Saturday, December 30, 2017

Forget About The Last Jedi, What About The First?

A LONG TIME AGO in a galaxy far, far away...

Star Wars, the book, published in 1976.
It was a time of single-screen movie theaters, of $4 tickets and $2.50 matinees. Cable television was in its 30-some-odd channel infancy, home video players were new. Three broadcast TV networks ruled the airwaves.

It was 1977 and that was all there was.

Into this now unimaginably finite universe burst Star Wars, a cinematic force the likes of which had never been seen. Looking back across a 40-year landscape of movies -- now nine -- animated TV series, toys, clothes and all manner of pop-culture bric-a-brac, it's virtually impossible to convey the revolutionary newness of that first film.

If you were born before 1972, you may be able to dimly recall the world before Star Wars. But that guy in the cubicle next to you at work, the one born in 1980 who is married with two kids and a mortgage? He hasn't got a clue.

Creating good guys and bad guys was Hollywood old hat. Believably placing them in alien locales, in highly-detailed spaceships or aboard a killer space station the size of a small moon -- one riven with seemingly bottomless, non-OSHA-compliant canyons and ledges -- seemed nothing short of miraculous.

About that tractor beam control...
From Starlog issue 14, June 1978
Light sabers crackled and hummed. Blasters blasted. X-wing and TIE fighters pitched, yawed and rolled with the maneuverability of F-15 fighters without the aid of CGI graphics.

All this sprung from the imagination of auteur George Lucas, his team of artists and a company called Industrial Light & Magic, accompanied by the iconic symphonic score of composer John Williams.

But to experience it, you had to go to the movies.

Some folks did just over and over and over again, trading the visceral newness for intimate familiarity with Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, with Han Solo and Chewbacca, with Obi Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader, and for their favorite scenes and lines.

But, then what?

I have a very bad feeling about this.

It would be five years before Star Wars' release on VHS, or cable TV. Longer for the broadcast networks.  So, where did one turn to get that feeling anew? Other media, of which there was plenty.

Star Wars -- the Book

Help me Obi Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope.

Del Rey, a Ballantine Books imprint, actually beat Star Wars to the theaters, publishing its first paperback edition in 1976. Subtitled, "From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker," and not, "A New Hope," its 220 pages were positively canonical, filled with things implied but not shown on the silver screen, including the Anchorhead reunion of Luke and Biggs Darklighter and Han Solo's encounter with Jabba the Hutt before leaving Mos Eisley.

Wedge has a last name, Antilles. Han seems to have shot Greedo first, but the scene's description is vague. What's clear the Corellian reduced his adversary to "a smoking, slimy spot on the stone floor." Also worth noting: Luke's evident attraction to Leia (a concept not yet rendered icky by exposition in Return of the Jedi) and his X-Wing assignment is Blue 5, not Red.

At the end, Chewie gets a medal too. Justice.

Star Wars -- the Comic Books

I find your lack of faith disturbing.

If the 16 pages of full-color movie stills tucked into the center of the post-release edition paperback weren't enough, Marvel Comics had the perfect cure: the entire film, serially rendered in issues one through six of Star Wars, The Greatest Space Fantasy Film of All."

It was a perfect marriage. The movie, inspired by the Saturday matinee Flash Gordon serials of the 1930s, was already filled with literal and figurative cliff-hangers. Now Marvel offered more of the same, in breathlessly hyperbolic comic book form, illustrating many of those canonical novel scenes omitted from the film.

Ironically, while internally faithful to the original scripture, Marvel's cover art was anything but, depicting scenes that didn't didn't actually happen, or if they did, only allegorically. Not that I cared. It was Star Wars at 30 cents a pop. (Though the comic book series lived on, I stopped at issue six where the movie's story ended.)

Star Wars -- the Soundtrack

Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster.

John Williams was a rock star. Not in the literal sense of the word as he made his name as an Academy Award-winning composers of classical movie sound tracks, but boy, could he write a memorable score. Jaws was his. Raiders of the Lost Ark too, along with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, ET - The Extra-Terrestrial and Superman - The Movie.

The double-album came with liner notes, and
a color poster of the climactic battle over the Death Star
If you can hear any of that music in your head, the credit belongs to him.

Still, Star Wars' symphonic score is in a class of its own, durable, instantly recognizable music, whose place in musical pop culture is renewed with every new installment. The American Film Institute named it as the greatest film score of all time.

All. Time.

And it's not just the fanfare that people recognize. Princess Leia had a theme of her own, as did Ben and Luke. Even Ben's death (non-spoiler alert 1) and the ensuing escape from the Death Star (non-spoiler alert 2) are recognizable.

The soundtrack album itself was something of an artifact even back in 1977, as it hearkened to a technology falling out of favor even then. The first disc featured sides 1 and 4, while the second had sides 2 and 3. Why? Because some phonographs had the ability to play records sequentially, holding one atop of the spindle while the other spun on the turntable below. When side 1 ended, the tone-arm swung clear, side 2 dropped and the arm moved back into playing position. Once done, all a listener had to do was flip the stack so that side 3 dropped down while side 4 waited above.

Oh... and the Star Wars long player came with this poster.

You're all clear kid! Now let's blow this thing and go home.

In addition to its four beloved sequels, three tolerated prequels and one kick-ass feature-length digression, the original Star Wars spawned an empire of Kenner action figures, Lego sets, The Clone Wars, posters, books, more books. t-shirts, pajamas, parodies, more parodies, still more silliness, Halloween costumes and masks.

President Ronald Reagan, himself a product of the Hollywood Dream Factory, probably did as much as anyone to hammer the movie into the American consciousness, borrowing it's "evil empire" theme and applying it to the old Soviet Union, then turning to a still-unrealized missile defense system immediately dubbed "Star Wars."

The force will be with you, always.

-- Follow me on Twitter @paperboyarchive