Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
"LAST OF THE MONSTER KIDS" - Available Now on the Amazon Kindle Marketplace!

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Director Report Card: George Lucas (1977)

3. Star Wars

Talking about “Star Wars” critically seems like an insurmountable task. Is there a more iconic movie in cinema history? “Star Wars” towers over blockbuster movies, which it would define. It would change the direction of cinematic science fiction forever, movie goers favoring spectacle-heavy action hybrid from now on. Moreover, the movie’s influence on nerd culture is impossible to overstate. The film opened lovers and newcomers’ eyes to a world they had never even imagined. Many say it’s the greatest film ever made and many more consider it their favorite. The point I’m making is that “Star Was” is, was, and shall always be enormous, in terms of both box office and pop culture effect. Confession time: I’ve never been a huge fan of the series.

Stepping away from the massive legacy it spawned, and stripping away the convoluted mythology George Lucas invested it with, “Star Wars” is a simple story. The Rebel Alliance wages a guerrilla war against the evil Galactic Empire. The Empire’s latest super-weapon is the Death Star, a massive satellite that can destroy planets. Princess Leia has stolen the blueprints for the Death Star. Before being captured by the Empire, she downloads the plans to a droid and drops them on a desert planet. A farm boy finds the droids, which leads him to Obi-Wan Kenobi, an elderly member of an ancient order of space wizards. The four soon team up with a mercenary pilot, the entire group soon being tossed into the Star Wars. You all know this already.

Something Lucas proved he was good at with “THX 1138,” and even “American Graffiti,” was his astonishing skills at world-building. Lucas has always been good at arranging divergent pieces into a whole that seems sensible and runs on its own clearly defined logic. “Star Wars” is not only the best example of this within George Lucas’ career but probably within all of popular fiction. “Star Wars” begins with a ship sailing over the audience’s head, taking us to various alien planets, full of strange creatures, political intrigue, and tacks on a space religion that grants its users magical powers. More importantly, all of these elements fuse together into something that seems sensible. Much of “Star Wars’” success is owed to it seeming simple to understand. Audiences immediately latched onto this universe from its opening minutes. A fantasy world set among the stars, it gels in an appealing manner, letting viewers in on this fictional universe as quickly as possible.

“Star Wars’” massive success is honestly surprising. Because this movie is kind of weird. It’s easy to imagine the same world-building that would make the film such a hit rubbing audience’s the wrong way. “Star Wars” drops us into a world full of guys in funny helmets, robots and laser guns that make goofy noises, and all sorts of weird aliens. Atop of that, it piles on a weird, pseudo-Eastern religion that involves laser swords and psychic powers. The characters have funny names, like Moff Tarkin and Chewbacca. It’s sounds preposterous to say this about one of the most successful films ever made but “Star Wars” is surprisingly noncommercial at times. As the years would reveal, George Lucas writes kind of goofy stuff. This is at times all too obvious in “Star Wars.” For as popular as the film would become, it’s full of weird, quirky, childish, and silly ideas.

The groundbreaking special effects got people in the theaters. But what kept them coming back, again and again? “Star Wars” trades freely in literary archetypes. Luke Skywalker is the ordinary boy who stumbles into a great adventure, transforming from an inexperienced child into a hero. Han Solo is a rogue with little moral center who develops a conscious and begins fighting for a cause. Princess Leia is a princess that needs rescuing. Obi Wan is the wise odd siege, C-3PO and R2D2 are the comic relief sidekicks, and Darth Vader is the ruthless yet charismatic villain. Rooting such a wild world in such simple characters was probably a really good idea. Maybe you can make your universe as oddball as you want, as long as the characters are someone everyone can relate too. If your story is ultimately a simple tale of good vs. evil, maybe anyone can enjoy it.

As I mentioned above, “Star Wars” never really excited me much as a kid. And those archetypal characters are why, I think. There was never an emotional entrance into this world for me. There’s little connection between Luke and his family. His desire for greater things seems born-in, instead of developing naturally out of his situation. Han Solo is a textbook definition of a “cool” character, someone who doesn’t care what anyone thinks and does what he wants. Yet his character arc involves him loosing that edge, becoming another member of the Rebel army. Obi Wan is so preoccupied with delivering exposition about the Force that it leaves little room for him to develop humor, heart, or traits. Darth Vader is obviously the most interesting character in the film, a merciless villain who is also a studied member of the Force. He’s undeniably evil yet has principals all his own. Yet in this first film, Vader is a glorified henchman, strong-arming Leia, chasing after Luke, and taking orders from General Tarkin. Maybe it says a lot about me that the robot that doesn’t talk and the Wookie have always been my favorite characters.

Part of “Star Wars’” appeal that needs no explanation is its visual design. The costumes, sets, props, and production design of “Star Wars” are awe-inspiring. Let’s start with the stream-lined Stormtrooper suits. The lines flow effortlessly while the contrast of black and white colors make a strong visual impression. Darth Vader’s helmet is similar in how immediately iconic it would be, it’s curving lines and sharp points combining to make an instantly recognizable silhouette. Or look at R2-D2. Though identifiable as a robot from the second he appears, he also didn’t look like any other robot before on-screen. An incredibly simple shape is gifted with an extraordinary amount of personality. The spaceships too are intuitive. The simple shape that inspired the X-Wing is right there in its name. The Death Star is a massive sphere. The Millennium Falcon is an advanced G-shape. The Tie-Fighters are an orb with two huge fins. What’s impressive is that the ships are simple to identify but also full of detail. The sets are the same way. The influence “Star Wars” had on sci-fi production design is impossible to express. The way the movie looks still resonates nearly forty years later.

I think how much you like “Star Wars” perhaps depends on when you saw it. By the time I saw ‘Star Wars” on video, young-me had already been introduced to classic monster movies, superhero comics, Sonic the Hedgehog, and a few other things that would dominate my nerdiness. However, I’ve always liked robots and monsters and “Star Wars” has those things in spades. Look no further than the Catina scene, which features all sorts of bizarre creatures. There’s even a space werewolf in there. Personally, Hammerhead and the sloth/spider-looking thing have always been my favorites. Chewbacca expresses so much with his guttural animal moans. His shaggy appearance, laid-back demeanor, and tendency to threaten violence against people are also charming. Basically robotic variation on Laurel and Hardy, C3PO and R2D2 have defined personalities of their own while also contributing to the plot. And what is Darth Vader, if not the combination of a robot and a monster? The parallels are so strong that he was even played by David Prowse, who had been Frankenstein’s Monster twice before.

But what about those tricky Jedi? “Star Wars’” enormous success and massive influence meant it would probably spawn a religion anyway. There was no need for devotees to improvise, as “Star Wars” has a built-in religion. The ancient order of the Jedi would be expanded on significantly in the sequels and spin-offs. In this original movie, the Jedi are a mysterious gathering of monk-like individuals, nearly extinct. The Force is barely explained, summed up as an energy field that connects all living things. Jedis can, apparently, manipulate the Force to control people’s brains or move stuff with their minds. The Jedi’s purpose is to add a mystical quality to the story, adding space age wizard to this space age western. But can we admit that the Force isn’t much more then a sloppy plot device, getting our heroes out of a few select, tight squeezes? As a kid, all of this stuff went over my head. Mostly, I remember the light sabers, probably the coolest weapons ever put to screen. Damn, they’re still cool.

Among the many iconic aspects of “Star Wars” is its cast. Though some of the actors would go on to bigger careers then others, each one has a secure place in pop culture history. Mark Hamill’s fresh-faced looks and youthful energy allows him to embody the innocent, maturing Luke. Harrison Ford nails the cocky attitude and effortless bravado necessary for Han Solo. Despite the character being varying degrees of a jerk, Ford is still incredibly likable. Princess Leia could have been an undefined damsel in distress but Carrie Fisher gives the character an attitude and ability for action that contrasts nicely with her male co-stars. Alec Guinness brings an incredible gravitas to Obi Wan, even if the character spends most of the movie wandering around the Death Star. Maybe the most important performance in “Star Wars” isn’t even on-screen. James Earl Jones’ voice as Darth Vader is the most iconic villainous voice in cinema history. His reverberating baritone makes every line drip with sinister intent. Yet Jones also brings a level of respect and seriousness to the part. To a lesser degree, Anthony Daniels’ prissy, British accent goes a long way towards defining C-3PO. Lastly, Peter Cushing brings a quiet cruelty and refinement to Tarkin, making the bad guy a ruthlessly effective professional.

George Lucas has spoken at lengths about the influence “Flash Gordon” had on “Star Wars.” The iconic opening scroll and campy wipe pans were all taken from those serials. The unspoken influence “Flash Gordon” had on “Star Wars” is in its approach to science fiction. In the mid-seventies, sci-fi was a genre full of ponderous thoughts about the nature of man and technology, with a frequently downbeat tone. “Star Wars” does the swashbuckler-style thrills those serials did on a big budget. The image of Luke swinging over a chasm, Leia in his arms, seems obviously inspired by the serials of day past. As an action film, “Star Wars” is well-assembled and entertaining. The various shoot-outs with the Stormtroopers have just the right level of chaos to them, conveying the panic the characters must be feeling. The extended shoot-out in the Death Star maintains lots of humor and fun, despite the high stakes. (Don’t look for acrobatic light saber fights though, as the duels are rather stiff here.) The characters caught in a trash compactor is probably the most thrilling sequences in the film. The space battle between the Imperial forces and the Rebel armies is less exciting to me, though well organized. You can only see a spaceship blow up so many times before it looses its novelty.

What’s the first thing you think of when you think about “Star Wars?” If it isn’t any of the film’s iconic images, it’s the film’s iconic music. John Williams is responsible for some of the most famous movie scores of all time. The man has an incredible talent for producing easily hummed main themes. The “Star Wars” theme greets the viewer with a resounding overture, the blaring brass promising a world of adventure. The music also further connects the movie to its influence, being blatantly influenced by the pirate movie scores of the thirties and forties. The score’s softer moments are good at invoking a sense of mystery, proclaiming how weird and alien this galaxy can be. And who could resist the catchiness of the Catina music, which is nearly as recognizable as the main theme? Williams’ music is so linked to “Star Wars” that you can’t imagine one without the other.

You’d think producing one of the most successful and famous film series of all time would prevent a man from being insecure. Yet George Lucas has shown a repeated need to tinker with his beloved creation. As early as 1981, Lucas was changing things. That’s when he added “Episode IV” to the beginning of the scroll, morphing the elegant “Star Wars” into the overly verbose “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” Infamously, in the late nineties, Lucas would fiddle with the film even more. The newly inserted CGI hasn’t aged well. The reptiles the Stormtroopers ride on stick out horribly and the computer-generated shots of X-Wings really break up the flow of the final battle. Some scenes are added without reason, such as a short sequences of robots hanging out around the Tatooine market. Yes, Greedo shooting first is dumb. With every new release, George has trifled with the film more. Some of the differences are barely noticeable. Other completely disrupt the pacing of the film. Two questions come to mind. Mostly, why?, as people seemed to like “Star Wars” just the way it was. The second question is why does Lucas resist making the original version available? Maybe someday.

It’s easy to be cynical about “Star Wars.” It’s a merchandising juggernaut. Or one of the films that brought the seventies age of cinematic experimentation to an end. Yet it also opened people’s eyes to wonder, to the magical thing movies can do. I can’t truly share in that wonder. Maybe it’s because this one didn’t get me at the right time. Maybe it’s because my sensibilities are just different. But “Star Wars” is hardly a bad movie. At times, it’s a pretty great one. It’s a landmark film for many reasons. For it’s effects, it’s mythology, it’s music, it’s contribution to cinema. [Grade: B+]

No comments: