One day at the age of six, I stumbled into my cousin’s room and saw him watching something on the miniscule TV/VHS combo that sat on his dresser. I didn’t have any context for what I was seeing. There were guys in helmets flying strange planes with four wings through what looked like a canyon made of metal plating. Green and red lasers were flying everywhere. The guys in helmets were talking to other guys with headsets. They were saying things about “deflectors,” “targeting” and jabbering out strings of numbers. It was the most enthralling thing I’d ever seen.
A lot lot of words have been spent speculating on the ingredients in the special sauce that made the original Star Wars so great. It was inspired by Joseph Campbell’s mythological archetypes, employed a gifted team of special effects techies, it had a novel “used future” aesthetic and an unusually powerful musical score. Most often, it’s chalked up to the timing. The 70s were, by and large, a decade of cynicism at the movies. People were in the mood for something new without really knowing it. George Lucas’s upbeat space opera came along and blew the whole thing wide open.
The above undoubtedly had something to do with Star Wars’s success, but the real X factor that made Star Wars great, and the thing that enthralled me as a young kid, lies under the hood. What happens in the movie doesn’t matter so much. To borrow a phrase from film critic Terrence Rafferty, “the thing just happens” but how it happens and how it makes you feel while it’s happening is the most important thing. My theory is that Star Wars, totally accidentally, fell into a potent stylistic combination that made it timeless, intoxicating to watch, and has sealed it as the greatest fantasy film ever made.
The 1970s was indeed an era that trumpeted cynicism in film. But films from the ‘70s were also filmed in a realistic style. Many lines were buried in a cacophony of idle comments and casual chatter. Actors got used to delivering lines without theatrical projection, as though the camera wasn’t there. Think of Gene Hackman in The French Connection or The Conversation or Steve McQueen in Bullitt. Often, the camera would stay still, moving only to keep the action in frame. This realistic style put a premium on actors being totally in character, letting scenes unfold fluidly, often allowing the actors to ad lib around the script to achieve a realistic atmosphere, sometimes resembling newsreel or documentary footage like the courtroom scenes from The Godfather II. Previously, performances had hewed much closer to stage acting, emphasizing diction and projection. By the 1970s, a new generation of independent, directors influenced by French cinema verité and guerilla filmmaking, began to push actors to behave much more true to life.
I do not believe George Lucas had anything this artful in mind for Star Wars. He set out to make a classic Erol Flynn style swashbuckler blended with a Buck Rogers serial. But the times worked in his favor. Lucas wrote characters and dialogue with an infamously broad brush and was famously hands-off (some would say incompetent) when it came to directing their performances. This left the actors to shade in their characters and deliver their lines in whatever way they thought best. So they acted in the way they knew how, in that casual and natural style popular in the 70s.
I do not think that the actors’ performances in Star Wars were calculated. Indeed, nobody involved in the making of the film except Lucas himself knew what kind of movie they were in–so novel and outlandish was the concept. Take the scene where Luke Skywalker is introduced as he and his uncle buy C-3PO and R2-D2 from the Jawa scavengers. The scene ought to come off ridiculous. Two men in tunics haggle over a few semi-convincing props with a bunch of hooded midgets in the middle of a desert. They talk about completely made-up things, a language called “Boche” and machines called “moisture vaporators.” But the scene proceeds very naturally. Mark Hamill and Phil Brown play the scene as though they do this every other week or so. No big deal. The strength of Star Wars’s style is that none of the film’s starring actors delivers a performance that is markedly more interesting than any random extra walking on for a line or two.
This accidental realism of performances and dialogue, combined with rapid pacing and John Williams’s swelling score bore deeply affecting results. It’s a fantasy adventure movie featuring people who don’t seem to know they’re in a fantasy adventure movie and as it turned out, that’s pretty magical. Because the characters assume the world, it feels real and lived-in; and this despite many hokey costumes and sparse sets. Because they don’t act as though they expect adventure, it surprises and thrills when it arrives.
The honor of What Made Star Wars Great tends to go to the special effects team. But while the soaring spaceships thrilled audiences, the sandpeople? The cantina? The monster in the trash compactor? Please. Those scenes got by on charm alone, and were saved in large part by Hamill, Ford, Fisher and a bunch of extras who didn’t know what kind of movie they were in, or didn’t care enough to mug for the camera. The actors in Star Wars are not given much credit for its success. But saying nonsensical sci-fi lines completely casually, without a hint of dramatic punctuation is difficult while keeping a straight face. Hamill proved particularly adept at this. Fisher does admirably well as the most unrelatable character (space princess) by staying constantly frustrated with everything–which I guess you would be if you had the day Princess Leia did in A New Hope. No one in the film behaves like movie stars, not even Ford, really, whose cool seems to seep around the edges of a quite muted performance. The result is something magical, even profound. Nothing is telegraphed to the audience. It’s just real, and for a kid used to being pandered and played to at the movies, the subtle realism of Star Wars was enchanting.
The director who understood best what Lucas had done was Ridley Scott. His sci-fi classic Alien, released two years after Star Wars, took fantastical realism to arresting extremes. Instead of samurai, soldiers, and pirates, his characters were interstellar truck drivers with quotidian lives. Scott played his space casual for fear instead of adventure, and the results were singularly influential for the horror genre.
It goes without saying that this happy confluence of fantasy and realism could not last. It was kept up pretty well in The Empire Strikes Back, probably the smartest sequel ever made for a blockbuster picture. But by the mid 1980s, the mood had largely passed. Everyone involved in later fantasy films, in front of and behind the camera, knew exactly what they were doing. The sequel to Alien was a boilerplate action picture that prized muscle and set pieces over subtlety and naturalness. And so it has been, with few exceptions, ever since.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is also too far removed from the original to draw on its fantastical realism. Abrams’s installment is a cartoon. His characters behave like kids in a toy store. It’s fun to watch, and even occasionally compelling, but it is not real. Of course I expect kids the world over to go nuts for The Force Awakens, but I’m willing to bet the high will wear off as the effects age. It will excite, but not inspire. Kids, enthusiastic as they are about the next new thing, know when they are being played to, mugged for, and talked down to. The most memorable movies and tv shows I saw as a kid were not immediately comprehensible to me. They dangled just over my head, making me reach for comprehension instead of bringing it all the way down to my level. Therein lies the thrill of discovery and the eventual inspiration to create something similarly enthralling. The original Star Wars created a world that felt real and mature despite its fantastical contrivances. Amid the cartoonish fan films of today, its genius stands alone.