Dracula with music by Philip Glass and the Kronos Quartet at Arlene Schnitzer Center, Portland, OR

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Star Wars (1977)

Once upon a time, in a galaxy, far far away.

I was twelve years old when STAR WARS was first released. The week before it came out, Time Magazine had a review of the film and tantalizing photos. I still have that Time Magazine. I saw STAR WARS only three times so I wasn't as geeky as some who saw it 15 or 20 times. I remember standing in line with my parents at the Westgate Theater in Beaverton, Oregon in May of 1977. STAR WARS only opened at two theaters in Portland (the Westgate on the west side and the Eastgate on the east side) so the lines were long but worth it. We, the audience, were spellbound as the opening scroll began. It was like nothing we had ever seen before. Enormous spaceships and princesses and robots and aliens and a bad guy with a breathing problem and a giant furry sidekick known as a Wookie.  I asked my Dad recently if he remembered seeing STAR WARS with me and he didn't. But for adults in their mid-forties like me, it was a film that changed the movie going experience forever.

Flash forward twenty one years later and I'm trying to find a hobby or something that my son Chris and I can enjoy together. Writer/Director George Lucas re-releases the STAR WARS trilogy for a new new generation with some added special effects and scenes he couldn't pull off when first released. Bingo! My son and I bond over Luke Skywalker and light sabers. He takes to STAR WARS like a duck to water. Suddenly, he wants STAR WARS toys left and right. We found a connection.

In between the first time I saw STAR WARS and the revisiting the film with my son, I remember catching part of STAR WARS on television when I was in college. I saw a scene when the Empire's Tie fighters were attacking Han Solo's Millennium Falcon cargo ship. Suddenly, the spaceships looked like models. The magic I remembered as a teenager was gone. College and girls and homework had clouded my enchanted memories from 1977.

Before George Lucas made STAR WARS, the science fiction film was hit and miss. PLANET OF THE APES (1968) was a clever film but it didn't have space ships or robots in it. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968) is probably the single greatest Sci-Fi film ever made and its influence on STAR WARS is very evident. But STAR WARS is really a space fantasy film.  There's no real science to it. Lucas borrows elements from mythology like King Arthur and Japanese samurais and throws in his own childhood memories of Saturday Matinee cliffhangers, Robin Hood, and Westerns.

From the very first trumpets from composer John Williams score, STAR WARS announces that it is going to be a special film. A giant Imperial Star Cruiser chases a smaller transport ship carrying Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). Leia, who is part of the Rebel Alliance, has stolen the plans to the Death Star, a deadly space station the evil Galactic Empire has built which can destroy entire planets.  Leia's ship is overtaken so she secretly places the plans and a message inside a diminutive robot R2D2 (Kenny Baker). R2D2 along with another droid CP30 (Anthony Daniels) hide in an escape pod and are jettisoned to the nearby planet Tatooine. Leia is captured by the menacing Darth Vader (voice provided by James Earl Jones; acted by David Prowse) and sent back to the Death Star where Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) plots the Empire's next move to destroy the Rebels. Vader orders Imperial Stormtroopers (the Empire's soldiers) to find those blueprints.

On the arid and desolate desert planet Tatooine, R2D2 and C3PO bicker like Laurel and Hardy. They split up to find help only to both be caught by little robed creatues called Jawas, Tatooine's version of used car salesmen. The Jawas sell the two robots to a farmer named Owen (Phil Brown) and his nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).  Luke dreams of being a fighter pilot for the Rebel Alliance. While cleaning R2D2, Luke discovers a holographic message from Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi seeking his help. Luke knows of an old hermit living in the nearby canyons that goes by Ben Kenobi.  R2D2 sneaks away during the night to find Obi-Wan. Luke and C3PO chase after the small robot the next morning.

While looking for R2D2, Luke and C3PO are attacked by the Sand People. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) scares the Sand People away and brings Luke and the robots back to his home. After he sees Leia's message asking for help to defeat the Empire, Obi-Wan reveals that he was once a Jedi Knight and knew Luke's father. Obi-Wan asks Luke to join them but Luke's reluctant.  But when the Storm Troopers murder Luke's aunt and uncle, Luke wants to avenge their deaths and his destiny is chosen. They head to the town of Mos Eisley to find a ship that can take them to Alderaan, Leia's home planet.

The group meet up with mercenary and smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his tall furry sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) who will take them to Alderaan...for a price.  Solo's ship the Millennium Falcon gets them out of Tatooine but when they reach Alderaan, it's gone, destroyed by the Empire.  The Falcon then discovers the Death Star and gets captured by it's tractor beam. Luke, Solo, Obi-Wan, and the rest of the group hide within the massive space station and discover that Princess Leia is on board.  After breaking Leia out of her prison cell, the heroes escape the Death Star but only after Obi-Wan disables the tractor beam and sacrifices his life during a light saber duel with his nemesis and former pupil Darth Vader.

Leia takes Luke and Han back to a nearby moon where the Rebels have a base.  She gives the Rebels the Death Star blueprints and the Rebels prepare for an all out attack on the Death Star. Luke joins the X-Wing Squadron while Han collects his reward.  The films ends with Luke and the Rebels in a space dogfight against Darth Vader and the Empire as the Rebels attempt to destroy the Death Star.

A few months ago, I introduced my niece to STAR WARS while at the beach. It was my first time watching the film in quite some time.  Several things jumped out at me afterward. Harrison Ford as Han Solo steals the film. He chews up every scene he's in and brings much humor to the film, something that was sorely missing in Lucas's reboot of the STAR WARS saga recently. The film's opening third is actually quite slow. After the amazing opening shot of the Imperial Cruiser chasing the smaller spacecraft, the film sort of plods along as the robots C3PO and R2D2 stumble around Tatooine. Not until Luke, Obi-Wan, and the robots meet Han and Chewbacca at the Mos Eisley Cantina does the film take off again.

For as much as STAR WARS special effects astound us, the film at times does show its limited budget (STAR WARS was made for a paltry $13 million dollars).  In interviews, Lucas always talks about not having enough time or money (and technology) to do some of the stuff he wanted to do in STAR WARS. The oversized helmets worn by both the Rebels and the Empire's men are pretty goofy. A dramatic escape into a garbage compactor hints at some scary creature amongst the garbage but Lucas never shows it. Even the various alien creatures in the famous Cantina bar scene are kind of a mish mash of rubber masks and styrofoam appendages.

But where he lacked money, Lucas made up for it with ingenuity and inventiveness. He gave his characters cool names. Han Solo. Luke Skywalker. Darth Vader. Obi-Wan Kenobi. He created non-human characters just as memorable. Chewbacca. C3PO. R2D2. He created his own mythology with the Force, an aura and power that can be used for good or evil and Jedi Knights like Obi-Wan who were protectors of the Old Republic. Lucas used his money wisely, investing it in amazing special effects and incredible space ships that are as distinctive and unique as each character. And to give his space fantasy some legitimacy, he cast distinguished actors like Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi and Peter Cushing as Tarkin. How nice to see Peter Cushing, who starred in countless Hammer horror films and other low budget monster pictures, appear in a film that would become one of the all time biggest grossing films.

Because STAR WARS was such a colossal hit, Lucas would never have to worry as much about having the money to make his vision of his films again.  In fact, Lucas would create a company called Industrial Light and Magic (or ILM) which would become the premier special effects company in Hollywood and has since changed film making altogether with computer generated effects today.

Lucas's casting for STAR WARS is a credit to the film's appeal. Yes, Harrison Ford became a huge star after STAR WARS with his performance as Han Solo and steals the film in my opinion but Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker is really the person that drives the film and who the audience identifies with. Luke is like every teenage boy and girl who first saw the film. He's an innocent, full of dreams and aspirations but stuck doing mundane chores as he helps his uncle and aunt on their farm. Solo and Luke have a fun rivalry going throughout the film whether it be who shot down the most Tie Fighters to who can get more attention from Princess Leia. Solo is big brother to Luke's little brother. Carrie Fischer as Leia is strong and independent and a great role model for girls.  Leia is not a defenseless, cowering princess. She's not afraid to grab a blaster and shoot some Storm Troopers or bark orders to Luke and Solo. I did have a crush on Princess Leia as did many Star Wars geeks after watching STAR WARS.

STAR WARS forever changed Hollywood.  It changed it in both good and bad ways. Every summer now, beginning in May, Hollywood releases its big blockbuster films like THOR or TRANSFORMERS, hoping for another STAR WARS, trying to make as much money as they can with movies that are big on visual and special effects. Sometimes the story and acting gets lost amongst all the action.  The little film, strong on character and situations, got pushed aside when the STAR WARS phenomenon began. That's one of the casualties of STAR WARS.

But George Lucas got it right with his first STAR WARS trilogy.  Yes, he had the big spectacle with unique worlds and space crafts we'd never seen before. But he also told the simple story of a young boy becoming a man and the obstacles he had to overcome and the allies he had to make along the way. When we all saw STAR WARS for the first time or the 20th time, it was the beginning of our journey from adolescence to adulthood. And when we had kids of our own, we took the journey back to adolescence to enjoy STAR WARS all over again with the next generation of geeks.

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