martes, 22 de mayo de 2007

'Star Wars' at 30: Still a geek's paradise

Friday marks the anniversary of the 1977 movie that made it cool to be a sci-fi dork.

A long time ago, in a theater far, far away -- no, wait, it was the Southtown, in Bloomington. Off Penn. But it was a long time ago: Thirty years ago this week, "Star Wars" crashed on the screen, and within weeks the film had revitalized the very idea of being a sci-fi geek. You could take a girl to this movie. Twice, even.

Let's step back and remind ourselves how the movie changed everything. Sure, it got producers addicted to big summer blockbusters, but "Jaws" had already started that trend. Granted, it helped sweep away all the off-kilter independent visions that populated '70s cinema, but hey, no one ever stopped Robert Altman from shooting a funky, multiplot film about 27 quirky people on a giant orbital death-star. Most important, it became cool to be a sci-fi dork.

What did dorks have before? Sci-fi movies either included Charlton Heston or the threat of Charlton Heston, and they were all depressing. "Planet of the Apes": The world had been nuked. "Beneath the Planet of the Apes": The world was nuked again, for good measure. "Soylent Green": eco-collapse, overpopulation, institutional cannibalism and men wearing scarves knotted at the throat. "Omega Man": everyone wiped out by a virus, except for pasty zombie army led by a former TV anchorman. The hero always died at the end. Roll credits. Commence bumming.

"Star Trek" was dead; "Space: 1999," a ridiculous show about riding around the universe on the moon, was deeply cool and satisfying -- if you were 8. No, it was a bleak, grim era for people who want to see doors slide open with a little "woosh" sound. Into this morass of gloom came "Star Wars," and yea, it was everything the culture had denied us -- er, had denied geeks. It had good guys and bad guys, no competing shades of moral doubt, plus lasers. Lots of lasers. It had the best special effects ever seen on the screen, from the complex and kinetic spacecraft battles to Princess Leia's motionless earmuff hairstyle. Villains? From the moment Darth Vader walked into the hallway and spoke in James Earl Jones' commanding baritone-of-death, we had the villain for the ages.

Little did we know that the entire stupid thing would end up to be about Darth Vader and his problems. Granted, it was nice that he found his Good Side at the end, but that doesn't exactly make up for killing untold billions of people. Prequels included, the series still ends with Darth Vader smiling from the afterlife while Ewoks dance, which is like ending "Band of Brothers" in a disco roller-rink with Hitler doing the Hustle with Gene Kelly. But that was still a long time away when the first movie ended.

And what an ending, eh? Han Solo -- Harrison Ford in his first great relaxed performance, and his last -- conquers his selfishness and redeems himself. Luke uses the Force -- which is sort of like magnetism, plus ethics -- and blows up Peter Cushing and his Death Star, along with untold engineers, support staff, kitchen workers, etc. The movie could have ended there, but no: It concluded with an awards ceremony. At the shank end of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate, Carter-era malaise and ennui, Lucas filmed a movie that ended with a princess giving medals to heroes.

After a generation of movies with tortured antiheroes who couldn't order a sandwich without making A Statement, it seemed remarkably fresh.

It saved science fiction. You could argue that "Star Wars" saved "Star Trek" as well; the success of the movie had everyone greenlighting space operas now, and the first Trek movie -- a long, serious film by the director of "West Side Story" -- was released a while later, leading to three more decades of Trek.

Disney countered with "The Black Hole," a so-so movie ruined by things like robots with Texas accents. There were dozens of B-movie knockoffs; even schlockmaster Roger Corman made one. But no one ever quite put it together like the original "Star Wars." Lucas had taken every cliché in the genre, stripped it down and served it up as new. Add some brilliant art direction and a stirring score, and you had the grandest slice of epic cheese ever made.

Alas, there were the sequels. If we knew it would lead to Jar-Jar Binks, empty digital spectacle, horrid acting, silly names, and dialogue that revealed its author to be unaware of the actual process of speech as practiced by most humans -- well, we might not have seen it 10 times that first summer. Six times, maybe. Well, seven. Just for that one part.

Which part? Depends. Everyone has a different favorite moment, and that's why we still watch it three decades later -- and why our grandkids will watch it 30 years from now. Of course, they'll have a special hi-def 3D version pumped directly into their cerebral cortexes, and some of us in the old-folks home will be complaining about that: How many times do I have to buy this movie?

And then we'll pay up again. We grew up on "Star Wars." We could outgrow it if we wanted to. But what's the fun in that?

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