Accompanying the article were two box-outs on contemporary reviews and the film's UK release.
Because it’s Star Wars.
All of which probably doesn’t totally encapsulate the significance of George Lucas’ little space opera in the grand scheme of things, but it’s as good an example to start with as any.
Very simply, it is impossible to overstate the importance of Star Wars in the history of cinema, in exactly the same way that it is impossible to overstate the importance of the Beatles in popular music. Like the Fab Four, Lucas’ film was not only a watershed in its own medium, but sent ripples throughout the whole of popular culture which still lap on the shore to this day. Just as you can instantly tell if a record was made before or after the Beatles, you can instantly date any film (not just SF) to pre- or post-Star Wars. And in the same way that Decca famously turned down those lovable moptops (D'oh!), so Universal passed on the chance to make George Lucas’ second film (D'o-oh!!!). Fortunately, Alan Ladd Jr at 20th Century Fox had the perspicacity to see something in Lucas’ idea and gave him the backing he needed - and the rest, as they say, is history.
Now, it is not strictly true to say that nobody expected Star Wars to be a hit. Admittedly, when the film opened on 25 May 1977, George Lucas was in a diner across the street from the Chinese Theatre and wondered what the long queue was for (he probably assumed it was for Rocky, Annie Hall, or the Mohammed Ali biopic The Greatest). He and his wife were planning to be in Hawaii when the film opened and had forgotten that the actual premiere was on the Wednesday. But let’s face it: Lucas would have had an ego the size of the Death Star if he had thought, “I bet they’re going to see my film.”
And yet Star Wars was a hit literally from day one. Though the reviews were on the whole superlative, they only started to appear as the film opened and could not possibly have directly influenced its record-breaking opening weekend (neither could word of mouth, obviously). It can only be deduced that there was a huge unspoken need among the public for a film of this type, which nobody except Lucas, Ladd and co. had picked up on - and even then quite possibly only by accident.
Star Wars opened in 21 American cinemas and on its first day grossed $215,443 at a ticket price of $3-4 each. By the end of its first week, Star Wars was playing on 42 screens and had taken $2,898,347. One week later, playing at 45 cinemas, the takings had risen to $5.2 million; a fortnight after that, on 157 screens, $13 million. At the end of June, by which time the film was playing across America at 360 cinemas, the gross was $20.5 million, already nearly double the film’s cost.
Explaining the success of Star Wars would take more than a few pages, but the key seemed to be the way that every aspect of it blended the old and the new. The story and characterisation were of a sort that had fallen out of favour with film-makers and could only be caught in TV screenings of old movies from the ‘30s and ‘40s, yet the movie was not presented as anything retro, but as something bang up to date. The technology used to make the film included cutting edge, innovative techniques, yet it also employed seemingly outdated ideas such as Vistavision (running 35mm film sideways to gain greater definition).
And what of the merchandise? George Lucas certainly didn’t invent spin-off movie merchandise - just consider the enormous range of Mickey Mouse ephemera sanctioned by Walt Disney in the 1930s - but he reintroduced the concept, fully aware that there lay the source of much of his income. Under the headline “Star Wars Product Bonanza”, the Hollywood Reporter on 8 June predicted “Although there are no projected figures on how much money merchandising will bring in from Star Wars, the amount will be astronomical, and possibly the largest ever for a motion picture.”
For the ordinary punter, Star Wars was simply like nothing that had ever been seen before, like nothing that had ever even been imagined before. With 22 years of post-Star Wars imagery in our minds, it’s difficult to imagine/remember (depending on age) what science fiction was like before this film. There were undoubtedly some pretty good SF films made in the early- to mid-1970s; indeed, given how small the genre’s output was at that time compared to the post-Lucas deluge, the overall standard was probably higher. Films like Logan’s Run, Soylent Green, Silent Running, A Clockwork Orange and the Planet of the Apes sequels had (and retain) their own charm, but it was notable that the 1977 Worldcon did not award a Best Dramatic Presentation Hugo because nothing received enough votes (Star Wars romped home in 1978, of course.)
|1978 Hugo Award|
Suddenly, everyone wanted a piece of the sci-fi action. There were a few SF films already in production, notably Superman, Norman J Warren’s Prey, and two Disney flicks: Return from Witch Mountain and The Cat from Outer Space. But the market domination of Star Wars meant that studios around the world rushed through anything they could find that could be slotted into the space-based trend. The first two productions of note were the Italian Star Crash and the Japanese Message from Space, although one must admire the British entrepreneur who simply picked up a 1976 Hong Kong film set during the Korean War and rush-released it as Sky Wars! Not wanting to be left behind by their own success, Fox immediately gave the green light to Ridley Scott’s Alien. And by the end of June, the Hollywood Reporter was announcing that the second season of The Muppet Show would feature a weekly sci-fi serial called Pigs in Space. Star Wars had definitely arrived.
And once it had arrived, it stayed. The Star Wars trilogy created more instantly recognisable icons - names, images, characters and ideas - than any other film or films before or since. In fact, more icons than almost any other story, with the possible exception of the Bible. Can there be anyone under the age of about 50 who doesn’t know Princess Leia, Darth Vader, R2-D2, Jabba the Hutt, Yoda or the Millennium Falcon? Surely everyone recognises a lightsabre, or an X-wing, or an Ewok. You don’t know what a Wookiee is? Get out of here, man! Science fiction has created other widely recognised iconography, such as the TARDIS or Mr Spock, but these images took time to ingrain themselves on the public consciousness. Darth Vader and co. were known all over the world within weeks of Star Wars opening.
Above all, Star Wars established in the public consciousness an idea of what science fiction was: all dogfighting spaceships, rebels battling empires, eccentric robots and aliens with funny heads. For better or worse, when Joe Punter now thinks of 'sci-fi' he doesn’t imagine Doctor Who or Thunderbirds or The Day the Earth Stood Still or Dune or The Time Machine. He thinks of the Millennium Falcon.
Even in the late 1980s, the closest the franchise ever came to the doldrums, when there had been no new film for several years and the novels had yet to appear, Star Wars and all it contained were still prevalent throughout popular culture. In books, on records, in other films, on TV and radio, in comics and magazines: reference to Star Wars was common currency. It was a shared experience not just for an entire generation, but also for everyone who was too young to see it in 1977/78, but caught it on TV or video.
Over the past few years, with the books, the comics, the Special Editions, and now the run-up to Episode One itself, interest has built up to fever pitch. Lucasfilm’s management of the publicity has been magnificent, just teasing us all enough to get us hooked, and then gradually increasing the momentum with more and more photos and interviews. If we’re not all screaming for The Phantom Menace the week before it premieres, it will only be because we will be catatonic with anticipation by then.
But therein lies the great question: can Star Wars hit the same note again? One generation on, will audiences go crazy for The Phantom Menace the way they went ga-ga for the first three films? At the most basic level: will Jar-Jar Binks become as famous as Chewbacca? You see, it’s all changed. No really, it has.
And here are some of the things we have now that we we didn’t have then: home video; home computers; the internet; satellite TV; cable TV; digital TV; laserdiscs; CDs; CD-ROMs; DVDs; CGI, SFX; THX; multiplexes; and a 16-year wait between Star Wars films. All of these will have some sort of effect on how The Phantom Menace is released, and how it is perceived. Twenty-two years ago, the only film mags were shallow little publications, providing studio-sanctioned news to the dwindling hordes of obsessive film-fans (“UK cinema audiences reach all-time low,” reported Screen International in April 1977). The only specialist SF mags were the fledgling Cinefantastique and the last death throes of Famous Monsters. There was no large-scale, organised SF movie fan-base, and a visit to the cinema wasn’t the universal pastime which it is now or was in the 1950s.
There is much more expectation now - even more than there was for Empire or Jedi - and the new movie has a lot to live up to: not just in comparison with the original trilogy, but also against other films. Everyone is wondering: will the new Star Wars film make more money than Titanic? Maybe, maybe not. The awful thing is that, even if it does better than every other film ever made except Titanic, it will still be deemed to have failed in some way.
So yes, we all bought the lovely boxed set of the Special Edition videos, even though most of us had bought the remastered originals which were released only a year or so before. (And some of us still had the original rental tapes which we bought for £80 in the early 1980s!) And we will all go and see The Phantom Menace as soon as it opens (in fact a lot of people will see it on bootleg video in the two months between the US and UK premieres; one of Lucasfilm’s few planning slip-ups). We will buy the books and the toys (and the computer games and the CDs and the duvet covers and the Thermos flasks…), and then we will probably go and see the film a second time, maybe a third.
And when Episodes Two and Three come out, we will do it all over again.
Because it’s Star Wars.
Now see the two box-outs:
Box-out 1: Contemporary Reviews
Box-out 2: Star Wars released