Star Wars (1977)
Star Wars (original theatre-version length 121 minutes) is the George Lucas masterpiece that has led to the emergence of one of the most successful of the current-day pop-culture mega-franchises.
The film begins with the written lines, “Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away”. Then there comes the scrolling written introduction, which quickly sets the scene for us, accompanied by the astounding music of John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra. The original soundtrack for Star Wars, with its echoes of Wagner, Orff, and Holst, is often acclaimed as the best soundtrack ever heard in film. George Lucas deliberately chose to have a classical music soundtrack, rather than a contemporary-sounding electronic one. This helps to suggest the ‘timelessness’ of his story.
Star Wars was one of the first major films consciously planned with a story arc extending over at least three films. Indeed, George Lucas had in mind as many as nine at one time. The original film has therefore been designated as Episode IV: A New Hope in the larger story. It was followed by Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) (which has been acclaimed as better than even the first, a truly rare occurrence for sequels), and Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) (which was slightly less acclaimed).
Lucas’ marriage disintegrated a few years after the release of Return of the Jedi, and he thought at the time that it was unlikely he would ever do the prequel trilogy. Nevertheless, he returned to work in the late 1990s, and moved it to completion: Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999); Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002); and, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). The reaction to the trilogy was very mixed, and only Episode III has received considerable acclaim. Lucas was also said to have seriously mis-stepped with Jar Jar Binks, a comic-relief character deemed by some a “racist stereotype”. Those who had wanted to hate George Lucas and the films found a ready-made pretext.
The original film begins with an Imperial Star Destroyer pursuing a much smaller ship carrying the Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). As the hatchway is broken down and Imperial stormtroopers swarm in, the sinister figure of the black-armour-encased Darth Vader (David Prowse; voiced by James Earl Jones) emerges into view. The distinctive voice of Darth Vader, with its belaboured breathing, is one of the leitmotifs of the movie.
Princess Leia has managed to entrust vital plans about the Empire’s latest weapon, the “Death Star”, and a holographic message to R2-D2, a short, squat robot (Kenny Baker) and his ‘friend’, the golden robot C3PO (Anthony Daniels) – who flee in an escape pod to the nearby desert-planet, Tatooine.
Eventually, the robots come into the dwelling-place of the teenaged Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who is unhappily living as a farm-hand with his uncle and aunt. They have been programmed to seek a man named Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), whom Luke knows as Ben Kenobi. Luke realizes that his uncle and aunt are in danger, and returns to find them dead and his old home devastated. As Luke stares at the destruction, he can be seen as making a psychological transition to adulthood.
Obi-wan takes him under his wing and they head to a local cosmopolitan (multi-species) spaceport, looking for a space-captain to convey them to Alderaan, Leia’s home planet. They find Han Solo (Harrison Ford), a swashbuckling smuggler, and his first-mate, Chewbacca (an intelligent, large, hairy, bear-like creature, played by Peter Mayhew), and their ramshackle ship, the Millennium Falcon. It is one of the characteristics of the futuristic world portrayed by Lucas that it is very ‘lived-in’ and ‘gritty’.
Meanwhile, Leia is being interrogated by a torture robot to reveal the location of the hidden base of the Rebel Alliance. The torture is framed without any sense of gritty realism; this is the movie at its most child-like. The Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) is the commander of the Death Star and a Regional Governor. Cushing brings a particularly sinister edge to the role.
The Death Star blows up Alderaan. Luke, Han, Obi-wan, and Chewbacca arrive in the vicinity of the destroyed planet, and are pulled by a tractor beam into one of the Death Star’s landing bays. They hide in the smuggling hold of the Millennium Falcon. After numerous subterfuges and scrapes they are able to free the Princess. Since their meeting in the desert, Obi-wan has begun telling Luke about the ways of the “Force”, an ‘energy’ that flows through the universe, and from which the ancient martial order known as the Jedi Knights draws its fighting powers and mental strength. Obi-Wan is a member of the order, and he chooses to confront Darth Vader (a Jedi who has gone over to the “dark side” of the Force) in a duel to allow the others to escape. Vader wins, but it is not clear that Darth Vader has conclusively eliminated Obi-wan. Indeed, the old Jedi Master continues to exist in spirit. Rushing back to the rebel base on the Millennium Falcon, Leia concludes that their moves are being traced, and that the Death Star will soon follow.
The Rebel Alliance discovers a design flaw in the Death Star, and a number of squadrons of one-man fighters are sent out to try to destroy it. Only Luke (with the help of the Force) is finally able to send the torpedo down the vent-hole, resulting in the total destruction of the Death Star. He is also assisted by Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon. Han Solo had received a rich payment and was planning to leave, but changed his mind in the end, choosing to renounce (at least for the moment) his usually mercenary nature.
The film ends in a huge assembly hall with the massed ranks of the Rebel Alliance troops arrayed in triumph. Luke and Han Solo (with Chewbacca by his side) receive medals from Leia – who looks much prettier and more feminine in this final scene than earlier.
The pacing is brisk and very well-plotted. The movie also introduced special-effects that were quite amazing for the time, and have held up well. The development of these various special effects was a hugely important part of the production. Lucas had to put together his own production company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), to get the job done. It should be remembered that this was before universal CGI.
Star Wars can be seen to have inaugurated – for better or for worse – the so-called “special-effects spectacular”. But George Lucas clearly understood that there also had to be resonating characters and a compelling story beyond the special effects. Basing himself partially on the notions of what Joseph Campbell had called “the monomyth” as well as evoking Jungian archetypes, Lucas has created one of the most enduring pop-culture ‘mythologies’.
Many psychological interpretations of the series can be made. For example, the sequence of the fight with the Death Star somewhat resembles the physiology of human conception, with numerous tiny sperm beating at the walls of the huge ovum. Only one of the many can actually get in. That sequence could also suggest a number of men approaching a particularly “unapproachable” woman. Only one has the total skill-set to overcome all her “defenses” and consummate the relationship.
It has been argued by some that the re-kindling of so-called “American optimism” by the original film series played some role in the election of Ronald Reagan in the 1980, and might have had an influence on Americans’ willingness to confront the “evil empire” of the day – that is, the Soviet Union. Reagan’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was quickly dubbed as “Star Wars” by a hostile media – but the term might not have been as damaging to Reagan as some might have imagined. The 1980s was a time when many Americans were indeed ready to accept the depiction of the Soviet Union as an “evil empire” that had to be decisively resisted.
Nevertheless, even the original series could be seen as decidedly multivalent. The main ‘backstory’ of Star Wars – of the corruption of the Old Republic by a politician who eventually proclaimed himself Emperor – could have been seen as a reference to the so-called “Imperial Presidency” in America – typified to some by Richard Nixon. Thus the heroes of the Rebel Alliance could also have been seen as analogues for crusading journalists like Woodward and Bernstein, who eventually brought down Nixon.
The idea of a “rag-tag” rebel army confronting Imperial overlordship clearly stretches back to the founding myth of America. Various political tendencies in America – left, right, and centre – have tried to tap into this foundational myth. Its most prominent incarnation on the Right today is probably the so-called Tea Party movement. Certainly, many tendencies in American politics have tried to evoke the ambience of being embattled rebels, rather than part of an “establishment”.
While the notion of a handful of ‘good guys’ confronting the forces of darkness can be variously interpreted, it can also serve as a means of control. Left-liberals in America today imagine themselves as embattled heroes. The threat from an ‘evil’ rightwing continually re-appears in different forms and guises, and must be constantly beaten back. Nevertheless, the good guys always win in the end, and are able to smash evil into the ground. This kind of “morality-play” has been enacted again and again, and for some, it is a highly convincing narrative. But perhaps the films should not in the end be freighted with too much ponderous meaning. Among the reasons for their popularity was that they were, above all, highly entertaining.
MARK WEGIERSKI is a science fiction and fantasy aficionado who writes from Toronto