Star Wars: An immersive and sophisticated movie experience

Swank

and debonair
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Speaking of the first film and its sequel Empire, there is a common perception that these films are very likeable and fun but unsophisticated adventure intended for children. And that is certainly the way even Lucas has described these films - as throwbacks to Flash Gordon and "science fantasy", rather than the dystopian or highbrow stuff that came before it.

What Lucas seemed ultimately unaware of (if subsequent films are any guide), is that the collaborative product he headed up was possibly the most immersive SF work on film, to date or since.

Film is audio/visual storytelling, and genre films in "built" worlds lean on what is seen and heard to communicate their most important elements. We like to think of "story" as plot, but the story is whatever the author thinks is most important. Over and over, Star Wars and Empire convince the audience this alien future-scape is entirely different from our world, but the characters' excessively downplayed interactions completely belies their exotic world and subsequent actions. The suspension of disbelief is so total that the audience doesn't question when American schoolboy Luke takes on an army like Wolverine.

The visual creation of SW offers design-in-depth. There aren't just spaceships, but spaceships with at least four different drive systems and design elements that hint of different cosmetic trends. None of the clothing has familiar button, snaps or laces. The seemingly unlimitedly powerful Empire has Storm Troopers ride lizards because it must be more practical in the desert - or easier on the Empire's all-too-real fiscal budget. Weapons appear real because they are actually functional firearms. Physics is different, but completely consistent and reliant on a few invented principles. Even the Force appears to grant powers very similar to the technologies in use, like tractor beams and anti-gravity, keeping the altered physics of the SW universe to a tidy bundle.

As we watch gravity switch 90 degrees in the gun ports of the Falcon, the characters are mum. They never remark on the remarkable; never offer any exposition on technology, alien behavior or the shocking lack of handrails or safe closing doors. Luke's "normal teenager" uses fightercraft and grappling hooks with familiar ease, even while being shot at. The characters are not stand-ins for a transported audience member, but fully embedded in their world - having their own tolerances for violence, fear and change that bear only passing resemblance to ours.

By Jedi, Lucas started to break the fourth wall by winking to the audience with cute Ewoks and musical dance numbers unrelated to the plot. From there the prequels engaged in a lot of "hey, look at how cool this is" scenes that had nothing to do with moving the plot and more characters that forced the audience to think about what they were watching. The pace slowed, the exposition increased massively, the backstory Easter Eggs exploded and the authenticity of the visuals went to hell.


Other films have given this sort immersive realism of a try, but are usually either too closely connected to our time and troubles (2010, Alien, Blade Runner, Minority Report) or focus so much on style that you can't just watch the future play out (Dune, The Matrix), or is just plain winking at the audience (5th Element, Guardians of the Galaxy). SW/Empire are utterly unique in filmmaking for depicting a far flung and disconnected future in a serious and realistic manner. Being well removed from our time but played straight by the central characters, the films allow the audience a greater level of escapism - bolstered by immensely realistic special effects, made-to-order sound effects and an emotional musical score that raises the story stakes without reference to heroics (Superman, Raiders).

There is some light comedy in the form of Han's roguish behavior, Yoda's hijinks and C3P0's inappropriate fretting, but real life has its light moments as well. These touches are more than balanced by the deep moments of horror that punctuate the real stakes of the characters lives - strangulations, multiple scenes of torture, burnt bodies, callous cremation, mutilation, genocide, disemboweling, loss of loved ones, battlefield sacrifices and even robots that experience real pain.

As immersive escapism, no other live action original SF film comes close in both realistic depictions of people and scenery with no real connection to our daily lives. Of original works (rather than book adaptations), the closest effort in my mind is the excellent 1981 Dragonslayer, a beautifully constructed fantasy movie set in an unconnected period with real stakes for its characters. It seems that part of the failure to properly duplicate the impact of SW/Empire in modern times comes from both a deep misunderstanding of these films effect on audiences, and a nostalgia-like tendency of modern genre films to make the audience participants in the filmmaking with Easter Eggs, inside jokes, genre deprecating comedy and the least realistic element: hip style.
 
Good post Swank. There are times when I wonder if I was watching Star Wars for the first time today, would I feel the same about it? I think part of belief in what you are seeing comes from the first experience, and as I went to watch Star Wars at the cinema as a young child I didn't question the validity of what I was watching; I think it's hard to shake that belief (although some of the 'enhancements' and the release of the prequels did their best).

To some extent it was the perfect storm of getting the right people together at the right time, with some seminal tv/films being already out there; 2001 had shown how great space could look and how important the soundtrack was, Star Trek had shown that a universe of different beings, planets and spaceships was possible, but also that interactions between alien races could be funny as well as serious.

I also think that there was a perfect combination of gravitas and ease, something that must be incredibly difficult for a director to get right. The actors delivered their lines as though they truly believed in what they were saying, whilst being relaxed and 'natural' in their behaviour. I think it helps that there were some extremely experienced actors, in particular Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing who are bound to have had an influence on the younger, inexperienced actors. The humour is never forced, there's clear chemistry between them and it looks like they are all happy to be there.
 
The biggest problem for George Lucas was that he stopped directing films after Star Wars , to run his company Industrial Light and Magic and produce and films . He should never have left the director chair as completely as he did at that time.
 
The biggest problem for George Lucas was that he stopped directing films after Star Wars , to run his company Industrial Light and Magic and produce and films . He should never have left the director chair as completely as he did at that time.


To be fair, he'd just made the perfect cinematic movie; one that was accessible to all, was eminently rewatchable and left the audience clamouring for more - that's a hard act to follow. One of the most important things now was to reinforce the beginnings of his potential franchise in order to make lots and lots (and lots) of money - which he did.

One other thing I would add is that a large part of the success of the movie was John Williams. He'd already composed the astounding soundtrack to Jaws, he now created an even better one for Star Wars (and went one further with Superman). I don't think that the film would have been half as successful without his input.
 
To be fair, he'd just made the perfect cinematic movie; one that was accessible to all, was eminently rewatchable and left the audience clamouring for more - that's a hard act to follow. One of the most important things now was to reinforce the beginnings of his potential franchise in order to make lots and lots (and lots) of money - which he did.

One other thing I would add is that a large part of the success of the movie was John Williams. He'd already composed the astounding soundtrack to Jaws, he now created an even better one for Star Wars (and went one further with Superman). I don't think that the film would have been half as successful without his input.

Yes, after I saw Star Wars , I wanted more. :)


John Willams did music put Star Wars over the top. :)
 
The biggest problem for George Lucas was that he stopped directing films after Star Wars , to run his company Industrial Light and Magic and produce and films . He should never have left the director chair as completely as he did at that time.
He didn't direct Empire, and it was amazing. He did direc Ep. 1-3, and they were lousy. He's only directed 6 full length films, and 3 were good.

So I don't follow. If anything, Star Wars is great despite his direction.
 
Minourity opinion here:

I saw Star Wars when it came out. I was 13 at the time and loved it.

But, though I liked aspects of the next movies, there were enough things in them to disappoint me. I made it as far as the fourth release before I stopping watching them.

I watched the first again at thirty, and other than some nostalgia I didn't feel it. I suspect if I was over thirty when the first movie had come out I would not have been into it. (while still recognizing the many exellent aspects of the story and its presentation)
 
Minourity opinion here:

I saw Star Wars when it came out. I was 13 at the time and loved it.

But, though I liked aspects of the next movies, there were enough things in them to disappoint me. I made it as far as the fourth release before I stopping watching them.

I watched the first again at thirty, and other than some nostalgia I didn't feel it. I suspect if I was over thirty when the first movie had come out I would not have been into it. (while still recognizing the many exellent aspects of the story and its presentation)

Not really a minority opinion. Many feel the same way.
 
Minourity opinion here:

I saw Star Wars when it came out. I was 13 at the time and loved it.

But, though I liked aspects of the next movies, there were enough things in them to disappoint me. I made it as far as the fourth release before I stopping watching them.

I watched the first again at thirty, and other than some nostalgia I didn't feel it. I suspect if I was over thirty when the first movie had come out I would not have been into it. (while still recognizing the many exellent aspects of the story and its presentation)

When you view something you loved when you were younger, though older eyes , it never looks as good as you remembered it. Older eyes see all the shortcomings.
 
Just to be clear, the purpose of my OP was to illustrate the unique qualities of SW that set it apart from nearly every other SF film in any era - it's immersive nature by making the fantastic pose as the mundane. It does that with FX, characterization, set design and and scripting to pull the viewer in without making them conscious of the departure from real life that is being illustrated.

Whether you like the film or not is a somewhat unrelated question.
 
So, I saw SE at a premiere in 1977 in my early teens and it was magic. It was the first film I ever saw twice at the cinema. There was really nothing like it is terms of special effects and general PR at the time. It was a Friday night post-pub staple on the VHS in my flat as an undergraduate. I have seen SW hundreds of times over the intervening decades, and had interminable discussions in 5 continents, in universities, desert islands, and dive bars, sober and otherwise, with academics, stoned surfers, inebriated engineers, Hollywood A listers, my brothers and my own kids about this film. I love this film. It is a great and historic movie.

The thing is, I am not sure that agree with the OP’s premise that:
“SW/Empire are utterly unique in filmmaking for depicting a far flung and disconnected future in a serious and realistic manner” unless I am misinterpreting it. There is nothing particularly profound or serious going on in SW. it is a rollicking good romantic adventure in the traditional mode, which happily pays tribute to SF staples such as the Flash Gordon & Buck Rogers matinees, Metropolis, and probably bits of Kurosawa, various Westerns etc. Lucas is as much of a nerdy fan as Spielberg in this respect. The one thing that does set it apart from most of its predecessors (apart from 2001) is the size of the budget, and the quality of the design, which uses beat-up grubby technology and cotton/leather instead of shiny chrome and silver jumpsuits.
 
So, I saw SE at a premiere in 1977 in my early teens and it was magic. It was the first film I ever saw twice at the cinema. There was really nothing like it is terms of special effects and general PR at the time. It was a Friday night post-pub staple on the VHS in my flat as an undergraduate. I have seen SW hundreds of times over the intervening decades, and had interminable discussions in 5 continents, in universities, desert islands, and dive bars, sober and otherwise, with academics, stoned surfers, inebriated engineers, Hollywood A listers, my brothers and my own kids about this film. I love this film. It is a great and historic movie.

The thing is, I am not sure that agree with the OP’s premise that:
“SW/Empire are utterly unique in filmmaking for depicting a far flung and disconnected future in a serious and realistic manner” unless I am misinterpreting it. There is nothing particularly profound or serious going on in SW. it is a rollicking good romantic adventure in the traditional mode, which happily pays tribute to SF staples such as the Flash Gordon & Buck Rogers matinees, Metropolis, and probably bits of Kurosawa, various Westerns etc. Lucas is as much of a nerdy fan as Spielberg in this respect. The one thing that does set it apart from most of its predecessors (apart from 2001) is the size of the budget, and the quality of the design, which uses beat-up grubby technology and cotton/leather instead of shiny chrome and silver jumpsuits.
I didnt say serious. I said immersive. It does a number of things to make you forget how wild what you're watching actually is and allow you to enjoy it differently.
 
This is the first time I'm encountering such a charitable interpretation of the original Star Wars movies. As a child I was enchanted by them, and as an adult I enjoy watching them once in a while with my own child, but here is what I would say about them
  1. Genre wise they are sword and sorcery (but in spaaaaace) B movies.
  2. The actors are in love and having fun and that makes them loveable and enjoyable
  3. They have simple and unpretentious plot, characters and themes, which also makes them lovable
It is 2 combined with 3 that gives them lasting charm. 2 and 3 started to disappear in ROTJ and we do not speak of the other movies.

Here are also hints of depth here and there, which are not all obvious on a first watching, but not enough to carry the day. The redemption arc of Darth Vader is reasonably innovative and rewarding, given that in the first two movies he's just a straight forward uncomplicated villain.

Over and over, Star Wars and Empire convince the audience this alien future-scape is entirely different from our world, but the characters' excessively downplayed interactions completely belies their exotic world and subsequent actions. The suspension of disbelief is so total that the audience doesn't question when American schoolboy Luke takes on an army like Wolverine.
This is what I interpret as the actors having pure fun. All of them, Guinness (mostly) included are young, having a blast, and it shows. The details like gravity being wrong, sounds in space, I interpret as Lucas not giving a damn about physics (and the rest of reality) getting in the way of the story (sword and sorcery, but in spaaaace!)
 
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Immersive is the right word for it. When you look at interviews at the time of release--Harrison Ford in particular--they focus on the unique nature of the visual (and sound) effects experience--right from the opening shot of the imperial ship descending from above. There is nothing to compare it to. They put you into a universe with robots and aliens and there's no pause to examine any of it. It's taken seriously.
There is a sense of humor but it doesn't break the fourth wall. Characters are humorous but it does not come at the expense of the make believe world. Somehow they avoid anything that says "this is silly."
By contrast--Raiders of the Lost Ark has a few moments where it does break the seriousness of the story. There is a shot of Belloq smirking in close up which is done in an exaggerated way to take you out of the plot---and when Indiana Jones kicks the guard between the legs and takes his hat--that is a joke at the expense of suspension of disbelief. The filmmakers are signaling to the audience--this is silly.
Star Wars does not have that. The closest thing is the little droid that takes off when Chewbacca growls at it (which was a Marcia Lucas contribution apparently).

What hurts in rewatching Star Wars now is the lack of characterization. It just doesn't have good dialogue. But the Death Star sequence still works.

I think though that younger people exposed to modern fx may be completely disinterested because they cannot appreciate how unique it was in 1977. I was too young and fell asleep before the end, but there was a sense of how unique it was-especially in costume and ship design. There is nothing that matches it in that aspect. Even the person who has no interest in sc-fi would be at least curious because of that design attitude. Darth Vader and the stormtroopers were very unusual-looking.

I think shooting in England was an advantage to avoid creating a sense of silliness to the story. Most of the cast were UK actors--the guy who played the Imperial starfleet commander --a couple of years earlier he was in a Peter Cushing movie where he walked around in blue makeup and wearing nothing but a diaper. So if he could be serious in that--then being serious when Darth Vader is in the room is nothing.
 
These touches are more than balanced by the deep moments of horror that punctuate the real stakes of the characters lives - strangulations, multiple scenes of torture
I hate to say this, but have you seen Prometheus?

Roony Mara gets to watch all of her comrades get eated by an Alien rip-off. Nobody likes that movie :cry:
 
The thought of life without SW is terrifying to me. I’m 50 and possibly more obsessed with it than I was in 1978 when I saw it for my sixth birthday at the cinema.

I do think however the inclusion of Easter eggs rather underlines your point on how immersive it has become.

My opinion is that SW started off as a movie but forced a pop-cultural paradigm shift so unprecedented that we (creators/audience etc) don’t know what to do with it. It stands separate from any other IP and has become somewhat of a personal mannequin that we demand be dressed a certain way or it ‘fails’. The size and depth of the SW universe allows us to do this.

But I digress. If I had to choose between food or Star Wars, I’d be very hungry.
 
I hate to say this, but have you seen Prometheus?

Roony Mara gets to watch all of her comrades get eated by an Alien rip-off. Nobody likes that movie :cry:
I've seen Prometheus,, a horror film. What are you getting at.
 
Star Wars was like a theatrical rollercoaster; you had to get on and just enjoy the ride. The credits, the music and the intro with that huge spacecraft flying over your head was something that you had never seen before. And the fact that everyone went to the cinema to watch it meant that we all experienced that same feeling of specialness. So that when the titles tell you that this is a story set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, it's hard not to accept it at face value.

I have had a hard time thinking of any space movie before Star Wars that didn't feature Earth and humans; Star Wars was (I think) the first movie - or at least the first popular movie - to feature aliens fighting aliens. So there is no emotional attachment which tells us 'this is which side you are on'. And as it's all about alien species, then why not that there are lots of planets where they live, that they do things that humans don't do, and science doesn't work in the same way?
 
The thought of life without SW is terrifying to me. I’m 50 and possibly more obsessed with it than I was in 1978 when I saw it for my sixth birthday at the cinema.

I do think however the inclusion of Easter eggs rather underlines your point on how immersive it has become.

My opinion is that SW started off as a movie but forced a pop-cultural paradigm shift so unprecedented that we (creators/audience etc) don’t know what to do with it. It stands separate from any other IP and has become somewhat of a personal mannequin that we demand be dressed a certain way or it ‘fails’. The size and depth of the SW universe allows us to do this.

But I digress. If I had to choose between food or Star Wars, I’d be very hungry.


There are times when I wonder if a younger generation feels this way about Avatar.
 

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