My train of thought for this article came from something author Rob Craig said in his introduction to his book ‘It Came From 1957’ that I reviewed recently. He describes the original ‘Star Wars’ trilogy as ‘overproduced, underwritten, f/x-burdened, narratively insipid, imagination-barren franchise’ and I couldn’t actually disagree with some of that. Always remember what Harrison Ford told George Lucas what he thought of the dialogue and paraphrasing, easy to write, difficult to say with conviction.
Thing is, although I couldn’t totally disagree with him it is all these same points that also made ‘Star Wars’ successful in the first place. After all, no one had ever seen a film done so spectacularly since ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’. Even films like the original ‘Planet Of The Apes’ franchise fell short in some budgeting areas. Science Fiction films were pretty much stuck in a wilderness. The only other two films also around in 1976 were ‘Logan’s Run’ and ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’. Both based on original SF books with certain changes. ‘Logan’s Run’ by W.F. Nolan and Clayton Johnson’s had a good way of keeping the population under control, killing people off at 21. This was raised to 30 in the film to accommodate older actors and a somewhat different ending as to what happened to those who avoided being killed. Essentially, becoming a cowboys and indians plot than truly finding sanctuary. Mind you, the novel having it off-world never did make much sense to me. ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth’ by Walter Tevis essentially became an art house movie and a vehicle for singer David Bowie as it showed an alien adjusting badly to life on Earth than rescuing his people. Could he honestly take enough water back to feed a planet? Two films at different ends of the scale and, to be honest, hardly likely to capture a family audience. Even when ‘Logan’s Run’ became a short TV series, it turned into a fugitives vehicle.
It was hardly surprising that ‘Star Wars’ won through hitting on everything needed to become a media hit. It had characters that you could like fighting bad guys you shouldn’t like but found intriguing and hit on all the SF tropes from faster-than-light travel to telekinesis with a touch of psychobabble. A taste of a reality that left you wondering what else was out there which stimulated the imagination and kept people, myself included, going back for more. Fuelled by merchandise, it kept its fan base going for the next two films. The WOW! factor kicked in more because there was nothing like it. The release of the latter three prequels, even when you dismiss the plot flaws, had a different sort of competition and was really seen in a different light by the upcoming generation. Hopefully, with what was learnt from this, the Disney release will show a little more rationality with its timing.
But back to 1976, the original ‘Star Wars’ if anything was a cultural shock to the Science Fiction community and brought in people who might probably not have seen SF before. It showed the most important thing for Hollywood was that Science Fiction could hit the mass media and make a lot of money if enough care and attention was paid (sic) although this took a long time to sink in. When you look at the SF films of 1977, these were all in pre-production the previous year. ‘Eraserhead’ was an art house film. The other, should we call them ‘highlights’, were ‘Island Of Dr. Moreau’, ‘Demon Seed’, ‘Damnation Alley’, ‘The People That Time Forgot’, ‘Empire Of The Ants’, ‘Kingdom Of The Spiders’ and ‘The Incredible Melting Man’ were essentially B-level films and hardly remembered today. One film that stood out was ‘Close Encounters Of The Third Kind’ but as Spielberg was a friend of Lucas and had saw the change coming, he was sensible to do something different, put the investment in and gain an audience which also why it is still enjoyed today.
It was hardly surprising that the transition and learning lessons were being sorted out in the Hollywood circuit from then on. Some like ‘Alien’, which its director Ridley Scott pointed out much later was really an SF re-working of ‘The Haunted House’ and his ‘Blade Runner’, more in line with Film Noir detective story. Money paid off with ‘Superman’ and ‘Superman 2’, largely because they were made on top of each other. ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ had the lesson of effects but not for paying attention to cast and had an up and down relationship in the sequels trying to find a balance.
If anything, looking over the SF films up to 1980, there really was a mad mixture, with some getting green-lit although none truly copied ‘Star Wars’. For Hollywood, that has to be unusual. Misfires like ‘The Black Hole’ and ‘Buck Rogers In The 25th Century’ still held onto pre ‘Star Wars’ attitude to SF but even the new canny fans were distinguishing between plastic and realistic and clean futures and cute robots were quickly vanquished with ‘Blade Runner’, showing what would happen if we didn’t take care of our world. Both of those films held a grey area even in SF but I think it was more to do with recognising that it took more than window-dressing to sell the product.
As the change was started by ‘Star Wars’, one has to see it as a legacy for change. Apart from showing that Science Fiction could make a healthy profit, it also showed that there was an untapped audience that would repeatedly go to the mega-blockbusters. The rest, as they say, is history or is it future history?
If it hadn’t been ‘Star Wars’, then eventually some other director would have eventually have made a similar breakthrough. Things have a habit of happening at the right time and 1976 gave us the legacy that we have today.
© GF Willmetts 2014
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