By Marc S. Sanders
Of all the infinite times I have watched Star Wars (now also known as Episode IV: A New Hope), what remains appealing to me is the depth of its outer space setting. It would have to, right? Otherwise, what was the point of making action figures beyond the main characters, Darth Vader & Luke Skywalker? It’s a film where it’s just as important to get to know the extras seen in the film like a “Walrus Man” or a “Hammerhead,” or green skinned “Greedo.” Unquestionably, Star Wars is a film with a very, very rich and very deep setting.
What kept moviegoers coming back to the film time and again in the late ‘70s through the ‘80s and on into the next century, is that there is just so much to get accustomed to. One moment, you are adjusting to a summary scroll that opens the film with John Williams triumphant music, and then you are trying to familiarize yourself with an unusual ship that is being pursued by a much grander one within the depths of space while circumventing an orange planet. Laser shootouts occur with robots caught up in some kind peril, and then we meet a towering figure in black with an asthmatic, incessant breathing mask.
Later, we have to get used to small scavengers, and then scarier scavengers tormenting a boy on the cusp of adulthood who only dreams of adventure. The boy meets a mentor and then we are in a saloon with the oddest collection of patrons we could ever encounter. The film carries forward to daring rescues and escapes and a sword fight that may lack sophisticated choreography, but makes up for it with lightsabers and a surprising death that leaves an air of mystery. Before that’s all over, we still have to become enamored with the daring dog fights within space among battalions of one man piloted space ships.
That’s what has always kept Star Wars alive with much to celebrate. There is always something new and different just minutes away from the current scene you are engaged in. No two characters or bands of people look the same. No two settings look the same either.
Lucas always sought out to build a “used universe.” The ships and settings beyond the villains’ (known as the Empire) powerful Death Star space station were beat up and bruised and rusted and dented. This galaxy is lived in, and mired in a history.
Considering the film released in 1977 is somewhat telling of that decade. Films like The French Connection and Dirty Harry showed the ugliness of their respective cities and citizens with broken down cars and trash in the streets, and hoods with unkempt beards and worn-out clothing. Lucas must have carried these visions over to his PG universe to give viewers the idea that a guy like Greedo is a dangerous bounty hunter unconcerned with drawing his pistol in public, and a gangster like Jabba The Hutt rules a territory with a threatening criminal fist. (Incidentally, I strongly oppose Jabba’s appearance in the reissue of the film; better to imagine how vile this guy is in my own mind when watching the picture for the first time).
Lucas also famously takes inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s Japanese films (especially The Hidden Fortress) of samurai culture, and blends it perfectly with a sci fi interpretation of the Old West gunslinger as seen in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns.
Star Wars pleases so many different demographics of audiences because it jump starts its multiple stories and settings with what made going to the movies so appealing to begin with. Present within the film are humor, childlike appeal, fantasy, western motifs, suspense and romance.
It’s a visual classic that remains unmatched. At least with the original trilogy, Lucas never allowed any two settings to look alike. With this film in particular, we are treated to the contrast of a desolate desert planet vs the cold industrial operations of a ruling regime proud to carry out their actions with menace and terror. (More pleasing contrasts occur in the next two films.)
Star Wars is well known for the simplicity of its story. It’s main hero, Luke (Mark Hamill), is recognized for his basic innocence simply with his white tunic and mop top head of hair. Same can be said for the damsel in distress, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the fearful but sweet droids she sets out to embark on a mission. She evokes a royal and dedicated government in her white robe with elegant hairstyle; the droids have an expression of worry for the tall one, and spunky nerve for the shorter fat one, like a Laurel & Hardy pair. Villainy is epitomized with Darth Vader (voiced with commanding authority from James Earl Jones), who dons all black with a terrifying mask/helmet. You don’t know what Darth Vader really is beneath that dark costume. It’s not important for the exposition of this film. All that matters is that Lucas shows you who is good and who is bad. The visual references are enough for the explanations. What we need to know about these characters are summed up with the wise but elderly prophet in quick summation by Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness, in an Oscar nominated role). Kenobi serves as the historian of this universe.
Over time, even almost immediately upon its release, the commercialization of Star Wars hogged the spotlight of the original product. It’s reflected today based on a measure of expectations both financially and within the fraternity of diehard fandom. Ironically, in 1977 everyone was satisfied with the surprise that George Lucas shared on the big screen. There were no objections to be found. Today, though, it’s become an act of trying to satisfy the masses by what they believe the next developments should be. I’m guilty. I admit to sometimes being an accomplice to that notion. It’s impossible to please everyone. So new film products in the Star Wars franchise will never succeed as well as the original film managed to do.
I don’t let any of that bother me. I remain pleased that I can still feel the sensation of pumping my fist in the air when Luke & Leia swing across the chasm thereby evading Stormtroopers, or getting a thrill when their pirate escort, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), finally lets loose of his quiet, cool demeanor to run down a hallway while trying to take out an army of baddies. I get a lump in my throat when Kenobi gives a slight grin before surrendering to Vader in front of Luke’s eyes.
So much is to be seen in Star Wars, but not all of it is explained. George Lucas completed his film with routes left to wonder and think about; he gave an opportunity to continue our imagination long after we finished watching the film for the first time. On the multiple occasions we watched thereafter, we pondered where we could get a table in the Cantina/saloon, or just how many droids the Jawa scavengers kept in their sand crawler.
As well, what did the blue milky substance taste like. More importantly why exactly did Luke’s uncle give a concerned glance across the dinner table to his aunt during a slight mention of his father?
That’s the magic of Star Wars. Like the land of Oz or Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, there’s just so much to explore and think about and imagine beyond its surface. Long after we are all gone and our grandchildren’s children are beginning to stimulate their imaginations, they may well turn to the cartoons and other films and toys in the vast galaxy from long ago and far, far away. One thing is certain, though. They should ALWAYS begin with the original Star Wars.