Film 101 is In Reel Deep’s commitment to an in-depth re-examination of cinematic classics — old and new. Learn more about the ongoing series and see others in it on our Film 101 page.
Star Wars is the biggest movie of all-time. This is a more controversial notion than it might seem at first. Gone With the Wind - to name one film - has an obvious claim. It casts a longer shadow, having been released in 1939, and has the highest box office gross when adjusted for inflation. There are other films that you can argue are more beloved - like the predecessor in this series - or are more influential. Jaws, a contemporary of Star Wars, can, for example, claim to have truly ushered in the blockbuster era, in which we still reside.
But … no.
It’s Star Wars, and then everything else. And that makes it exceedingly intimidating to write about the 1977 original - the 121 minutes that loom larger than anything else in the cinematic world still, some 40 years later.
Let’s start with the personal: I can’t remember the first time I saw Star Wars, nor can I make a reasonable estimate about how many times I’ve seen it. Was I 6 years old when I first saw it? Or 8? Have I seen it 20 times? Or 30? Or 50? The fact that I can’t make a reasonable guess speaks to how ingrained this film is in my brain. At some point it became a part of my childhood, and it never let up.
My brother and I wore out the trilogy set we had on VHS. We weren’t alone.
20 or 30. 100. 25. 6 to 10. These are the estimates a few friends gave me when I asked them how many times they had seen the films. I can’t think of another film where I wouldn’t be absolutely shocked if I got the same answers.
When something is that omnipresent - that much a part of your childhood - it becomes difficult to actually analyze critically - to break it down seriously. It was really, really strange to sit down, with this piece in mind, and take notes on a film that was so frequently background noise as I was growing up.
Oh, now you’re going to think deeply about this?
Think deeply and soberly I did. And what I think about Star Wars, for the first time as a critic, is that this is a film that proves how much details - even ones that aren’t fully explained - matter when committed to with complete confidence.
The infamous scrolling introduction immediately gives way to a massive ship chasing a smaller one through the vast, empty blackness of deep space. In short order, Darth Vader charges in to the smaller ship, a pair of robots dodge shots from blasters and a mysterious beauty shuffles the bots off to a nearby planet.
Sure, there are a few paragraphs of text to set the mood, but really George Lucas drops us in to this galaxy a long time ago and far, far away with very little context. And that’s quite OK. We talk about this all the time when we evaluate new releases, but it’s a powerful thing for a film to trust its viewers to keep up - to avoid flashbacks or awkward pieces of dialogue for exposition.
Star Wars is one of the ultimate examples of this. It explains what it needs to without ever really feeling clunky. It leaves you to wonder things like where all the characters in Mos Eisley might hail from and what might motivate them, comfortable enough with the pacing and storytelling to know that such questions are fun little curiosities and not distractions.
And now what we’ve begun to talk about is how well lived-in the Star Wars universe feels. In this, too, it is one of a kind. It is partially storytelling, but it is also through acting and the script and especially, especially, especially production design that it is able to achieve this. It all feels real - from Luke Skywalker’s home on Tatooine, to the relationship between Han Solo and Chewbacca, to the Death Star, to Grand Moff Tarkin’s slaughter of everyone on Alderaan, a moment that was just as chilling the 30th or 50th time I’d seen it as it was the first 29 or 49.
This is why we love Star Wars. This long time ago … this galaxy far, far away … it is utterly convincing. It also provides us with clear, likable heroes and detestable villains. There is even a construct - The Force - to give us order.
It’s “familiar character-types and stories dressed up in new presentation,” said one of those friends I polled.
“It's a classic story of good vs evil,” said another.
It’s “a fully actualized world that somehow doesn't take itself too seriously,” said still another.
“I think people love it because it's a world they want to live in, even if for just a small period of time. It's the ultimate escape to a world that is more interesting than our own. Of course on top of all that are the interesting cultures, worlds, and SPACE. But at the root it's a more thrilling universe than the one we live in,” said the last friend to respond.
Yes. To all of this.
The story in Star Wars is almost deceptively simple. The world in which that story is told is exceedingly complex and almost limitlessly expansive. (Disney will be pushing the boundaries of the latter sentiment.) This is a film that is comforting in its familiarity and also stimulating in the way it sparks the imagination.
It’s an irresistible combination.