35 years ago, in a galaxy far, far away…
It’s hard to believe but STAR WARS is now 35 years old. It opened on May 25th, 1977. I remembered being amazed at 16 that it was opening the same day in little old Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. That was the ‘big city’ in my neck of the woods, and as a small town boy from Lomira, WI, 13 miles south with a population just over a thousand, I couldn’t wait to see the movie that Time magazine had just dubbed “the best movie of the year.”
I've been a big movie fan all my life, and movies like STAR WARS fueled my passions at an early age. They transported me out of my conventional world and into the stratosphere of something bigger. I spent the whole movie with my jaw open. When it was done, my equally transfixed brother and I begged my mom to let us see it again. Immediately.
My mother’s reaction was less enthusiastic. She had accompanied us to the film and when asked what she thought of it, her response was a terse, “Too. Loud.” She was right. It was loud. But I was glad that the sound effects and John Williams’ trumpeting score and all those noisy battle scenes did a number on our ears. STAR WARS was a thunderous achievement. Its ringing in our ears was a foreshadowing of how the film would ring out throughout the nation. And ultimately, the world.
STAR WARS changed everything in the movie world. It became the biggest moneymaker of all time for decades. It put science fiction on the map as a mass appeal genre. And it showed how a movie could consume the cultural landscape, from soup to nuts. The film became an industry. Why, George Lucas himself made gazillions of dollars off the toy rights and used it to create THX Dolby and Industrial Light & Magic. (How embarrassing that 20th Century Fox let him keep all the merchandising rights because they had so little faith in it recouping its cost.) STAR WARS started the whole idea of tent pole movies too, for better and worse. Now, every studio wants a franchise like STAR WARS and will pay millions and millions to try to achieve it.
But the fans that loved STAR WARS first and best responded to its storytelling, not its blockbusting. We loved that George Lucas created an entire world with his vivid imagination. We marveled at his visualization of a galaxy with its own political order, its own transportation modes, its hundreds of oddball creatures inhabiting it. It was a big, opulent, mesmerizing place. And it was noisy and loud. It was bustling and crowded and filled with nattering robots and shrieking Wookies. The world of STAR WARS needed to be loud. (Sorry, Mom.) And it spoke volumes.
And Lucas had such an eye for detail. And it all seemed so real. Not only the state-of-the-art special effects that made all those flying space ships seem utterly believable, but the lived-in specifics of his world. The vehicles in his universe weren’t pristine; they were grimy. The clothing people wore looked shaggy. The heroes and heroines weren’t gorgeous models and matinee idols. Faces like Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford looked more honest, even average. It all felt familiar, relatable and accessible.
Lucas so cleverly conjured the past in his new world too. His affection for WWII influenced the dogfight style of his battle scenes. He dressed his bad guys in uniforms that recalled Nazi gray. And his comic robots played off each other like veteran comedy teams like Laurel & Hardy or Martin & Lewis.
Then there was Darth Vader. What a towering villain he was, both literally and figuratively. He had that big voice, that big helmet, and that 7 foot stature. And has a villain’s breathing alone ever been so terrifying? (Alright, maybe Frank Booth in "Blue Velvet" but still...) And this SOB, dressed all in black, he could choke his victims with his mere thoughts. He could do so because he practiced ‘The Force.' Force, indeed.
STAR WARS never condescended to its science fiction genre roots. It was so much more than just a space tale. It was about spiritualism, family, and friendship, as much as light sabers and Death Stars. Its themes were big, its reach was worldly. That’s why Williams’ score had to be so orchestral. It was grand opera.
And here 35 years later, the influence of STAR WARS is as fresh as it was then. How many big-budget, sci-fi, super hero epics have been influenced by it? Perhaps it set the bar too high for other films. Hollywood movies rarely get close to something like it, with only THE LORD OF THE RINGS and AVATAR achieving something in the vicinity.
Thus, we celebrate its singular accomplishment this week as it turns 35 years old. Today, the names Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Obi-Wan Kenobi are known from Peru to China. And any film enthusiast anywhere can tell you about the day they first encountered the universe of STAR WARS. Mine was 35 years ago, this week, the week of its birth. And it’s still ringing in my ears.