Sunday, March 19, 2006

Star Wars

I must confess to one grave oversight I have made in this blog. I have never written much about Star Wars. Make no mistake, I have always been a huge Star Wars fan, ever since I first saw Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in the theatre in 1977. The complete saga is perhaps the greatest work of space opera ever acheived on film.

The first I ever heard of Star Wars was in the pages of a Marvel comic book. I don't even remember which comic book it was, or even if I read about it in the Bullpen Bulletin (remember those?) or in a letter column. What I do remember is reading about the new movie the director of American Graffiti, the soon to be very famous George Lucas, had in the works. It was titled Star Wars: From The Adventures Of Luke Starkiller. Of course, "Luke Starkiller" would eventually become "Luke Skywalker" and the movie would eventually be renamed Stars Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

It would be quite some time before I heard anymore about Star Wars. In fact, my next exposure to Star Wars would be the novelisation of the motion picture. In an unusual move, the novelisation was published in December 1976, a full six months before the motion picture was released. The novel was entitled Star Wars: From the Adventures of of Luke Skywalker and was credited to George Lucas. In reality, it was ghost written by science fiction writer Alan Dean Foster, drawing upon Lucas's script. In early 1976 I happened to see the novelisation on my then brother in law's bookshelf. I remembered reading about Star Wars in a Marvel Comic book and I was intrigued by the cover, in which Darth Vader figured prominently. I borrowed the novel from my brother in law and immediately found myself drawn into Lucas's creation. There was no doubt about it. This was a movie I wanted to see.

While I was fascinated by the novel, it did not generate that much interest. Only 100,000 copies were printed. I think it is safe to say no one, not even George Lucas, expected the reaction to the film. It was released on Wednesday, May 22, 1977. And almost immediately it proved to be a phenomenon. People were standing in long lines just to see the movie. My brother and I did so when we went to see it at the matinee. I still remember the date. It was Sunday, May 29, 1977, only five days after the film had been released. Star Wars would go onto become the highest grossing film for some time.

Like many people I found myself fascinated by Star Wars. I bought the books. I bought the comic books. I bought the poster. I even bought the action figures, even though I was far too old for toys at that point. And like many I eagerly awaited the release of its sequel, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

It would turn out to be one of the few Star Wars movies to measure up to A New Hope. In fact, until the release of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, it was my favourite Star Wars film of all time. Like many I was somewhat disappointed with Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. I thought Boba Fett died all too swiftly. Given the build up the character had been given, I'd thought he'd have a larger role in the movie. And like many I found the Ewoks a bit annoying.

For many years it would seem as if that would be the end of Star Wars on film. Initially, with the success of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Lucas had considered doing twelve Star Wars movies. By 1979, however, he decided to only do nine films--three would take place prior to the original (and techically second trilogy) and three would take place afterwards. Following the release of Return of the Jedi, Lucas decided that he would make no more Star Wars films. All of this would change in 1995, when Lucas announced that he would make three prequels (Episodes I-III). The first Star Wars film in 16 years, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released on May 19, 1999. Many people were disappointed in the first prequel, and the film was sometimes attacked by fans as well as critics. Perhaps the single most common complaint was that of the character of Jar Jar Binks, regarded by many as the single most annoying character in the Star Wars saga. Another criticism was directed at the idea that Anakin as a small boy could do such things as build C-3PO and pilot spaceships. Yet another criticism was the introduction of the idea of "midichlorians," mysterious organisms found in all living things that allow communications with the Force. I must admit that I was one of the fans somewhat disappointed by Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, particularly because of Jar Jar Binks...

Most fans found Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones to be an improvement over The Phantom Menace, although some were still disappointed. Personally, the only thing that really disappointed me about the film was the romance between Anakin and Padme. George Lucas's dialogue in the romance scenes simply seemed wooden to me. And in this film Natalie Portman (usually a very good actress) seemed to sleepwalk through her performance as Padme. This made the scenes between Anakin and Padme seem very unromantic to me. The romance aside, however, there is much I like about the film. Indeed, the fight between Yoda and Count Dooku (played by the great Christopher Lee) is one of the best scenes in any of the movies.

Fortunately, it would seem Lucas left the best for last. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is, in my humble opinion, the best of the films. Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ewan McGregor, and Ian McDiarmid all give excellent performances. The love scenes are heartfelt and genuine. And the transformation of Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader is realistically handled. The action scenes are among the best in the series. In fact, the only real complaint I have is that the film could actually have been longer. In fact, there is enough material in there for two films!

Of course, Star Wars is not just about the films. Marvel Comics adapted A New Hope and the launched their own Star Wars series afterwards. They proved enormously successful, becoming the first comics to sell over a million copies since Batman comic books at the height of Batmania in 1966. Despite their success, I never really cared too much for Marvel's Star Wars comic books. They simply did not seem like the real Star Wars to me. Indeed, I seem to recall that they departed from the mythos a good deal. Since then Dark Horse has taken over the franchise and has done a much better job with it.

There have also been tons of Star Wars books beyond the expected novelisations of the movies. Indeed, the first sequel to A New Hope was not The Empire Strikes Back, but the novel Splinter of the Mind's Eye written by Alan Dean Foster. Since then entire series based on the movies have been published, from the Jedi Quest series to The Clone Wars series to series centred on such characters as Boba Fett and Darth Maul. I haven't read near that many Star Wars novels, although I have a friend who I swear has read all of them (no mean feat, given how many books there are...).

Star Wars even made its way onto television. Many might remember the abomination known as The Star Wars Holiday Special, which aired only once on CBS on November 17, 1978. It was so poorly done that George Lucas has largely disowned it. It is significant for one reason. It marked the first appearance of Boba Fett, in an animated sequence made by Candadian animation company Nelvana. There were also two made for TV movies featuring the Ewoks that aired in the early Eighties. There were even Saturday morning cartoons. Star Wars: Droids and Star Wars: Ewoks both debuted on September 7, 1985. Since then there has been The Clone Wars animated series which has aired on the Cartoon Network. Lucas even announced a planned live action TV series that would fill the gap btween Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope.

Of course, there have also been the action figures, video games, role playing games, collectible cards, and so on. Forbes Magazine in 2005 estimated that Star Wars had earned $20 billion in its history. Naturally, to do that Star Wars had to have a strong fan base. Late night comedians would sometimes have one believe that the average Star Wars fan is a socially challenged male living in his parents' basement, who has never kissed a girl (much less gotten laid). I have to wonder if they aren't confusing Star Wars fans with Trekkies...(I'm only joking; I am a Star Trek fan myself...). First, not all Star Wars fans are male. I probably know as many women who are into Star Wars as I do men. Second, I know of no Star Wars fans who have never kissed a member of the opposite sex and still live in their parents' basement. Fans of the franchise seem to come in all shapes and sizes. I know a happily married couple who are both Star Wars fans (my best friend and his wife--he's the one who's read every single Star Wars novel). I had another friend (now dead, sadly) who was a multitalented, professional artist. The absolute biggest Star Wars fan I know is a very beautiful, green eyed blonde with three children who runs an art gallery...hardly a nerd living in the basement!

I suppose the big question is why was Star Wars such a huge success on the release of A New Hope and has continued to be so successful nearly thirty years after the first film's release? I think much of the reason is that Lucas consciously drew upon folklore and mythological motifs in fashioning the Star Wars saga. It is well known that Lucas drew heavily upon the works of mythologist Joseph Campbell to create the films. Indeed, one need look no further than the character of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader for an example of a folklore motif at work--that of the Faustian bargain. Such motifs became motifs in the first place because they speak to the human condition. In metaphorical terms they portray many of the struggles and problems we human beings face in our lives.

It must also be pointed out that Lucas drew heavily upon pop culture. The influence of Akira Kurosawa's movies The Hidden Fortress and Seven Samurai, as well as Frank Herbert's Dune series, is well known. And, of course, Star Wars also draws heavily upon such previous space operas as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers.

Star Wars is arguably the most successful film series of all time. Given that it drew heavily upon folklore, mythology, and pop culture, I think it is easy to see why. In doing so, the Star Wars series resonates more with people than, say, the Bond series or even Star Trek. Its characters have long become a part of pop culture--I doubt that there is an American alive who does not recognise Darth Vader. As to myself, it remains my favourite film series of all time. I must admit that I wish George Lucas would make yet another trilogy....

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