Meet the New Hope
George Lucas and His Jedi Mind Trick
Science fiction films of the early Seventies had established certain standardized themes: the future was a dystopian nightmare of totalitarian rule and Charlton Heston was angry about it. Star Trek had conditioned us to expect heavy doses of social commentary to go with the ray guns and rubber forehead accessories so we’d understand that, even though the future looked like a big bowling alley, most people wouldn’t be having much fun in it. All the robots and aliens would be brooding over their lost humanity or the oppression of green-blooded immigrants. The Seventies themselves were awash in political extremism and class warfare; it seemed only natural that all the advanced technology of the future would create an even bigger bummertopia. With talking apes and rollerball.
So I could be forgiven for taking these youthful prejudices about science fiction films into the theater with me in 1977, when I finally got to see this new movie featuring what appeared to be the Tin Man and a long-haired ape. This flick was pretty puzzling. Not only was there no Earth, and few recognizable metaphors for the human struggles of Earthly existence, but any toehold on relevance had been thoroughly stomped by a huge menagerie of androids, aliens and planetary systems one was expected to absorb. Consider that the popular culture at that time was not yet primed for such an intense level of geek mythology; only the hardcore fantasy dorks, hiding deep in their caves, studying the Federation Handbook and Hobbit poems, were prone to getting immersed in sci-fi folklore to this degree. For the reality-based community, Wookiees, Jawas, R2 units, the Death Star, Tatooine, the Force – this was a lot of gibberish to process all at once.
It’s arguably true, I’d say, that this was the biggest, most successful film to date that wasn’t actually about anything. Yes, there was a story, of sorts; something about a really mean space army and the space hippies who were trying to stop them from doing…space something. But this was obviously just an exercise in art direction and Buck Rogers nostalgia. Even the recognizable elements, the human-type characters who spoke English and wore pants and ate sandwiches, were caricatures of the broadest B-movie stereotypes: the wise and patient guru, the hotheaded teenager, the wisecracking gambler and his faithful sheepdog. There was plenty to ponder, but not much to think about. Here were a bunch of white people who were actually aliens, hanging out with midget druids and beeping trash cans, surrounded by a cacophony of roaring space ships and a bombastic symphonic score. The shit was wall-to-wall stupid, and I couldn’t wait to see it again.
I bought in. I begged, cajoled, and tantrumed right along with my kiddie contemporaries to see the film multiple times and to amass as many tie-in products as possible. The Kenner Toy Company, the Svengali that kept us engaged with the Lucas Miracle between sequels, provided plastic dioramas to help cement all this alien genealogy in our spongy little brains. And here, of course, was the real revolution, the groundbreaking theorem that changed entertainment forever. We had all been enticed to repeatedly view – to pay MONEY for the privilege of viewing – the world’s biggest toy commercial.
Being victimized by this kind of manufactured desire wasn’t new to us - we’d been wading through a sea of Kojak lunchboxes and Fonzie jackets for some time. But this wave of retail frenzy was different. It didn’t go away. It didn’t fizzle out like Jimmie Walker or pet rocks. It didn’t fade from the store shelves like yesterday’s Baretta. The R2 model kits and Darth Vader cookie jars just kept on coming, year after year. And this ideological breakthrough was destined to rewrite the rules of movie merchandising. It didn’t have to die. You could keep the kinder hopped up on Wookieemania for ages, then hit them with another sequel or TV spinoff when they started to get groggy. And they might just stay hooked permanently. They didn’t have to grow out of it.
And it looked as if we never would. We stockpiled action figures. We studied light saber blueprints and Tatooine weather charts. We learned to speak Jawa and built our own stormtrooper armor. We researched the history of the Clone Wars and speculated endlessly about Boba Fett’s dental records and whether or not Yoda was really Princess Leia’s sister. A craving had been flung in that summer of ’77 that needed constant fixing, and it was hard to remember there had ever been a world before Threepio Underoos. The people had spoken. We wanted a constant supply of spectacular fantasy films, rich in Muppety wonderment, with an avalanche of related products, forever and ever. Amen.
In the Fall of 1977, I convinced my parents to take me to the drive-in to see the first official re-release of Star Wars. I couldn’t understand their hesitation to witness this magic for themselves, or their obvious irritation as the film progressed. Through the windshield, I noticed something written in the opening crawl of the film that hadn’t been there before: “Episode Four: A New Hope.” This was confusing, but also pretty exciting. Not only would there be the promised sequels, destined to reveal all sort of mysteries, but now it looked like there was even more to this fabulous mythology than we had been told. The story might stretch back to the beginning of time, and continue on for the rest of our lives. A new hope, indeed! A new reason to live!
In the front seat, my father began to nod off. My mother sat drearily, oblivious to the life-changing cinema spectacle in front of her. I promised myself I’d never get so old and tired that something as glorious as Star Wars couldn’t thrill me. I would stay faithful to the grand vision of George Lucas until death do us part.
Someday I’m going to get around to seeing those prequels.
(And let’s not forget Ashley’s website, jam-packed with portraits and other drawings, his illustrated rant column, The Symptoms, his highly-affordable prints and books currently available, his eagerness for your portrait commission, and his contact email, firstname.lastname@example.org, where he longs to hear from you.)
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