Thursday, May 27, 2010

A Long Time Ago...

My exposure to science fiction initially came by osmosis as I watched my Dad's favorite shows and movies with him on TV. But there is no doubt in my mind about the day I developed a love for a science fiction film on my own, and that was the day I first saw a trailer for Star Wars in 1977. I still remember it vividly, because it appeared during the commercial break while my siblings were watching a show in the next room. I remember looking up and seeing a myriad of alien looking beings which I would later learn went by names like Tusken Raider, Jawa, Wookie, Darth Vader, etc. I saw screaming space ships and glowing sword fights. I saw all manner of robots, vehicles, and other creatures accompanied by a mysterious musical backdrop that sounded like a grand opera hall. These images were so new at the time that it mesmerized my 11 year old mind, and although I had recently vowed to give up television (which I did for the next 10+ years), I still kept an eye out for those amazing trailers while waiting for the film to open.

I suppose 11 years old was the perfect age to get the full impact of such a film. It was during a short period of my life where I could easily dive into an interest with abandon. The year prior, I had done this with the movie Jaws. I have always had a passionate love for ocean life and at that time I had particular interest in sharks. The occasional Jacques Cousteau specials that came on TV were always eagerly awaited, and the shark cage dives were my favorite. The first full length novel I ever read was Peter Benchley's book, and I had a large bulletin board in my room which I plastered with Jaws paraphernalia. I even read about the making of the movie in great detail in a book called the "The Jaws Log" before the exciting day came when my Dad surprised me and said he'd take me to see it. Becoming a film trivia expert was one of my ways of expressing my admiration.

I mention all that to emphasize the impact the original Star Wars had on me. All my shark pics and Jaws clippings came down and were replaced one year later by a full board of Star Wars stuff. In the middle was an original movie poster - you know the drawing of Luke Skywalker holding up the lightsaber with Leia at his side (It was not the Hildebrandt at the top, but the cooler one at left). I then applied my trivia collecting efforts to this new film and it became my favorite for the rest of my high school years, and perhaps further on as well. I still remember all the beautiful full page original Ralph MacQuarrie movie concept drawings from a scrap book publication I owned at the time. Here is a link to the whole set for Episode IV.

It was an odd circumstance that I ended up seeing Star Wars in a theater on the other side of the country. My family spent the summer in New Jersey visiting relatives. After seeing the movie, I found a soundtrack in a record store on the beach. This was an old LP and was not the official soundtrack but an electronic jazz rendition of the score by an outfit called the Electric Moog Orchestra (see cover at left). I have always been into music and tend to re-live films through their musical scores, so I played the record over and over until my relatives were completely sick of it. I actually liked the electronic rendition better than the symphony performance at the time, but after finding some of the tracks again recently, it sounds a bit corny. This youtube video has the Cantina Band number, and here's a link to the Imperial Attack.

Needless to say, it wasn't just me. Star Wars was one of the few sci-fi films to become a pop-culture hit, and I am not the first to try to describe the reasons why. First, it was timed well. The 70's had been a depressing decade for the adult population and Hollywood had been releasing a long string of depressing realism type films. The younger generation was craving to go to the movies to just have some fun and escape for a while, and Lucas delivered. Another thing that was commented on even at the time was that Star Wars included elements that had worked from all the other popular genre's, but placed in a different setting. Do you like swashbuckling sword fights? It had lightsaber duels. Or maybe you'd like to see the swords wielded by noble Knights of the Round Table, a.k.a. Jedi Knights. Do you like Westerns? It had gun fights and outlaws too - even the typical bar room brawl! How about Bruce Lee style apprenticeships ala Kung Fu? Well, think of Yoda's training of Luke on Dagobah (ok, that was the second film) or just the whole Jedi-Padowan training in the mysterious ways of the force, where inner strength and wisdom are just as important as fighting techniques. Do you like war movies? That's right in the title - 'Wars' in space. The small fighters resemble aerial fighter jet battles and the large ships look like huge aircraft carriers. I always thought that was ingenious - making the star destroyers look like battleships slowly moving in formation. Royalty? There are emperors and princesses. Politics? There are also Senators and all manner of political maneuvering. This was universal story telling placed on a backdrop as wide open as the universe.

One unique decision at the time was using an original soundtrack that was fully orchestrated, hearkening back to the Golden Age of movie making. Another device was setting the story completely outside our own galaxy and time frame. While other films put advanced technology in Earth's future, Star Wars put it in the past, in a far away land, giving Lucas a blank canvas on which to paint.

I lived a block away from Caltech in Pasadena and knew several older friends that went there. I still remember in 1980 when one of those friends got us tickets to a special pre-screening of The Empire Stikes Back to be shown a week before its release in Beckman auditorium on the Caltech campus. This is a beautiful circular theater that looks more like an opera house, and we had very good seats. Man, was that a treat! The AT Walker battle right in the beginning was just spectacular. The tekker's were a good audience too, clapping and cheering at key moments. Because no one had seen it, we all got to experience the full effect of discovering that Darth Vader was Luke's father, a line that would go down in film history from that point on. My friends at school had a hard time believing I had seen the movie before it opened until one asked me, "Is Darth Vader Luke's father?" I dropped my jaw - "How did you know?" "It's obvious", he told me. I still think he must have gotten a tip.

To be fair, let's name a few flaws. It seems as time went by, Lucas had a penchant for including story elements simply for the "cuteness" factor, which often distracts from the story. By the time Return of the Jedi came out, people were making this criticism about the entire Ewok race. Personally, I'll take the Ewoks any day over the ridiculous muppet-like rock band in Jabba the Hut's lair. He then went on to take more abuse for Jar-jar Binks and even in today's Clone Wars, the battle droids act like Abbot and Costello, and as one writer nailed it, sound like Urkel from Family Matters.

Another rather obvious habit of Lucas' is to fashion his characters after ethnic stereotypes, probably more so in the later works. The trade federation race have accents that sound Japanese. The Tatooine trader that owned Anakin sounded Arab. The Gungans, structured socially like primitive tribes, have linguistic characteristics that sound suspiciously like old stereotypes of Southern blacks. I had to laugh at this when on one of the Clone War episodes, Ben and Anakin are captured by "pirates" who have Cockney accents and behave generally like something out of Treasure Island. I could only be thankful that none of them cried "Arrrrghhh".

Lucas also gets criticized for overuse of computer graphics. I suppose when your battles are in space and your characters are predominantly aliens, the temptation to cut costs and use computers can be strong. But another point of mine that I've never otherwise heard before is Lucas' tendency, right from the beginning, to create planets that are completely uniform in some aspect. You would think any habitable planet would have a variety of climates and landscapes like our own. Yet, Tatooine is all desert, Hoth is all ice and snow, Dagobah is all swamp, and Endor is all forest. Does anyone else notice this or does it just make it easier for audiences to wrap their minds around the locations? Kamino is covered by water, and Coruscant is, amazingly, all city. At least Naboo has both land and water zones, but go ahead and do your own survey and tell me if its not a little odd.

The original trilogy still remains a classic and has the same effect on kids who see it today as it did on me. Lucas was smart to start with episode four so there would be a built in history to work with. The remaining episodes 7 to 9 are still in his mind and there are probably lots of running bets out there as to whether he will film them before he leaves this earth. For now, I guess he'll have to finish the Clone Wars. But I don't know if I'll ever experience the thrill in my adult life as I did in those early years.


  1. Hello. Would you happen to know (or know of anyone who would know)if there was a special pre-screening of the original Star Wars shown in Beckman auditorium in 1977? I was only 9 years old and I swear I saw it there but my memory is vague. I also believe George Lucas was present that night and he was the man who introduced it. I've done an internet search and I cannot find anything on this. I came across this post about how you attended a pre-screening of The Empire Strikes Back at Caltech in 1980 so it give me hope that what I remember is valid--if there was a special pre-screening of ESB, then it's quite possible that there was also one for the original Star Wars. And, no, it was not The Empire Strikes Back that I saw at Caltech. I was 12 when that came out and my memories of being that age are much more clearer. Thanks, Maria

    1. Hi Maria. What a wonderful piece of history that would be! I do not remember any mention of ANH, but I do know that George Lucas was NOT at the ESB screening at Beckman. However, I believe it is very likely they did have one. If I get a chance to ask my Caltech buddies someday I'll post the info.

    2. Ray, thanks. I'll make sure to check your blog ever so often. :)


  2. Hi Ray. Yesterday, I spoke with a cousin who went with me to see the Star Wars movie at Caltech and he said it was not the original Star Wars that we saw, it was Empire Strikes Back. So, you and I were both there. Pretty cool. I was 12 years old. So, that was not George Lucas who introduced the film. Ah, too bad. Thank you for the information. Have a great day! Maria

    1. Wow - now that is very cool. I'll always remember that day. I was 14 living in Pasadena at the time. Small world.