To badly misquote The Beatles, it was 35 years ago today that George Lucas taught the world to play. Yes, Star Wars came out on May 25, 1977, and now we’ve been living in its shadow for three and a half decades. Though too often anniversaries are mentioned as milestones, it’s worth reflecting on what has changed since the release.
As we are now in the midst of a record-breaking summer – thanks to The Avengers – it’s impossible to look at that or the current cinematic landscape and not trace it back to Lucas and his little Flash Gordon homage. Though the story was ripped off (mostly in low budget efforts), it was the launch of Industrial Light and Magic that had more impact than the film’s use of Joseph Cambell’s Hero’s Journey as the backbone of its narrative. If you don’t believe me, watch something like Logan’s Run or even the Planet of the Apes films. Pre-Star Wars, science fiction often focused its creative energy on set design and costuming over the miniature work and stop motion that changed the face of cinema.
And it was there from those classic opening images – it was unlike anything seen before, it took Stanley Kubrick’s work from 2001: A Space Odyssey and made it propulsive. Alas, computer technology has shown us that destroying worlds can be done with a click of a button, but the idea that cinema could do anything was still ripe then, and there’s no understating the impact the film had on imaginations (including mine, I think anyone who loves the films can talk about moments of childhood bliss watching or playing make-believe in the universe).
And – let’s not forget – Star Wars wasn’t a geek or nerd thing. It was a cultural phenomenon. It’s hard to imagine a film having the same lasting impact on pop culture that the first film – and the original trilogy – had. When The Avengers is on Blu-ray and DVD in a couple months it will be seen as the big thing of the summer of 2012, but it’s unlikely that people will still feel its grasp in 2047.
Of course, Star Wars isn’t just a movie, and there’s the cultural baggage that comes with its follow ups and prequels, its fans and its multiple altered versions, things that have reduced it into a geek thing. And the film – as it originally existed – is no longer available for screenings, and the only way to watch the original cut is through a non-anamorphic DVD or through laserdisc or VHS technology. But from that opening sequence of a big ship shooting and capturing a little ship, cinema was irrevocably changed (for better and for worse), and the dreams of a farm boy in space with a greater destiny still has the power to capture imaginations. If you can dump the baggage and find the original cut, it’s still a hell of a ride.
Are you going to watch Star Wars this weekend?