"It was 40 years ago today
Luke, Han, and Leia taught the world to play
With big flashlights and their plastic toys
They taught us kids all kinds of joy
So now we have to celebrate
A film that's really so much more
Star Wars Episode Four!"
Of course, it wasn't "Episode Four" at the time. Forty years ago today, on May 25th, 1977, the movie I will always think of when someone just uses the words "Star Wars" was released. I had just turned five years old at the time, and (I must admit) I didn't see it in its first release. About a year later, in the spring or summer of 1978 (it is a bit hazy), my Uncle Bill took my older cousins and me to see the rerelease of a movie that he'd seen multiple times the year before.
It's worth noting that my experience in that movie theater in Chicago (no, I've no idea which one, but I'm pretty sure it was downtown) changed my life forever.
It's difficult to really explain the impact of Star Wars on people--especially people in their forties--to folks who didn't see it during the '70s. I mean, you hear it all the time: "There had never been anything like it." And I'm sure people under 40 or so believe that, but there's a visceral understanding that comes with actually having lived through Star Wars mania. This was before home recording, so movies were released, and then often faded. Star Wars didn't. It stuck around all summer, then it got rereleased the next year and stuck around again. Then it got rereleased again. And people kept going to see it.
Is it the most brilliant movie ever? Well, no, of course not. But, for the first time in a long time, it changed the way people saw movies. (And it obviously changed the way people made and marketed movies.) To call it a phenomenon is to understate Star Wars. The movie was everywhere--posters, commercials, toys (in 1978, anyway)....There had been no such thing as market saturation such as this. Star Wars made Jaws look like a small film--which, in 1976, no one would have been able to conceive. Star Wars made Gone with the Wind
look like a small film, for god's sake. Suddenly, a movie invaded every aspect of our lives, from toys to posters to bedding to records (I still have my Star Wars story record!) to....well, everything! I remember the Burger King glasses. (We only had one for Empire and one for Jedi. Man, I wish I still had those; not because they'd be worth lots of money--they wouldn't--but because I loved them so.)
And then there's the movie itself. It was (and is) amazingly immersive. A lot has been said about the "lived-in universe" concept, and it's true. There's something more real about a somewhat grungy space fighter, one that looks like it's been around the block a few times, than a super-clean, perfect one (like, say, in Battlestar Galactica.) Ridley Scott would take that idea to the extreme with the Nostromo a few years later, but Star Wars was first. And the characters, as basic as they are, are incredibly appealing. It's ridiculously easy to get swept up in the story of Luke, Leia, Han, and the others. Darth Vader, in this movie, is the perfect villain, and Tarkin ain't bad either. And the effects! The whole thing felt amazingly real in a way that no science fiction film (not even 2001) had felt. It was mindblowing.
And I mean no offense to the under-40s at all when I say it's difficult for you to viscerally understand that kind of impact, when great effects and CGI have been taken for granted for decades. It just is. There's no way to explain how Star Wars affected people my age if you weren't there, I don't think, not when you can see something more technologically amazing on a TV commercial. Not when every big movie is treated as an Event, with marketing everywhere. In 1977-78, no one was expecting this. Star Wars was unprecedented.
Well, all right, I say no one, but a few people were expecting the movie to go over well. 20th Century Fox had sent groups to some science fiction conventions with posters and such. Roy Thomas at Marvel Comics staked his career (and, some say, Marvel's solubility) on the film's success. But, at best, everyone who cared thought it might do decent
money. No one, no one
, whatever they may say now, thought it would be...what it became before it was released. Even though by that date the fever was already beginning to mount....
And then May 25th, 1977 came, and lines stretched around blocks, and word of mouth went far and wide and...there we were. And, forty years later, here we are.
Is Star Wars responsible for my love of science fiction and fantasy? I wouldn't give it too
much credit. (I reserve that for the "Hobbit" telefilm a few years later.) But, like millions of other little boys and girls, it certainly opened my mind to new horizons, new ways of viewing, new ways of seeing. And I wouldn't trade that for anything.