Star Wars (1977) IMDb

Categorization

Adventure blending The Dam Busters (1955) and The Hidden Fortress (1958) with added escapism, supernatural fantasy and the trappings of space opera.

Commentary

Zac Bertschy once observed that Darth Vader’s helmet is as ubiquitous, as recognized and as void of meaning as Hello Kitty (ANNCast, September 16th, 2011). Star Wars has attained a level of mainstream popularity that goes beyond association with the films. What George Lucas created here is genuinely very good but remembered for something other than its quality. It is a goldmine for research into modern culture.

I attribute the film’s initial success to four roughly equal factors: The timing, the landmark work at ILM, the rest of the stagecraft—the score, acting, cinematography etc.—and the deliberate emptiness of the script.

The most moving scene in The Hidden Fortress is that of the heroes coming upon an amoral Shintō ritual of purifying destruction, in which Yuki—the model for Leia—connects with a crowd of ordinary people as her gold melts to slag. She is wiser for it. Compare the panhuman hotchpotch of religions that went into the Jedi Warriors. The apparent pacifism of these Jedi is clearly not the message of the film. War is the selling point, right there in the title. What the Jedi actually believe is barely implied and has no explanatory value. Their rituals, if any, are not shown. Compare A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) where the beliefs of peaceful wizards are explored and society is consequently at peace. Lucas inverted Le Guin’s approach, deliberately eschewing cultural specificity, historical or invented, beyond melodramatic moral dualism. If it hadn’t been for producer Gary Kurtz, who actually knew something about religion, Lucas would have kept a “Kiber Crystal” MacGuffin in the shooting script as an even more shallow symbol of all human spirituality. The crystal has survived in the broader canon as a lightsaber component.

Where J. R. R. Tolkien invented cultures, including rich non-human cultures, Lucas instead applied the comparative mythology of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) as a recipe for commercial success. The book was his manual. Crucially, he never made the effort to support its Proppian framework diegetically. By design, there is almost nothing beneath the surface in Star Wars. Like the unexamined, superficial biological diversity of the Rebel Alliance, and the princess fighting for democracy, the description of the Jedi as philosophical or religious or both is just one tool for directing audience alignment. Obi-Wan is a hollow version of Baslim the Cripple from Citizen of the Galaxy (1957), named after a belt. Lucas counted on the audience’s general pro-religious bias to build support for Obi-Wan. He intended for Campbell’s and his own simple tokens to raise the viewer’s sympathy by association in the context of a short spectacle. The result is intuitive, unobjectionable and lifeless. Lucas used the same technique once before, to create the blandness that makes THX-1138 (1971) an effective dystopia. Star Wars has that blandness.

The Dam Busters at least shows German factory workers escaping by ladder, a tiny concession to the idea of the enemy’s own diversity, autonomy and value. None of that here, just faceless, incompetent stormtroopers. The Dam Busters is open with the fact that its heroes are defending the British empire. Star Wars instead pretends that a minority of anti-fascists without external support are sure to prevail if they simply use force and Force against their galaxy-controlling oppressors, an apparently legitimate regime with vast resources. No rebels talk about what kind of society they want to build, or how. They don’t drum up support, they just blow up the Death Star. It’s purposefully naïve, loaded with sugary wishful thinking.

Such emptiness is not always well received, but the timing was right. While US audiences struggled to respond to Watergate, the oil crises, defeat in Vietnam and urban decay, they got science fiction like Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), The Andromeda Strain (1971), Silent Running (1972), Soylent Green (1973), Dark Star (1974), A Boy and His Dog (1975) and Logan’s Run (1976). Not all SF was so dark, but the brighter, family-friendly films were not as well crafted because the genre had been marginalized by the Z-list productions mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988). The fantasy spectacle racket was certainly weak; star Mark Hamill was also in Wizards (1977). In retrospect, it seems like the timing was good for an escapist Campbellian epic with convincing special effects. The revolution in marketing that followed the lesson of Jaws (1975) made it likely that one such film would be a blockbuster around this time. It happened to be Star Wars.

The trilogy became the prime example of mainstream SF with universal name recognition throughout the West, displacing the cheaper and nerdier Star Trek (1966). Ironically, neither franchise has any relationship with scientific methods. If George Lucas had not been first to combine the new advances, history could have taken a different turn in that respect. Instead of deliberately shallow space opera where the fights are patterned after WW1 aerial engagements (because WW2 planes were already moving too quickly for Lucas), the first modern SF blockbuster could have been hard science fiction with ideas, like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or A Clockwork Orange (1971). The director of those films, Stanley Kubrick, was already processing scripts for what eventually became the insipid A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). If that had gotten produced under Kubrick in 1977, instead of Star Wars, the vernacular definition of science fiction could have evolved differently.

If that alternate history is too drastic, imagine a smaller change. In Roger Ebert’s review he singled out the cantina as a high point, noting that Lucas “so slyly” has the clientele “exhibit characteristics that were universally human”. Consider Chewbacca, inspired by Lucas’s dog and named after the Russian word for dog. He’s a mix of dog and man. Chewbacca could instead have been like Speaker-to-Animals from Ringworld (1970): Animalistic, huge and intimidating like Lucas’s Chewbacca but intelligent and capable of pursuing its own agenda according to a specific alien culture. Despite the excellent costume, acting and sound, Lucas’s Chewbacca is ultimately just a denatured servant to human interests, something children and Roger Ebert could intuitively understand and appreciate. Niven’s Speaker is a character: An alien who feels more alien than anything in Star Wars, which is saying a lot since even Speaker, true to his name, can speak a human language fluently, and is basically humanoid.

Lucas invited his audiences to overlook all complexity and shun the unfamiliar. They did. They elected Reagan the actor. They reheated the Cold War, abdicating world leadership to be rebels against the paper tiger of the Soviet Union. While Reagan’s implausible missile defence system got the nickname “Star Wars”, the film got fans outside the mainstream. These people missed the invitation to forget. In the hard core, deeper meanings are invented, controlled and defended. With its sequels, Star Wars achieved a critical mass that lets its geeks live almost entirely on the franchise the way zealots live on holy writ, many as Jenkins’s textual poachers with a vibrant and terrible “fan film” culture.

As a student I briefly described the Imperium of Man to a fellow game club member who immediately assumed the idea came from Star Wars as opposed to any of the thousands of earlier works describing an interstellar empire. The franchise, by virtue of its entrenched visibility, gets more credit than it deserves. The interest is reproduced generationally, obscuring the original’s context and resetting culture. I first saw it on VHS tapes my parents brought home when I had practically no experience of earlier space opera.

The resetting of culture is mirrored within the franchise. Its creator has replaced and added special effects in several waves, even going back to the original when one change symbolically unmaking Han Solo as an antihero was poorly received, matching neither nostalgia nor the audience’s turbulent desires for realism and power fantasy. The “controversy” triggered multiple labour-intensive and illegal fan demakes. In 2014, a huge amount of licensed material that had been semi-canon as the “Expanded Universe” was thrown out, retconned to make room for more spin-offs and sequels. You can build and rebuild a shack more quickly if you never bother with a solid foundation.

Success has prompted analysis from many more angles: fairytale (lack of a mother, shades of Arthur), allegory (names like Greedo and Solo), history (Rome), Oedipus Rex (kill your father, hit on your sister), 19th-century melodramatic formulae, cinematographic inspiration from Riefenstahl inviting comparison to the Frankfurt school’s idea that modern popular culture repeats Nazi social engineering methods (by telling accident, spin-off novel Leia, Princess of Alderaan (2017) repeats “Strength through joy” as a venerable philosophical maxim), the explosion of merchandising in film, the nostalgic reconstitution of pre-TV serial aesthetics (this film being “Episode IV”), and pleasant Kurosawa influences on clothing and terminology (時代 → Jedi). The work itself cannot be disentangled from its sprawling superstructure, but I like that mess. Unlike the movie, the mess says something about humanity.

References here: Nerd argues about distinction between fantasy and science fiction, Alien (1979), Urusei Yatsura (1981), Fang of the Sun Dougram (1981), Lensman (1984), The Last Starfighter (1984), “Jumping” (1984), Gall Force: Eternal Story (1986), Legend of the Galactic Heroes (1988), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), Golden Wings (1992), MythBusters (2003), The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), The Untold History of the United States (2012), “Robot on the Road” (2015), “Cassette Girl” (2015), The Legend of the Galactic Heroes: The New Thesis - Encounter (2018).

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Sequel:

The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) IMDb

Extent

Seen in 2018.

Categorization

A variety show for television, intended to keep the franchise current between major films.

Subject

Chewbacca’s family.

Commentary

I enjoyed the animated segment, apart from its myopic use of Fett. It’s easy to see why nobody likes the rest.

References here: Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983), Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003).

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Sequel:

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980) IMDb

Commentary

The film that made the franchise with the darker side of Campbell’s wheel and a little bit of human diversity in the style of Star Trek (1966). If Irvin Kershner, Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan had not steered this ship, it would probably have been as dull as the prequels.

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Sequel:

Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (1983) IMDb

Subject

A prelude to the Endor Holocaust with Leia a damsel once more in distress.

Commentary

The vision expressed by The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) can still be felt here. By this point the lack of other ideas is starting to tell, so Lucas throws in another Death Star.

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Prequel:

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace (1999) IMDb

Commentary

It was already too late to rescue the Force from Lucas’s deliberate depiction of it as an empty symbol of all religion. Given the opportunity, Lucas instead added another layer of non-explanation in the “midi-chlorians”, mystical mitochondria. A strange choice, but in a different context it could have been a good one. He could have taken a naturalistic approach much earlier, adding cultural specificity to various peoples’ reactions to their subcellular supernatural power source. I sometimes imagine that on his good days, he tried and failed.

The use of a conflict apparently over taxation as the inciting incident of the entire “‘saga’” is actually promising in that regard: The very lack of a stereotypical, more personal, protagonist-driven adventure—a.k.a. what the fans expected—serves to illustrate the golden age of galactic democracy. It’s more motivated than Sir Humphrey’s diplomatic mission over money at the opening of The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). Of course it turns out to be Pal(p)atine setting up the pieces for the traditional adventure, and of course the movie never gets there. It stumbles on walking toys, into plot holes with ethnic stereotypes dressed up as aliens. In the words of Mr. Plinkett, “The unfortunate reality of the Star Wars prequels is that they’ll be around forever.” Like The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), they cannot be erased.

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Prequel:

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones (2002) IMDb

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Spin-off:

Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003) IMDb

Commentary

The animation is inferior to that of The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), which was deliciously fluid and analogue. If you think the Death Star is the dumbest weapon of mass destruction in the franchise, behold episode 12.

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Parody:

“Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars” (2002) IMDb

Prequel:

Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (2005) IMDb

Commentary

Best of the three prequels.

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Version:

Star War - The Third Gathers: The Backstroke of the West (2005)

Categorization

Probably not the filming of Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (“The Decline of the West”, 1918).

Subject

Allah Gold disagrees with the Presbyterian Church, setting himself up for a thrill ride of unintended sexual innuendo.

Commentary

A software pirate copied a DVD containing Revenge of the Sith before it got through editing. The copy itself is bad, missing some music, various skips and jumps etc., but someone who understood English made a pretty bad set of Chinese subtitles for it anyway, and those subtitles were consequently translated back into English by somebody who lacked any knowledge of the language whatsoever and/or did not have access to the film. Less than ten of the hundreds of superimposed captions match the original, same-language dialogue. The text is basically a machine translation that somehow manages bad spelling, repeated use of the word “fuck” and replacements of all proper nouns with unrelated phrases because of the phonetic-ideographic ambiguity of Chinese script, e.g. Sith → xi → 西 → west. Great fun for groups of enthusiasts.

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Fan film:

“TIE Fighter” (2015) IMDb

Extent

Seen in 2018.

I saw Pascal Ramseier’s nominally ‘remastered’ version, which changes the audio.

Subject

Three Empire fighter pilots beat rebeels in an open battle.

Commentary

Good effort, good craft skills, especially in the careful mix of underlying 3D modelling and 2D-cel-style presentation, but the ‘story’ really highlights the silliness of Star Wars technology.

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