Obi Wan-Toby wrote:I don't think these are "any other sci-fi film" because that does a disservice to other science fiction films, and to Star Wars itself. What are these "things"?
Well, it's not Science Fiction; it's Space opera
What are they indeed. For years I thought the phrase “space opera” was used to emphasise the importance of the music in Star Wars rather than being a reference to a bygone sub genre of science fiction:
Space opera is a subgenre of science fiction that emphasizes space warfare, melodramatic adventure, interplanetary battles, chivalric romance, and risk-taking. Set mainly or entirely in outer space, it usually involves conflict between opponents possessing advanced abilities, futuristic weapons, and other sophisticated technology. The term has no relation to music, but is instead a play on the terms "soap opera" and "horse opera", the latter of which was coined during the 1930s to indicate clichéd and formulaic Western movies. Space operas emerged in the 1930s and continue to be produced in literature, film, comics, and video games.
I’d like to think the person who initially used it was canny enough to deploy the phrase understanding that it also captured something fundamentally important and different about Star Wars and that its use of music to heighten and capture emotion and feeling
is something close to genius. Name another movie where the score is this important? It’s not that easy.
Star Wars says nothing speculative about human society and where we are heading. It has no ambitions like that at all. The technology is far-fetched and out there (destroying planets?). There is this metaphysical force that maybe has its roots in the hippie revolution’s embrace of eastern mysticism that enables people to manipulate the physical world and do seriously cool shit
. Seriously? What is this shit? Why, at my age do I still approach an automatic door and occasional swipe my hand pretending I have Jedi powers. What the fuck is all all that
about? And yet in this futuristic world you still have old world shit like people dueling with these things called lightsabres which are basically swords but way cooler. They also make this magical hum which is instantly recognisable and transportive.
It’s not like other science fiction, it really isn’t and when you boil it down I guess it’s something as elemental and eternal as good versus evil but simply relocated to some galaxy far, far away and a long time ago. Sure you can talk about jungian archetypes and how this gives Star Wars its universal, mythic quality. You can talk about the films influences and how they’ve been mashed together into this singular thing
: the westerns (The Searchers is directly referenced), the Kurosawa influence (Hidden Fortress, the Jedi/Samurai), the WW2 influence (dogfights, the evil Empire). You can analyse its appeal in a wider cultural and sociological context and posit theories and ideas as to why it hit so hard. Like maybe the timelessness of the good versus evil battle maybe resonated with a generation of Americans who grew up under the shadow of the bomb and Vietnam and Nixon; or that the visual break away from the pristine sterility of 2001 and other science fiction films perhaps chimed with the down at heel 70s. Perhaps the malfunctioning Millennium Falcon fondly reminded people of their beat up Ford Pinto, I don’t know. I wasn’t there man
. It’s funny how nobody, bar Spielberg apparently, predicated that this was going to be biggest thing in cinema. How could they? On paper it really shouldn’t play.
To use a musical analogy, Star Wars was the closest cinema has come to the Beatles. Not that they are comparable artistically but its pop culture impact is unsurpassed which is why you get 45 year old men who still dress up as Luke Skywalker. You can talk about a state of arrested development here and that would be perfectly valid and you can also talk about people holding on/reliving their long vanished youth through these movies and that’s certainly a large part of it, no question. Maybe that’s the simplest explanation as to why people still obsess over it and anticipate this thing like nothing else really. Maybe we all are just chasing a feeling, the sense of wonder and magic we experienced as a child when watching these films for the first time. And why the hell not? That’s something worth chasing no? Magic.
The Modernist wrote: Cheers. I'm sure that's it, but it still seems strange to me as you can get those things from any sci-fi film. Why be obsessed with Luke Skywalker..?
Because you rarely get what Star Wars does, at its best, from other science fiction films.
Who is Luke Skywalker? What does he represent? What’s his story arc?
Young man living in some crappy dustbowl planet where nothing happens, occasionally staring off into the distance at night longingly dreaming of adventure. Think of the scene with Luke and two suns. Listen to John Williams music and understand what is very obviously being communicated here. It’s universal and its simplicity does not limit its power. On the contrary it’s the simplicity that gives it its power. Who can’t relate to Luke here? Who hasn’t dreamed what he is dreaming here? It’s a great cinematic moment. Your average science fiction movie has rarely communicated something as profound and elegantly simple as Lucas does here. There are lots of moments like this in the original trilogy, moments where sound and vision combine into something Other. Pure cinema? Magic? I dunno, nostalgia plays a part here – how can it not - but Star Wars is cinematic in a way that most movies aren’t. It understands how to use visuals to communicate ideas and plot and, crucially, it understands how to use music and sound in a profound way. To me, this is what sets it apart and this is what elevates it into the realms of something occasionally great; popular entertainment but done exceptionally well. The fact that the story is simple and that the characters do not have great depth does not negate its obvious quality in my opinion and to focus on the later at the expense of the former is deliberately narrowing the experience and, I think, fundamentally, misunderstanding the movies strengths.
Think of the opening scene of Star Wars. You have the crawl giving you a brief lowdown of what’s happening but you don’t really need to read it to understand the opening scenes. There’s a small ship and it’s being chased by a big ship. The big ship is really, really fucking big and it takes an age to cross the screen. John Williams is absolutely kicking arse, the small ship is desperately trying to escape and there’s a lady dressed in virginal white and then Darth Vadar appears and we know of course that he’s bad ass and not just because he’s dressed like a fucking nightmare but because he’s got this weird breathing thing going on. There is something remarkably pure and direct here. To critics they would dismiss this as adolescent perhaps (it’s for kids!) but to me it communicates something akin to pure pleasure like, say, the opening bars of I Want To Hold Your Hand or the first mouthful of ice cold coke. From a modern standpoint its innocence and simplicity communicates not just the loss of personal innocence but also a cultural innocence too. Like an early Beatles record or Pet Sounds, it speaks to us of a world that has been lost but still exists in the popular consciousness and which we want to return to occasionally. That’s Ok, you know.
Star Wars is full of moments where John Williams music combines with the story to create something with a degree of wonder obviously missing from most Sci-Fi but absolutely present in the best science fiction films (2001, Bladerunner). See also Yoda lifting the X-wing from the swamp or Lukes trench run and that moment where Williams romanticism accompanies Obi Wans mystical nonsense to wonderful affect. Silly? Of course. Hokey? You betcha. Cheesy? Shit yeah! But that music! It’s uncanny.
And it’s not just the magnificent score either, the noises too are great and so memorable and iconic. Like Bleep says, just hearing these funny things can be transportive: the screeching of Tie fighters, the excitable jabbering of the Jawas, R2-D2s blips and beeps which communicate childlike excitement but also childlike disappointment, the cosmic hum of the lightsabres and so. The sound design is full of invention and brilliance giving objects real character, humanity. The Millennium Falcon is not just the fastest ship in the galaxy. It’s a living, breathing thing, a character in itself which is why people go all giddy when they see it blasting a tie fighter and performing some death defying manoeuvre. It’s like watching an 80 year old Clint Eastwood wiping out a bad guy.
Anyway, let’s go back to Luke for a while. So he manages to escape this rock and he goes off on his adventure and he ends up meeting the baddest man in the galaxy and they have a fight and he loses a hand and he learns that the baddest man in the galaxy is actually the Old Man. Ouch! Who the hell saw that one coming? One of cinemas greatest twists. So now he has to kill his own Father but he's scared that he might become his Father too so he's wrestling with his own identity and destiny but instead of debating whether he follows the old man into accounting
, it's whether he's going to turn to the dark side and rule the galaxy. With a metal hand. This is not your typical sci fi shit nor is it typical of movies in general, the killing your own Father thing I mean. So we’re back to that phrase: space opera
I’m not going to pretend I’m an opera aficionado but I know that some silly, weird shit happens in these things. Moments of absurd, over the top melodrama accompanied by music of bombast, romance, beauty, magic, all that shit. The opera world is, well, the opera world. It inhabits its own place. Star Wars does too. Even with all its influences and age old hero myths it inhabits its own world within cinema. There is nothing else quite like it and consequently it’s a world people like to revisit. Even with its flaws and plot holes and clumsy dialogue and hammy acting because when it gets it right, it really gets it fucking right. For two movies it got it right.