The year is 1977. President Jimmy Cartier, in his first year in office, invents a brand of designer sunglasses. Toto discovers the African continent. Hulk Hogan is inundated with gamma rays and begins his wrestling career. Alright, so I don’t know much about 1977. By the end of the year, I would still be waiting 11 more years to be born. But there are things I do know. Eight years earlier, the United States walked on the face of the moon. For the first time in human history, not every living person rode the spaceship Earth. In 1977, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune aligned just perfectly to allow Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 to slip past the edge of our solar system. They broke the gravity clench of our sun and tumbled into the void. We didn’t send them empty-handed, though. Each Voyager probe contains a “golden record.” Each 12-inch record carries a catalog of various sounds and images from Earth, instructions for playing the record, and a star map for aliens to find us in the abyss.
Did we really believe an alien civilization would pluck our bottle out of the vacuum ocean, spin Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” and feel inspired to come find us? I don’t know. But you don’t write letters in a bottle unless you think there’s a faraway shore somewhere out there.
In 1977, the United States repeatedly turned its face to the curtain of stars and emptiness and said “Here we are. Where are you?” Enter: Luke Skywalker.
Star Wars (1977) feels overall like a journey through the mind of a big kid who couldn’t help but imagine the types of worlds Voyager 1 might find. The film opens with a hectic space battle through a sterile ship that looks part-hospital corridor and part-cruise ship. The story takes its breath when the camera pans down from the ship to a desert planet below. The planet, Tatooine, is home to our hero. Luke Skywalker lives with his aunt and uncle, working as a moisture farmer in the endless desert. We’ve traded one endless expanse for another.
There doesn’t seem to be any other industry on Tatooine or, for that matter, many other humans. Owen, Beru, and their nephew Luke use machines to suck moisture out of the air to make life possible in the endless desert. That way, they can drink the water and then continue living on the planet to continue harvesting moisture. It’s subsistence farming taken to the level of absurdity. Therein lies the power of Star Wars. The story is not particularly complex or groundbreaking. Luke Skywalker works on a farm at the beginning of his hero’s journey. So what? So does Clark Kent. So did Abraham Lincoln. So did Julius Caesar.
But every kid who has looked up from her homework to see her friends riding bikes knows what it feels like to be Luke Skywalker. He has a plan: go to the Imperial Academy to become a pilot, defect from the Galactic Empire, and become an X-Wing pilot. He just needs to finish his homework so he can go to Tosche Station and pick up some power converters.
Two droids escape the battle in space and crash into the dunes of Tatooine with a message destined for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Fortuitously, Uncle Owen is seeking droids to aid him on his moisture farm. The droids find their way into the company of Luke Skywalker, and the story catapults itself into American history in just over two hours. Star Wars manages an impressive feat over its runtime; the movie seems to lack clear direction or plot for most of its length. However, it never feels slow. As the movie progresses, the stakes are constantly raised. Luke must retrieve the disobedient droid R2-D2, or his uncle will get angry. Then he has to run from the Empire to the homeworld of Princess Leia. Then he has to escape the Death Star and the black-gloved clutches of Darth Vader, an evil sorcerer. Every step along the way grows a little larger and a little closer to the heart of the evil Galactic Empire. It’s only in the third act that we meet what seems to be the bulk of the Rebel Alliance and learn that they have a plan to destroy the Death Star.
In fact, the plot itself seems subservient to the cause of worldbuilding and character development. The galaxy far, far away is largely the same at the end of the film as it was at the beginning. The Galactic Empire is less one moon-sized planet destroyer, but they’re still in control of (we assume) just as many planets as before. Darth Vader still prowls the curtain of stars. Somewhere, (again, we’re assuming) a galactic emperor still rules his empire. But Luke, Leia, and Han Solo have grown from small characters into heroic archetypes. Well, maybe not Princess Leia. She slinks into our galaxy like a teenaged warrior queen and pretty much remains as such for the duration of the film. I think, if we’re being honest, Star Wars is Leia’s film.
Han and Luke are differing kinds of earnest fumblers. Leia holds together the whole endeavor. Which gives me cause to circle back to the top of this review which has become more ode-to-Star-Wars than an honest-to-Yoda review. Why would a kid born in 1988 and raised in the government surplus days of the 1990s be so drawn to a story from the stagflation days of 1977?
Because certain stories are timeless. Every person, no matter how wealthy or poor, will always be a kid from somewhere. Everybody is the local kid somewhere. Some of us are from moisture farms in New Mexico or Saudi Arabia. Some of us are from ice planets like Michigan or Winnipeg. Some of us might even be senators/princesses of New York City or Tokyo. No matter which one you are, or what combination thereof, you were once drawn to heroic endeavors. It’s easy as you age to forget how deeply and completely you believed in bigness when you were little. When you looked up at everything, it was a lot easier to look up to something.
You could look out of the backseat window on the interstate and imagine AT-ATs marching beside the road. Maybe you swung a broomstick and made the lightsaber noises with your mouth. Did you ever put on your bicycle helmet and radio to headquarters as you made the final approach on the Death Star?
That’s what Star Wars is about; that’s the plot. It’s about a kid from somewhere who looked out at the field of stars and said, “Here I am. Where are you? Come get me.”
In Defense of the Prequels and Sequels
The Star Wars prequels of the early 2000s and the sequels of the 2010s have received a pretty healthy share of criticism and a pretty unhealthy share of hate. They’re compared unfavorably to the original trilogy, but I don’t think that’s a failing of the prequels and sequels. You see, I think Star Wars (1977) and the films it inspired tend to age incredibly well. We still love a 43-year old movie. So, why don’t the same critics love the newer trilogies? Because movies might age well but we don’t.
When Luke stood on that dune and watched the two suns setting, you might have been that kid who pretended the bed was an X-34 Landspeeder. But when Anakin finally fired both jets on his podracer? Who were you then? A high schooler? Working a job and paying rent? Somebody’s parent? What about when Rey lit the lightsaber for the first time? Were you still someone who pretended to fly through the forest moon of Endor?
The newer films are still about a kid from somewhere trying to do something big. I don’t think they changed. If the movies haven’t changed, maybe it’s the viewer. So, I encourage you all to watch Star Wars: Episode IV and remember the way it made you feel. Remember the kid you were when you first heard the theme song. Remember the snap-hiss of a flashlight lightsaber. Then, if you can, let that kid watch the new films. I bet they’ll like what they find.