Saturday, May 4, 2013

May The Fourth Be With You

Today is May 4. Many have started to refer to this day as "Star Wars Day" (may the fourth be with you...get it?). I'm surprised that George Lucas didn't try to copyright the entire 24-hour period.

STAR WARS is my favorite movie of all time. I'm talking about the original, the REAL version of the film....the one that opened in theaters in May, 1977. The Star Wars franchise has now become so popular and so well-known that the greatness of the first movie is kind of taken for granted.

I saw STAR WARS at the age of eight, a perfect age to experience it for the first time. Of course at that time I hadn't seen a lot of movies, and I certainly didn't know how to judge a film or articulate how I felt about it. All I knew back then was how cool STAR WARS was. Even before I got to actually see the movie (at a drive-in, no less), I knew all about it, due to Marvel Comics' fantastic adaptation of it and through the Topps Star Wars trading cards. This was a canny piece of marketing on George Lucas' part. Today major movie marketing is pretty much the norm (even so-called "independent" movies are marketed to a specific base), but back then most movies, even popular ones, didn't do the things that Lucas did with STAR WARS.

By presenting his film in a number of different advertising venues and markets, Lucas was able to get kids like me (and a lot of adults) interested in the project. All the Star Wars stuff intrigued the heck out of me as a kid. Most of the science-fiction stuff I had seen involved a bunch of people wearing togas and existing in futuristic cities and spaceships that didn't have a speck of dirt on them. STAR WARS presents a working universe. It all looked real to me....the spaceships, the costumes, the sets...they look like things that had actually been used and had actually worked. There's a reality to this universe, a texture to it. Just looking at stills from STAR WARS in various magazines at the time got me intrigued. That movie kick started my creative brain, so to speak. I've never had such a feeling about a movie since. STAR WARS was the one....the one that made me be a film buff to this day.

One thing that people don't consider about STAR WARS is how important it was in the development of modern cinema. The modern movie industry really can be traced to STAR WARS. The way movies are marketed, shot, developed, written....the type of movies that are chosen to be produced in the first place....the entire special effects industry of all goes back to the original STAR WARS. I know some will debate this, and others will dismiss this, but that's because STAR WARS isn't considered "arty" or "sophisticated" enough. The idea that a silly science-fiction movie can have such an impact on the entire entertainment industry, or the world for that matter, makes some uncomfortable. Like it or not, STAR WARS is now modern mythology.

But let's not forget, STAR WARS is really a great film. It moves like lightning, and Lucas makes the characters and situations simple enough that the audience can follow the story easily. You have to remember that back then, even with all the marketing, audiences were not aware of all the details of STAR WARS the way everyone is now. No one knew the backstory of Darth Vader, or the Jedi, or Luke and Leia. Today every single facet of the Star Wars universe is more familiar than to the average person than the lives of their relatives. It wasn't so back then--which made it all the more interesting, because you had to use your imagination to fill in the gaps. (Modern-day film makers...are you reading this?)

The sad thing is, if a young George Lucas came along today and tried to make STAR WARS, it wouldn't happen. A sci-fi movie...not based on any existing material? And it's not a sequel...or a remake? Sorry, kid. Lucas had actually wanted to make a new version of the Flash Gordon story, but he couldn't obtain the rights. Today, the studios would insist that Lucas do a remake instead of an original concept.

The studios also wouldn't like the fact that George Lucas starts the movie in the middle of an important battle, without showing the main hero, without even naming or explaining any of the characters he does show, or even telling the audience what is going on. Yes, there is the opening crawl, but that just explains the general situation. Lucas drops the viewer into a totally new universe, and you just have to go along for the ride. In the movie world of today, every character has to have a backstory, every plot point has to be explained, and every leading role has to have a "defining moment". Looking back, it's amazing how little information the STAR WARS script gives the audience. No movie producer in the world would allow that to happen today. Even George Lucas himself wound up trying to explain everything in the STAR WARS prequels--look how that worked out.

The greatest thing, by far, that George Lucas did in STAR WARS was writing this line: "A long time ago in a galaxy far far away." By doing that, Lucas set up a situation where he didn't have to follow any scientific rules, or historical rules, or really any rules at all. He could now have a blank sheet in front of him, and he could do whatever he wished. I think that was absolutely brilliant.

Yes, I'm well aware that George Lucas was influenced by several other movies, and yes, I've seen THE HIDDEN FORTRESS, and THE DAM BUSTERS, and THE SEA HAWK....but when you're eight years old you don't care about that stuff. I thought it was the greatest movie I had ever seen, and I still think so to this day.

I love STAR WARS. I make no excuses for it. The films that I love the most are the ones that put you in a time and a place that you couldn't possibly experience on your own, along with a situation you would probably never be in. STAR WARS is the ultimate example of what I love about cinema.

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