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From the Celluloid Cellar: Star Wars

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014 | Posted by MichaelPenkas

Star Wars poster Long-time science fiction fans will likely be familiar with Star Wars, if only by its reputation. Initially a flop at the box office, it survives today mostly as a midnight movie curiosity. Indeed, it took studios over a decade to invest in another big-budget science fiction film after the massive failure of George Lucas’s love letter to the movie serials of the 1930s. But an objective review shows that it’s not nearly as bad as word-of-mouth makes and, once the plot finally gets moving, is actually a lot of fun, despite (maybe a little because of) its many flaws.

So, the plot? In a distant galaxy, an evil empire rules the many inhabited worlds with an iron fist. Cue the ragtag rebellion trying to free the galaxy from the Empire’s control. First problem with the plot? The Galaxy, Empire, and Rebellion are unnamed in this film, each going simply by a definitive article.

The leader of the Rebellion is Princess Leia (played by Carrie Fisher, daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher), dressed all in white like a virgin sacrifice, but carrying a bad-ass ray gun. The main bad guy? There is an Emperor (mentioned, but never seen) and General Tarkin (played by Peter Cushing as a delightfully over-the-top space nazi); but the clear face of evil is Tarkin’s chief lieutenant, Darth Vader. A seven-foot tall wizard dressed in head-to-toe black armor, face covered by a black Shogun skull mask and voiced as pure hate incarnate by James Earl Jones, it’s hard to imagine this film was ever marketed to children with this walking nightmare engine chewing the scenery. The scenes between eighteen year-old wisp Fisher and this creepy heavy-breathing monster are especially disturbing.

So, the Rebellion has captured plans for a new battle station and the Empire is trying to get them back before … I’m not sure. The movie was made in the seventies, so understanding of electronic files was admittedly limited. No one thinks to make a copy of the files or simply transmit them to home base. Princess Leia chooses instead to hand-deliver a hard drive across deep space. When the Empire’s soldiers board the ship, she sticks the hard drive in a robot and throws it in an escape pod, launching it towards the nearest planet. The story shifts focus to the robot, R2-D2 (looking like a friendly Dalek and communicating only in beeps and whistles) and its friend, C3-PO (a gold robot that sounds like a perpetually flustered English butler). They crash-land on a desert planet and are abducted by small monks.

The monks eventually sell the robots to a family of dirt farmers and the plot seems hopelessly lost in digression until we meet Luke Skywalker, the restless space farmer with dreams of exploring the galaxy. And this brings us to perhaps the biggest flaw in the film’s plot. We’ve followed the parallel stories of Princess Leia and the robots, wondering how this defiant and resourceful young woman will free herself from the Empire’s clutches and retrieve the station plans. But it turns out that Luke is actually the star of this film and we’ve just been watching a half-hour prologue to his story. Luke comes off as a whiner in his early scenes and I kept hoping we’d return to the princess escaping space prison instead of watching a dirt farmer washing robots.

Eventually, Luke meets up with a sand hermit and retired wizard named Obi Wan Kenobi. Together, they uncover a hologram message explaining that the princess has been captured and the robots need to be brought to her home planet of Alderan. Really, Luke should have been able to just pop out the hard drive and give it to Obi, but again no one knew how digital media worked. So the plot moves along as the reclusive sand-hermit takes the dirt farmer to a bar.

And, whatever critics say about the rest of this film, that space bar is fantastic. Imagine every alien from every fifties sci-fi film stuffed into one smoke-filled bar, then all handed drinks. It’s a cool set-up and I was sorry the whole movie wasn’t set there. It’s here that Luke and Obi meet up with Chewbacca (a growling space ape dressed only in a bandolier) and Han Solo. Han looks like he just walked off the set of a spaghetti western, yet Harrison Ford totally pulls off the quiet confidence of the character so that he looks completely at home among lizard people and drunk astronauts. After some haggling, Luke and Obi hire Han and Chewbacca to pilot them to Alderan.

But all is not well elsewhere in the galaxy, as we see that Princess Leia isn’t in some regular old space prison. She’s actually trapped in the battle station whose plans she stole. General Tarkin reveals the terrible secret weapon of the battle station: it has a death ray so powerful that it can destroy whole planets. Of course, they threaten to use the weapon on Princess Leia’s home planet (coincidentally where our heroes are heading) unless she reveals the location of the rebel’s hidden base.

At this point, we’re expecting the rest of the film to be a race again the clock. Can Princess Leia free herself and stop Tarkin before her home planet is destroyed? Will Luke and his friends arrive in time to help her?

Nope. The order’s given and the planet explodes.

Holy crap! This movie doesn’t screw around!

So, later, when Luke, Obi, Han, Chewbacca, C3-PO, and R2-D2 show up, they just find a bunch of space rubble and a battle station so big that they initially mistake it for a moon. They manage to get on to the station, rescue the princess, and get off again with little trouble. Oh, except that Obi gets sliced in half by Darth Vader’s laser sword.

Oh, those crazy 70s haircuts!

Oh, those crazy 70s haircuts!

In another curious plot twist, Princess Leia guides the team to the rebels’ secret base, even though she clearly states that she knows they’re being followed. After reviewing the stolen hard drive, the rebels find a heating vent that goes from the core of the battle station all the way to the surface. They decide to try shooting a rocket (or photon torpedo or whatever they’ve got) down the shaft, like dropping a grenade down a chimney chute.

Fortunately, they don’t have to go looking for the battle station (which they’ve dubbed “The Death Star”), since it followed Princess Leia, just like she said it would. There’s a big dog-fight between space-ships, Luke makes the successful shot, and the bad guys all blow up (except for Darth Vader, who flies off to find a sequel that never came).

And that’s the movie. Not Oscar material, but does it really deserve the reputation heaped upon it over the last four decades? Some fans have even nicknamed the movie “Plan Ten,” as a smack-in-the-face homage to Ed Wood’s Plan Nine from Outer Space.

Certainly, there are problems, mostly with the editing. The film drags a lot, especially in the first half (before the space bar scene). George Lucas has stated in interviews that the studio took the raw footage from him and butchered it in editing. He laments that he didn’t follow through with his plan to independently produce the picture (although that never helped Ed Wood).

The other major problem is the soundtrack. Lucas envisioned a classical orchestra doing the music and actually contacted composer John Williams (who composed the soundtrack to Jaws) to begin work on it. But the studio again stepped in and, citing that the film was already running over budget, instead used stock music culled from previous films, adding in some truly dreadful synthesizer pieces, which no doubt seemed cutting edge in 1977, but aged very badly very quickly.

After the film’s box office failure, George Lucas had trouble finding work for a few years, eventually turning to television, writing and directing a number of episodes on the last four seasons of Happy Days (a series inspired in part by his far more successful American Graffiti). He tried for another movie serial homage with the 1990 television series, Indiana Jones, which, despite starring Tom Selleck, only ran for a single season.

Carrie Fisher had small roles in several more films before finally checking herself into rehab and coming out clean, sober, and retired from the film industry. Most of her fans are not even aware that the best-selling novelist used to work in films.

Harrison Ford still acts and has appeared in over a hundred B-movies.

After appearing in Corvette Summer and The Big Red One in the early eighties, Mark Hamill retired from acting, at least in front of a camera. He began voice-acting in cartoons in the late eighties and is one of the most respected talents in the field today.

star wars mst3k

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: The Next Generation

The film itself got released on VHS in 1984 and DVD in 2000. It probably would have sunk into complete obscurity if it hadn’t been picked in 1995 for an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. The episode was so well-received that R2-D2 became a semi-recurring character for the rest of the series, sharing what we presumed was steamy Hollywood gossip in those beeps and whistles, all the while flirting with Tom Servo.

What most people don’t realize is that this movie really was planned as a blockbuster. Alan Dean Foster had already been commissioned to write a sequel script (published in ultra-rare paperback as Splinter of the Mind’s Eye). Marvel Comics purchased the rights to publish the continuing adventures of Luke Skywalker, but the Star Wars comic series only ran for twenty issues before Marvel Comics filed for bankruptcy. When DC Comics purchased the rights to Marvel’s properties in 1981, it’s assumed they also purchased the rights to Star Wars, but they never opted to revive the title. Kenner Toys even optioned toy rights and released a string of dolls based on the characters.

It wasn’t until Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park that Hollywood would again risk a big budget on science fiction, with more than one executive going on record as “not wanting another Star Wars.” But if we strip away the film’s reputation, at its heart, we find a story of basically good people banding together to fight a seemingly unstoppable evil power. It’s a fun movie with some genuinely remarkable effects for its time that maybe deserves a second look.

Michael Penkas is a press supervisor who lives in Grand Rapids with an ancient cat and many hundreds of paperback novels. He writes in his spare time and hopes to one day get his work published.

10 Comments »

  1. At last! An alternate world that I would actually be happy to live in.

    Comment by emcgargle - April 1, 2014 1:11 am

  2. Nicely done :)

    Comment by Bill Ward - April 1, 2014 1:49 am

  3. Brilliant!

    Comment by Murray Ewing - April 1, 2014 5:38 am

  4. I heard that George Lucas guy was a bit of an ego-maniac! Imagine if this film woulda been successful! Probably woulda gone to his head!

    Comment by brewdus - April 1, 2014 6:28 am

  5. Finally someone sees this movie through my eyes.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - April 1, 2014 7:04 am

  6. Good round-up! I can remember my father taking me to see this movie when it came out in the late 70s; for years afterward I had these hazy memories of spaceships and laser-swords. Of course when I finally tracked the thing down it was nowhere near as good as I remembered, but what can you do? I will say, having read an article somewhere about the movie, that the studio edits in this case may actually have helped — apparently Lucas wanted to cut the early Biggs Darklighter scenes, which really provided an emotional through-line to the whole film (such as there was). He also wanted to cut the scene with Jabba the Hutt, the Irish-sounding gangster, which seems random. Although it has to be said there are just too many armoured characters in the film, and that bodyguard to Jabba really is needlessly distracting.

    Anyway, the strange thing to me is that once DC got the rights to the film they didn’t turn it over to Jack Kirby to write and draw. He was in the middle of a real hot streak for them, ever since DC stepped back and gave him complete autonomy to create the now-legendary Fourth World epic. And, really, pretty much everything worthwhile in Star Wars seems ripped off of the Fourth World anyway, though of course Lucas had nothing to compare with the stunning conclusion Kirby cooked up … maybe the adaptation would’ve worked if Kirby had been able to take the movie and run with it. Then again, he never was a man for repeating himself, and he was so important for DC on so many other books — without him, who can say but maybe things would have been the other way around in comics, with Marvel negotiating to buy out DC?

    Comment by Matthew David Surridge - April 1, 2014 11:04 am

  7. Oh! I think I heard about this film from a friend of mine in college. You make it sound better than how he described it. I think he said he’d never regain those hours again.

    Maybe if it comes out on Netflix at some point, I’ll give it a go. At least the MST3K version, that is.

    Comment by Matthew Wuertz - April 1, 2014 11:08 am

  8. Very, very, well done, and I know a thing or two about alternate histories! 😉

    Comment by Scott Taylor - April 1, 2014 12:03 pm

  9. Long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, George Lucas once showed a desire to be a movie director – and even showed some facility for it (THX 1138, American Graffiti). But then he became a mogul and an impresario of kitsch, and I think, a prisoner of his own creation. I’ve always thought that if you could get him alone – and maybe apply a torture or two – he would admit that he wishes that he had burned the script of Star Wars before he ever showed it to anyone.

    Comment by emcgargle - April 1, 2014 12:44 pm

  10. I can remember my mom taking me to see Star Wars at the theater when I was 8. This country woman from the mountains of Kentucky had no idea what she was in for, and how much it would affect my life. Even now I can remember her showing me the advertisement in the newspaper while she drove me to the movie. I asked, “Why would I want to see that?” Her answer, “Well, it’s got stuff you like, both stars and wars.”

    Comment by Ty Johnston - April 1, 2014 10:35 pm


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