Star Wars finally hits the big 4-0…

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Today as I write this, I just realized it is (or was, by the time I publish) May 25… 40 years to the day that Star Wars (sans “A New Hope”) was released, and changed movies forever.   40 years later and we’re still ‘chasing Star Wars.’   There’ve been a few other ‘game changers’ in cinema before (“JAWS” “The Exorcist”) and since (“Jurassic Park” and arguably “The Matrix”), but none have so fundamentally changed the very art of the motion picture medium as thoroughly as Star Wars.

To those born after that time (I’m carbon dating myself, but these are the musings of a ‘middle aged‘ geek), I would imagine it’s very difficult to understand the paradigm shift that movies underwent that year.   I can only relate what I personally witnessed from the perspective of a 10 year old kid who loved dinosaurs, monsters and motorcycles.

I didn’t see Star Wars on opening day; no one I knew in those days did.   In fact, Star Wars didn’t ‘explode’ onto 3,000 ready-and-willing movie screens as movies do today.   It built slowly, as most movies did then.   Movies sometimes stayed in theaters for months before building an audience, via word of mouth (in those low-tech, pre-Twitter/pre-FaceBook days).

^ Sad that I remember the exact day that I first saw Star Wars by this

I personally didn’t see Star Wars till the day before Elvis Presley’s death, and the only reason I remember that is because I stayed over at a friend’s house the night we saw Star Wars, and news of  Elvis’ death was all over the radio and TV the next day.   So, for me?  August 15th, 1977 was the actual day that changed my life (and no, that is not an exaggeration either).

^ Marquee sign for the old UA Cinema at Tyler in Riverside, where I first saw Star Wars back in August of 1977…

My younger sister and I first went to see Star Wars with some family friends and their five-year old son in a small theater in Riverside, California (a Barnes and Noble bookstore exists on that same site today).   Back then, it was an old UA (United Artists) Cinema multiplex and the screens were relatively small.   We got there early.    We had good seats.   There weren’t any lines outside.  In fact, I couldn’t believe (at that moment) that we were there to see the movie that was selling out all over the country, and for which crowds lined up around the block.   I saw none of that.   We got in with no fuss whatsoever.   We even had plenty of time to get our popcorn and drinks.   However, I do remember having to move over a couple seats to our right when a woman with a huge ’70s style afro sat directly in front of our friend’s five year old (!).

^ The look that was very much en vogue, circa 1977…

I also remember, as we got up to change seats, a bucket of unattended popcorn left on the seat was impacted when the weight-loaded seat flipped upward.   Pieces of popcorn landed right in the back of the woman’s hair (!).   For some reason, that is a memory I will take with me to my grave; we laughed about it later on that night, but at the time we were terrified.  And I have to admit, at the time I felt kind of bad for the lady.  I have no idea how long she went around with popcorn stuck in her hair like that.   Though a part of me feels it was a bit of karmic payback for parking herself directly in front of a 5 year old kid (!).   Mind you, there were NO STADIUM SEATS in those days…. those were still a decade or two away in 1977.

^ These modern conveniences would’ve solved so many moviegoing issues back in 1977…

I also remember hearing classical music playing in the darkened theater before the movie; I didn’t realize it then, but this was not a radio station or the usual finding-your-seats musical wallpaper that sometimes played in those days.   This was lush and heavily orchestral.  I didn’t know it then, but later I realized this was the soundtrack to Star Wars that was playing.  And this collection of music was to be the very first movie soundtrack that I would ever purchase (the big gatefold double-LP; came with a poster, too!).

For that moment in time before the movie, I was just chowing down on popcorn and sipping my soda when the auditorium darkened and a few faded, poppy, scratched trailers played.   In those days, they usually played a few short trailers before the feature presentation and that was usually it.   Trailer time allocation in 1977 wasn’t the 20 minute long, time-wasting event that it is today.   I can’t remember a single trailer, either. Which brings me to my memories of…

After the trailers, the old 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare played (rum-dum, rum-dum…daaaaaaa rum dum...!).   Then a message appeared onscreen, with text like something out of a space age children’s tale…

… followed by a BLAST of brass, as John Williams’ Star Wars theme instantly grabbed my 10 year old attention span by the lapels.   The title “STAR WARS” appeared onscreen, followed by a now famous opening crawl of text which made NO sense to me whatsoever in those days.  The text majestically moved up-screen…  I read it, of course, but I had ZERO context.  Civil war, rebels striking, secret plans, Death Star, okay… sure.  

And even though the movie didn’t yet include the “Episode IV: A New Hope” title (that would appear in 1981, I believe), it felt designed to feel like the middle chapter of a story.   At that time I was somewhat unfamiliar with the 1930s Flash Gordon serials and their opening text crawls, but if I were?  I’m sure I would’ve recognized the formatting right off.   I see what you did there, Mr. Lucas… very clever.

Then came THE shot.  The money shot…

Yes, the shot that began to rewrite my very DNA as I sat in my theater seat.    A small spaceship was fleeing from laser beams being fired from another spaceship; a HUGE spaceship, unlike anything I’d ever seen before.  This larger ship nearly filled my entire field of vision... and its sheer bulk seemed to go on forever… this ship was so immense that it was almost comical.   Just how big was this thing??   And how the heck did they DO this??   I’d seen miniature spaceships on TV shows like “Star Trek,” “Space: 1999,” and “The Twilight Zone,” but this was something altogether new… and ridiculously exciting to a 10 year old kid.   It was only about a minute or two into the movie, and I felt a giddiness I don’t recall ever feeling at a movie before then…

There…are…three…robots! 

The scene that followed showed a trio of robots walking inside of a white, sterile-looking starship corridor, as external explosions rocked the decks.  These robots looked very unlike the boxy, clunky, Robby-the-Robot type numbers I was used to seeing on TV.    Two of these new robots were quite human in their overall shape; one was gold, the other was silver.   The third tripodal robot looked like some kind of hi-tech, self-ambulatory vacuum cleaner.   During the scene, the silver droid just casually walked off camera.  Apparently, robots like these were commonplace in this strange new universe that blazed across my senses.   My then 10 year old brain was in all-new territory.

As the scene progressed, I saw humans standing guard with weapons drawn, waiting by a door that was soon blasted apart.  A pitched battle with laser guns ensued.   Red beams flashed across corridors (these  were much faster than the static ‘phaser’ shots I remembered on Star Trek; where an actor usually ‘froze’ in place when firing to allow opticals later on).  The resisting soldiers were dropping like flies as more of their armored enemies boarded.   The white armor-plated beings (humans? robots?  I had no idea) were the enemies, apparently.    Soon, as most of the rebelling humans appeared to be killed off, a tall, black-clad, masked figure entered the scene.  The clashing of cymbals and brass on the soundtrack told me that THIS was the movie’s big bad.   This was Darth freaking Vader.

At the time?  I remember mindlessly sucking on my soda’s straw during that moment of Vader boarding the ship, and for a split second, I thought the inhaling noises I was hearing were coming from me, sucking on my soda cup’s straw (!).   I stopped immediately, of course (didn’t realize I was so noisy!) but the sounds continued.   I then immediately realized it was the tall, masked man-in-black onscreen making those inhalation noises, not me.  And yes, that was an actual thought in my idiot, 10 year old brain at that moment.   So, there was a teensy bit of personal relief mixed in with the sheer awe of seeing Darth Vader on a movie screen for the very first time.   His breathing continued ominously, and when I had a second to let that sound sink in?  It gave me some serious goosebumps…

Vader and his white clad troops (still weren’t sure if they were humans or robots at this point) rounded up prisoners, including a feisty princess (Leia, played by the amazing Carrie Fisher) who dropped one of the troopers with her own pistol (you go, girl!) before they stunned her and took her to Darth Vader.

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Appearing before the ominous Darth Vader, Princess Leia didn’t shriek, cower or even appear to be frightened; she stood her ground (!).  This was also something new in a fantasy movie; a heroine with guts and a will to stand up for herself and her convictions.   This ‘princess’ was no shrinking violet or damsel-in-distress.  She was a tough leader-type who paved the way for ALIEN’s Ripley, or the reimagined Buck Rogers’ Wilma Deering or even Buffy the Vampire Slayer.   Today, tough female leads taking charge are everywhere; in 1977, they were almost nowhere to be found.   Carrie Fisher’s vibrant princess left a hell of an impression…

Meanwhile the two robots, the golden protocol android named C3PO and the ambulatory vacuum cleaner named R2-D2, flee the captured rebel ship in an escape pod to the desert planet below.

The ejection of the escape pod looked so ‘right’ (down to the particles that appeared to scatter in the pod’s wake, just like a real space capsule separation).  Had I not known better, I might’ve almost believed it was stock footage from an Apollo spaceflight.

One of the vistas I remember most vividly from my first Star Wars viewing (many more would follow) was of seeing the droids trekking across the barren but beautiful desert landscape of the planet “Tatooine.”

I could almost feel the heat off of the screen as C3PO walked up a sand dune and stumbled across a giant dinosaur’s bones (remember; I was also an avid dinosaur freak at this age…).  The large collection of bones were not even the point of the scene; they were just incidental.   This Star Wars was a lived-in universe with a unique history all its own.   They even had their own dinosaurs.   That these dinosaur bones just ‘happened’ to be there really enhanced the reality of this world for me.   It’s a throwaway moment that modern audiences wouldn’t give a second glance today.  But in the all-practical, no-digital CGI FX world of 1977?  That giant dinosaur skeleton was one of many bits of weather-worn reality strewn across this film’s landscape that allowed me to immerse myself completely in this ‘galaxy far, far away…’

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Even at ten years old, I knew this alien desert was an earthly locale (it had to be, right?) but I had no idea where it was.   It could’ve been Death Valley California, Mongolia or Saudi Arabia for all I knew (I later learned it was filmed in Tunisia, mixed with shots of Death Valley).   The world suddenly felt more fantastic than my mostly suburban/urban limited life experiences prepared me for at that point.  Star Wars broadened my worldview in an instant.

As the story went on, the robots were sold to a local Tatooine ‘moisture farmer’ named Owen, living with his wife Beru and their nephew, Luke Skywalker.   Soon, Luke and the droids were in his uncle’s garage (the grime and grit of the place certainly recalled my father’s garage), when R2-D2 suddenly projected a fragmentary holographic recording of the tough princess I’d seen earlier.   This was also the first time I’d ever seen a hologram so realistically depicted on film before… it even had scan lines and black bars, like my family’s old 25″ Zenith TV set!

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Luke tells his uncle about the recording, but the gruff older man is evasive.  They’re soon arguing.  Luke wanted to leave to go to space school, but his uncle wasn’t having it.   And apparently Luke reminded his uncle and aunt of his father; something the uncle was “afraid of.”   Hmmm… intriguing.

Before returning to finish maintenance on the droids, Luke pauses for a moment and gazes off into a beautiful (and seamlessly done) binary sunset, in one of the most resonant bits of sight and sound from the entire movie.  The swell of music in this scene (John Williams’ ‘force theme’) is just sublime.

It’s a perfect depiction of youthful yearning.

Luke then returns to the garage to find the little droid, R2-D2 has run off; after Luke unwittingly removed the droid’s restraining bolt mechanism.  “Boy, am I gonna get it,” says Luke, in a lament familiar to any kid (like myself) who’s ever lived in fear of punishment from a parent or relative.  Luke’s perspective in this first half of Star Wars was not unlike how I felt as a kid then… a frustrated young dreamer who yearned for a more exciting life beyond his/her boring, chore-filled, workaday existence.   What kid, especially a lover of science fiction, doesn’t dream of things like that?

The next morning, Luke and C3PO set off to find R2D2.   We also see Luke’s very cool ride; a hovering, open-top, jet-propelled car called a ‘landspeeder.’   At the time, my dad was driving an old Ford Pinto to work (yes, with that ugly simulated wood paneling on the side) and our family car was a green and white Volkswagen bus.   So yeah, compared to my parents’ cars?  Luke’s aged, worn, beat-up landspeeder was still pretty freakin’ sweet.   Did I mention that it FLOATED ON AIR??

“Look Ma, no wheels!”

The only time I’d ever seen anything quite like that landspeeder was from a movie I’d seen on television a few years before, about a group of astronauts (with a clunky robot named “John”) who landed on Venus and encountered mermaids, dinosaurs and volcanos.  The movie was called “Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women” (and that was a fairly typical sci-fi title in those days).   The movie used high-end footage from a 1960 Russian-made movie called “Planeta Bur” (Planet of Storms), which was actually much better than its Americanized, bastardized offspring (several cheap, knockoff B-movies were made from this original Russian film).

^ Luke’s landspeeder had a precedent; the ‘air car’ seen in the ahead-of-its-time Russian-made movie “Planeta Bur” (1960).   Footage from this movie later appeared in several Americanized knockoffs…

The landspeeder (aka ‘the air car’) in Planeta Bur was a bit clunkier, with a full canopy and retro-looking tail fins; and it obviously ‘hovered’ by used of hidden wheels and clever editing.    The speeder in Star Wars was different; there were wide shots where you really saw the damn thing hovering above the ground.   As I analyzed it on home video years later, I could see that it was done with opticals and slight of hand, but on that day in 1977?  I just bought it.   It worked.  That mother could float.

With his cool speeder, Luke trip to retrieve his errant little robot turns into a hero’s quest of sorts, as he is attacked by the ‘sandpeople’ (the “Tusken raiders”, which sounds a bit… Italian?).

Wait for it….

The scene of the sandpeople attack was one of the few ‘jump-scares’ of the movie; as Luke is peering through hi-tech video binoculars, a large mass suddenly fills his field of vision!  The belligerent sandperson quickly knocks Luke unconscious and leaves him for dead.  And it all happens in a matter of seconds.

I’ve heard modern audiences talk about the ‘slow’ pace of Star Wars today, and I can certainly understand that now, but in 1977?  This movie seemed to RACE to the finish line.  I’d never before been so fully immersed in a movie (without gimmicks like 3D or surround sound) that I genuinely lost all sense of self or the passage of time.

Not once do I remember needing to use the restroom, or feeling hungry or thirsty midway through the film.  My chubby, then-ten year old body may have been firmly seated in the theater but my mind was living an adventure in another universe, in another time.

After the sandpeople attack, we (the audience) meet old hermit Obi Wan “Ben” Kenobi (played by Sir Alec Guinness).   Ben scares the sandpeople off by imitating a large predatory creature’s howl.

As Luke and the droids take a moment to relax in Kenobi’s dwelling, R2-D2  plays the holographic message of the princess for the old man and the movie starts to click.   This old desert ‘hermit’ was the General Obi Wan Kenobi whose help the young woman pleaded for in her original message.   Kenobi, like many other things in the film, was much more than he appeared.

It was also at this time in the film that another really cool gizmo would permanently sear itself into my brain, as Obi Wan gives Luke Skywalker his legacy; “(his) father’s lightsaber… the weapon of a Jedi knight.”

Luke takes what appears to be a flashlight from Radio Shack and BAM!   The ‘flashlight’ converted into one of the coolest things ever: a sword with a blade composed of pure, blue-white energy (!).

Of all the cool ‘toys’ I’d seen in Star Wars that day in August of 1977?  This was undoubtedly the coolest.   I won’t lie; I wanted one of these things really badly!  Hell, even today my wife (a fellow Star Wars junkie) and I, along with our friends’ kids, still play with toy fluorescent lightsabers whenever we can…

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There was also another Star Wars ‘first’ in that movie (albeit a bit darker in nature); the force-choke.   In a conference room scene aboard the moon-sized “Death Star” battle station, we see Darth Vader choke an insubordinate officer, Admiral Motti (Richard LePalmentier) from across the room.  And it was done entirely with acting and sound effects.  No effects.  No wires.  No props.

I’d seen telekinesis in horror movies before at that point (Brian dePalma’s “Carrie” came out a year before, in 1976), but not with the the same slow menace and subtlety.   Carrie’s telekinesis came in fits, almost involuntary, like a spasm or a seizure.   Vader’s usage was more measured and calculated.  He could modulate his ability exactly as he needed.

And LePalmentier’s reaction really sold the hell out of it, too.   I had the chance to meet LePalmentier at San Diego Comic Con a couple of years before he passed away, and I’m pleased to report he was nothing at all like the haughty, seething Admiral Motti.

Meanwhile, back on Tatooine, Luke learns that stormtroopers, who were searching for the droids, have ransacked the moisture farm and killed Luke’s uncle and aunt.   I remember vividly seeing Owen and Beru’s charred corpses on that big screen, as Luke arrived back at his devastated homestead.

Probably the closest thing that Star Wars had to a ‘gore’ shot back in 1977…

At that point in my young life, I was already a ‘veteran’ of both “JAWS” and “The Exorcist” (and those movies had genuine nightmare fuel!), so Star Wars’ brief shot of burned bodies was relatively innocuous to me.  I later learned that George Lucas would trim this shot of the burned bodies by a second or two for the ‘special editions’ later on.   I suppose (in hindsight) it was a bit much for a family movie, but no one really seemed to care at the time.

So with his family gone, Luke joins Ben on a seemingly Don Quixote-esque quest to save the princess from the evil Darth Vader.  My ten-year old self was so caught up in the hi-tech trappings and exotic locales that I didn’t realize I was being served up a very old fashioned tale about the wizard and a young would-be knight dashing off to help a princess (!).

Their first stop in this journey?  Mos Eisley spaceport, to hitch a ride off-world.

The Mos Eisley spaceport cantina scene was a ten-year old monster fan’s dream.  Creatures of all sizes, shapes and types occupied this bizarre, crazy place.  The screen was flooded with quick insert shots of wolf-men, rat-people, giant insects, green space aliens, a butt-faced creature and even (in the original version anyway) a sinister being who looked like the devil himself (!).    It was one hell of a menagerie.

From here, our heroes meet Han Solo (the soon-to-be-famous Harrison Ford) and his giant, furry ape/bear/dog companion, Chewbacca (played by Peter Mayhew, under a costume and mask and with bear/lion/walrus sounds dubbed over his voice).

My kid sister immediately loved the furry Chewbacca (aka “Chewie”).  One of her favorite toys in Christmas of 1978 was a stuffed toy Chewbacca doll.  Star Wars toys took over a year to hit the market since this was before toy merchandising was synched with an event movie’s release date, as is commonplace today.  In fact, Star Wars (and George Lucas’ contract) had a lot to do with that…

George Lucas kept his own salary relatively low by negotiating away potential upfront profits in exchange for the toy and merchandising rights; which were considered next-to-worthless in those days.   These days, toy and game tie-in marketing is par for the course with big Hollywood movie releases.  Yes, some big movies prior to Star Wars had merchandise tie-in campaigns, like JAWS and Planet of the Apes, but merchandising then wasn’t as automatic as it is today.   That decision of Lucas’ to withhold upfront profits for back-end merchandising rights helped to make Lucas a very wealthy man.  1977 saw George Lucas at the apex of both his creativity and his moxie.

Anyway, on with the movie…

Ben & Luke negotiate with Han & Chewie for an expensive ride (17,000 in space bucks) to Princess Leia’s home planet Alderaan aboard their ramshackle starship; the Millennium Falcon (a cool if slightly obtuse name).   The next morning Imperial forces close in on our heroes, and they are forced to blast off during a pitched shootout.

After the group departs Tatooine, there would be another memorable shot that burned into my cerebral cortex on that summer day in 1977:

The jump into hyperspace.

It was a brief moment onscreen, but for me?  It was transcendent.   I felt my heart leap up into my throat as the stars streaked backward across the big movie screen (big to me at the time, anyway…).  This was a few years before I caught “2001: A Space Odyssey” at a revival screening, so that first hyperspace jump was unprecedented MIND BLOWING stuff.   Up till then, space travel depicted in movies or TV shows were usually rockets or near-static models dangling in front of a backdrop of stars.   And even though the USS Enterprise of Star Trek traveled at ‘warp speeds’?  All I ever saw was a big, 11 ft. model drifting slowly across a matted-in planetary or stellar background.   Even the cool Eagle transporters of “Space: 1999” seemed to move (visually, at least) no faster than a conventional airplane onscreen.   They lacked the illusion of tremendous speed.

But the Millennium Falcon changed all of that in an instant as it raced through outer space at velocities my ten year-old brain could NOT comprehend.  Even starlight itself couldn’t keep up…

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That’s more like it, Star Trek…

When Star Trek returned in 1979 with “The Motion Picture”, we’d finally saw the USS Enterprise travel at something that at least looked like ‘proper’ faster-than-light travel.

Soon, our heroes emerge out of hyperspace and are captured by the tractor beam of the Death Star, which has just nuked Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan in yet another Star Wars moment that nearly caused my young eyes to pop from their sockets…

^ Alderaan is obliterated: in 1977, we didn’t have the Star Trek VI-style shockwave though… 

Once aboard the Death Star, our heroes slink and skulk their way into a control room in stolen stormtrooper uniforms (this was also the point in the movie when I’d finally realized the stormtroopers were NOT robots; since Han and Luke could steal their uniforms for themselves… hey, I never claimed to be a genius).

From there, our heroes discover the princess is being held aboard the metallic moon, and they formulate a rescue plan.

Han and Luke steal stormtrooper uniforms and plan to rescue Princess Leia…
Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and the Tin Man steal uniforms and plan to rescue Dorothy…

Even at a young age, this was the part of the movie that felt most ‘familiar’ to me, as the idea of our heroes stealing uniforms and infiltrating an enemy stronghold reminded me very much of a then-favorite movie of mine; 1939’s The Wizard Of Oz (above), which we used to watch on television as an annual treat.    Star Wars was the space age Wizard of Oz in many ways; a young farmer is whisked away to an adventure in an exotic far-off place, makes a few odd friends, infiltrates an enemy stronghold, defeats a dark sorcerer, etc.   Star Wars, like Wizard, was timeless stuff…

So after a daring prison break, the heroes rescue the princess and flee into a trash compactor where they’re nearly crushed to death.  From there, they are briefly separated; Luke with the princess, and Han with Chewbacca… each having their own brief, dangerous run-ins with enemy troops only to rendezvous back near the ship in time to attempt to blast off…

…. but before they can escape?  Obi Wan Kenobi infiltrates deep into the station’s core and deactivates the tractor beam holding the ship captive.    From there, another aspect of Kenobi’s past is illuminated, as he encounters his former pupil (and current nemesis) Darth Vader.  Vader had “been waiting” for the old man with his own lightsaber activated; a bright red energy blade, of course…

Vader seems to have some regard for Kenobi; he duels with the old man when he could’ve just as easily force-choked him to death (bear in mind this was the first movie; we didn’t yet know if the ‘old wizard’ Kenobi was as powerful as Vader or not).

Finally, in an act of self-sacrifice, Kenobi allows himself to be cut down by Vader’s blade so that nearby guards will be distracted enough for his young friends to get to the Falcon and escape.   As he is given the fatal blow by Vader, he simply disappears (!).   His disembodied voice advising Luke to “run!”  So, after another quick shootout with stormtroopers, Luke and his friends haul it to the Falcon and blast off from the Death Star.

The escaping Millennium Falcon is then attacked by a squad of TIE (twin ion engine) fighters that are soon blown to hell, as Luke and Han man cannon stations aboard the ship.

The entire TIE fighter attack sequence (in the link above) is a near-perfect example of how composer John Williams rousing score, ILM’s visual effects, the editing team’s work and a charming cadre of performers combine to create a great moment.  Just watch the scene (via the link), and you can see how each element adds so perfectly to the whole.   The TIE fighter attack on the Falcon is not a critical scene to the story (in fact, we later learn the TIE fighters were just ‘letting them go’), but it’s all about excitement, character and energy.   It’s a single sequence that seems to embody everything that makes Star Wars work so well.

Our heroes finally make their way to the hidden rebel base on the fourth moon of the planet Yavin, and using smuggled schematics of the Death Star hidden within R2-D2’s memory banks (placed there by Princess Leia), they carefully plan their attack on the Death Star itself.   The schematics reveal a flaw in the Death Star’s design that can blow it to kingdom come.  And they have to hurry, since the Death Star crew placed a homing beacon aboard the Falcon before it fled; the Empire now knows the location of the rebel’s secret base.

It’s as this point that ALL of the movie’s various plot elements converge.  Leia has fulfilled her mission in getting the data tapes of the Death Star to the rebellion for study.   Luke plans to fly an X-wing star-fighter in the attack on the Death Star itself (how he mastered flying an X-wing is a bit vague, but no matter…).   Han and Chewbacca get their ‘reward’ for safely delivering the princess, and are planning to split (or are they?).   This is the calm before the storm as the rebel star pilots will soon fly off to their attack on the Death Star…

… and the Death Star attack does not disappoint.

We’re suddenly seeing fleets of fighter ships (X-wings, Y-wings and TIE fighters) doing WW2-style aerial combat maneuvers over a giant, artificial moon (!).  One particular moment during the assault that was most memorable to my ten-year old self was when the X-wing fighters do vertigo-inducing axial dives into an equatorial trench along the Death Star itself.

The way the camera zoomed down into the trench in ‘first person mode’ feel made me vaguely dizzy that first time.   Not necessarily nauseous or anything unpleasant, but that wonderful, giddy feeling of experiencing dizzying heights from a comfortable or safe place.   Most recently I felt that sensation when my wife and I went atop the Empire State building in New York City last summer.  I remember looking straight down.   Yes, it’s that feeling.

Long story short:  during the attack, Luke’s fellow pilots are being slaughtered.   Vader takes his own fighter craft out to squash the rebels personally.   As the battle seems all but hopeless, the Millennium Falcon suddenly appears out of nowhere (“Yaaaahoooo!”) and clears the way for Luke’s attempt to destroy the station.   Han and Chewie had a last minute change of heart (yay!).   Luke opens himself to the force (via Kenobi’s disembodied voice), releases the ‘proton torpedoes’ and makes the million-to-one shot.

This happened next…

… and, like the Alderaan explosion above, there was no damn CGI shock wave in 1977.

The rebellion, for the moment, is saved.   Darth Vader’s ship is out there somewhere (even at ten years old, I was internally screaming for a sequel).

Next?  Everyone cleans up well for a big, grand, medal ceremony in a huge hall of heroes.  The droids are polished.  Luke jettisoned the karate duds.   The princess looked radiant.   And absolutely amazing music from John Williams.

The End.

And with that?  My ten year old self was no longer the same person that sat down in that theater some two and a half hours earlier.

And as we left the theater that day?  I also noticed that the lines to get in were now WRAPPED around the entire building (!).  By catching an earlier matinee show, we just missed all of that… and this was almost three months after it was released.   I can’t imagine a movie doing that kind of business months after its release today… probably because most people would have the blu ray or DVD by then, right?   Back then, movies lived or died on reviews and word-of-mouth.   They sometimes took weeks or months to find their audience.  These days?  It’s opening weekend or bust.

Around the 4th or 5th time of seeing Star Wars in theaters, we decided to see it  in Hollywood; so we saw it at the Mann’s Chinese Theater on a giant, 70mm capable screen and in full “Dolby” stereo (yes, laugh now, but Dolby is still around… in fact, they’re latest sound innovation for theaters is the Atmos system).

The program book of Star Wars; how I wish like hell I’d held onto mine…

In the lobby of Mann’s (where all the footprints-in-cement are located), we even got a program book to go with the movie (!).  Yes, I’m sure the tickets were expensive, but hey… I got to put my feet in Anthony Daniels’ (C3PO) footprints (!).  How geeky-cool was that?? 

I also remember when it premiered on pay TV in the early 1980s (via ON-TV; the antennae-friendly counterpart to cable’s HBO), and it had a stereo simulcast on a local FM station.  I immediately scraped some allowance money bought a 2 hour blank audio cassette and recorded the entire movie off the air (via my boombox).   And I used to play that tape all the time while doing homework.  It got to the point where I memorized not just the dialogue, but also the foley effects and music cues.   I knew that movie better than the sound of my own voice, so help me…

The last time I saw Star Wars in the theater was in 1997 with the Special Edition (I’ll save my complaints for those another time… some of the changes made sense, but others?  Well, … let’s not go there today, okay?).

It was also a bit of a homecoming seeing both “The Force Awakens” and “Rogue One” in the same general area where I first saw the original in 1977; they’ve since built a new AMC multiplex on the opposite corner of that same mall.   In talking to my wife, it turns out she saw Star Wars at the old UA theater when she was 5 (yes, she’s 5 years younger than me… I’m such a cradle robber!).   We both thought it’d be sentimental fun to see the new movies at the same mall, even if the theater is no longer on the exact same spot.   We bought our tickets online, and I literally held our places all day; few films are worth that, but Star Wars is special.

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2016: At age 50, I find myself in that same Riverside mall (different side), waiting in drizzly rain, holding places for my wife and our friend to see “Rogue One”; it was still worth it, even waiting 8 hours…

I’m 50 now, but when I hear John Williams’ blast of brass?  I’m 10 years old all over again…

Happy 40th Birthday Star Wars.   The Force is still mighty strong with you…

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. sanzbozo says:

    Bravo! You really took me back, thank you! So many memories and an amazing reminder of just how important this film was AND is.

    Liked by 1 person

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