Or, The AFI List Project #13: Star Wars
What is there to say about Star Wars that has not already been said? It’s probably the most famous movie ever made, and its parade of creatures, spaceships, and quotes have permeated the cultural consciousness to the point that to hear that someone hasn’t seen it arouses not so much surprise as confusion.
Amidst the avalanche of toys, sequels, prequels, novelizations, lunch boxes, comic books, card games, and whatever other merchandise this 1977 space opera has engendered, however, the original films have become closer to a reference point than a living cinematic object. For most of us — those of us who don’t dress up as Jedi and attend conventions — we use them as an ideal to stress just how bad the prequel trilogy was, but they occupy a deeply embedded space in the consciousness, something familiar and known, but only half-remembered.
I say this because, when you watch Star Wars again — and I am referring to THE Star Wars, the 1977 film that started it all — it doesn’t read quite like a ‘Star Wars movie’ as that has come to mean in 2011. Darth Vader isn’t even a true villain yet: he’s bad, sure, but he comes off more as the right-hand man of the coldly villainous Grand Moff Tarkin. The Jedi are referred to as a defunct religion, the power of the Force is only hinted at, the cast is small, and the plot is remarkably simple.
Indeed, watching this movie again, I was most struck by how unexpectedly intimate the story is. When I think of this series, I think of sprawling, complex storylines stretching across vast regions of interstellar space. Yet, outside of a few asides so that we can follow what’s happening to Princess Leia on the Death Star, this first movie maintains a simple structure and a single thruline: Luke Skywalker encounters the two droids and transports them to Obi-Wan Kenobi; they fly to Alderaan and must escape the Death Star, rescuing Leia in the process; they take part in the final battle. There are three cleanly delineated acts: one on Luke’s desert planet, culminating in their escape on Han Solo’s ship; one in the depths of space, first on the Millennium Falcon and then on the Death Star; and finally the climactic battle scene.
A simple story, then, but one that somehow manages to capture the imagination in a way that has only been equaled in my lifetime by the Harry Potter novels. And, as I look at that sentence, it occurs to me that the two have more in common with each other — and less than with, say, Transformers and Twilight, which may on the surface seem to be more in their respective traditions — than anyone has yet acknowledged.
Transparently, the two are similar because of their success at creating separate universes, which seem so real that you can almost believe them to be true. The trick in Harry Potter is the way that Rowling succeeded in so brilliantly blending aspects of common folktales into a single, comprehensive world. In the case of Star Wars, the success of its world creation in part comes from the highly touted ‘used future’ aesthetic that has become such an integral part of analyses of the film’s production design: the way that Luke’s landspeeder (a sort of hovering car) is banged up and dusty, or the way that the Falcon is always falling apart, rather than everything being shiny and bright and perfectly made. Just as important, though, is that the ‘used future’ aesthetic doesn’t extend through the entire film. Why does no one ever remember the fascistic beauty of the scenes shot on the Death Star, where everything is as dark, clean, and crisp as the other elements are battered? The contrast between Empire and rebels is stylistic as well as ideological (if ‘good’ and ‘evil’ can be thought of as ideologies).
Still, there is a more fundamental way in which Harry Potter and Star Wars are related, and it is in the deceptive simplicity of their stories. Neither is interested in revealing psychological truths or exploring complex motivations: their driving forces are elemental, and their morals simple. This has led to a general conception that their appeal is based on something that critics call ‘pure narrative’ or ‘pure storytelling’ — the same way that critics justified liking 2008’s eventual Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire. And, really, it is a justification, because it rests on the undying idea that things that are simple and popular and entertaining somehow can’t possibly be ‘really good,’ or qualify as ‘real art.’ It’s the same reason that you never see comedies winning Oscars. There’s a belief that quality — or at least ‘artistic’ quality, which is not quite the same thing — can only come from dramatic heft, and therefore that dramas are ipso facto better than comedies and action movies. ‘Pure narrative’ is nothing more than critical code for ‘I enjoyed this movie and thought it was better than most others, even though I usually dislike movies in this genre and even though it may lack the psychological depth of many of the movies that I prefer it to.’
In creating that code, though, the ‘pure narrative’ construction demeans these movies more than it praises them. Because, really, what makes the storylines of Star Wars or Harry Potter or even Slumdog Millionaire all that different from so many less accomplished plot-driven films? Star Wars isn’t a great story because of the Force or its deliberately mythological construction or even its spectacular special effects. Plenty of inferior films have those same elements. It is that the characters are so individual, and so memorable. The fact that Star Wars is completely uninterested in Han Solo’s psychology doesn’t change that he is more real, and more real to us, than any of those that inhabit, say, The Social Network — and that was both the best movie of 2010 and based on real life. Almost every character in Star Wars, and in Harry Potter as well, is a distinct, fully realized personality, down to R2D2, a robot who communicates entirely through beeps and whirs. Indeed, strangely enough, the least interesting character in the film is Darth Vader, who will of course grow into the most villainous creation in cinema in the latter two films. It is because its characters are so distinct that the ‘pure narrative’ has its power: we care about them, and so we care about whether or not they win through.
Han’s wisecracks, Leia’s sass, R2D2’s electronic raspberries, Luke’s longing and naivete: these are the things that we respond to, the living soul of this wondrous, imagined, ‘far, far away’ galaxy. The collective memory of Star Wars is trussed up in the trappings of everything that has come out of it, and perhaps that is to be expected. But let us recall for a moment that the reason we remember it, undiluted by merchandise, spin-offs, or sequels, is a simple, intimate story, made powerful by no more than a bunch of unforgettable characters and an indelible sense of wonder.