My Thoughts on the Original Star Wars

Star Wars: The Force AwakensI will not be seeing Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Part of that is just that I’m not that fond of seeing old actors doing big budget curtain calls. As it is, every time I see Harrison Ford, I think, “Have we really gotten that old?” When I saw him in Firewall, I thought he looked like he could use a walker. And that was almost ten years ago! But maybe I’d feel differently if I cared about any of the cast. Certainly, if Johnny Depp revisits Jack Sparrow in thirty years, I’ll be waiting in line. The truth is that I didn’t like the first Star Wars.

Let me be clear. I saw Star Wars on 4 July 1977 with a packed crowd at the Summerfield Cinemas in Santa Rosa. I remember it was July Fourth because someone threw a fire cracker at the screen when the bad guys blew up the planet. And I didn’t dislike it. I just didn’t see what the big deal was. It’s an action film set in space with stock characters. Darth Vader is easily as silly as Robot on Lost in Space, without the saving grace of it being camp. The only character I thought was cool was (despite the name) Obi-Wan Kenobi, and he gets offed in the second reel.

In my discussions with people who are fans of the franchise, it is clear why they like it: because they do. It struck something ineffable in them when they were in their tweens or teens. And I appreciate that. I wish it had been similarly magical for me. If I had not been such a pretentious intellectual in training, maybe it would have done it for me. Certainly, Close Encounters of the Third Kind was more up my alley. But that one didn’t do much more for me either. If there was any film that captured my imagination as a tween, it was Jaws. And I’m pleased to report that it really is an excellent film.

This explains why Star Wars fans have been more and more disappointed with the franchise as it has gone on. The problem isn’t the films; it’s that the viewers are no longer 13 years old. It’s the same way that Star Trek will never be quite as good as the original, despite the fact that nothing that came later will be as silly as “guy in a reptile suit” in “Arena” or the space hippies in “The Way to Eden.” Hold on. We’ve really got to watch Kirk fight Gorn. It’s funny that Gorn never thinks to use his teeth:

But I can see why Star Wars: The Force Awakens is such a big deal to people. It’s a way of revisiting the past in a way that is new but the same. From what I hear, the film is largely a remake of the original. And that’s just fine. People are allowed that. Just the same, it’s not like Hollywood does much more than give people retreads of old things. It reminds me of myself when I’m doing anniversary posts and can’t find anything interesting to write. I go back and look at what I wrote before. But that seems to be step one for Hollywood.

I hope all you Star Wars fans out there enjoy this. Really, if I could get in on the adoration, I would. But I didn’t even manage to drag myself to see the second Star Wars film; I’m certainly not going to watch the seventh.

18 thoughts on “My Thoughts on the Original Star Wars

  1. The short story Arena was adapted from, also called Arena and by Frederick Brown, is more interesting than the TOS episode. Though I do like that episode. Kirk appears to be applying a block over the Gorn’s throat, where I suppose his windpipe is, and close to the surface and unprotected, that is, badly designed like ours (for fighting). But the Gorn seems impossibly strong, so he should have been able to crush Kirk easily. But since he can take a thrown bowling ball to the chest and not be stunned, he must have incredible bone density. Which is probably from evolving on a planet with a much higher oxygen content in the atmosphere (which is why he wheezes like that and is so slow), or some strange xenophysiology. Kirk should try to construct a rudimentary lathe.
    My family is going to see Ep VII this weekend. I was about my daughter’s age when I saw Star Wars (she’s 9). It was great fun. It was a great world Lucas imagined and brought to life that I hadn’t seen before. I was too young to know how much he had borrowed from other sources. What he took from Trek and Dune I was aware of. I didn’t really get the design influences of the Third Reich military on the Empire at the time. Though they weren’t hiding it. And I hadn’t seen any Kirosawa films. And TV Star Trek was the best VFX I had ever seen. I think this was true for many people at the time. Kubrick’s 2001 was not a kid’s movie. Again, I like the world, its possibilities and wonders. The same with Star Trek, or Tolkien. And I like visiting there. Which is why I am kind of a cheap date for film makers. I know the Star Wars prequels were bad. I knew it before I had discovered RedLetterMedia. Star Trek Into Darkness was disappointing. The Hobbit movies were a bit of a mess, especially the third, a copy of which is in my wife’s Christmas stocking. None of those were so awful that I disavow them. Not everything I cook turns out. Though I do that for free and on a limited budget and no staff.
    * In case you are wondering why I am typing a silly wall of text comment about silly movies at 9pm on Christmas eve, everything’s done. Bought, wrapped, cooked, cleaned, everyone fed. And Olivia has one of those Tim Allen Santa movies on. I’ll check on them when I post this.

    • First: nice Galaxy Quest reference. I love that film.

      I think if I had been 2 years younger when Star Wars came out, I probably would have loved it. I do, however, think that Lucus is a sloppy director. I love the same films he loves, but I don’t think he does a good job of paying homage to them. Just the same, he was hugely important to getting Kagemusha made, which I think is a terribly underrated film. But like I said in the article: I understand just liking a film. There doesn’t have to be a reason. I ought to rent all the films and watch them all together sometime. It would at least make for an article — or three.

      • By most accounts, I understand Lucas is a nice enough guy. Sports arenas everywhere have “Star Wars” nights now, where nerds get to dress up, and all Lucasfilm asks is that any souvenirs sold with their imagery on them have 100% of proceeds donated to a local charity. (Of course, they’re getting free advertising in the process.)

        I think “Empire” holds up well. For one thing, it’s the only film in the series made by a real director, Irvin Kershner. For another, it has a lot of love in the effects. In “Star Wars” the effects are highly technically sophisticated, but they basically serve to further the action and not much else. In “Empire” some of the effects have a Harryhausen-tyoe feel; making an effect look elegant because it’s fun to do so.

        If you ever do see it, try and get either the original version on videotape, or the “Despecialized Edition” available to web pirates, which is the original remastered for big-screen TVs (you’ll know someone who has a copy and can put it on a flash drive.) The Lucas-approved revisions remove some of the 1980 handmade effects and substitute CGI. Although there’s less of this in the revision of “Empire” than in the other films; the handmade effects were really that good.

        Actually, my secret favorite of that popcorn-blockbuster era has long been “Temple Of Doom.” Ford was a terrific comic action star. He could seem smarter than the bad guys (always endearing) and a little bit self-mockingly dopey at the same time. Shatner never figured out how to play dopey without mugging it; Ford could.

        • It sounds like a lot of work! I know the Indian Jones films fairly well. I like them. Although again, they aren’t special for me — just well made genre fun.

          • It is a lot of work to download, process into another format for viewing, etc. Easier if you know someone who can just put a viewable version on a flash drive.

            Largely, with “Empire,” it doesn’t matter too much. The effects were really that gorgeous, few of them were changed in the revised edition. They are something else. Next to “2001,” it’s probably the prettiest set of camera-and-repeated-exposure tricks ever done. (“Return Of The Jedi” has probably more technically difficult tricks, but there’s little soul to it; the effects feel mechanical, like they did in “Star Wars.”)

            These days the franchise means little to me; I’m more into other nostalgia, and the “Star Wars” / Tolkien stuff doesn’t have a lot of emotional resonance. I’m more susceptible to Xmas songs. I was big into these things as an adolescent, for the usual reasons; I wanted escape into another world. But these days I prefer memories which take me back to examining childhood or adulthood, not adolescence. I’m pretty sure what I was thinking from ages 12-22. Before and after that, it gets foggy, and that’s what I’m more interested in probing.

            “Empire” is pretty good. It holds up well, past some clunky staging/acting in early scenes. Once Frank Oz’s puppet shows up, and dumb action things chill down to a crawl, it feels rather like an old movie. You know; one of those where the captive audience is told a slow-building story with all the emotional payoffs at the end.

            Except with gorgeous effects. If you decide to watch it and use the revised version, be aware — most of the the revision changes nothing. Those effects looked that good in 1980. They were really a labor of love.

            • That reminds me of something else: Lucas going back and “fixing” the effects in the early films and then not allowing the original versions to be sold. Can you imagine if people had done that to Birth of a Nation? A film is a final product. It should be allowed to live on as it is. If you want to create a new version, fine; but don’t try to destroy the original. What you’ve created is something new. But this goes back to my fundamental belief that Lucas isn’t an artist.

              • Yeah, that’s what I was blathering on about; the pirated versions are of the originals.

                Not that “Star Wars” has any kind of high film art. But highly skilled artists did work their asses off on them. It’s really shitty to try and eliminate their work from distribution. It’s like someone buying up the old Harryhausen films, “fixing” them with CGI, and suing anybody who releases the originals.

                • I understand the impulse to perfect a work of art. I remember Mark Eitzel talking about old songs and how he would be embarrassed to record them now, but that they reflected the time that they were done. That seems very wise to me. Lucas might have spent more time making better new films rather than fixing probably bad films. But part of it, I think, was him trying to make up for the fact that a year after the first film was out, a lot of people looked at them and were kind of embarrassed they had ever thought they were great. I can’t help but think the same thing is going to happen with this new one. The reviews are way too positive.

    • PS: I thought the Star Trek report was terrible. It just turned it into yet another action movie. But even as an action film, it was by the numbers.

      • I’m not an Abrams fan. But he probably makes the movies he wants to make, and if people like them, God bless ’em.

        As someone somewhere pointed out, Disney has invested gazillions of dollars buying the “Star Wars” franchise, so it makes sense to carefully make a focus-tested story which covers familiar territory.

        The “Trek” reboots annoyed me, though. Several bad shows (I like TNG and DS9, some don’t, nobody likes “Voyager” or “Enterprise” much) and bad movies (all the TNG ones) had pretty much sunk the franchise to value=zero. There was no reason whatsoever for the new “Trek” movies to be reheated leftovers of well-liked earlier stuff.

        What continually zings me on these matters is why Hollywood never (or rarely) hires actual writers. One of my brothers is a sci-fi/fantasy fan, and has recommended many authors; I’ve read some of them. I can only take the genre in limited doses, but there are clearly very inventive authors out there with good notions of how to create compelling plots in the sci-fi/fantasy world. Yet Hollywood keeps hiring people whose resumes read “had hit film/TV show.”

        Most of what raised “Trek” from the dead (the first time) was hiring Nicolas Meyer. If you’re ever bored, you might check out his “Time After Time,” which imagined H.G. Wells actually built a time machine and traveled to modern-day San Francicso, where he is a bit confuddled by the culture shock (yep, it’s “Trek IV” with the time-travel direction reversed.) It’s goofy fun.

  2. I watched Star Wars on TV at around five or six and remember almost nothing from it. So whatever magic there may have been apparently passed me by. And it really annoys me to have something shoved on me the way that the series of movies has been. I am sure Abrams will have done a good job, he usually puts out a fairly decent product but I am so over it.

    • Hollywood is great at competent. One reason Star Wars was important to people is that no one had seen those kind of special effects done in quite the same way. 2001 had better effects if you ask me. But everything was done in such a way to make it look real. As a result, everything looks like it is moving slowly. By the time you saw Star Wars it was no big deal compared to other things you doubtless had seen by then.

      • Possibly. Or it could be that six year old me was unimpressed since I also didn’t find E.T. enthralling. I still get creeped out by the Halloween costume my dad made my stepmom. As a five year old I started screaming and literally hid in a garbage can outside I was so terrified. I remember that but not much of the either movie. So I guess I was just hard to impress but apparently not hard to terrify.

  3. James is right about “Time after Time”, it is a good film. 2001 is a great film.
    I was 35 years old when Star Wars came out so I enjoyed it but wasn’t awed like I was by 2001. I didn’t understand 2001 until I read an interview with Arthur Clarke in Playboy. It really deals with the eternal question of who are we? And are there others out there? And what is consciousness? I wish there were more films like that.

    • Some of those “Playboy” interviews were really good.

      When I lived in Portland, hipster capitol (al?) that it is, and I definitely wasn’t hip, I had a little ritual. There was this bookstore which sold old magazines along with the books. I’d browse them and find an old “Playboy” with an interview subject I wanted to read.

      Then there was a Chinese restaurant upstairs. I’d bring up my old 1970s magazine, get a shitton of food from the restaurant, and eat it while reading the interview (they were very long interviews, as you know.) I don’t miss being that un-hip as to have a solo ritual, but I do miss those old magazine interviews.

      Kubrick is a matter of taste. I do think most people love “2001.” I do. It works for almost everybody. The effects are so gorgeous (the model stuff, not the acid trip-sequence at the end for me) and HAL is one of the most original characters ever.

      I’ve known people who hate slow-paced movies, who hate pretentious movies, and they enjoy watching “2001.” Which is definitely slow-paced and pretentious. There’s just so many terrific ideas floating around in it that some of them resonate with almost everyone.

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