What? A film blogger who hasn’t seen Star Wars?!
Yes, it may surprise you to learn that despite spending 26 years watching thousands of films, I have never seen what is possibly the most well-known, obsessively-loved movie of all, George Lucas’ 1977 space epic Star Wars. I’ve seen Tommy Wiseau’s masterpiece The Room dozens of times, but I’ve never seen Star Wars.
This makes me a kind of film-nerd pariah, as if I were a groupie turning up for my first night at the Continental Hyatt House and asking Lori Maddox who Led Zeppelin are. People don’t just think you’re weird because of it, they don’t like you for it. People often throw things into conversation that references the film (or at least assumes I’ve seen it), and when I tell them I haven’t they give me that look of disbelief and mild disgust you get when you don’t tell someone their newborn baby is cute.
I must say that their surprise isn’t… well, surprising. As a film buff and a person with general nerdish tendencies I’m even surprised myself that I’ve never seen it. I can’t really put a finger on why I haven’t seen it, but just as everyone has at least one big film they’ve never seen, mine just happens to be the biggest. None of my older brothers were big Star Wars geeks (or even very big movie buffs), so it didn’t get thrust upon me as a kid, and even as an anti-social, film-obsessed teenager who would hire five weekly DVDs almost every week (bless you, Video Ezy), for some reason Star Wars just never found its way into my clutches. I think part of that is because I already know so much about the film without having seen it (more on that in a minute) that it never seemed like a film that I absolutely had to see.
But now, 34 years after the film’s release and 26 years after my birth, I will sit down and watch Star Wars for the first time. But I don’t just want to view the film, I want to take note of how much of it is already familiar to me through years of references in pop culture, and how much of it I can describe before even seeing it. I’m not even sure if I can like or dislike it in the ordinary sense of those words, because it’s become so much more than just a film that it almost defies categorisation in that way. It would seem strange to give three and a half stars to fucking Star Wars, after all. How can you sum up a cultural institution on a ten-point scale?
What I already “know” about Star Wars
Star Wars is not just a film, it’s a pop culture touchstone. Kind of like how “Yesterday” by the Beatles is said to be the most-covered song in history; if there were some way to determine the most-referenced film in history, Star Wars would surely be it.
I have seen and understood so many of these references in so many films and television shows that I honestly believe I know as much about Star Wars as is possible without actually seeing the film itself. I know all the characters. I know the dialogue. I know the story. I know the score. I’ve seen the toys. I’ve seen all of Kevin Smith’s films (and some of his Q&As). I’ve seen dozens of references in Simpsons, Futurama and South Park episodes. I’ve seen Spaceballs. I’ve even seen Blue Harvest, which I’m led to believe is a relatively faithful re-telling of the story with obvious Family Guy additions.
Even beyond just regular references in other films, Star Wars has become such a universally well-known entity that references to it surface in all walks of life and often pass by without anyone realizing they’ve just referenced the film. It’s even made its way into Hansard – the Death Star’s flawed defense system with its single point of failure is a particular favourite reference for politicians discussing national defence and immigration. This is a well-known film.
So what happens when I put all these references, allusions, parodies, pastiches and homages together into what I, a Star Wars virgin, believe to be the story of Star Wars?
A Star Wars virgin’s rundown of what happens in Star Wars
Note: I am writing this before seeing the film, and it is based entirely on what I have learned about Star Wars by osmosis. I have not referenced Wikipedia, IMDb or any other resource which could help me remember details about the film at the time of writing, although I will do some research after the fact (but only to correct spelling).
The film begins with iconic opening titles superimposed over a starscape that begins with “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” and explains that there is a civil war between the evil Galactic Empire, led by Darth Vader, and the Rebel Alliance, led by Princess Leia. During the battle, Leia comes into possession of blueprints for the evil Empire’s weapon of mass destruction, the Death Star, and hides the plans in the memory of a robot called R2D2 before being captured. Somehow, R2D2 (and C3PO, another droid) find their way into the hands of Luke Skywalker, a farmer on the desert planet of Tatooine living with his aunt and uncle in a sort of sand-igloo. Skywalker accidentally triggers a holographic video transmission by Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi Knight, ending with “help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope” skipping like a broken record.
Skywalker and the droids find Obi-Wan on Tatooine somehow, and he tells them that he is a Jedi Knight who can draw on the power of the Force, an all-encompassing energy field of which there is a light side and a dark side. Obi-Wan tells Luke that his father, Anakin Skywalker, was killed by a former student of Obi-Wan’s called Darth Vader, who had “gone to the dark side” of the Force. Obi-Wan views the whole holographic message from Leia, discovers that the Death Star’s plans are embedded in R2D2’s memory, and decides to take them to a planet called Alderaan to have them analyzed by the Rebel leadership. Luke trains to fight using a light saber, and the group hires two mercenaries from a cantina (Han Solo and Chewbacca) to usher them in the ship Millennium Falcon, which can do the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. In the cantina Han gets into a firefight with Greedo, and there is some controversy as to whether Han or Greedo shot first.
After leaving the cantina the group are nearly found by Stormtroopers looking for R2D2, but Obi-Wan uses the Force to convince them that “these are not the droids you’re looking for” and “we don’t need to see your identification”. Travelling to Alderaan at light-speed, they find the planet destroyed by the Death Star and get themselves captured by its tractor beam. They escape from the Millennium Falcon when it is brought aboard the Death Star and while hiding out from the Empire’s stormtroopers discover that Leia is also being held there, so they decide to rescue her by disguising themselves as the enemy. After blasting their way through an impossible number of stormtroopers to make their daring escape, Obi-Wan engages Darth Vader in a light saber duel and appears to die, Wicked Witch of the West-style, in a pile of clothing. Luke also engages Vader in a light saber battle, and after accusing Vader of killing his father discovers that Vader is his father.
The group escapes to their ship and returns to headquarters by jumping again into hyperdrive. Once at headquarters, analysis of the Death Star’s blueprints reveals a critical weakness: there is an exhaust pipe which leads directly to its power source accessible from the outside which, if shot from an improbably precise angle with explosives, would destroy the entire space station.
The Death Star turns up, right on cue, and a full-scale battle erupts between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire. Luke flies to the Death Star amid the chaos hoping to shoot into the aforementioned exhaust shaft, but is followed by Darth Vader and two stormtroopers in TIE fighters. Just as Vader is within shooting distance of Luke’s ship, Han turns up behind them and shoots down the stormtrooper to Vader’s left, which frightens the stormtrooper to the right so much that he flies directly into Vader’s ship, sending him tumbling into space. Luke turns off his ship’s automatic aiming and is guided by Obi-Wan using the Force to destroy the Death Star with a single shot.
Scorecard and review
Note: I watched a downloaded “theatrical” version of Star Wars (Harmy’s Despecialized Edition), because I thought I should watch it in as close to its original form as possible, at least for my first time.
Well, I knew I’d recognize a lot of it, but to be honest I’m pretty amazed by just how familiar the film was to me, at least in terms of the plot. Apart from my obvious confusion about the “I am your father” line (which, I now realise, must be part of The Empire Strikes Back), and the specific and detailed mechanics of what motivates the characters to move from one scene to the next, almost all of my guesses were generally accurate if not exactly spot-on. On a minor note, I mixed up the order of events on Tatooine: Obi-Wan uses his Jedi Mind Tricks on the stormtroopers before they enter the cantina and meet Han, not after; and I had no idea that Luke was attacked by Sand People before getting rescued by Obi-Wan.
But those are only plot points. No matter how much I thought I knew about “what happens” in Star Wars, in no way does that sum up the experience of actually seeing it; of being seduced by Harrison Ford’s dashing smile; of cheering when Luke’s freestyle missile launch does a 90° turn in mid-air to enter the exhaust pipe; of feeling genuinely sad when R2D2 gets shot by Darth Vader and equally elated when you find out he gets successfully repaired. These are some of the factors that make Star Wars a remarkably enjoyable film, and these are the factors that are removed from any homage. I can absolutely see how this became the phenomenon that it is, and feel slight pangs of guilt that it took me so long to get around to it.
I’ve spent so many years hearing from so many people about the franchise that to be honest I was a little worried that maybe the original wouldn’t live up to the hype, as so often happens when you arrive late to a beloved work of cinema. When a movie’s structure, settings, characters and story arc have entered popular culture and become tropes, revisiting it could seem predictable or boring to someone who wasn’t around when it first changed the rules. But when you look at Star Wars in the context of the New Hollywood of the 1970s (from a creative perspective), and the ways it forever changed the film industry’s business model (from an economic perspective), it’s remarkable how much of today’s movies owe George Lucas. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether that’s a good or bad thing.
On a final note, I’m glad I watched a reconstruction of the theatrical version because its supremely charming in its dodginess. The visual effects sequences all have that hand-made quality of in-camera effects, miniatures, clay models and animations which can never really be matched by even the most spectacular modern CGI. Give me the slightly dated but ingeniously-constructed claymation in Star Wars‘ holographic chess game over the entirety of the Transformers franchise any day.