Why Star Wars works

It's the little things that we don't notice that make Star Wars such an unique and enjoyable experience - and here's an attempt to understand a few of them

Copyright by Karim Ghantous 1998

The original Star Wars motion picture, released all the way back in 1977 produced a massive and unexpected public sensation that is unlikely to be equalled for a very long time. What the audience saw on the silver screen was a universe which felt and looked truly huge. Even later so-called epics couldn't reproduce the look and feel of Star Wars - even its sequels sometimes fell short. George Lucas, the film's creator, writer and director didn't have a limitless budget and often encountered shortcomings with special effects technologies. Yet that classic movie is still unrivalled in its environmental scope or viewing experience. So what's the trick - and how many tricks are there?

It's that 'something' about this picture which raises it above every other science fiction effort before or after it. This 'something', or 'feel' in Star Wars Episode 4 is what really has ensured it a classic status and prevention from going stale. Sure, the following sequels, episodes 5 and 6 are probably just as good, but neither could have been made with the special innocence that Star Wars was made with. It's this innocence and freshness that makes this ground breaking movie permanently incomparable. It's atmosphere is one we can identify with yet at the same time wonder about. No accident, though. George Lucas, its creator, writer and director crafted it exactly this way - structured like a medieval myth, filled with enigmas and romantic imagery. This movie shows just how romantic outer space can be. It's terrifying in 2001 and stale, boring or over-processed in other space adventures, perhaps like most Star Trek movies.

In Lucas's film however there is the feel of the old and ancient worlds with the grandness and variety of what lies in a most active galaxy.

The mystery behind the technologies and species is what gives Star Wars that special edge. Any attempt to explain how a light-saber works will be reverting to the primitive pulp sci-fi narration which really destroys the whole experience - in stories like this, anyway. Let's pray that Star Wars movies in future will not become as dry as Star Trek television episodes. Let's also pray that there will be no Star Wars television series. That would also help to destroy the magic of the motion pictures. Unnecessary explanations about characters have already been printed on the back of toy packaging. In a colouring book, a Stormtrooper has been given a personal name. What a great way to spoil the effect. In a computer game, a Tusken Raider (sand people) has also been given a name. For goodness sakes, we're supposed to be afraid of the sand people, not treat them like individuals on an equal basis.

Perhaps the very term 'sand people' should never have been specified to 'Tusken Raider' in the first place. But then again, it is inconvenient to say 'sand person' (unless you're politically correct)! Many young children have no doubt felt great terror when for the first time they watch a Tusken Raider knock out Luke and C-3PO on Tatooine. And that's the whole point. Once you give the sand people a history and an identification, you no longer feel that they are like the desert monsters which will snatch you unless you lock the doors at night.

What we should expect from the new movies is that they look as if they were made in the 'seventies. The computer consoles that we occasionally see in the Millennium Falcon definitely look like late 1970s decor. The wrong yet most tempting thing for Lucas to do now would be to include modern looking keyboards and displays for the new movies. Perhaps he will go back to the already remastered Episode 4 and digitally matte in a new, modern computer kit - an iMac! - over the Falcon's old one? Now that would be something. While you're at it, George, put in a mouse and Star Trek novelty mouse mat. Not to mention personalizing it with Bart Simpson figures, glow-in-the-dark skulls and Jurassic Park puffy stickers. (While he's at it, we may as well ask him to throw in a noisy, slow dot-matrix printer into the deal as well.)

You don't hear characters in Star Wars talk about space or technology any differently than in the way we talk about our cars, roads and travel arrangements. There's no jumble of tech-talk and overly explained machinery. This is not future physics 101. These observations may lead to think of the movie as not science-fiction, but fantasy. In fact, many people consider it to be so. Fantasy is dictated by style as well as content, and although the movie is often set in outer space, the shunning of techno-obsession gives it a marked style very close to fantasy, despite the lack of dragons, underworlds and skeletons on horseback.

Star Wars machines are often as majestic as horses clad with armour would be on Earth. Han Solo and crew fix up the Millennium Falcon in the same get-your-hands-dirty fashion as the average car owner would struggle over his greasy engine block. Gadgets, machines and vehicles are earthy, romantic things and Lucas of course knew what he was looking for way before he began the first take: the 'used' look. Fighter spacecraft have blast-marks, the Millennium Falcon may as well have had 'wash me' inscribed in the dirt somewhere one a rear panel and the cockpits of several vehicles have lots of lovely, illuminated buttons and switches. When things don't work, you really get the feeling that the environment really is tough to conquer. Welcome to reality. Blasters don't work when wet and Solo can't get the Falcon to hit light speed as often as he likes. And R2-D2 keeps malfunctioning.

Guns are really guns. They shoot laser bolts, not pissy laser beams. Crew members of the USS Enterprise - in Star Trek's original series - carried weapons that looked like guns okay, but fired continuous beams, not bolts of red and yellow which fly through the air and slam into walls with sparks and smoke. Star Wars has no disintegrating or teleporting or 5th dimension stuff or any other puerile, fantasy geek-technology. Instead things blow up, they spark and glow, they glitch and stick. That's the real world, the world we live in. Even Imperial soldiers with their plain, sharp uniforms still don't look like they're wearing space pyjamas a la... you guessed it... Star Trek. The Star Wars universe is a raw, useable world which draws you in to dream; it doesn't alienate you with clinical dialogue. Philip K. Dick, one of the most imaginative philosophical writers who used sci-fi as a vehicle for his ideas, showed that the genre isn't always synonymous with simple-minded advances in technology. Dick's worlds are mostly set in our solar system, in the future. This is the opposite of the situation in Lucas's fable. Yet there are extreme contrasts between Dick's sci-fi or Lucas's and that of Gene Roddenberry, Star Trek's creator. 'Progress' from the Earthling's point of view isn't always going 'forward'.

Artificial Intelligence. Now there's a term that smacks of progress. Write a storable, controllable, modifiable and retrievable piece of software and watch the computer talk about God as if it knew Him all it's life. None of that in the galaxy far, far away. Droids are robots to be sure, but they are so full of character and they certainly aren't patronized as 'life forms' to be 'respected'. Droids are just another part of the wonderful framework of the Lucas universe. They are vibrant and varied, not dry and over-explained.

And thank goodness there's no blasted Internet! No World Wide Web, no Information Highway, no Global Network, no Communications Revolution. Computers are just machines that help make the spacecraft fly. They are no more idolized than spark plugs or blaster rifles. What is glorious is what they're used for. They calculate a flight path for the Millennium Falcon so it can travel at light speed, and when the craft makes the jump, the few seconds of watching it fly are moments to savour.

This is where Lucas's genius shines the most. 'Long ago... far, far away'. We're all suckers for nostalgia, old photographs with time standing still, thoughts lingering in our minds about who they were and what their legacy is. After watching Star Wars we might have a tendency to look up into space and wonder if those worlds and civilizations exist any more. Sure, the movie is fast, funny and exciting. Even this made-for-children angle doesn't take away from the relaxed romanticism that was mentioned above. Luke Skywalker on Tatooine looking up at the binary suns could be anywhere on Earth - these feelings we can strongly relate to.

Naming conventions for Star Wars characters and places are a class of their own in the outer space sci-fi genre. Very few names clash with credibility. 'Chewbacca', 'Tatooine', 'Jabba', 'Palpatine' and 'Greedo' feel like and probably are based on real things. Compare these to 'Cylons', 'Klingons', 'Starbuck' etc. In fact, Star Wars could have been a disaster. Names that Lucas had made up early on in the writing process were 'Starkiller', 'Mace Windu', 'Jedi-bendu', 'devil fighter', 'Valarium' and, believe it or not, 'Bogan'. He surely must cringe now at the sheer stupidity of those early names. The name for the movie itself was originally The Star Wars. In hindsight it does sound a little odd, but eventually you get used to it. It would have had a similar, historic sound like 'The Opium Wars' or 'The Great Depression'. The original name had a more adult-like and historical feel to it, and it was only changed because 20th Century Fox executives preferred it shorter. In the end, we're probably happier because of the change - a rare moment where bumbling, interfering bureaucrats got it right.

Those of us who appreciate Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho will fondly remember the first time we experienced that movie's special effects. The visual effects shot which worked best was when Arbogast is struck by Mrs. Bates and is falling backwards down the stairs. The effect didn't look 'real', but it more than made up for this by giving the scene a surreal mood. Following a similar principle, the effects in Star Wars give that movie a unique experience. Precisely because some of the effects aren't perfect, they give the movie character and solidity in our memories. Much of this is subtle, but still noticeable. In the beginning of Episode 4, soon after Skywalker first meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke receives the light saber that belonged to his father. When he switches it on there's a slight yet sudden jolt in the motion of the shot. This is because of the way the effect is made. A simplified explanation: Mark Hamill holds a light saber handle (switched 'off'); he makes to turn it 'o n'; he freezes; the handle is taken out of his hand by a crew member; another light saber handle with a length of tubing attached to it is put in his hand; he continues moving as before; the effects artists paint in a glowing saber. All of this comes together in the final shot so we get a supposedly continuous shot of Skywalker turning on the weapon. But Hamill's body, between switching props, moves just a little bit, which of course can't be helped. So when we see Luke turn the light saber on, the jumping effect from one frame to the next actually adds emphasis to the activation. To see this on your televisions you don't need to slow the action down. Just watch the shot carefully a few times.

Almost the same thing happens when we watch some shots of the vertically sliding doors opening and closing in the Death Star. The camera is fixed in position, and bit by bit, the door is lowered, with the actors rock steady in front of it. The final effect is theoretically flawed (the technique used for the automated doors is called 'stop motion'; stop motion animation is what makes the original Godzilla look so jerky). But the subconscious or subliminal effect this has on the viewer is undoubtable. A unique kind of force gives the doors added potency as they rapidly launch open and closed. Compare this to the relatively mundane way that sliding doors operate in everyday life and in other sci-fi movies or serials.

The most beautifully crafted aspect of the Star Wars production values is the method by which language and communication are dealt with. As far as speaking goes, Lucas couldn't help but have the main characters speaking English. But as for reading and writing, Lucas dealt with these in a most ingenious way: he ignores them altogether, plain and simple. We never see characters writing on paper. We never see them reading. We rarely if ever see any sort of labelling on buttons, switches, panels, etc. It's all sound and images. Luke and Obi-Wan observe R2-D2 replaying an electronic hologram of Princess Leia delivering her message. They watch and listen. They never read. As if they are mimicking the behaviour of the film's audience - only the primal senses are used. You just look and listen. No effort needed to concentrate on the fine calligraphy of a parchment scroll.

A lot of sci-fi concentrates on style so much that content can't breathe. It seems as if it's not okay to have sci-fi as a genre for a complex drama. Instead, the drama takes a back seat while the tech-terms and gadgets are thrown at the viewer to impose the author's view of the future of man. What Star Wars has going for it is that for every cool gadget there's a serious problem. There are no stupid technologies which make life for the characters boring. Basically, there's no cheating. The next three Star Wars films need to loosen up. They shouldn't take themselves too seriously - because that's the only way the audiences will.

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