#34 — Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)
Let’s start with this important piece of information for the youngsters out there: the word “Episode” does not appear in the title of the film director George Lucas released in 1977. In fact, it didn’t even appear atop the opening crawl when Star Wars was first released into theaters. By most accounts, “Episode IV — A New Hope” was first affixed to the film when it was saw re-release in the early eighties, early proof that Lucas was never going to be able to stop tinkering with his space epic that benefited from a level of success that almost immediately began to sprawl beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings. By now, the influence of the film is undeniable. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws arguably became the first summer blockbuster two years earlier, but Lucas’s film permanently cemented the new model in the Hollywood firmament and added the necessary aspiration to generate spin-off merchandise that could keep profits mounting well after the last ticket was sold.
Truth is, the film’s influence doesn’t matter all that much to me, except as a distant curiosity that sometimes helps me forgive the egregious abominations that Lucas cooked up later, as expanding ancillary product lines gradually but definitively overtook sincere artistic considerations. Even as I marveled at the ever-more-apparent emptiness in each successive sequel, I had to concede that the fundamental soundness of the world–the universe–created by Lucas in the first place is what made the missteps deeply hurt. The Matrix sequels rapidly turned the finely wrought head trip into a spreading spill of convoluted stoner philosophizing and the Jurassic Park follow-ups squandered the goodwill of the popcorn fun of the first film with thudding redundancy. There are any number of other film franchises that plodded on in similarly awkward and awful fashion and yet none of them felt like a sort of betrayal, a refutation of a pact made with moviegoers along time ago. That is Lucas’s boon and curse with Star Wars, a film that practically begged for continuing adventures and yet could never truly hope to continue the cosmos-spanned fairy tale in a suitable manner. That’s because the one element that really makes the first film work is also the one that was all but eradicated as soon as the accountants realized they had a monumental task in front of them to tally up the profits. That element is innocence.
At its core, Star Wars is the simplest of stories–clear good versus good evil–filled with details that have been deployed in countless bedtime tales: a princes in need, a farm boy who discovers hidden greatness within, a charming scoundrel with a lurking nobility that comes to the forefront at just the right time. It moves with the boundless energy of childhood imagination, where logic and disbelief dutifully bow down before whatever seems cool in the moment. Laser swords! Walls closing in! A big furry buddy who knows how to fly a spaceship! All that’s missing is a scene in which the characters traverse a river of lava by hopping across floating slabs of rock that suspiciously look like couch cushions, although Lucas would even get to that eventually. As with anything that’s deliberately simple, there are all sorts of subtextual fancifulness that can be projected upon the film, but it’s the unassuming plainness of the story that makes it immensely satisfying.
As much as the film transformed that field of special effects (and, to a degree, became responsible for the absolutely necessity of special effects as an integral part of any big, audience-grabbing film), it’s Lucas’s adherence to the most tried and true mechanics of filmmaking that drive the film. I don’t simply mean the archetypal characters and conflicts, but the sweep and shape of the John Williams score, that reaches back to the bygone days when the motivations of each character and the mood of each scene was completely telegraphed by the music on the soundtrack. Even the scene transitions were out of step with the rapidly shifting times (a modern filmmaker like Michael Bay may follow the George Lucas business model to the letter, but he’d chew off his own arm before he’d use anything as old-fashioned as a wipe), which not only contrasts charmingly with the futuristic elements of the plot, but lends the film a timeless quality. This was, after all, science fiction set in the distant past. It’s uncomplicated storytelling with fascinating contradictions all around the seams.
When I assert that the innocence faded away with later installments of the Star Wars saga, I’ll humbly acknowledge that it could be me that became irredeemably jaded. There may not be any inherent flaws in the films that landed after this one on the Skywalker Ranch assembly line. There are certainly plenty of fans who can overlook potential problems in the other five films because of the moments of pure wonder they still find in the frames, and they’re not necessarily wrong. I think they just see what I can still spot in this first film: a perfect distillation of the possibility of film, serving little more that the base urge to bask in something wonderful on the great big screen. High art or not, that’s as grand of an ambition as any cinematic storytelling could hope to achieve.