Wednesday, July 30, 2014

My Favorite Movies: Star Wars!

starwars_advanceYou can call it Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope all you want, but for me, it's always Star Wars.

It's almost impossible to imagine these days, when movies have promotional stuff "leaked" to the internet sometimes up to a year in advance of the release date, but back in 1977, there wasn't much in advance about Star Wars. I don't even remember seeing a TV commercial for it at all, although it was certainly there. A novelization of the movie had hit bookshelves (credited to George Lucas, but actually written by Alan Dean Foster, apparently the first release of it had differences from the final movie that were corrected for the later edition, such as Luke's last name being Starkiller) that I'd missed seeing, and of course Marvel's comic book adaptation had started hitting the comic racks before the release of the movie.

I might have not even been aware of it until after it had been out if it weren't for the Star Trek club I belonged to at the time. I've written before about the Puget Sound Star Trekkers, which was my introduction to fandom, and how much it meant to me to have regular contact with fellow geeks, but I don't think I've written about what I was introduced to because of this club, even after it broke away from PSST. Thanks to this club, I got to see Forbidden Planet on the big screen, got exposed to The Rocky Horror Picture Show (as well as its much lesser-received "sequel," Shock Treatment), went to a number of smaller conventions... but the biggest thing they did was get me to see Star Wars on opening day in Seattle.

I wish I could remember the theater we saw it at... I'm not sure it exists today. I do recall as we arrived there in a veritable fleet of cars the line of people waiting to get in. It circled the theater and came around the other side! I had never seen such a thing before. Remember, this was well before you could buy movie tickets on line or at a kiosk in front of the theater... you had to wait for the box office to open and hope that tickets for the show you wanted weren't sold out.

We were lucky, because the main chapter of the club had arranged to let us all skip the lines and get in without waiting, otherwise we would've been a long time in line! We got our tickets, some of us went to the concession stand, and we entered the the theater.

Movie theaters these days don't really offer the same experience they did back in the day. They're pretty small, so as to allow more movies to be shown simultaneously, and bring in more people. But back then, most theaters had one screen, and it as humungous! (A few had two screens, but that was the rarity) You could really become immersed in the movie-watching experience.

It's hard to really express what it was like when the movie started. The lights went down and the crowd went silent as the 20th Century-Fox fanfare began, a fanfare I still to this day associate with Star Wars, especially the additional music that followed it. Then, those opening words, "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."
Then WHAMMO! That brilliant John Williams score kicked in as "STAR WARS" filled the screen. Somehow, you could just feel that you were in for the experience of a lifetime. I think there were even cheers! The opening crawl began, and we all raptly read it to get the necessary backstory, and then, as the words faded into the background, the camera panned from the stars to the planet Tatooine (although we didn't know its name yet).

Suddenly, a spaceship zooms from the top of the screen, being fired upon by an unknown menace... until it starts to show.... and show... and show. Has any other movie ever truly demonstrated how something was truly massive as when the Imperial Star Destroyer started appearing on screen and kept going, and going, and going? You could immediately tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys, 'cause obviously the bad guys had the massive ship.

The first characters we actually meet are the droids, C-3PO and R2-D2. We learn Artoo's name right away, thanks to Threepio's near-constant monologue, but I don't think we learn his own name until much later in the movie. It's fitting that they're the first characters we see, as Lucas would later say in an interview (you know, the one where he laid out his plans for a total of nine movies, the one that he later denied he said anything about after the prequels were made, but are now finally going to be finished?) that the droids would be the only characters to be in all of the Star Wars movies? We get introduced to Princess Leia shortly after that, when she is finishing her recorded message thanks to Artoo, although she doesn't have any dialogue.

Let me just say right here that I immediately got a crush on Carrie Fisher from the first time I saw her. She was gorgeous, and she did not need the metal bikini she wore in Return of the Jedi to look sexy... that white dress was all she needed!

Of course, Threepio, when he finds Artoo again, provides us with some helpful exposition, since we didn't really know what Leia was doing with Artoo, and as the Empire captures the ship later known as the Rebel Blockade Runner (never called that in the movie), Threepio and Artoo escape in a pod while Leia is captured, and we're introduced to Darth Vader.

There was no doubt that he was a villain to contend with. Much as been written comparing Vader to Doctor Doom (they're both masked and armored, and both are covering their mutilated features), but I don't see all that much similarity between them. His helmet superficially resembled a skull, with mostly angles except for the eye pieces and the top, and there was that panel on the front that never was completely explained (although I would imagine it was his life support system, since there was no other real purpose for it... why it wasn't armored and protected is up for discussion). All in black, even before he spoke, he had presence, thanks to the man in the costume, David Prowse, who had previously been a monster of Frankenstein in Hammer movies. We didn't know it then, but when he did speak, the voice was that of James Earl Jones (apparently Prowse assumed that his voice would be used in the final movie, and didn't learn of Jones' voice being used until the premier).

Vader was definitely strong, as we saw when he questioned one of the rebels, holding him up by one gloved hand, but we didn't know much else about his capabilities at this stage. Then, when Leia is brought to him, you immediately knew that as scary as Vader was, Leia was strong enough that she wasn't cowed by him... in fact, her first lines indicate that she has contempt for him!

Aside: It seems odd, considering what we learn in the later films, that Vader senses nothing about Leia here. He has no clue that she's his daughter at all, nor does he sense the Force within her (later, when Luke is approaching his target on the Death Star in his X-Wing, Vader can sense the Force is strong in him, although he doesn't know that's his estranged son there, either). This makes it pretty clear that, despite anything Lucas has said about the movies being about Anakin's redemption, he had no such plans from the beginning.

Vader learns an escape pod was launched, and sends a detachment of Stormtroopers after it. We then go down to Tatooine and see the droids, having exited the pod (note that we never actually see them enter or exit it in such a way that we can see how they manage it... Artoo clearly can't get in or out by rolling on his wheels, and the Threepio costume wouldn't allow that much flexibility), and they go on their way until, finally, Threepio has had enough and the two separate.

Aside: I know I'm going to get a few sequences out of order as I summarize here. Just go with it.

Artoo is the first of the droids to encounter trouble, as he's captured by Jawas (when he's shot and falls over, the audience made an audible, "awwwww!"). At least Artoo had to be captured by cunning and guile, as Threepio pretty much walks right into their trap. As much as Threepio complained about Artoo previously, he's genuinely happy to see him in the Sandcrawler.

Meanwhile, back on the Death Star, a council meeting is being held, supervised by Governor Tarkin, or as he's otherwise called, Grand Moff Tarkin. Vader is also there, as are other Imperial officers. Here's where we learn about the Force for the first time, as Vader is berated by one of the officers about his devotion to the Force, and how it hasn't helped him find the stolen plans. Vader makes a pinching gesture, says "I find your lack of faith disturbing" (one of the many quotable lines from the movie) and the officer starts choking until Tarkin tells Vader to stop it. Vader doesn't really have any reason to obey Tarkin, but he does anyway (as we see in later films, Vader reports directly to the Emperor, he is showing an astonishing amount of respect for Tarkin. Presumably, he'd been ordered to obey Tarkin as much as necessary). Later, Vader goes to Leia's cell to try and get her to talk, using a torture droid, but as we learn, it doesn't get her to talk.

Back on Tatooine, we finally meet the person we think of as the hero of the movie, Luke Skywalker, who's in the care of his Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, who operate a moisture farm on Tatooine. The Jawas are there to sell used droids, and Owen needs two. He chooses first Threepio (based on his linguistic abilities) and then a different R2 unit, which manufactures and starts smoking, causing Owen to choose Artoo instead (based on Threepio's suggestion to Luke, which Luke passes on).

Aside: Peter David wrote a brilliant story, "Skippy, the Jedi Droid," which tells the tale of the R2 unit that blew up. You should read it.

Luke is put to work getting the droids ready to work, despite wanting to go to Tashi Station to hang out with his friends. He comes across a portion of Princess Leia's message recorded in R2, with her asking Obi-Wan Kenobi for help, and is immediately taken with her. Threepio doesn't know who the Princess is, and Luke wonders if the message is intended for old Ben Kenobi, a hermit who lives not far from the farm. At dinner, Luke tells Owen that he thinks the droids might've been stolen, and mentions Obi-Wan, but Owen says he doesn't want Luke to have anything to do with Ben at all. Luke then changes the subject, saying he thinks the new droids will work out, and maybe he can go to the Academy sooner (presumably this is the Imperial Academy, although we've already learned that Luke's aware of the Rebellion, so I don't know why he's so anxious to go to the Academy, except perhaps just to get off Tatooine). Owen disagrees with this, saying he needs Luke for one more season, and Luke goes off in a huff, going outside and watching the twin suns set.

I think most of us have been able to relate to Luke at this point in the film... he feels trapped in his situation, and wants to escape it and go on to something else, something better. Little does he know how his world will change!

When they're about to shut down the power for the night, Luke discovers that R2 has escaped, thanks to Luke taking off the restraining bolt earlier when he tried to get Artoo to play back the entirety of Leia's message. It's too dark to search for him that night, so he decides to look in the morning. Fortunately, he already has an excuse to leave, as Owen had told him to get the droids' memories wiped.

Threepio drives the landspeeder as Luke uses his macrobinoculars to search, and they finally track Artoo down in the hunting grounds of the Sandpeople, otherwise known as Tusken Raiders. The Sandpeople attack, but Luke is saved by the timely arrival of Ben Kenobi, whom Luke recognizes. Ben tells Luke that he's Obi-Wan, although he hasn't used that name in a while. They go to Ben's house, where Ben figures out how to get the message to play. We learn that Ben and Leia's father (Senator Bail Organa, not formally named in the movie) served together during the Clone Wars, and she wants his help to get the plans for the Death Star, stored in Artoo, to her homeworld, Alderaan.

Luke also asks Ben about his father, after Ben gives Luke his father's lightsaber. Ben tells Luke that Luke's father was a Jedi Knight who was betrayed and murdered by Darth Vader (although it's not really planned out at this point, Ben's hesitation before answering, in hindsight, makes it look as though he's planning to figure out how to say what happened to Luke's father without telling the full truth). Ben tells Luke that he should come along to Alderaan and learn the ways of the Force, but Luke is reluctant, saying he's needed here. Luke offers to bring Ben to Mos Eisley, but that's all he can do.

On the way, however, they encounter the Sandcrawler, which has been attacked, and all the Jawas murdered. Although it appears to have been attacked by Sandpeople, Ben's not fooled, and decides it's Stormtroopers who did this (oddly, he says it's because of the precision shooting, although none of the Stormtroopers we see after this seem able to hit anything at all). Luke realizes it's the same Jawas who sold Owen the droids, and realizes that the Stormtroopers would've learned this, and rushes back to the farm, where he finds his uncle and aunt have been murdered.

He returns to the Sandcrawler, where Threepio is helping move the Jawa corpses to a pile where they're being burned (apparently, as we see in Return of the Jedi, this is the preferred method for a funeral by the Jedi). Luke tells Ben he's going with him and wants to become a Jedi.

They proceed to Mos Eisley spaceport ("You'll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy," Ben says -- yet another quotable line), where, after some initial problems with the patrons of a bar, Ben and Luke meet up with Han Solo and his Wookiee co-pilot, Chewbacca. This is the last of the main cast to be introduced (yes, they did take their time, didn't they?). Han's obviously a scoundrel who's been involved in shady stuff (especially after Ben and Luke leave to sell the landspeeder for the money they agreed to pay Han and Chewie, when we learn that they're in debt to Jabba the Hut). Chewie leaves to get their ship ready to go, and then Greedo shows up.

Greedo doesn't get a chance to shoot at all, despite the Special Editions and what they show. Greedo threatens to take the Millenium Falcon, and Han won't accept this, and shoots Greedo. Clearly, this is not a safe bar to be in, as just minutes before, one patron had their arm cut off when the threatened Luke, now Greedo's dead!

Luke is not impressed when he sees the Falcon for the first time, but I've always thought it was one of the most beautiful spaceships I've never seen (I still think the original Enterprise is the best-looking one, but the Falcon is a close second... the Galactica is also high on my list, by the way). Stormtroopers show up as they start to board, and they quickly get on board and launch, having to avoid a Star Destroyer before they enter hyperspace.

Luke's Jedi training begins while they're in hyperspace, as Ben has him practice with a floating sphere the use of his lightsaber. Meanwhile, Chewie and Artoo play a form of chess, and Han laughs at the idea of the Force.

starwars_halfsheetBack on the Death Star, they've arrived at the planet Alderaan. Princess Leia is brought forth, and Tarkin explains that they're going to use the powerful laser to destroy the planet unless Leia tells them where the rebels are located. Leia tells them it's on Dantoine, and Tarkin orders Alderaan destroyed anyway, explaining that Dantoine is too remotely located to teach a lesson to the rebels, and that this will send a clear message.

When Alderaan is destroyed, Ben feels their deaths through the Force. The Falcon is ready to leave hyperspace and arrive at Alderaan, but they arrive in the middle of a debris field, the remains of the planet. A TIE fighter flies by them, and they try to jam its signal, and then follow it to what they first believe is a small moon.

"That's no moon... that's a space station," Ben says (another of those quotable lines). Soon, they're caught in the Death Star's tractor beam and brought into a landing bay. Stormtroopers search the ship but find nothing, other than evidence that an escape pod was launched. We learn that Luke, Ben, Han, Chewie and the droids are hiding in disguised smuggling compartments, and then they trick a few stormtroopers into coming into the ship so they can knock them out and take their place. They make their way to a control room, where they learn the location of the tractor beam controls, which Ben says he'll go deactivate, telling the rest to stay there.

No sooner has Ben left when Artoo discovers that the Princess is being held there, and Luke talks Han into a rescue. Putting Chewie into a set of cuffs, Luke and Han (in Stormtrooper armor) make their way to the detention block in order to free her. When they arrive, Chewie "escapes" from his cuffs, and in the fight, the monitoring cameras are all shot out. It doesn't take long before they realize reinforcements will be coming, so Luke rushes to Leia's cell and frees her, but not before more troopers arrive. Cornered, Leia takes a blaster and blows open a hatch to a garbage disposal, where our heroes leap to their escape.

Meanwhile, the droids have been discovered, but Threepio manages to convince the troopers that arrive that if they hurry, they can get the rebels on the Death Star. He tells the officer that's left that R2 has developed a flutter, and he's taking him to Maintenance.

In the garbage disposal, it doesn't take long before our heroes realize they're in trouble, as there's a creature lurking there, which grabs Luke and pulls him under. It looks like Luke is a goner until he's suddenly let go... and seconds later, the walls start closing in to compact the garbage. They desperately try to brace the walls open, and then Luke realizes he can call the droids and get Artoo to shut the compressors off. Meanwhile, Threepio realizes he'd turned off the commlink and turns it back on just in time. Artoo shuts off the compactor and opens the door for them.

Our heroes make their way back to the ship, but soon run into trouble. Their Stormtrooper helmets have been left behind along with the armor, although Luke kept the utility belt. They split up, Han and Chewie managing to cow the troopers into retreating while Luke and Leia run the other way.

Meanwhile, Ben turns off the tractor beam controls. Luke and Leia find themselves stuck at the edge of a chasm, with Luke shooting out the bridge controls when he tries to lock the door behind them to avoid being shot at by the troopers that found them, and uses a hook and grapple to swing across to the other side.

Meanwhile, Vader's sensed Ben's presence on the Death Star, and goes to confront his former master. They meet and start dueling with their lightsabers. When Ben sees that Luke has escaped and is about to get back on the Falcon with the others, he holds his lightsaber straight up in front of him, and Vader strikes a fatal blow... but there's no body, just clothes!

The Falcon takes off, and there's a short battle against a small fleet of TIE fighters before escaping to hyperspace. Leia comforts Luke over Ben's death, and Han is pretty happy about how they escaped until Leia says that they let them escape. Leia storms off, and Han complains about Leia to Luke... but then, mentioning Leia has spunk, asks Luke if he thinks that Leia and Han might... Luke cuts him off, saying "No."

They arrive at the fourth moon of Yavin, where the rebel base is located in a long-ago abandoned temple. The Death Star plans are downloaded from Artoo and a weakness is discovered, which is pointed out in the briefing to the rebel pilots... a small vent, if targeted with a proton torpedo, could cause a chain reaction, destroying the Death Star. They know the Death Star is coming (a tracking device was hidden on the ship), and the pilots get ready for battle. Han, however, is preparing to leave, having gotten his reward for helping rescue Leia.

The fleet launches, X-Wings and Y-Wings, as the Death Star approaches from the other side of Yavin.

Aside: As I've pointed out, and others have as well, there's no point in the Death Star waiting to fire. They could've destroyed Yavin, which would've eliminated the moons, but this would end everything, and dramatically, we need the timetable of the Death Star clearing the planet to add suspense to the epic battle to follow.

And epic is is! X-Wings and Y-Wings against Tie Fighters, like nothing we've ever seen. I'm sure you've read that Lucas had footage from WWII dogfights from old movies spliced together to put together a blueprint for the battle, but the special effects crew, headed by John Dykstra, really made it something special. You couldn't help watching this without your pulse racing!

The first few attempts to hit the target are failed... one shot looks good, but just impacts on the surface. Things are looking bad, especially when Vader takes his own personal fighter into the battle, until Luke makes an attempt on the run.

Watching it on TV really diminishes the effect as you get the POV of the pilot entering the trench and approaching the target. You could feel a sense of vertigo as the view swings down and in that is missing from the TV experience. Plus, you've become so attached to Luke by this point that you're really rooting for him. Even with Vader saying "The Force is strong in this one," you still wonder if he'll be able to make the shot before he's shot down.

And then, suddenly, there's a shot. Flying out of the sun is the Millennium Falcon, and the shot has blown up one of the TIE Fighters flying alongside Vader, causing Vader to go spinning out of control into space. Luke hears Ben's voice in his head, urging him to use the Force, so he turns off his targeting computer, closes his eyes, and takes his shot, pulling away from the Death Star.

Miraculously, the remaining rebel fleet gets far enough away by the time the shot goes down the vent to the center and blows up the Death Star. Vader regains control of his TIE fighter and decides to escape, and the rebel fleet returns back home to joyous celebration. We don't really know why Han decided to return (he says he didn't want to let Luke get all the credit, but come on...!).

The movie ends with the awarding of medals to Luke and Han (Chewie accompanies them, but doesn't get a medal... the Marvel comic later shows that since Leia is so short and Chewie is so tall, she needed to stand on a chair to reach him, which is undignified for a princess... but he does get his medal). There's cheers and applause, and we fade out to the closing credits.

It was a wild ride, and one that I would repeat again and again. I must've seen Star Wars close to a dozen times in the theaters (I know there are people who blow that record out of the water). It was easy to do, since it stayed in the theaters for over a year, believe it or not! Why, these days, within a year after a movie has come out, it's not only out of the theaters, it's out on DVD, and that DVD may have already been put out in a bargain edition, but back then, as long as it was pulling in money, it stayed in the theaters (even if the theaters got fewer and fewer). I remember going to see it on the one-year anniversary at one of the smaller theaters in Tacoma, and it was still a joy to see... and then one more time after that, when it was being shown at the now shut-down Lakewood Theater (where I happened to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, by the way), having gone to it because a cousin of mine was visiting, and she'd never seen it (she'd bought tickets but then snuck in to see Saturday Night Fever).

msh_tpb_starwars.jpgAfter that, I was limited to watching it on rare TV showings, or re-reading the novelization, or the Marvel comic version (for a while, it seemed like every month, they were reprinting it in yet another form... there was of course the first six comic books, reprinted and packaged in bagged sets, then there were two volumes in the Treasury format reprinting issues 1-3 in one volume, and 4-6 in the other, plus a volume that combined them, and even a paperback book version... oddly, they never did a trade paperback like they were doing with the Origins of Marvel Comics, Son of Origins, and so on... at least, not until Dark Horse took over the license). I don't remember when it came out on VHS, but it felt like forever... and oddly, I don't think I bought it on VHS, either... at least, not until the original trilogy came out in a boxed set (and that might've been the Special Editions). Eventually, it felt like the movie was being shown on TV on such a regular basis that I felt like I could see it whenever I wanted to.

Well, there was that... and also, I had the two-disc soundtrack. I could listen to that and know exactly what was happening in the movie to accompany the music. And we had a record album with dialogue and sound from the movie, plus a storybook (not the version I've posted as a Book and Record, this was the original stuff) that I listened to despite the first side having a scratch in one place, causing Tarkin to say, just after ordering the destruction of Alderaan, to say, "Dantooine is too remotely... Dantooine is to remotely... Dantooine is too remotely..." until we got the needle to skip past that.

For that matter, I could pretty much watch it in my head any time I wanted to.

I had Star Wars Madness like pretty much everyone my age did. I got the first six action figures (not in the Early Bird mail-in, though, I bought them when they were on the shelves), I had t-shirts, I did drawings of the characters and the vehicles, I even created a very bad board game based on the Death Star Battle sequence. For a while, every time I went to a convention, I was costumed as Han Solo, although my outfit wasn't very authentic (I didn't buy the Han Solo gun, but instead I found a broken Ricochet Racer toy at a yard sale, and painted it back, and said it was a Stormtrooper blaster Han decided to keep. My mom made the fest for me, although it was vinyl and not flat black cloth, and my black pants didn't have the red stripes). Looking back on it, I should've gone for Vader or Chewie, except that my brother Jeff decided to make a Vader outfit, and I didn't think I could afford the fake fur to make the Chewie costume and couldn't imagine trying to make the mask (I did, however, for an art project at school make a "pygmy Wookiee" out of paper mache and fake fur, giving him the gun I used for my Han Solo outfit). When an appearance by "Darth Vader" happened at JC Penney, I went and got a photo or five (sadly, I don't have those photos today).

I probably wrote a Star Wars story or two, although I can't recall details. I did start writing a parody, Scar Wars, with the action taking place around a hospital and involving some stupid puns and wordplay (the Millenium Falcon became an ambulance, lightsabers were lightscalpels). I even drew up a mock Popeye version, Spinach Wars, with Popeye as Luke, Bluto as Vader, Olive as Leia... I think Wimpy was Han, with Alice the Goon as Chewie... Swee'pea was probably one of the droids, with the Jeep being the other, but I could be mistaken. I had posters, I bought the magazines... I was pretty immersed in it.

Oh, yes, I was in line the day The Empire Strikes Back came out... although I was late by a day or two to see Return of the Jedi (although I did buy the novelization and read it before seeing the movie, a mistake).

There really hasn't been any other movie since that captivated me like Star Wars did. The only one that even came close would've probably been Raiders of the Lost Ark, but I never got into it from a collecting viewpoint. I looked forward to the Special Editions, mainly because I wanted to see Star Wars again on the big screen, and had high hopes (that were ultimately dashed) for the prequels.

Now, we have a new series coming out, since Disney owns Star Wars now. I find myself hoping that these new movies will recapture the experience I had with the first movie, but that will really be impossible. I just want them to be something that, once I see them, will be glad I did.

I invite your own Star Wars memories in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. I think JJ's last Star Trek movie has a decent Star Wars feel to it so I'm hopeful the new movie will return to the awesomeness of the originals. Until then, I'm super stoked for Guardians of the Galaxy which feels that way too.


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