To use the parlance of the analysts who dissect box office figures like they were sports statistics these days, Star Wars didn’t “win” the weekend when it opened on Wednesday, May 25, 1977. The highest-grossing film over the six-day Memorial Day Hollywood was the Burt Reynolds vehicle Smokey and the Bandit, which sold $2.7 million worth of tickets. Star Wars clocked in at $2.5 million.
Except Smokey and the Bandit was playing on 386 screens around the U.S. — what passed for a wide release in the pre-multiplex era. Star Wars, which was expected to be a colossal flop by distributor 20th Century Fox, was showing on only 43 screens. By the end of that first weekend, the phrase “May the Force be with you” was already being bandied around, and people knew exactly what it meant. Toy manufacturers blindsided by the film’s success scrambled to crank out product in time for Christmas. Additional prints were fast-tracked to get the movie into as many theaters as possible. The media reported endlessly on the Star Wars mania, which only served to further fuel the fire.
Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens opens Thursday night after a yearlong barrage of trailers, clips, empty interviews by journalists who hadn’t seen the film and so many merchandising tie-ins that every other commercial on prime time TV seems to have a Star Wars theme. But the original film opened with a minimum of publicity: one trailer, a cast comprised largely of unknowns and a poster painted by brothers Tim and Greg Hildebrandt featuring a young man holding a gleaming sword over his head, a woman brandishing a pistol, two robots and a large, dark helmet filling the sky behind them, where some kind of dogfight between spaceships was taking place.
That poster, which wound up adorning the walls of countless bedrooms in the summer of 1977, is one of the most beautiful and mysterious pieces of advertising art ever created. It looked like the cover of a novel or comic book you simply had to read right now, except it was made for a film, which was even better. What movie could live up to that kind of advance billing?
The answer: a thrilling hybrid of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, a sci-fi fantasy that packed an entire universe’s worth of imagination into two accessible, rousing hours. Watching Star Wars again for the first time in nearly 20 years, I was struck by how economical the storytelling is; how quickly Lucas plunges you into this complicated world with next to no explanation; the breadth of imaginative details (blue milk!); the subconscious effect of John Williams’ magnificent, instant-earworm score; the relentless pace; and the rare mix of wonder and excitement that entrances children and adults instantly. Unlike subsequent chapters (including The Empire Strikes Back, which is widely considered to be superior, as The Godfather Part II was to The Godfather), Star Wars was brisk and rousing and self-contained, with something new to see and contemplate every 10 minutes and a narrative drive that never once stalls for pesky exposition.
In his authoritative book How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, author Chris Taylor writes about all the creative decisions that fell into place during the writing process. Luke Skywalker was originally Luke Starkiller (ugh) and, for a couple of months, was rewritten as female. Han Solo, whose last name was taken from the popular paper cups, was promoted from lowly cabin boy to space pirate. The decision to make Chewbacca the co-pilot of the Millennium Falcon came from seeing Lucas’ own dog, Indiana, riding shotgun in the front seat of the car of his wife Marcia, an accomplished film editor. Light sabers came this close to being called “laser swords.”
Taylor also details the multitude of sources that inspired Lucas — Flash Gordon, of course, but also drag racing and World War II fighter plane newsreel footage, James Bond and Akira Kurosawa movies (although not, as is often claimed, his 1958 classic The Hidden Fortress).
Star Wars was that all-too-rare kind of movie — the kind that felt comfortable and familiar, even though you had never seen anything like it —and its imprint on popular culture was so deep and permanent that nothing could ever dislodge it, not even a movie as crummy and misguided as The Phantom Menace.
People often think of escapism as something mindless: You’re escaping from the real world and you don’t care where you go.
Chris Taylor, author of “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe”
Although it was nominated for 10 Oscars (including Best Picture) and won five, along with a Special Achievement Award for sound effects, Star Wars was not universally loved by critics. Pauline Kael, then the most powerful film critic in America, clucked with disapproval at writer-director George Lucas’ creation and warned its success could lead to the infantilization of Hollywood.
“There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset,” she wrote in a review published in The New Yorker on Sept. 26, 1977, after the film had become a phenomenon and declared the year’s best film by Time magazine. “It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts — it has no emotional grip ... The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood.”
Some film historians point to the one-two punch of Jaws and Star Wars as the beginning of Hollywood’s gradual loss of interest in adult audiences and its all-consuming courtship of younger viewers. Medium-budget dramas with their less-than-blockbuster box office takes were sacrificed in favor of big, shiny, empty entertainments. The argument continues today, with some describing the preponderance of comic-book movies and sequels as Star Wars’ real legacy, while others point out just as many grown-ups paid to see Star Wars as children did.
And reducing the appeal of Star Wars to special effects and toys is to miss what really made the movie work — and why so many of us who grew up with the franchise got a little teary-eyed when that first teaser for The Force Awakens was unveiled. Yes, Star Wars was a kinetic, exhilarating blast. But it also struck a profoundly emotional chord in people who fell in love with the series, regardless of age and gender.
“The movie is just the right combination of everything,” Taylor says. “People often think of escapism as something mindless: You’re escaping from the real world and you don’t care where you go. Star Wars was the first movie to say ‘Escapism isn’t just for kids.’ This isn’t just a throwaway thing. There is a lot of attention you can pay here, and the more attention you pay, the more real the world feels. You don’t feel silly for watching it, as you might if you watch old Doctor Who episodes. I love that show, but it doesn’t hold up. You’re watching out of nostalgia more than anything else. But Star Wars still feels like an awakening. Everything in that movie was considered and done with care, down to the speed with which the logo pulls back through the starfield at the beginning of that movie, accompanied by that orchestral blast.”
Mark Clark, author of Star Wars FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Trilogy That Changed the Movies, has a simple theory as to why these films have never fallen out of favor.
“There’s something inherent in the stories themselves — that love and friendship is greater than fear, and the idea that people can take responsibility and change their own lives and make a difference in the world,” he says. “The ever-popular ‘good conquers evil’ theme runs through all the movies. That’s an old idea, but when Star Wars came out in 1977, the movies that were part of the popular culture and were considered escapism were disaster movies and Dirty Harry and Taxi Driver and Network. Those films were reflective of the post-Watergate, post-Vietnam era. There was a need for the lightness and optimism of Star Wars. And in 2015, that need is still with us. We still crave the idea that we’re going to be all right, that hate and fear can and will be defeated.”
Clark also points out another reason for the series’ longetivity: The time span between the previous two trilogies allowed multiple generations to introduce younger viewers to the Star Wars universe while keeping their own enthusiasm intact.
“The first trilogy was in the 1970s and ’80s; the second one was in 1999 and the 2000s,” he says. “With these gaps, generations of fans were able to pass on their enthusiasms to newer generations. Kids have always had their own version of the movies to get invested in. And enough time has passed since the last movie [2005’s Revenge of the Sith] that it’s a big deal to have a new Star Wars movie again. You don’t get that with James Bond movies, which come out every couple of years. It’ll be interesting to see if that kind of interest continues now that Disney is planning to release a new one every year.”
Starting Thursday, an entire generation of moviegoers who have seen Star Wars only at home on their TV sets will be seeing The Force Awakens at a movie theater. And thanks to the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney for $4 billion in 2012, the story is finally moving forward instead of dwelling in the past, like Lucas did with those prequels. Thirty years after Return of the Jedi, we’re about to catch up with some old friends and meet a bunch of new ones, in a movie created by people with a deep and obvious affection and understanding for what made that first movie special. Of course the anticipation is enormous. This weekend, maybe — just maybe — we will get to go home again after all.