We start with text. Firstly a simple fairytale opening line adapt for science fiction purposes that briskly defines the genre of the movie that will follow. It promises the trappings of a Disney story (princesses, evil wizards) and the trappings of science fiction. For a moment a viewer might find that an odd juxtaposition but the first blue/white text is replaced with the plot background scrolling off into the distance. It is 1977 and the era of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers isn’t so very far away. The age of the movie serial is dead and cinemas are victims of urban decay but the parents of the children excited by the Star Wars buzz might still remember the old film serials….
I’m rewatching a modern DVD. So it has the extra CGI and Han talking to Jabba the Hutt and extra effort has gone to make it look crisp and modern. Even so, having just twice evoked the past in text the movie jumps visually into the future. Space is made to look vast by showing us space ships close to a planet. So close that when the camera swings down so we can see it, we can really only see part of the curvature of the planet. A planet is big so a planet can’t fit in the frame of a movie. We can infer that the spaceship must be a big object but the image shows us how small it is compared to a planet and hence how vast space is in comparison. As we may not have got the message yet we then see a second spaceship – or at least parts of it. This ship is just a bit to big to see on screen.
I don’t know if George Lucas had seen the 1977 science (non-fictional) short Powers of Ten.
Given that both Star Wars and it were released in 1977 it can’t have directly informed Lucas but perhaps he saw the earlier 1968 version ‘Cosmic Zoom’ http://www.nfb.ca/film/cosmic_zoom/
Either way ‘Star Wars’ has won by this point. In a few minutes the movie has evoked a sophisticated sense of the scale of the universe in a dramtic opening scene involving pew-pew laser blasts between spaceships. There have been serious science fiction movies before: Forbidden Planet, 2001. What Lucas is pitching in at the start of this film is something else – a unserious movie made seriously and with craft.
Inside the rebel ship the decor is Kubrik white. The rebel soldiers are white too but oddly English looking. The ship looks like it is being crewed by a bunch of dads from the Home Counties. It has an odd counter-intuitive diversity to it – simultaneously the ethnic norms of US film making and yet also clearly not Hollywood. The first character’s voice we here is also very British – even if it is a stereotype of very proper overly formal Britishness. British voices carry on throughout the film – even Princess Leia initially sports a sort-of British accent. This is not the greatest move to improved diversity but it was exciting to British school child me at the time.
When our robot heroes making it to Tatooine Lucas plays his next card – borrow from Kurosawa. This is not an original trick. By this point The Magnificent Seven is already an old movie but it demonstrates again that Lucas thinks that a stupid action movie is worth the effort. The past of American films was the Western and Westerns could be cheap serials, mass produced fodder for hungry cinema audiences or serious films with epic themes or anything in between. So we now get shout outs to Forbidden Fortress, a film that very few of Lucas’s intended audience will have ever seen. He isn’t even really stealing here – he borrows some scenes and some ideas but Star Wars is not an adaptation of Forbidden Fortress but rather it’s very odd room mate who occasional borrows its stuff. Later Lucas will borrow from WW2 movies for dogfights and the climatic trench attack on the Death Star (e.g. 633 squadron). Lucas has been to film school and intends to make use of what he has learned and apply it in full to a movie about space magic.
Throw in the now cliched Hero’s Journey and Alec Guinness dropping what appear to be significant plot hints that he is lying by wiggling his eyes and the Star Wars recipe is complete. Bake in a Tunisian sun and voila! Movie magic.
Still fresh and rewatchable. It never puts a foot wrong.
R2D2-Sith Lord observations:
- C3P0 and R2 cross a corridor which has rebels at one end and storm-troopers at the other blasting away at each other. Neither of the two robots get hit because of R2’s force powers.
- R2 has the ability to project holograms and voices. This isn’t a Sith power but it is worth noting this now. R2 can project HOLOGRAMS of people and project the VOICES of people. Ockham’s Razor folks – that is all I’m saying.
- Leia choose R2 to carry a message to Obi Wan. Why? There is no story if she doesn’t of course but none of this seems like a good choice. How does she even know Obi Wan is there? And why pick a type of droid normally used for spacecraft maintenance? Three words – Sith mind control.
- The Skywalkers buy the wrong robot from the Jawas. Oops! R2 uses his Sith powers to blow a fuse in their preferred choice. Sorted! He was primarily looking for Obi Wan but he has got the other Skywalker baby into the bargain. R2 lights up a cigar and says ‘I love it when a plan comes together’ or bee-boo-dwooh-beep.
- R2 keeps his head down for most of the movie until he ensures that he gets control of an X-Wing fighter. Oh dear! He has the stupid Skywalker kid as a pilot! Luckily he has audio recordings of dead Kenobi saying stock phrases like ‘Use the Force!’. Skywalker does as he is told (with a little mind-trick prodding) and switches off the targeting computer. Now R2 can blow up the Death Star. Boom!
- Yes, yes I know that R2 had been hit by that point and was out of action. That is just what he WANTS you to believe. R2 doesn’t get hit by laser blasts unless he WANTS to -see Episode 1 or the corridor scene mentioned above. Mysteriously it turns out that this supposedly fatal laser blast is easily repaired.