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Star Wars turns 35

| May 25, 2012 | 0 Comments

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….

I remember getting an issue of the Star Wars Fan Club newsletter “Bantha Tracks” in May of 1982 saying that Star Wars had turned five years old. The five-year mark is an interesting one because the years go by so fast. Here we are at the thirty-five year mark of the release of Star Wars on May 25, 1977 and it seems just as much time flew by as five years did in 1982. It’s hard to believe that thirty-five years have passed since the day I saw Star Wars for the first time. It was one of those life-changing moments that has stayed with me to this day, as it has for millions of other fans. While Star Trek had its moments of adventure on the small screen, Star Wars brought sci-fi/fantasy adventure far beyond what the television could.

I saw Star Wars at the Menlo Park General Cinema in Menlo Park, NJ which was one of the few theaters in the NJ/NY area showing Star Wars since the movie opened at some of the better theaters in the area. The anticipation for the film was very high, but nobody knew just how huge the movie was going to become. I saw it on a Saturday afternoon when hardly anyone knew about the film and the theater was practically empty. It wasn’t until a week or two later when I saw it a second time that the theater started to fill up to capacity. While Jaws started the trend of popular summer films in 1975, Star Wars brought the summer blockbuster to new heights.

Ad showing Star Wars' growth by August of 1977. Three months later and still going strong. It would play at the Menlo Park Cinema at least through October since I saw it there on my birthday.

Star Wars was revolutionary, there’s just no other word to describe it. Movies prior to 1977 didn’t have the synergy of a fun story, amazing special effects, rousing music, and surround sound. The film opens with John Williams’ signature notes which have defined a generation. A crawl of text reminiscent of the serials of the 1940’s tells the story of how a princess has stolen plans to the Empire’s Death Star which has the capability to destroy an entire planet. After the crawl disappears into a sea of stars, the camera pans down, stopping just above the horizon of the planet Tatooine. From behind you came the roaring sound of a Rebel Blockade Runner flying over your head, firing furiously at behind it. Then, just grazing the camera, is the monstrous Imperial Star Destroyer which seems to be miles long. That shot alone changed movies forever, blowing audiences away more than any movie previously had, and if that wasn’t enough, the entrance of Darth Vader is known to be one of the most memorable in cinematic history. Over the course of the next few weeks, word of mouth about the film would bring people out and line up around the block to see it, some would see it multiple times. It was so popular for so long that it would play through Christmas that same year and in some markets would still be playing a year later.

One of my favorite images used to promote the film.

“Did you see Star Wars?”. That was the question at school the following Monday. If you didn’t see Star Wars, you were told about it in great detail. It was the movie that every kid had to watch. HAD to. The next few weeks, from the movie’s opening to the end of the school year in June, kids drew doodles of Darth Vaders, spaceships and even a Wookiee or two. Forget Superman and Batman, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were everyone’s heroes now. We collected trading cards, lunchboxes, comic books, and whatever else we could get our hands on. We begged our parents to take us to see the movie again, and again, and AGAIN. I counted twelve times I saw it until it left the theater. Although I had an interest in visual and sound effects from watching Star Trek, it was Star Wars that got me motivated to figure out how it was all done and I eventually started to create my own sound effects and stop-motion animations.

There’s more to Star Wars than just the score and the effects that it’s known for. What was different about Star Wars was its art direction. No other film was like it, with only 2001: A Space Odyssey coming close. Star Wars had a unique look to it which has lasted to this day in sequels, comics, and cartoons, thanks to the visions of Ralph McQuarrie and Norman Reynolds. The widescreen shots of the white Rebel Blockade Runner, the sandy dunes of Tatooine, the dingy cantina, the rusty X-Wings, the rackety Millennium Falcon, and the massive chasms of the Death Star were all unique and very different than the clean look of Star Trek and 2001. The look and feel of Star Wars made it very familiar to audiences, therefore making an alien world seem not so alien. Over the course of the summer I found that there were key images to Star Wars that kept my imagination about it intrigued. Most notable was the image of the X-Wing and TIE Fighter in combat. Another favorite was the image of Luke, Leia, and Han on the Death Star. However, I think the most prominent point in Star Wars, both in sound and vision, was the shot of Luke looking off into the binary sunset. For a nine-year-old, that conveyed a sense of wonder and exploration that gave a connection to the character of Luke that nothing else in the film could have done.

Star Wars went on to spawn two sequels, three prequels, cartoons, comic books, novels, two MMORPGs, several videogames, and a vast amount of toys and other merchandise. It’s become one of the most successful franchises in history due to its core story of good vs. evil, the path to the dark side and the road to redemption. Star Wars has not only seeded a modern-day myth, but also the imagination of budding artists, engineers, and storytellers which now show the movies to their kids and keep the story alive. While in the last few years, the saga has been the product of ridicule for its character of Jar-Jar Binks from 1999’s “The Phantom Menace”, the story as a whole has survived all this time, mainly on the strengths of the original trilogy.

Another of my favorite pictures, which was used as the puzzle for the yellow series Topps cards.

In the early 1990’s I was volunteering at the Union County Arts Center which was a local theater that had been recently renovated and showing 35mm films once in a while. My friend Bill and I decided that running the Star Wars Trilogy would be nothing short of amazing, and we got approval from Fox to show the films as long as the proceeds went to charity. The local YMCA had been selected and in March of 1994, we showed the unaltered Trilogy for the very last time. Five hundred people showed up for the event. It was an amazing experience because it brought so many people together to watch the Original Trilogy on the big screen for the very last time. Ever. In 1997, the Special Editions were released and they were the only official releases of Star Wars, Empire, and Jedi from that point forward.

It’s amazing how one film and its sequels could not only define a generation, but spark imagination in so many people that saw it as a kid back then. It’s been an amazing ride and the films are just as exciting to watch today as they were in 1977. I hope that the Star Wars saga continues to amaze kids today as it did back then.

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Category: Entertainment, Geekiversary

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