Wednesday, January 6, 2016
STAR WARS (1977)
FRYEAN MYTHOS: *adventure*
CAMPBELLIAN FUNCTIONS: *metaphysical, psychological, cosmological*
I've observed that certain films, like the 1960 PSYCHO and the 1933 KING KONG, have been so frequently analyzed that the game of trying to say something original about them is hardly worth the candle.
STAR WARS probably hasn't received nearly as much academic analysis as the other two, but arguably it's become more central to American culture. At the time it appeared, SF-films generally followed one of two options. Some were oriented toward didactic messages that adults could appreciate-- meaning that they sought to convey some edifying message about human nature, as with 1973's SOYLENT GREEN and the "Planet of the Apes" franchise. More frequently SF-films were aimed at kids, who were-- at least according to American film-producers-- were primarily interested in monsters (Godzilla), dinosaurs (At the Earth's Core and the "Time Forgot" films) and the more escapist type of post-nuclear thrills (DEATH RACE 2000, THE ULTIMATE WARRIOR). True, for several decades Walt Disney's animated films had found clever ways to appeal to both the kids and the adults who took them to the theaters. But these films-- most of which would fall into the genres of that awkward umbrella-term "fantasy"-- were still marketed as juvenile entertainment.
STAR WARS changed many, though certainly not all, of the usual categorizations. Part of the success lay in the film's use of cutting-edge FX-technology to offer viewers an unprecedented thrill-ride, rather than following the formula of kid-oriented films: expecting uncritical young readers to look past creaky model rockets and monsters with zippers down their backs. George Lucas' unlikely ode to FLASH GORDON appeared at a time when even the diehard Italian film-industry was barely making any movies in the SF-subgenre to which FLASH was usually relegated: "space opera." In the world of prose-SF, this subgenre was more or less the "guilty pleasure" of SF-lovers. But in print media, or the comics-page, it was easy for authors like Smith, Hamilton, and Raymond to conjure up planets full of weird alien life, or galactic empires. Live-action films had to work their metaphorical fingers to the bone just to get as good as 1936's FLASH GORDON--, and even then, an adult watching the serial would have to suspend a few metric tons of disbelief not to notice the patently phony wings of the Hawkmen.
STAR WARS gave adults a film through which they could experience the extravagance of the space opera without getting stopped by zippers and shaky model-aircraft. Yet despite that extravagance, despite Lucas's reported tinkering with his script even during filming, the film still projects the illusion of coherence through its wealth of unexplained references ("the Clone Wars," "the spice mines of Kessel"). It also keeps that coherence by making much of the advanced tech look as vulnerable to wear and tear as the cars of Lucas's AMERICAN GRAFFITI. The current J.J. Abrams effort, THE FORCE AWAKENS, sedulously copies these aspects of the original film.
One thing Abrams doesn't manage to copy, however, is Lucas's focus on the element of religion in rhe Star Wars cosmos. Lucas employs the Force in much the same way space-opera authors made up faux-religions for otherworlds like Mars and Mongo: as a source of thrills and wonder, never for the purpose of making didactic statements. Yet whereas authors like Raymond and Burroughs tended not to represent their faux-religions as being anything but put-up jobs by corrupt priests, Lucas validates the religion of the Jedi much as a source of genuine insight into the universe's nature.
At the same time, the religion of the Force works well in the first film because it's become the underdog in the galactic empire. Whenever the materialistic minions of the Empire mention the Jedi, it's only to sneer at the absurdities of their beliefs. To them Darth Vader's continued existence is little more than an indicator of the foolishness of having faith in anything but machines-- and the fact that Vader himself had taken on the semblance of a machine is merely a further confirmation of their world-view.
Luke Skywalker's existence defies the Empire's passion for "technological terrors," and whether or not Lucas meant him to be Vader's son at the time hardly matters. By inheriting Obi-Wan's mantle as the new embodiment of Jedi spirituality, he supplants Vader in the cosmos as Jacob supplanted Esau. This is the unlikely turnabout that Lucas teaches his audience to hunger for, and it plays as much a role in the franchise's success as the aforementioned love of pulpish extravagance. Indeed, without Lucas having crossbred the magic of fairy tales with the machines of SF, the furor over STAR WARS might have petered out over time like many other fannish enthusiasms, no matter how hard big corporations labored to keep them stoked.
Since I've seen the film many times now, my latest re-viewing didn't add any special insights for purposes of this review, except that I can't imagine the film's scruffy charm having come across without the musical reinforcements of John Williams. And even though I've watched the "attack of the Death Star" sequence numerous times now, even though I know about all the earlier films that influenced it--
It's still as exciting as hell.