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Science Fiction Association of Bergen County

From the Archives: Excerpts from past issues of the

Starship Express

Volume 2, Number 5, 1988

What's So Good About Star Wars?

By Mark Leeper

[Editor's Note: This commentary is reprinted with permission from the Lincroft-Holmdel Science Fiction Club Notice Copyright © 1987 Mark R Leeper (Volume 5, Number 46. It has been reprinted with the permission of the author both here and in Volume 2, Number 5 of The Starship Express Copyright © 1988 Philip J De Parto.]

(Also comments from Roger Ebert, Steve Ankrom & Mark Leeper)

This year marks the tenth anniversary of George Lucas' Star Wars. I think it is fairly safe to say that for the fantasy film genre and for the film industry as a whole, the decade has been very different than might have been expected when Fox was telling theatres that if they wanted to show The Other Side of Midnight they would also have to book this science fiction film, Star Wars. There is little doubt--at least in my mind--that Star Wars is one of the three most influential films ever made. In fact, the only film that obviously was more influential was Edward Muybridge's sequence of snapshots of a running racehorse that was, in essence, the first motion picture.

But "influential" and "good" are two different things. Recently, when I listed films that I gave my highest rating to, I included Star Wars. One comment I got from a reader was that it was a good list but should not include Star Wars. The belief that Star Wars is actually a good as a film is actually not very common. I have heard it claimed that it is the weakest of the three currently released "Star Wars" films or that the whole series is a piece of fluff without much cinematic merit.

It is my contention that the original Star Wars is, on its own, a good film and the best of its series. Though it is not in the scope of this short article to examine an entire decade of fantasy films, I would contend that no better science fiction, horror, or fantasy film has been made in the interim.

Before we can determine if Star Wars really is a great film, in the sense that Citizen Kane is a great film, we have to determine some characteristics of film greatness.

What is it that makes a film great?

One characteristic would be originality. A film should be experimental and should break new groud. But many film experiments fail and leave audiences confused. The new ground that the film breaks must be accepted by audiences so that a film leaves its mark. To this extent, being good is connected with being influential. Still, it is clear that an exploitation film may be the first of its kind and have imitators without being very good. The ground that it breaks must be valuable. It should advance the art of filmmaking. If a film does what it does well, breaks new ground in the art of filmmaking making valuable contributions, and those contributions are accepted by audiences and become part of the palette for future filmmakers, no more is required for a film to achieve greatness. If you come down to it, that is really what makes Citizen Kane a great film. But is Star Wars great in the same sense? I think that while Citizen Kane undeniably has some virtues that Star Wars lacks (and vice versa), Star Wars is great in the same sense.

STAR WARS WAS A GROUND-BREAKING FILM. It was the first marrying of camera and the new video and computer technologies for creating images on film. The effects people had to invent much of the technology as they went along. The last jump in visual technology of the same magnitude had been with Willis O' Brien's stop-motion effects for King Kong. As late as the 60's the most visually imaginative films--films like Jason and the Argonauts--still relied most heavily on, and enhancements of, O' Brien's techniques. Between Jason and the Argonauts and Star Wars there were some impressive pieces of visual fantasy, notably 2001: A Space Odyssey and Logan's Run, but they relied mostly on just extensive use of model work and other long-existing technologies. For Star Wars a battery of new technologies was employed and for the first time since King Kong special effects made a real quantum leap toward the goal of being able to create on the screen any scene that the mind's eye can create.

Star Wars was obviously a ground-breaking film from the first moments of the film. Just showing a field of starts, Star Wars did something that no other film had ever done. It panned the camera upward.

That does not sound like much, but consider that not even 2001 had ever done it before. Space scenes had always been done with a fixed camera, and for a very good reason. It was more economical not to create a background of stars large enough to pan through. So scenes in space had always been done with a static camera, just like all scenes were done in the early days of film. I had never even realized that in all science fiction films I had seen, the space shots were done with a static camera until the instant I saw Lucas' 90-degree pan. Not a single model had shown on the screen and certainly not a single set or character and already the film was a one-of-a-kind!

When we do finally meet characters the first two that we meet are robots with personalities that are a cliche' now, but the closest I remember seeing before was the robot in Lost in Space, who would occasionally lose his cool and yell, "Warning! Warning! Danger! Danger!" while gesticulating wildly. We have seen characters for all of two seconds on the screen before we again see that Star Wars was unprecedented.

And the impact of Star Wars continues right through the film. Scene after scene is done with an origianlity and sense of wonder totally unprecedented in the science fiction film.

The audience reaction was nothing short of astounding. In Detroit, where the film played there was a difficult left turn to get to the theatre parking lot. Variety reported that making that left turn had become the new summer sport in Detroit. The lines that queued up to see the film were legendary because in so many different ways the film delivered more that it had to. There was more bang per dollar of admission than perhaps any other film made to that point.

One thing the film delivered was a sparkling score by John Williams. Williams used a leit-motif approach, but composed many themes, each of which was attractive and which blended together into a very fine score that was reproduced--for the first time--with the process of Dolby sound. It gave a live-orchestral clarity to the score as well as allowing far more use of subliminal sound effects surrounding the audience. Many were barely perceptible to the ear but certainly helped to make the experience seem more believable.

This reality was further enhanced by the detail Lucas embued the film with. Small details--throwaways--that few filmmakers bother with were painstakingly added. In one scene after the visit to the cantina, we are watching the main characters in the background and the silhouettes of two spindly legs walk by in the foreground. Because that is not where the viewer's attention is at the time, many in the audience never even noticied the legs. To throw in unnecessary details and then purposely call the viewer's attention away so the details may well go unnoticed is the mark of a good craftsman.

A little more noticeable, though again unnecessary to the plot, is the skelton shown in the background in a desert scene. Nobody in the script mentions the skeleton of some gargantuan desert creature, as if it is a perfectly normal sight. Similarly the speeder, which could have been easily made a wheeled vehicle instead floats. No mention is made of the floating vehicle,; again, the matter of fact acceptance of this wonder is what helps to make the film work.

More noticeable but equally unrequired to the plot are some breathtaking planetscapes, again of a scale that never had been used in science fiction films to that point. Films like This Island Earth or First Spaceship on Venus had shown planetary landscapes but they used unconvincing models or matte paintings. ILM has since become known for very impressive backgrounds and spacescapes. Star Wars was their debut.

A few more touches, perhaps not as original, but which were unexpected, should be mentioned. One is the use of two distinguished actors in major roles. Getting Sir Alec Guinness to appear in any science fiction film is something of a wonder. His first response on seeing the script was reportedly, "Oh curmbs, this isn't for me." He enjoyed the script sufficiently, however, that he changed his mind. More so than even actors like Olivier or Gielgud, Guinness has been selective of his parts and his presence in this film puts Star Wars in fine company. Peter Cushing was then, as he is now, perhaps the most accomplished and beloved of actors specializing in fantasy roles.

Another unusual touch is the pacing. The audience comes in with the story already in progress. The viewer has to catch up by reading the screen explanation rolling by, then is immediately tossed into the action. This requires more from the audience, but that is far better than boring the audience with slow introductions. This style, borrowed from internal chapters of serials, might not work well outside of the fantasy genre, but captures audiences very effectively here.

It seems then that Star Wars was an innovative film, every bit as much as Citizen Kane. Had this much innovation been lavished on a mainstream film it would be considered an artistic triumph. As it was, it was a box-office champion, an accolade that perhaps meant even more, at least to its backers.

I would like to conclude this discussion with a comparison of the "Star Wars" films which purport to be a continuation of the same story but which I consider to be stylistically inferior to the first film. I will continue to call it Star Wars, incidentally, in spite of the retitling to Star Wars: A New Hope.

When George Lucas made Star Wars he had little expectation that it would become one of the most popular films ever made. In some ways that contributed to the artistic achievement. In the later films he knew hat had worked well in the first film and could consciously repeat and effectively milk it. In the first film the line "I've hot a bad feeling about this" was used and got a positive audience reaction. It even appeared on humorous bottons people wore at science fiction conventions. It was a good line, but its popularity prompted it to be used twice in The Empire Strikes Back.

Each of the Star Wars treats aliens in a different manner, but the first film is by far the most satisfying treatment. In that film robots, intelligent non-humans (INH), and humans all interact in roughly the way people of different origins interact in New York City. Star Wars takes place in a sort of melting-pot universe. We are introduced to many species of INH in Star Wars. The only new one to be added in The Empire Strikes Back was Yoda. For that matter, Chewbacca is the only other INH in The Empire Strikes Back. Gone is the melting-pot universe. It was, however, back with a vengeance in Return of the Jedi.

In a documentary made by Lucasfilm, it was claimed that George Lucas was never happy with the aliens in Star Wars and he was finally able to create the effect he wanted for Return of the Jedi. True, there were more aliens in Return of the Jedi, but they were stupid ideas for aliens. While the aliens in Star Wars were misshapen creatures designed by Ralph Mc Quarrie, Ron Cobb, and Rick Baker, Return of the Jedi featured aliens like Sly Snoodles, a singing elephant with lips on the end of her nose. Also, there is Salacious Crumb, a rather obvious muppet who looks like he would be more at home on Fraggle Rock than in a major motion picture. And who can forget the dancing fat woman?

Of somewhat higher quality are the pig guards, but they are reminiscent of Earth creatures and look like something out of a fairy tale. Only Jabba the Hut seems sufficiently alien and he resembles a caterpillar. The aliens are cute and not crisply done like the creatures in Star Wars.

And speaking of cute, Lucas at one point said the third film would take place in large part on the Wookie planet. But Wookies would not have made very good toys and certainly not new toys, so Lucas reversed the syllables in Wookie and got Ewok, a lovable, merchandisable teddy bear. Most fans over the age of ten get a little sick at the thought of Ewoks.

There is also the question or realism. In the first film we see a guerilla attack on the Death Star; the second has the Empire crushing a rebel base; the third has the killing of Jabba and his crew and the Empire fighting the teddy bear Ewoks. So in which of the three films do we see the greatest number of allies of the rebellion killed? By far, the answer is in the first film. Not even counting Lars and Beru, who are innocent bystanders, more allies were killed in the attack on the Death Star, which was done reasonably realistically, than in all the battles in the later films. In Return of the Jedi one Ewok is apparently killed, I think, and one is knocked out by his own bolo. I don't think a single "good guy" is killed in The Empire Strikes Back.

And this is in spite of the apparent darker tone of the second film.

Because of all the points mentioned above and because so much more of Lucas' creativity went into the first film, for which a universe was created--the other two films just used, ond only in minor ways amplified on, this universe--I still contend it was the best of the three films and will remain the "Star Wars" film most people will remember. In 2077, it will be the best-remembered "Star Wars" film.

Editor's Note:

Noted Film Critic Roger Ebert quoted Mark Leeper's statement about Star Wars being the first movie to pan across a field of stars. Steve Ankrom of Findlay, Ohio disagreed. He credited 2001 with the honor. Mr. Ebert published both Mr. Ankrom's letter and Mark Leeper's reply.

"I suppose you are mostly correct, probably because my language was a little more loose than it should have been. What I was reacting to in Star Wars was the fast (even dizzying) pan through what looks like 90 degrees or more of nothing but sky. In 2001: A Space Odyssey, the camera does indeed pan. But it is a very limited pan.

"The camera always either follows an object or pans between objects that are close to the camera and in angle close to each other. The background has enough sky to support the camera movement. The background sky is never really the center of attention o the shot. I would guess that the camera does not pan an angle of starscape of more than 10 or 20 degrees--a fairly small starfield.

"They could have set up the scene with the camera panning considerably more, and I would guess did not because the camera motions were slow and dreamlike and the viewer would end up gazing into empty space for a long time. Also, prior to digital technology, that much starscape would have been expensive to build."

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