Friday, January 25, 2019

The Force is Still With Us

I was 11 years old when the original Star Wars came out in 1977, and I found myself going back week after week to see it again and again…I think a total of 14 times that summer and fall. (Remember, this was before the advent of home video…when a movie left the theaters, it was possibly gone forever, unless it appeared on television many years later, interrupted by commercials and viewed on the very small screens of the ’70s.)

Star Wars was more than just a movie, or a trilogy, or a film series. It became part of the fabric of our collective consciousness, where it remains to this day. For kids of the 1970s and the ’80s, the first three films (Episodes IV, V and VI) of the series are especially dear.

It was the brainchild of an ambitious young filmmaker. George Lucas (American Graffiti) was close friends with Spielberg, Brian de Palma, Francis Ford Coppola—some of the masters of 1970s cinema—and there was a definite rivalry and competition among them about who would “make it” and get ahead first. (Coppola hit it big first with The Godfather.) 

Archetypal: The Hero's Journey and epic struggle between Good & Evil

Star Wars would solidify Lucas as a Force to be reckoned with. For his magnum opus, Lucas was working on a modern version of the old 1930s-40s B-movie sci-fi serials like the popular Flash Gordon programmers that starred handsome Buster Crabbe in a sequin-studded space suit.

So much more than an entertaining space opera, Star Wars created a worldwide, generation-spanning phenomenon. Lucas’s vision spawned not only beloved unforgettable characters but an entire imaginary universe, an entire human-extraterrestrial history and cosmology, and a philosophy that is literally practiced as a religion by a small percentage of earth’s population. 

With Star Wars, George Lucas continued the establishment of a sci-fi multiverse envisioned by 20th century sci-fi writers and futurists including writer Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) and producer Gene Roddenberry (Star Trek).

The Star Wars saga touches upon and recalls so many elements of philosopher and teacher Joseph Campbell’s work on the The Power of Myth, exemplifying his Hero’s Journey narrative and archetypes—the storytelling elements that create “universal appeal”

Indeed, when first released, Star Wars was likened to a futuristic Wizard of Oz—on some of the 1977 movie posters you can even find find homages to a a space-age Dorothy, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man. 

Multidimensional aspects of the storytelling point to a time-bending multiverse by associating sci-fi themes with the traditional “once upon a time” fairy tale preamble: “A long, long, time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

Artoo and Threepio: As emotional and flawed as their human counterparts

Technology and robotics figure prominently in the George Lucas galactic weltenschaung.  What makes the treatment different here are that the robots—called ’droids in Lucas’s world— are even more emotional than the humans….C3P0 in particular frets and worries and bemoans the fate of their unending servitude and the vicissitudes of life in general. “We seem to be made to suffer; it’s our lot in life,” he wails, even as he and R2 faithfully and loyally serve their human masters.  The fiercely loyal, cagey and versatile R2D2 (who plugs into any system) has a one-track mind to fulfill whatever mission he is programmed with, but he does have a total devotion to his masters, particularly Luke Skywalker. 

The ‘droids also serve an important role in the unfolding of the saga, serving as a Greek chorus by commentating on the action as well as giving background exposition when necessary. 

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker

Despite their endless scientific and empirical knowledge and AI, Lucas’s ’droids prove statistics are not the keys to peace and serenity. Indeed, these robot characters display fears, issues and imperfect personality traits as pronounced as those of the humanoid heroes. 

Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa
Of course, in addition to the pyrotechnics, pioneering special effects that heralded the birth of CGI (Lucas also fathered Industrial Light & Magic), were iconic performances by an ensemble of actors whose characterizations brought those old archetypes to life in a new and unique way. (And of course, we may forget, even the robots and space creatures are enacted by talented humans as well.)

Mark Hamill (Corvette Summer, The Last Jedi) is Luke Skywalker, the young protagonist with whom we embark on this epic hero’s journey. Lovers of the original trilogy will notice that Hamill’s physical appearance changes markedly after the first film. A serious car accident between filming of the first and second films required extensive reconstructive surgery. So, for Empire Strikes Back, Lucas wrote in an attack from a wampa (that looked much like the abominable snowman in the Rankin-Bass claymation Christmas classics) in which Luke was uncharacteristically bloodied. 

Harrison Ford as Han Solo

Harrison Ford is the laconic mercenary Han Solo, desperately trying to hide his sensitivity and heart of gold under a layer of machismo. Throughout the 1980s, Harrison Ford played a number of heroic characters, most notably the title role in Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones series. Later in the decade, director Mike Nichols would bring out Ford’s vulnerable and romantic and human sides as the actor gave unforgettable performances in films like Working Girl and Regarding Henry. But Ford’s bread-and-butter roles would always be as action hero. 

Darth Vader, portrayed by David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones

Carrie Fisher (Shampoo, Hannah and Her Sisters) is the fearless and canny Princess Leia, one of the architects of the rebel alliance against the evil Empire.  Not content to rest on her laurels as an iconic sex symbol and action figure, Fisher, daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, was a true artistic renaissance woman—a brilliant novelist and Hollywood screenwriter and script doctor, who parlayed her unusual upbringing (a Hollywood soap opera in itself) into acerbic comic gold in the book and film of her autobiographical roman a clef Postcards from the Edge. Fisher’s untimely death at age 60 cut short her later missions as General Leia in the continuation of the saga, though of course she did appear in both The Force Awakens and Last Jedi.

Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian

Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan "Ben" Kenobi
Sir Alec Guinness (Bridge on the River Kwai, Murder By Death) lends acting gravitasse as the wise old Jedi Master Obi Wan “Ben” Kenobi. Peter Mayhew, without a single line of dialogue but an expressive and emotive animal-instinct style of communication, is the brave, skilled and loving wookie Chewbacca. 

Peter Cushing (Dracula AD 1972, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed), American International horror star of the 1960s beside cohort Christopher Lee (who would join the Star Wars franchise in the 1990s-2000s with parts I, II and III), is the deliciously diabolical Grand Moff Tarkin with his clipped posh British delivery (so powerful that newcomer Fisher found herself falling into a faux British accent herself in her scenes with Cushing, which she ruefully and humorously admits on the video commentary.)  

James Earl Jones (Sounder, The Great White Hope) provides the sonorous voice that gave life to one of the cinema’s most elegant villains (as well as the tagline of global cable news network CNN!), the dark Jedi Knight Darth Vader— a wounded human bolstered by AI and robotics, the labored breath of the human still heard within his bionic, computer-aided mobility…the mind of a Jedi Master in sinister service to the Dark Side.

Peter Mayhew as Chewy

Frank Oz gives life to Yoda
A golden, electronic version of  the Tin Man of Oz, Anthony Daniels frets and worries as the neurotic Cyborg Relations ’droid—with adventures ranging from having his golden casings blown to bits by storm troopers and put back together by Chewbacca, to being worshipped by the Ewoks on the forest moon of Endor, by virtue of his shiny gold visage, bright flashing eyes and ability to communicate in their language.

Frank Oz, the brilliant puppeteer behind Muppet superstars Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, brings to life the character of the wise, deep and wizened Jedi teacher Yoda, who speaks in with Socratic solemnity in a cute purring baby-voice. 

The costume that ignited many an adolescent hormone

Empire introduced the debonair Billy Dee Williams (Brian’s Song, Lady Sings the Blues) in the character of Lando Calrissian (played by Donald Glover in the recent prequel Solo), who joins the existing ensemble, continuing through Return of the Jedi.

In 1977 the original Star Wars film broke all attendance records and became the highest grossing film of all time. Today, it is #2 on’s list of Top 100 All-Time Films (domestic gross, adjusted for inflation, as of January 2019) between Gone with the Wind and The Sound of Music. (Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi also made the Top 20, along with 1999’s Phantom Menace and 2015’s Force Awakens.)

The rousing score by John Williams (The Poseidon Adventure, Schindler’s List), with a theme even more recognizable than the ones for The Godfather or Lawrence of Arabia, adds immeasurably to the Star Wars iconography. 

Luke, Ben, R2D2 and C3P0
In the 1990s, as the home video market boomed and Lucas planned the next three chapters of the story to unfold on the big screen, (actually the prequel to parts IV, V and VI), he revamped and remastered and reworked entire sequences to the original trilogy of films, adding CGI effects as well as actors and characters and creatures from the upcoming parts I, II and III, in order to tie the series together and create continuity. Most millennial viewers are unaware of the renovation of these first three films, and indeed, copies of those original cuts are exceedingly rare. 

It is quite an amazing feat to give birth to a new version of reality...a story to which practically everyone on the planet can relate. For me, the original Star Wars trilogy is epic storytelling at its creative zenith. May the Force continue to be with us!

This is an entry in the Robots in Film Blogathon hosted by The Midnight Drive-In and Hamlette’s Soliloquy. I look forward to reading the other entries and exploring new blog worlds and galaxies!