1977’s Star Wars (later re-titled Star Wars: Episode IV–A New Hope) is just a movie. Strip away the four decades of hype, marketing, sequels, prequels and film-critic hyperbole, and what you get is a fun throwback to Hollywood’s Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s.
It’s not just Flash Gordon. Star Wars uncannily bends and blends many genres: martial arts and the Samurai movie, space opera, postmodern dystopian worlds (think Metropolis), airborne dogfights, swashbuckling adventure, robots and elements of fascism. It even introduces a quasi-religion in “The Force“, an energy field that “surrounds and penetrates all living things” (to paraphrase the wise old hermit Obi-Wan Kenobi).
Indeed, writer/director George Lucas borrows from many genres to tell a (fairly simple) story. The movie unfolds largely from the points of view of two robots (R2-D2 and C-3PO, a plot device Lucas borrowed from Akira Kurosawa‘s The Hidden Fortress).
In the ’70s, and largely before, science fiction and fantasy movies tended to be cold, unfeeling and impersonal*, or they were severely low-budget “B-movies” that you’d spend your spare change to watch, usually with a date, at a drive-in theater on a Saturday night. Star Wars changed the climate of these types of movies by simultaneously making them engaging on a purely fun level and making them respectable (it won seven Academy Awards). Star Wars also (along with Jaws) established the beginning of the “high-concept” era of Hollywood filmmaking.
I wasn’t alive when Star Wars was (first) released in 1977, but, as the 2004 documentary Empire of Dreams points out, the climate of popular entertainment in the 1970s was ripe, so to speak, for a throwback to the romantic, action-fantasy films of yesteryear. To some extent, mainstream movies had become dark and apocalyptic. Films like The French Connection and The Godfather offered bleak storylines with anti-hero primary characters… good movies in their own right, but not quite the escapist fare Hollywood mass-produced in the 1930s.
Star Wars kills two birds with one stone. First, it exists as a standalone effort–it offers a self-contained story with a specific beginning, middle and end, that viewers of any age can enjoy. Second, it exists as an “episode” in an ongoing serialized saga. Of course, originally Star Wars was intended to be a one-off effort (despite anything George Lucas may have said to the contrary). It was its runaway success at the 1977-78 box office (and continued success in its multiple re-releases) that led directly to the production of its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, and all of the further Star Wars films.
The movie is set “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away”, an ingenious plot device which frees Star Wars from the demands of rigorous continuity. With such an open setting and chronology, the franchise’s writers and directors are free to do anything they want. It leaves unlimited, strong story possibilities in the realm of space fantasy and fantasy melodrama. Yes, I said it: Star Wars is firmly a member of the fantasy genre, every bit as much as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. It’s not to be confused with science fiction (also known as speculative fiction), in which the stories generally occur in our own universe and timeline (think Star Trek for comparison).
Another secret to Star Wars‘ success is the simplicity of its plot: Luke Skywalker is a farm boy who lives on a desert planet. He yearns to join a far-flung rebellion against an evil empire, but for the time being, he’s stuck. His Uncle Owen forbids him to think about the bigger things. Luke doesn’t understand his destiny: to defeat the empire, save a princess, and resuscitate the legacy his father, who was killed by the evil Darth Vader.
There is a sense of innocence and guileless fun in Star Wars. Audience members who viewed the movie in 1977 must have felt something great was on the verge of discovery. That sense of fun carries over into the film’s escapism; you don’t need to know anything about the movie, the plot’s back story or how the film was made to enjoy it. Contrast this to a franchise like Star Trek where foreknowledge of the characters, their traits and histories is almost a requirement. (Regarding The Phantom Menace, Roger Ebert famously remarked, “I’ve seen space operas that put their emphasis on human personalities and relationships. They’re called Star Trek movies. Give me transparent underwater cities and vast hollow senatorial spheres any day.”)
Which takes me back to the beginning of this review, when I remarked that Star Wars is just a movie. It works best when one forgets the prequels, sequels, novels, comic books, bed sheets, etc., etc. It’s best to appreciate Star Wars for what it is–two hours of the best escapist fare ever committed to film. It tells a universal story that anyone can relate to. As with any great piece of popular art, Star Wars would spawn many sequels, prequels and imitators, but the original movie is (very nearly) the best in the series–and likely never will be equaled.
(out of )
Addendum: a note about Star Wars: The Special Edition and George Lucas’ changes…
In 1997, George Lucas re-released Star Wars with the subtitle The Special Edition. This version contained several re-edited scenes; deleted sequences were added back into the film; computer-generated imagery was added to augment the movie’s original analogue visual effects. The Special Edition, and not the original theatrical film, is the version made available for digital distribution (streaming) and home video (DVD and Blu-ray).
In 1997, I felt agnostic about the changes… they didn’t really make the movie better or worse. These days, I do feel that the added material (especially the Han Solo/Jabba scene) slows down the movie. In addition, the Greedo scene, in particular, should never have been changed (it was key in establishing Han Solo’s character).
The 1977 version of Star Wars has never been released in any modern digital streaming, or high-definition, format (the closest you’ll get is a mid-2000s DVD “bonus feature” copy of the film, which offers a non-anamorphic transfer copied from an earlier LaserDisc version).
I have no doubt that we will, eventually, get an official streaming or home-video high-definition release of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in their original, unaltered versions. Star Wars is too big a franchise and there’s simply too much money to be made by such a release. Mark my words, it will happen. It’s just a matter of economics (different studios control the distribution on the various films) and expense (a cleanup would be needed to get the films back to their 1970s-1980s splendor).
In the meantime, I’m a proud owner of the 2011 Blu-ray set. The set contains three bonus disks, in which the bonus features (a seemingly random collection of interviews and forgettable documentaries) are haphazardly and confusingly assembled. However, the set also contains high-quality transfers of all six films, and I adore the video quality of the A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Revenge of the Sith Blu-rays. I’m a casual Star Wars fan and the set is perfectly adequate for me. I can live without the original versions of the films, but when (not if) they’re released, I’ll probably make some effort to purchase the set.
* not that there’s anything wrong with that.