‘Star Wars’ – The Original Series: A New Hope for Sci-Fi Cinema, As the Empire Strikes Back Yet Again

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Strategic Defense Initiative — Oh, Baby!

President Ronald Reagan (AP Photo)
President Ronald Reagan (AP Photo)

On March 23, 1983, former President Ronald W. Reagan announced, in a major address to the American people (and everyone else), his proposal for a new missile defense system that would, in essence, enable the free world to thwart all future aggression from the Soviet “evil empire.”

This system, hailed as a “formidable technical task,” would be designed to “intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies.” Upon hearing this bold assertion, then-Massachusetts Senator Edward “Ted” Kennedy fired off a fierce rebuttal to the president’s rhetorical remarks, labeling them “misleading Red Scare tactics and reckless Star Wars schemes.”

The press quickly picked up on the connection and, for better or worse, President Reagan’s grandiose directive has been forever linked with the popular sci-fi space opera; only later did it acquire its official (and less stratospheric sounding) moniker, the Strategic Defense Initiative — or SDI for short.

Fast forward two months later to Memorial Day 1983, in the Big Apple, where I and thousands of my fellow New Yorkers were lined up four deep, outside the Loew’s Astor Plaza Theater between Broadway and 44th Street, for the premiere unveiling of Return of the Jedi, the highly awaited final installment in the original George Lucas-produced Star Wars trilogy.

We were eagerly anticipating a major announcement of our own, i.e., the long-awaited news as to whether the evil Darth Vader was or wasn’t Luke Skywalker’s father, as he had so apocryphally pronounced at the end of The Empire Strikes Back some three years earlier.

The only thought going through our minds at the time was this: had we heard Lord Vader correctly? Was it possible that a large segment of the movie-going public had been fooled — somehow swayed, via “Jedi mind trick” or other magical means — into thinking the all-powerful Sith Lord had declared, in that solemnly intoned, basso profundo voice of his, courtesy of James Earl Jones, a (gasp!) paternal connection to Young Skywalker?

“No, no … That’s not possible,” Luke cried in horror and disbelief. Heck, I was ready to cry along with him! I searched my own feelings for the veracity of that claim.

Alas, it was too good to be nothing but the truth. We learned, on that hot and humid May afternoon, that Darth Vader had once been Anakin Skywalker, a trusted ally, a Jedi Knight, and erstwhile follower of the Force; until, one fateful day, he turned away from the light, to become … music, maestro, if you please … the dreaded Dark Father and Lord of the Sith. Yikes, yikes, and triple yikes!!!

Star Wars -- Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (20th Century Fox)
Star Wars — Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (20th Century Fox)

Regardless of what we had heard, Vader’s last-minute repudiation of the detestable Dark Side — not to mention his ovation-inducing elimination of that repugnant old fogey, the red-eyed Emperor of the Galactic Republic and former Senator Palpatine (to music of a highly operatic nature, no less) — both cheered and consoled us to no end.

“Force” to Be Reckoned With

For science fiction and fantasy film fans, May 25, 2012 marked the 35th anniversary of the start of the first series of films collectively known as the Star Wars saga. And in solemn commemoration, the more recent announcement that George Lucas — founder, creator, and steadfast protector of LucasFilm Limited, as well as Skywalker Ranch and the accompanying Industrial Light and Magic (ILM for short) — had sold the rights to the money-making franchise to the Disney Studios, along with the chance for filmmaker J.J. Abrams to direct additional entries in the continuing Star Wars saga.

As Sting would say, “Be still my beating heart …”

After so many showings, repeat runs, and return engagements — in digitally enhanced “Special Editions,” naturally — the series has lost none of its staying power or appeal with the young, the old, and the restless (now middle-aged). Interestingly, both men and women seem drawn to it, as if the seductiveness of the Force itself had taken on a life of its own.

The series has been analyzed to death by shrinks, thinks, and cliques from every walk of movie life. One reason for this continued fascination stems from the over-use of the multipurpose catchphrase, “May the Force be with you,” which has always sounded prophetically like a postmodern twist on that old, medieval apostolic blessing, the Roman Catholic “Peace be with you” — itself a variant on the Jewish-Arabic greeting Shalom (or Salaam) aleichem and its pop-culture equivalent, the oft-repeated salutation, “Live long and prosper,” from Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek universe (thank you, Mr. Spock).

The fact that the three original features represented a proto-mystical “trinity” of sorts — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (or “Force,” if you prefer) — is another subliminal aspect of the series’ marked influence on popular culture, and on our collective subconscious.

Despite the semi-serious, pseudo-religious connotations inherent in the above sayings, the films initially had a hard time shaking off their Saturday afternoon serial roots. To be fair, creator, writer, producer, and director Lucas more fully exploited this connection as the executive producer of the Indiana Jones series, another popular action-adventure anthology.

Young George Lucas
Young George Lucas peering into a Panaflex camera

Lucas was most fortunate in that the story lines for Star Wars were initially conceived in the late 1970s, when America was fast approaching the forefront of a new and highly advanced technological era, what we might graciously term the beginning of the Computer Age.

More importantly, though, and in view of its largely classical and mythological adherence to antiquity, the series was no doubt influenced by ongoing political concerns during the time period in which it was made.

In this and subsequent posts, we will explore some of these concerns, as well as revisit the original series for some clues as to where the Star Wars franchise may be headed. But in order to do that, we will need to determine where the series has been and what we have learned from it.

(End of Part One)

Copyright © 2013 by Josmar F. Lopes

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