nine, John was doing what so many of us did – piecing the film together from his own memories and all the sources he had. The difference is that most of us did it in our imagination; John did it in pictures, and to a standard most of us could only dream of.

There's nothing to stop someone creating a movie just as impressive as Star Wars today. But it would be hard for anything to have the same impact. In the 1970s, the conditions were just right for a great adventure movie to have a profound effect on millions of young lives.


johnnyivan said...

Star Wars took on a new life in the imagination. It's a bit like: "The pictures are better on the radio."

I wonder if it would have been a good thng for me to be able to pop in a VHS, DVD, BluRay or go to youTube anytime I wanted to watch my favourite film? Or to have the 8mm version which you wrote about previously - and which I desperately dreamt of having?

Maybe I wouldn't have done so much imagining and drawing if I could just watch it.
Maybe I wouldn't have got the soundtrack and had an early, exciting introduction to orchestral music.
Maybe I wouldn't have read Alan Dean Foster's novel with its odd words like "Lambent Topaz".
Maybe I would have tired of it like my son eventually did.

johnnyivan said...

Oh, and thanks for the mention and pic from my comic/webcomic SWa9 Darren ;)