Flashback Fridays: "Star Wars" - revisiting mythology
In a thousand years, long after our civilization has collapsed and our descendants huddle around a campfire underneath radioactive skies, they will no doubt hush to each other the tale of "Star Wars." George Lucas's opus long ago stopped being just a movie, it's now firmly our shared mythology. It's our pop culture version of Homer's "The Iliad." This is because while it's total, nonstop fun, and a visual ride, it's also simply great storytelling. It's a movie disguised as science fiction, but its stories have been told since our ancestors figured out how to chisel on rock.
With everyone going crazy online over the release of a new teaser trailer for J.J. Abrams's upcoming "Star Wars" film, "The Force Awakens," it is difficult to imagine how groundbreaking, fresh and astounding the first movie must have felt in 1977. This is because like Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," "Star Wars" forever influenced those who followed it. It has been imitated countless times by movies like last year's "Guardians Of The Galaxy," which borrows its angle of colorful misfits banding together to fight a galactic force of evil.
Lucas defined the genre known as "space opera" with his cosmic tale of interstellar rebels fighting an evil, all powerful empire complete with a princess in distress, renegade smugglers and armed mystics known as Jedi Knights.
At the time it was hard to predict that Lucas would take this road. He began his career as part of the pathbreaking, independent-minded generation of young filmmakers who took Hollywood by storm in the 1970s. This was the era when names like Martin Scorsese, Robert Altman and Francis Ford Coppola were making their names with dark, intense reflections on modern America like "Mean Streets," "Nashville" and "The Godfather."
Lucas's own first feature, "THX 1138," was a dystopian tale of humans trapped in a cold, artificial, totalitarian future reminiscent of Orwell's "1984" (it even closes with the melancholic force of Mozart's "Requiem"). He lightened up with his next film, "American Graffiti," a nostalgic movie about high schoolers in the 1950s that was funny and touching. After that movie became a big hit at the box office, Lucas was ready to really let loose and have fun.
With "Star Wars," Lucas reaches into the very distant past for his story, but combines it with futuristic technology to make it modern, and in a way timeless. Unlike the "Star Trek" movies (which are also excellent), "Star Wars" isn't consciously trying to tell us this is how things will be in some age yet to appear. The iconic opening text crawl itself has the feeling of legend with the words, in spacey neon blue, "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away."
It should come as no surprise that Lucas gave much credit to the script's structure to the influence of Joseph Campbell. Campbell's book "The Hero With A Thousand Faces" was like a guide for Lucas in the way it explains how in history, myths are all threaded together by common themes.
The journey of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is no different than that of Parsifal, King Arthur, Hercules or every other hero you wish you could transform into before the alarm clock wakes you up. Luke goes through each of Campbell's phases for the creation of a hero: "The Call To Adventure" (when R2D2 reveals Princess Leia's distress call), "Supernatural Aid" (when he meets Obi-Wan played by Alec Guinness), "The Road Of Trials" (learning how to be a Jedi) and finally "the Ultimate Boon" (destroying the Death Star). Thanks to Campbell's explanation of how mythology operates, Lucas was able to give his script a final shape that turned it into a space adventure that's also no different from the classic fairy tales we were read in elementary school.
That's why "Star Wars" is so special to us as a culture. Its characters are a gallery of classic heroes and villains. The way the Greeks argued about Achilles we argue about who shot first, Han or Greedo.
But Lucas's film feels timeless because while the characters are classical, their attitudes are our own. Luke is the typical kid desperate to leave home and seek his own path in life, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is the badass with a hidden heart of gold who lacks any fear. Chewbacca is the furry pal anyone would want backing them up in a fight (a clear ancestor to Groot in "Guardians Of The Galaxy"), and Obi-Wan is the wise old guy you always need to give you advice (ironically Guinness reportedly hated the script but made a killing off merchandise royalties). And like all good fairy tales "Star Wars" is populated by great side characters and a diverse world. Threepio and R2-D2 are the essential sidekicks who can be annoying but figure things out for the rest of the group.
Darth Vader represents evil incarnate and the Storm Troopers are like SS thugs in space. It makes sense that Lucas being a baby boomer dressed the bad guys like futuristic fascist overlords. The wide shots of Storm Troopers in formation look like something out of Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda classic "Triumph Of The Will."
I wish more were written about Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and how her character is a brilliant twist on the fairy tale damsel in distress. She's a princess, she's dressed in white, the guys obviously want to bag her, but she's the real leader of the pack. She's smarter than everyone else, can hold her own in a fight and is wise enough to not let her feelings for Han be so obvious. Like the classic fairy tale, the men are on a mission to rescue her, but unlike old tales, she's a modern woman who needs the Millennium Falcon more than she does Han Solo's grin (yet it is inevitable they will fall for each other as mythology demands). What a difference compared to so many airheaded female characters in modern movies.
And of course there are the vistas in "Star Wars." Unlike the CGI orgies of Michael Bay or Zack Snyder, Lucas tells a story with his visual effects, they never overtake the characters but instead are what they should be, backdrop. But the sights are so powerful they stay in the memory forever: The stars stretching during lightspeed, the Millennium Falcon flying out of the desert planet Tatooine, the Star Destroyer that emerges from the corner of the screen in the stunning opening shot, the Death Star, a planet-like machine of terror, and of course Obi-Wan and Darth Vader's lightsaber duel with the blades' crackling energy.
All of it is given life by John Williams's symphony of a score which deserves comparisons to Wagner and Brahms. Williams's orchestral music defies the typical, electronic sounds composed for most sci-fi movies (which is why they age badly while the music of "Star Wars" never feels out of date).
"Star Wars" will remain beloved for as long as there are movies, and for as long as people tell stories. It's fun at any age, it has a tone in its storytelling that looks so innocent when compared to even its modern imitators, and because of that, it endures. Once you enter its orbit, it's hard to leave unmarked. If you know someone who has never seen it, make them watch it. May the Force be with you.