Star Wars? I was right there at the beginning, I tell you.
Well, when I say the beginning, I mean I got into the press show. In Manchester. All right, so it was hardly the creative coalface, but looking back on it I can feel that I was a witness to something. I saw the moment when we moved from a world with no Star Wars in it to one where it would forever be a part of the fabric.
Many at that showing were genuinely astonished at what unreeled before them. They just weren’t prepared for it. Until Star Wars came along, to be an sf fan was to have lowish expectations from the cinema. You learned to be very, very happy over not very much.
If I didn’t quite share the astonishment, that was for one simple reason. Back then I subscribed to American Cinematographer, and the issue dated July 1977 had carried a Star Wars cover and no less than four behind-the-scenes articles including one by effects supervisor John Dykstra, detailing the various ways in which the visuals were achieved. There was no skipping over the hard bits, no simplification for public understanding. This was a magazine for fellow-pros who didn’t need to be talked down to, and hangers-on like me who didn’t want to be.
American Cinematographer was to be my guidebook through the boom in science fiction cinema over the next few years. Its editor was Herb A Lightman, a former cameraman who loved nothing better than to get out of the office and take himself down to a movie set where he could talk shop with old colleagues and maybe end up operating camera number fifteen on some massive, unrepeatable stunts-and-effects sequence. Lightman’s almost childlike enthusiasm for the business of making movies, allied with the magazine’s technical remit, resulted in some of the best insider coverage of screen science fiction around.
Over the next half-decade or so, that same coverage gave me advance warning of a whole series of ground-breaking sf movies that would all owe their greenlighting to a “Star Wars effect”. Not that Star Wars changed the audience. The audience was always there, its appetites unrecognised, uncared-for, not believed in – those around-the-block lines didn’t gather by mass hypnosis. Rather, it forced a change in the industry’s attitude to science fiction. Fox executives famously slept through the preview screening and would later scramble to retrieve and shred copies of their market research, out of sheer embarrassment. The success of the film was one massive head slap which made them start taking the idea of big-budget sf very seriously indeed.
To me the most memorable films of that period were the ones that owed their commercial viability to the Star Wars effect, but not their inspiration. Alien. Close Encounters. Superman. Blade Runner. As each one came along, its groundbreaking techniques flagged and enthused over by Lightman and his team, it really felt as if the future was opening up and that the possibilities of screen sf were going to be endless.
So what happened? Did that prove to be the case? I’d have to say no. Back then I thought of it as a tidal wave, carrying us forward. But now I think of it more as an earthquake, shaking things up where they stood and leaving us with a different landscape. I look at screen sf now and what I mostly see is new variations on (almost) thirty-year-old templates – which themselves were revisions of much earlier, lower-rent models.
It’s hard to find a civilian space crew that doesn’t owe something to the bickering bluecollar bunch from Alien, or a scary extraterrestrial that doesn’t owe something to that same movie’s indestructible phallus-headed cockroach. If it’s a non-scary extraterrestrial… well, even ET was pretty much a calving from the Close Encounters iceberg. While we’re at it, knock off that movie’s feelgood ending and give Roy Neary a badge and Clarice Starling for a sidekick, and you’ve got The X Files.
Has there been an Earth’s-future dystopia since that hasn’t made us think of Blade Runner? I look at Spiderman or Iron Man now and I see the same basic approach that made Superman work. It was that film’s screenplay that cracked the problem of the comicbook movie with the realisation that the key to believable superdeeds lies in the way you handle the hero’s private life. The humour, the form, the tone, the exact placing of the line between fantasy and reality… it’s all there in the template.
It was a fertile period, and Star Wars allowed it to happen. It was a great time to be a fan. The downside is that if you felt the first impact of something like Alien, it’s hard to get too excited when a Pitch Black comes along. And in a way, we’ve taken some backward steps; my heart sinks at the prospect of committing two hours of my life to a movie in which I just know that the last act is going to consist almost entirely of two CGI characters slugging it out in a CGI world.
When the Art of Star Wars exhibition was running at London’s Barbican centre, I took myself along. Nearly all of the props and sketches were from the later films but I might as well have been back in 1978. The only difference being that while I still find Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back watchable, Return of the Jedi seems to have set the tone for the rest of them – a bunch of elements thrown together, some you like, some you don’t, but the whole thing lacking in coherence and feeling somehow unnecessary. For me, watching the later Star Wars movies is like being buttonholed by a gamer at a convention who insists on recounting in great detail all the fantastic and hilarious things that happened to his character in last night’s RPG. Lucas has extended the weaknesses of the original – the cod mythologizing lifted straight from Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces, the made-up future politics – while losing sight of its youthful joie de vivre.
And then he had to revisit the originals, too. What would the young Lucas have made of this middle-aged stranger imposing revisions on his work? George, you’re just fiddling now. Stop it. You’re spoiling it.
American Cinematographer‘s no longer the magazine it was, either.