Throwback Thursday examines films from the past, “classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.
I officially started this column in January 2015 and went weekly in March of that year. We are now at the one-hundredth Throwback Thursday column. With such an arbitrarily historic number (seriously, thank you for giving me a platform to share my enthusiasm for film), I thought it would be appropriate to go big. Mixing the idea of going big and my current focus on space opera, there’s really only one film series to look at, a series that started off a global dominance in 1977: Star Wars.
In one of my earliest memories I was three years old, and I remember waiting in line with my parents and feeling the excitement as we sat in the theater. I don’t remember that actual first viewing, but the sense that I had experienced something magical stayed with me. It wouldn’t be until I was 10 when I got to see it again (for the first time) when CBS broadcast it, and though my memory might be hazy, I feel like it was on TV consistently at least once a year while I was growing up, not to mention it was one of the first films my parents purchased for me on Beta (yes, Betamax). Over the years, I’ve purchased the original trilogy so many times that I think I definitely put Lucas’s kids through college. I’m sure I’m not the only one who helped with that.
We had the double-LP John Williams score on vinyl, and until I owned the series to watch, I relived all the moments of the film by listening to that score. When we first meet Luke Skywalker and the music swells, we know deep down in our hearts that he’s going to be a hero. When we see the binary sunset, he feels the stirrings of the hero’s call and embarks. It was no surprise to me as I got older that Lucas borrowed major beats of the hero’s journey from Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth. When I got into college and really started digging into foreign and art house films, I could see the seeds of Artoo and See-Threepio in the characters from Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. To be honest, though, the moment that made me a lifelong fan is about five minutes in. Princess Leia’s ship, the Tantive IV, is about to be boarded by the Imperials, and we hear the ship being pulled into the Star Destroyer, clamps lock, and the stormtroopers start burning the door open. With all of these sounds, the camera focuses on one rebel trooper who looks scared and then a calm, steely resolve comes over him and he knows what he has to do. It’s a moment that lasts about six seconds, but with no lines given, his eyes and face speak volumes. What’s great about the original film is that there are so many small moments that contribute to the world-building that help make it so successful.
Then we got the amazing twist at the end of The Empire Strikes Back that was the be-all end-all spoiler of the day: Darth Vader is Luke’s father. Everyone was talking about it—and I do mean everyone. Tough luck if you hadn’t had a chance to see the film yet. It was discussed on school playgrounds, classrooms, friend’s houses, and I’m sure the office water cooler even had “did you see that” conversations (I can only assume this, since I still wasn’t old enough to work). It ended on a sad but hopeful note. The rebels were down, but they weren’t out. This made the three-year wait to find out what happened that much more excruciating. Sure, there was also a three-year gap between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, but at the time there weren’t a lot of sci-fi sequels out, so there wasn’t as big of an instant-gratification angst happening. In fact, in some theaters around the states, A New Hope was still playing when Empire Strikes Back came out; that’s how popular the film was. It had an incredibly long theatrical shelf life; with so many films hitting multiplexes now, it’s rare for a film to last more than a month, and generally after three months most films disappear and are already slotted for home-video release. We know the series is a big deal, but sometimes it’s good to really think about the context and how popular it truly was.
As a ten-year old, I loved Return of the Jedi. Everything worked so well to tie up the dangling threads. I loved the Ewoks and even wanted one as a pet. As I’ve gotten older, there are a few things that I no longer enjoy about this film, but the scenes aboard the new Death Star between Luke, Vader, and the Emperor get more powerful with each subsequent viewing. One of the best shot and edited scenes for me was Luke almost giving into his anger as he pounds on Vader and then stopping himself, with the soundtrack chorus swelling behind him.
Fast forward 16 years: there are lines outside theaters a month in advance just to buy tickets to the first midnight showing of The Phantom Menace. Expectations are ridiculously high, and as a 25-year old, I’m fully buying into the hype. I wanted to recapture the spirit of Star Wars from my childhood. Inevitably, I’m let down; I’m not 10 anymore. The prequels are more spectacle over substance. Those little character beats that were so integral to the original trilogy are all but gone, replaced with CGI and characters that are moved by the plot instead of moving the plot. Revisiting them in my 30’s (and now in my 40’s), there’s some things that work for me as an adult, and if I watch it with kids, it’s even easier to see the things that work. As a young adult, I hated Jar Jar Binks, but I’ve seen kids watch The Phantom Menace for the first time, and they absolutely adore him. It’s all a matter of perspective. Then we get two more prequels, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, that actually do get progressively better but don’t quite catch the lightning in the bottle of the originals. They still make a ton of money, so modern audiences know it’s only a matter of time. Along the line, George Lucas sells Lucasfilm and the rights to Disney. At this point, Disney is just about ready to take over the Galactic Senate (if they haven’t already).
Now, fast forward another ten years and we’re at the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015. After having over-hyped expectations with the prequels, I went in hesitantly optimistic. Sure, there’s some plot holes, and it retreads a little too closely to the story beats of the original, but what’s back and working are the characters. They’re interacting with each other, having their own beats, and making us care about them. We now also don’t have to wait three years between films in the trilogies. Instead, we’re getting a new Star Wars film every year, alternating between the main episodes and stand-alone films. We’ve come a long way between waiting 16 years between films, and my goal is to be consistently optimistic. There’s a reason we’re getting so many Star Wars films; there’s a lot of people out there who care about these characters and this universe. That’s not a bad thing. May the Force be with the creators and you.
Almost all of the films can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD. Minus the recently released Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and you really don’t need to see The Star Wars Holiday Special. Feel free to discuss your favorite memories further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.
If you think there’s a film Throwback Thursday should cover in the future, please let me know in the comments.
Now, for some additional random thoughts that didn’t quite fit into the above column:
- I know it’s now classified as A New Hope, but I grew up with the first film just being called Star Wars, so that’s what I call it.
- I think they could have just called it Rogue One. The added tagline of A Star Wars Story just sounds silly.
- I’m writing this column the week after Carrie Fisher passed away. She was an integral part of my growing up. In Star Wars as an abstract, in Empire as someone I could have feelings for, and then in Jedi with the bikini. Sure, as a 21st-century male, looking at The Empire Strikes Back now, Han is a little too forceful and doesn’t take no for an answer when they’re aboard the Falcon, and Leia is forced to wear the gold bikini and doesn’t get a choice. I get that. Sometimes I can reconcile that, and sometimes I can’t. It’s okay. But there are so many other Leia moments that work so well: taking charge and blowing a hole in the trash chute for them to escape the Death Star; being able to resist torture for her cause; watching all of her loved ones being destroyed on Alderaan and still fighting for what she believes in; her coordination of the rebels on Hoth; her killing the slug who put her in the bikini; helping to negotiate peace with the Ewoks and get them as allies. For all of this, I love Leia.
- I love how vicious Darth Vader is in The Empire Strikes Back with underlings who don’t succeed at tasks. Very unhealthy work environment.
- In a 1997 Sci-Fi Universe magazine, they go through 50 reasons why they hate Return of the Jedi. Some I agree with, some I don’t, but the main ones that hit home for me are the gastric jokes (sarlacc and the creature outside Jabba’s palace), pratfall comedy (an ewok hitting himself), and Chewie’s Tarzan howl. Definitely worth a read if you want to track it down. Otherwise, you might be able to find a similar list here.
- As an ode to the chariot race in Ben-Hur, I love the pod race in The Phantom Menace.
- In talking with friends, the majority of them feel The Phantom Menace is the looming shadow of Vader over Anakin, which tends to be believed since that was such a strong marketing poster, however I think one of the things the film has going for it is the machiavellian levels Palpatine is going to in order to gain power. He created a phantom war and moved all the pieces on the chess board. Both sides of the conflict are being controlled by one man, that’s the phantom menace to me.
- There’s not a real reconciliation between the fighting styles in the CGI prequels versus the original trilogy. They zing around a lot in the prequels, but I feel the battles carry more weight in the originals (see my comment on Luke and Vader’s battle in Return of the Jedi above).
- I fell in love with Rey at the end of The Force Awakens. Once again, a character speaking volumes without saying a word as she holds out the lightsaber to Luke.
- I enjoyed Rogue One, but there were so many characters we’re introduced to that I can’t recall all their names. There’s Jyn, Zatoichi (well, blind swordsman anyway), his Polynesian bodyguard, robot Wash, skinny spy, and pilot. I’m pretty sure I have one of those names right. The names are too confusing. We’re a long way from Luke Starkiller (Skywalker). Let’s make it a little easier to remember names, folks.
- One thing that stuck in my craw was the use of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One. They could have easily wrote around the character, and he didn’t need to be included. I understand making adjustments to a film where an actor passes away during filming and having to cheat a bit, but Cushing has been dead for quite some time. It felt gratuitous and unneeded.