A World Without Star Wars
Here’s where my age isn’t feeling like a disadvantage. See, I was nine when STAR WARS came out. And I was a full-metal geek at the time, so not only do I remember the world before STAR WARS, but I remember geekery before STAR WARS. No, seriously. I spent an entire summer reading and dissecting THE ENCYCLOPEDIA OF SCIENCE FICTION FILM by Jeff Rovin (tried to verify the title, but couldn’t as of the time of this writing), after having watched a good percentage of the films referenced on countless Saturdays (sandwiched between reruns of Irwin Allen television programming). I can clearly remember a time when there were NO Star Wars based toys, even after the movie had come out. Hell, it took Kenner until the following Christmas to get *FOUR* figures to market, and you had to buy them all at the same time in a gift pack.
No blister packs.
No Han Solo.
No obscure character that appeared in the background once and is the only figure you could find two weeks after the new line was released (General Riekkan, I’m looking at you here.)
No ancillary merchandise, other than T-Shirts and bubblegum cards. Though I was late on that train, having missed the first series altogether and only catching the the tail end of the second (the red-bordered ones, for those of you who recall them). I finally caught on hardcore on the third and stuck around all the way through the fifth series of cards, amassing a considerable collection of them. Which I eventually sold to buy comics between jobs some years ago.
Oh yes, there was the soundtrack album. Double vinyl with a huge fold-out poster inside. I’ve still got both of those somewhere, though certainly not in collector’s condition. See, I listened to that album a lot. Repeatedly and often. I’d close my eyes as the score would roll out of the living room speakers and lay back, eyes closed as the movie would replay on my eyelids. I read the giant treasury editions of the comic adaptation, doodled on notebook paper, read various and sundry articles about it in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND and other, less reputable fanzines (because in the days before the Internet, that was how you got your inside information).
In short, I lived the life.
Most of you don’t remember this, but back in the day, movies played for *months* in the same theatre. I’m sure that at the Big Edwards in Newport Beach (the cinematic Nirvana of my youth and adolescence — a seventy foot MONSTER screen with MONSTER sound that was a dinosaur even in its time), STAR WARS played for nearly two years continuously, maybe a bit more. This is two years with constant lines around the theatre. Can you IMAGINE such a thing today? No, you can’t, because the audience has become incredibly fragmented and pre-processed.
I know that I saw STAR WARS in the theatre at least seven times, four or five of those at the Big Edwards. I knew, even without the various news features and articles about STAR WARS, that I was seeing history. I was seeing a completely different approach to science fiction (though STAR WARS is pure fantasy) on the screen, one whose influence is still felt covertly, if not overtly.
For instance, pre-STAR WARS, science-fiction still espoused clean technology, clean sets, clean costumes. Sure, there were things like the postapocalypse sci-fi (LOGAN’S RUN and the PLANET OF THE APES looming large in the landscape back then), but most imagined futures were sterile, unattainable, unrealistic. STAR WARS was filled with as much grunge and grime as gleam and shine. Things got dirty and scratched, leaked oil and fluids, got beat up and old and used. As if the universe that they inhabited was real beyond the facades and set dressing. This was a big deal. This sold the scenes and technology. Yes, the Death Star was pretty clean and well-kept, but hey, it’d just been finished up, death-rays newly primed and lubed.
STAR WARS also created an alien universe filled with aliens, dammit. Not just people in costumes or cheap puppets, but critters and creatures that looked *alien*, unreal and yet substantial. The cantina scene blew minds back then, and with good reason. Here was pure imagination incarnate, not populated by rubber and paper-machie but with monsters and things that most people couldn’t conceive of. And here they were knocking back cold ones in an intergalactic bar, jamming to the Benny Goodman by way of Trinidad tunes. So it was an alien world, but it was one that was immediately relatable and somehow human, just like Peter Mayhew’s blue eyes peering out of the Chewbacca mask.
Finally, STAR WARS redefined the role of special effects in film. This was the movie that made me want to become an effects artist (with a little help from Ray Harryhausen). Instead of spaceships on wires zooming horizontally across the screen, STAR WARS delivered three-dimensional effects (thanks to the revolution of the motion-controlled camera and multipass photography) that gave the screen depth that perhaps only 2001 had previously rivalled (and that was still oil paintings in space, as far as my 9-year old brain was concerned.) From the opening paint-scraper (a real VFX term) shot of the Star Destroyer passing directly over to the audience to the assault on the Death Star, STAR WARS delivered immersion, immediate and irresistable. Flat effects would no longer be tolerated. Wires? Positively laughable (cf AIRPLANE).
On top of all that? STAR WARS was a pretty damn good story. Okay, a lot of the dialogue in the first one (and the third for that matter) is pretty clunky and unnecessarily expository. The acting was largely unremarkable and most of the plot pretty predictable. When you look at it now.
But when you’re nine years old nad you’ve never seen science fiction delivered like this? It changes worlds. And still continues to do so, just ask my son, age six.
Oddly enough, though, nobody seems to talk up the 30th anniversary of CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND, which came out just a few months after STAR WARS, and the two were matched up pretty evenly in end-of-the-year overviews in various fan magazines. But STAR WARS has only grown and grown, while CLOSE ENCOUNTERS has diminshed in the years. Both deliver fantasy and mythology, but one lent itself to expansion and endless backstory while the other was tied too much to the real world (or the world of benign government conspiracies, as opposed to the malign UFO cover-ups that endlessly followed.)