Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Star Wars' Place in Film History

Looking back it is clear that Star Wars was not the first science fiction film--nor the first space-themed science fiction megahit. (2001 was the highest-grosser of 1968, a year that also saw Barbarella and Planet of the Apes become pop culture icons.) It was not even the first film to serve up galactic empire-style space opera. (Barbarella did that, certainly, and in a quieter way, so did Forbidden Planet, among others.)

At any rate, the significance of Star Wars' portrayal of the stuff of pulp space opera, unprecedentedly lavish as it was, ought not to be exaggerated. Contrary to popular belief, splashy galactic empires never became all that popular on the big screen. (Get away from Star Wars, and the list of really commercially successful films of the type proves rather short--certainly a lot shorter than the list of, for example, successful superhero films.) Indeed, one can think of the Star Wars as occupying a fairly narrow niche because of this.

What Star Wars really did was point Hollywood to something more basic than that--the pattern of the contemporary blockbuster. Hollywood had been making sequels since forever--but trilogies telling an extended story, and prequels, were something more novel. So was the intensiveness of the merchandising (which was why the executives at Fox let George Lucas have the rights, and doubtless kicked themselves afterward for doing so).

One may be ambivalent about that, seeing it as a simple matter of marketing than the artistic or entertainment value of cinema, but the films' innovation extends, too, to the essential structure of the movies--the structure of the action film specifically. The Bond films of the '60s had established this, organizing an unprecedentedly fast-paced film around giving the viewer a "bump" every three minutes or so, with elaborate set pieces at the center of this, filmed with the help of a battery of techniques (from short takes to exaggerated sound effects) to maximize their visceral impact.

Of course, Star Wars came along quite a few years after the Bond films--fifteen years or so after Dr. No. And Hollywood did cash in on the Bond craze, imitating the movies, but generally in a superficial way. The studios made spy movies, and other kinds of action movies (cop movies like Bullitt and The French Connection each had a big car chase in them)--but the filmmakers there didn't quite get the way they were put together (so that Bullitt, and French Connection are just crime dramas which happen to have a car chase in them, and even the Derek Flint movies look pretty flimsy as action films).

That changed when Lucas came along and served up, as he himself put it, a blend of James Bond with Flash Gordon, which because of that blend went Bond one better--because science fiction, with its exotic aliens, super powers and imaginary vehicles makes it easy to serve up bigger, flashier action than any spy or cop adventure, and because the production entailed a special effects revolution. The key innovation was the computer-controlled camera that, because of its precision, made it easier and cheaper to take lots and lots of effects shots, getting scenes right. That opening shot of the Star Destroyer's underbelly probably couldn't have been done without it.

And so today we're not awash in galactic empire movies--but action movies and science fiction movies and especially science fiction action movies have been playing at the multiplex all year long for about as long as any young person today can remember. Many are ambivalent about this--or outright critical. I don't argue that we could use more diversity in our films--diversity of subject, theme, tone, idea. But all the same, there is no denying the technical accomplishment of the saga, or its influence in this regard, precisely because of how it won over millions of fans, and has gone on winning them down to the present day.

Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress: Thoughts on my First Viewing
Just Out . . . (Star Wars in Context, paperback edition)
Just Out . . . (Star Wars in Context)
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
My Posts on Star Wars
My Posts on James Bond

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