Friday, May 25, 2007

The 40th Anniversary of Star Wars

It was thirty years ago today that Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was released simply as Star Wars. At the time no one expected for Star Wars to become the first film to break $300,000,000. Nor did anyone expect for it to become the second highest grossing film of all time when adjusted for inflation (second only to Gone with the Wind, which had a 38 year head start...). No one certainly expected Star Wars to become a pop culture phenomenon.

Indeed, on that spring day in 1977, nobody really expected much from Star Wars. George Lucas's proposal for a "space fantasy" was rejected by both Universal and United Artists before finding a home at 20th Century Fox. Simply to make the film Lucas had to found Industrial Lights and Magic because 20th Century Fox no longer had a special effects department. The movie fell behind in production in its first week of shooting. The movie was originally going to be released during the Christmas season of 1976, but because of delays on the film its release date was moved to May 25, 1977 (it must be noted that the novelisation of the film was published in December, 1976).

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope did have groundbreaking special effects. It was also groundbreaking with regards to its use of sound. That having been said, the movie only cost $11 million, which was not an abnormally large budget even for 1977. The film was given very little promotion by 20th Century Fox, so little that Charles Lippincott, Lucasfilm Ltd.'s marketing director, was forced to find other ways of promoting the movie (the novelisation, comic books, and so on). Nobody could have predicted that Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope would become one of the most successful films of all time.

That having been said, something strange happened upon the release of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. There were long queues of people at nearly every theatre which showed the film. The movie was breaking box office records. In its first weekend alone it grossed $307,263,857--a king's ransom by Seventies standards. And the success of Star Wars was not limited to the movie. Marvel Comics had bought the rights to the comic book adaptation of the film, little realising how big it would really be. They sold out of the first print run of the six issue adaptation, forcing them to publish even more editions. That Christmas, Star Wars action figures and other toys would swiftly sell out. Since then there have been literally tons of Star Wars merchandise, from commemorative glasses to books (not just novelisations of the film, but original material based in the Star Wars universe as well.

Of course, Star Wars would ultimately become a whole saga rather than one film. Its success guaranteed that there would be sequels. Initially, Lucas thought of doing nine to twelve films, the first few films detailing the rise of the Empire and the second part detailing its fall. Eventually, however, he would settle on six films. The original trilogy was continued with Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and concluded with Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi in 1983. Lucas retired Star Wars for more than a decade before the first film in a trilogy of prequels, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released in 1999.

Ultimately, the success of Star Wars is perhaps not best measured by the amount of merchandise it has sold or even the fact that there are now two trilogies of films, but the degree to which it has infiltrated Anglo-American pop culture. Its characters, at least from the original trilogy, are as recognisable as Dorothy, the Tin Man, the Scarecrow, and the Cowardly Lion. Indeed, even people who have never seen the film can recognise the characters (especially Darth Vader). Over the years there have been so many pop culture references to and parodies of Star Wars that it would take a large book to list them all (everything from Rescue from Gilligan's Island to The Simpsons).

As a pop culture phenomenon, Star Wars would naturally have an impact on motion pictures themselves. That having been said, there are two things for which it is often credited which it should not be. The first is that it legitimised science fiction movies. In truth, the process of legitimising sci-fi films had started in the Sixties with such films as Planet of the Apes and 2001: a Spaced Odyssey. It continued in the Seventies with movies such as Silent Running and Soylent Green. by the time Star Wars was released, science fiction was no longer considered juvenile fare. Second, Star Wars has been blamed for the rise of the summer blockbusters. In truth, summer blockbusters have been around nearly since the beginning of feature films. By way of example, The Wizard of Oz, The Great Escape, and Dirty Dozen were all released in the summer. What Star Wars might have done is encourage summer blockbusters with lots of special effects and appeal for younger crowds.

Of course, the biggest impact Star Wars would have would be upon science fiction movies. Prior to Star Wars the sleek look had been the rule for sci-fi films, typified by the TV series Star Trek and the movie 2001: a Space Odyssey. Everything was clean, pristine, and hardly looked like it had been used. For Star Wars, however, George Lucas chose to give the films a "used" look, in which spaceships and other technology would show signs of wear and tear. This look would inform such science fiction movies following Star Wars as Alien. Star Wars would also revolutionise special effects, making realistic space battles possible.

Star Wars would also serve as an inspiration for future filmmakers. The story goes that after James Cameron saw Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope he quit his job as a truck driver and entered the film industry. Other filmmakers inspired by Star Wars include Dean Devlin, Roland Emerich, John Singleton, and Kevin Smith. As an epic space fantasy, Star Wars would influence epic movies that would follow in its wake. In making the Lord of the Rings films, Peter Jackson looked to Star Wars for inspiration. The irony of this is that Lucas himself had been influenced by J. R. R. Tolkien.

Indeed, in some respects Star Wars was nothing new. What George Lucas did was take various inspirations from pop culture and blend them into something new and unique. The most obvious influence upon Star Wars are Akira Kurosawa's samurai films. To some degree the Jedi Knights are drawn from the samurai of medieval Japan. And the plot of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope bears some resemblance to Kurosawa's classic film The Hidden Fortress (indeed, C-3PO and R2-D2 are based on the two peasants who serve as comic relief in that film). The first film also shows some influence from Yojimbo, particularly in some of the fight scenes. Star Wars also inspired by such earlier space operas as the Flash Gordon chapterplays, particularly in the serial like structure of the films (complete with opening crawl). The climax of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was inspired by the British film The Dam Busters.

Of course, not all of the inspiration for Star Wars was cinematic. Some of it was literary. Lucas was inspired by such legendary heroes as Beowulf and King Arthur. He also looked to J. R. R. Tolkien and Lord of the Rings for inspiration. In particular, Obi-Wan Kenobi seems similar to Gandalf, and there is marked resemblance between Gandalf's fight with the Balrog and Kenobi's final battle with Darth Vader. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope also shows influence form Dune, particularly in the desert planet of Tatooine. Perhaps Lucas's chief inspiration for Star Wars was mythologist Joseph Campbell's Hero wuth a Thousand Faces. Lucas made conscience use of Campbell's "heroic journey" with regards to Luke Skywalker's transition from farm boy to Jedi in training. Lucas also made use of Jungian archetypes (Jung having heavily influenced Joseph Campbell).

The various influences upon Star Wars might well explain its phenomenal success. On the one hand, Star Wars seems very familiar. Its stories evoke the legends of old, with the Jedi Knights playing the role the Knights of the Round Table or the Japanese samurai. Its heroes are made of the same cloth as the heroes of old, facing many of the same battles as they did. As to pop culture, Star Wars evokes the serials of old, as well as space operas from the past. In some respects, it was Flash Gordon for the late 20th century. With its mythic tales of Jedi Knights and princesses, it also evokes the old medieval epics, both from the UK and U. S. and from Japan.

At the same time, however, that Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope offered audiences something familiar, it also offered them something new. Never before had a filmmaker offered audiences a space opera that had nearly the scope, spectacle, and epic nature of Lord of the Rings or The Gormenghast Trilogy. Arguably, short of 2001: a Space Odyssey, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was the first epic science fiction movie. Indeed, perhaps no other movie series in the history of film had as complex and as deep a back story as the Star Wars films. The very fact that the movies created an Expanded Universe that includes books and animated series demonstrates that Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was more than a simple film.

Star Wars has proven to have a lasting impact on pop culture and film. And it is difficult to say that any other movies will have ever match that influence. The Matrix trilogy fell short of Star Wars influence. It is possible that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise will have similar influence, but only time will tell. Regardless, I doubt Star Wars will ever be forgotten short of an apocalypse. Even then, I have to wonder that it won't be enjoyed by other civilisations in a galaxy far, far away.

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