But besides all that, Star Wars is just special.
The first movie was an unabashed space opera (related to science fiction in the same way that “horse opera” westerns were related to historical dramas about the 19th century American West). It utilized cutting edge film-making technology, heavily supported by computer tech, to create special effects that put the viewer in the space jockey’s seat. And those effects were utterly amazing for the time. The spaceships were basically plastic, partially animated, models that “flew” by moving a computer-controlled camera around them, with the resulting images digitally applied to a larger composite film image (of other spacecraft models, for instance, against a star-field). The results were more realistic than anything seen in movies before.
But besides the special effects, Star Wars was a space-action film made by a baby-boomer, and it was embraced by other baby-boomers who had finally come of age and had money to spend at the movies. There were foreshadows of this in the success of the Star Trek TV series and the 2001 A Space Odyssey movie a decade before (and even, Planet of the Apes for that matter). But those still represented the previous generation of storytellers. Star Trek, while it dramatized some good SF stories (especially in the first season), was still very “cowboyish” in format (lots of fistfights and protagonists that didn’t learn and grow), and 2001 was very hardcore science fiction (sacrificing drama-excitement for scientific accuracy) as well as being hardcore movie-making (sacrificing drama-excitement for art). Star Wars went beyond all that.
Actually, I was first engrossed by Star Wars from reading the novelization of it by George Lucas. I think the movie was not projected to be successful by the Hollywood moguls of the time and Mr. Lucas was trying to generate some anticipation with a pre-release novel version. I think it worked. I know it did for me. I was captured by the cover art depicting the obviously ominous and evil, Darth Vader, and the obviously heroic Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, with robots, and battling spaceships in the background. Then the back-cover copy clinched the deal:
Luke Skywalker was a twenty-year-old who lived and worked on his uncle’s farm on the remote planet of Tatooine…and he was bored beyond belief..Armed only with courage and with the light saber that had been his father’s, Luke was catapulted into the middle of the most savage space war ever…and he was headed straight for a desperate encounter on the enemy battle station known as the Death Star!
And it had 16 pages of photos from the movie with explanatory text! So I bought the book and devoured it. Now George Lucas is not a writer, but he did a good job in translating his vision into a novel. At least it was good enough for me to be thoroughly hooked. This story was what I thought a space adventure should be—lots of action against a wondrous and romantic backdrop of outer space (”a galaxy far, far away”).
When I finally saw the movie, it exceeded my expectations and, apparently, those of other baby-boomers who grew up on Fireball XL5, Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, and all the old SF movies from the 1950s (e.g., The Day the Earth Stood Still). Finally, we had a movie that contained all the elements that we desired in our space adventures, without all the hang-ups of the previous generation or the need to be scientifically accurate (better to be dramatically accurate)!
So there I was, a 20 year-old who had found a movie story about a 20 year-old coming of age in a setting of high adventure, cosmic intrigue, and clear-cut good-vs-evil. Star Wars was the foil of a space fantasy against the extreme ordinariness of my life. It was the inspiration to my own coming-of-age that stayed with me for many years. It was my distraction, much as many video games are the inspirational distractions for the Millennial generation (who also embraced Star Wars; but The Force Awakens may be—and I think is intended to be—their A New Hope).
Of course, there comes a time when you must let go of your distractions, lest they lose you in delusion, but Force forbid that you lose your inspirations.
My inspiration continued with the other two movies of the original trilogy (episodes 4-6). I read the novelizations before seeing the movies and I also bought the soundtracks to enjoy the magnificent scores by John Williams.
Years later, I followed the “prequel” trilogies (episodes 1-3). While they were technically well done (since digital tech had advanced so much), they lacked the originals’ spirit. They were also flawed storytelling, even though they were the creations of George Lucas. In my opinion, this is primarily because Mr. Lucas is a film-maker and not a storyteller. In the prequel trilogy, he simply cinematized his back-stories, and it wasn’t enough. I never read the novelizations for those movies.
Recently, I saw the latest movie of the Star Wars franchise: Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It’s been 38 years since the release of A New Hope. This new movie is “Episode 7” and it features the original main characters in a continuation of the storyline of the original trilogy. Drama-wise and film-wise, I rate the movie as “very good” (4.5 stars) It’s much better than the prequel movies, though not as good, overall, as the original trilogy.
The special effects of The Force Awakens are, of course, better than any of the previous movies, simply because of the advanced state of the FX arts. It was visually breath-taking and it truly brought to life the spaceships, space battles, droids, and the various worlds. The new characters introduced were, I thought, good creations to carry on the story line and were well-played by the actors (especially Daisy Ridley and John Boyega). Overall, the movie was a tribute and homage to the venerable and special original trilogy, and in that, it did well. But before I go into that, let me say a few words about the movie from a general point-of-view.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a high-energy, space-opera thriller, just as was the original movie. Cutting edge special effects bring an engrossing reality to the fantastic things depicted. Spaceships, droids, and aliens look very real and believable. As in the other movies, the storyline is second to the action and effects, but it’s still there and it holds your interest (as opposed to the prequels).
That story revolves around the search for the missing Luke Skywalker. Luke was rebuilding the organization of the Jedi Knights but was thwarted in his work by the turning of Kylo Ren, one of his apprentices, to the dark side. Ren was also the son of Han and Leia so his loss was a double blow that apparently sent Luke into a self-imposed exile. Anyway, the good guys want him back to continue his rebuild of the Jedi, and the bad guys want him permanently stopped so that he can’t do that. The key to his whereabouts is a map contained in a droid that everybody’s fighting to get a hold of. Yes, there is a definite resonance in plot there with the first-made movie (A New Hope).
In fact, there are many echoes of A New Hope in this movie. That’s deliberate and it constitutes that “tribute” and “homage” I was talking about. Even so, the main plot of this movie is about the creation of a planet-destroying space station (moon-sized itself) that the First Order (evil descendant of the Empire) wants to use to rule the galaxy. The Resistance (working with the newly re-founded Republic) is seeking to destroy the planet-killer with an attack of X-wing fighters on a vulnerable spot on the thing. It’s visually well-done and exciting, but it’s the umpteenth time this plot thread has been done, with variations, in the collection of Star Wars movies. This needs to be the last time.
All the similarities of plot, however, allow for a plethora of reminiscent scenes of A New Hope. Some of them are touching, especially when they include characters from the original trilogy. And seeing those original characters/actors is very touching for old star warriors like me.
I was very glad to see that Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew were heavily featured as Han Solo and Chewbacca. In fact, this was very much Han Solo’s movie and is a fitting tribute to the lovable, rascal smuggler and his sidekick. And I think Chewbacca acted as more of a character than he did in any of the other movies (that is, he didn’t just stand around and growl). And of course, Princess Leia was prominent as a Resistance general. She’s a long way from the fiery space-babe she was in the original trilogy, but she anchors the movie’s nostalgia in being a revered leader, rather than an object to be rescued.
Much time has passed since the first movie, and it shows in the faces of the main characters. They’ve aged, about as gracefully as anyone can, but are still vital and living life. Like Han Solo who, after having a son with Leia, went back to smuggling—the thing he knows best. And Leia goes back to leading—the thing she knows best. That’s life affirming right there, to the boomer fan-base.
The droids, CP30 and R2D2, are in the movie, though they are not featured as prominently as in the previous movies. Story-wise, I think that was called for. There’s not much they could have contributed to this movie’s plot. Conceivably, R2D2 could have substituted for BB8, but I think it was better he didn’t. In the next movie, maybe these two could be brought out more, but in this one, they would have just gotten in the way of the new blood.
Which brings me back to the old blood. What of Luke Skywalker? His role in this movie was the big question going into it. I won’t do a spoiler, but I will say that he does, indeed, make an appearance. His whereabouts is the driving plot point and even the heavy featuring of Han Solo begs the question as to what has become of him. I kept waiting for him to pop up and do something heroic—maybe save somebody. But he just didn’t, until, well…
OK, I’ll only say that Luke does appear as the older, wizened Jedi, assuming the role of his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. When we see him, he is in the Jedi cloak, bearded, and obviously aged, though we can still see the young, enthusiastic learner who was the Jedi’s new hope. He is approached by the young Rey (Daisy Ridley), holding out his old light saber to him, and we see a new master-apprentice relationship budding.
The next episode should be Luke’s, as this one was Han’s.
All things considered, Star Wars was something new in 1977. Even more, it was something needed. It was needed by the baby-boomers to be the embodiment of their fondest and most hopeful imaginings of how life should be. It was, and is, their anthem of good-fighting-evil and preferring death to surrendering to the dark side.
While the boomers missed the horrors of the Great Depression and the World Wars, they saw the extreme ugliness and futility of war in Viet Nam. Then they saw their leaders grow more and more corrupt, lying to them and selling them out for financial gain. While they struggled to survive on incomes that stagnated, they watched corporations kill and pillage for profit, all the while telling them that “you can have it all.” As the world died before their eyes, they were told it wasn’t happening. Having their reality soured for them, they hung onto their dreams, and expressed them in movies.
Star Wars tells the boomers, and everyone, that a new hope can come. It says the evil that arises from the darkness of fear and easy profits, and that builds vast machines of destruction, will ultimately fall before love, loyalty, and the deep reverence for life that comes from life and binds all of it together. Only believing there is truth in this, keeps us going.
I’m the same age as Mark Hamil, so I pretty much aged as did Luke Skywalker in the movies. I was the coming-of-age youth, looking for an exciting destiny, as he was. And I’m the old life-burdened veteran that peered from beneath a Jedi hood in The Force Awakens. I only wonder if I have learned as much from my years. I surely haven’t experienced as much, but then, life’s lessons reach us through many routes.
Popular fiction contains our common inspirations. It persists because we need it. It is us telling ourselves that everything will be all right. With courage to stand up against evil, we’ll get through the darkness and reach a brighter day. It’s the way of life’s force to bring the good to triumph. It’s happened before. In a galaxy far, far away.