By David Beilstein
AT the time nothing approached its audacity – its unapologetic mythological veneer, and its sweeping cinematic form. There was a sense of adventure bleeding through Star Wars – the hero’s journey couched in the episodic serials of the 1930s and 1940s. And there were characters galore: A swashbuckler, a spunky Princess, and a young boy with a destiny larger than himself – guided by an elderly wizard of mercurial origin.
It was too simple to comprehend. It is not routine for Hollywood to bet on something so daring, and for its time; so new, so experiential. Of even greater perplexity, Star Wars was the product of an avant-garde filmmaker wrestling with a fertile imagination, steeped in the kind of art house cinema contrary to commercial filmmaking.
But Star Wars, cinematically, is a great movie. It achieved a pinnacle in the great art form birthed in the 20th century – that being Motion Pictures. As such, Star Wars was one of the best of the Motion Picture medium up to that time and married it to classical mythological motifs, and sweeping cinematic conventions – of motion, of adventure, of timeless themes.
Many fans have abandoned admiration for George Lucas since the release of the Star Wars prequels. This is unfortunate, tragic even. George Lucas is a major reason for the modern cinematic event – the cinematic event of quality. The very best commercial movies, movies that thematically and visually, become quality films, find their genetic father in Lucas’ Star Wars creation. And it is too often forgotten, especially when it comes to capturing cinematic motion, how special Lucas’ work is.
And one is at a complete loss – minus the world imagined by Tolkien in Middle Earth – how imaginative the Star Wars universe is; how rich the characterisation, how fertile the soil event and conflict live in the narrative of the first trilogy. The prequels, as maligned as they are, fail in comparison only because of how much those first three films succeed cinematically.
One struggles mightily to be drawn into a film these days; to come to a place of caring deeply about the people, the circumstances – the conflict. And I must say, I’m still surprised how quickly Star Wars snatches one’s attention, how soon I’m drawn into the story – even when knowing how it turns out. Likewise, it becomes shocking how advancements in technology do not ruin the older technology of Star Wars. The older effects aren’t bothersome, because the story Star Wars tells is not technologically dependent. It is dependent on all the motifs; mythological and otherwise that have meant something unique to audiences of all times.
It is hard for me to remember when I first saw Star Wars. And I would for the life of me be unable to describe what I felt and what I saw. But I’m quite certain there was nothing to compare it too… nothing to point out and say, “Like that.” And there was nothing that looked like it – not with that kind of editing and motion.
Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is a film couched in the mysteries of the mind; a film of vastly different rhythm. It looked beautiful, felt immense. One was confronted with primal existence and speculations about man and machine – of the origin of man, of the origin of purpose. The myth is simpler. If handled properly, with quality filmmaking craftsmanship, connecting universal themes relatable to human experience – no matter the galaxy – somehow, someway, the language of cinema becomes more powerful.
And that was Star Wars.
Recent news more Star Wars movies are on the way, via Disney’s purchase of LucasFilm LTD, does not diminish the innovation of the first film – nor hide its cinematic power. What George Lucas created in the original Star Wars movie was an entire new universe, a new cinema – an impressive, quality commercial cinema. The field of what was once possible was radically re-imagined in an adventurous way.
There is little more exciting than the opening scene when the Rebel ship zooms across our field of vision – followed, impressively, by a Star Destroyer. Nothing before had been seen. And looking back, it is probably that opening scene that created the interest in the Star Wars universe for me. What is this? – in the most positive way must have been the thoughts of the collective audience. And better still, more of these scenes kept coming – and they looked good. Great, even; they lacked the cheesiness of so much of the past.
By the time the droids hit the sweeping desert of Luke Skywalker’s home planet a funny feeling swept over audiences. They had never seen anything like the films, but they had seen its thematic ramifications in a hundred myths. They had never been visually rendered before – not like Star Wars. And when we arrive at the Death Star with Han Solo and Luke and Ben Kenobi, we are hooked into this tangled web of competing interests and fairy tale imaginings.
At the time, the attack on the Death Star was some of the most exciting cinema ever imagined. With the speed, the movement of the ships; descending upon the canyons of the Death Star… and still, we only care about any of this dramatic conflict and visual spectacle because we care, deeply, for the heroes and villains alike.
Having said all that, a simple lesson emerges. Story. You have to have a good story for audiences to be wowed and to keep coming back. Lucas latched onto a good story from the beginning. I have watched Star Wars more than a dozen times; in home theatres and in theatrical exhibition. I’m still convinced, Star Wars is some of the best cinema ever imagined. And though 35 years old, approaching 36 in 2013, the sense of adventure and the uniqueness of the storytelling is still something to applaud. Millions did, coming back for more and more, in 1977.
They still are.