40 years ago today, Star Wars hit the nation’s theaters, and—let’s not mince words, here—transformed science fiction cinema as we know it. Star Wars‘ popularity caused an industry-wide resurgence in interest in sci-fi, causing languishing projects to be green-lit and new projects to be financed with grade-A budgets. The resulting flood of science fiction in theaters became the still-standing hallmark for summer blockbusters and genre adventure.
So, as the world celebrates (or at least lauds) the 40-year anniversary of Star Wars, I raise a glass to it as well, for… everything else we got.
Star Wars was great fun for me, when it came out… and I was just exiting high school. Being that I had been a big fan of SF special effects in movies and TV for years before 1977, Star Wars was a fireworks display of awesome, utilizing about every kind of movie effect in the box. Star Wars put a lot of good special effects people to work, from multiple genres, and brought a new generation of artists into the special effects business; it gave us Industrial Light and Magic, one of the premier SFX houses in the industry. ILM further inspired other studios to build comparable SFX teams where they could, or spend big bucks on the guys who’d been around for years, resulting in better effects products across the board.
Star Wars‘ epic score by John Williams also inspired big scores by other artists, such as Jerry Goldsmith and James Horner and many others, successfully toppling the minimalist synthesizer scoring that had become de rigeur in SF, despite having rarely lived up to its hype. The big, themed scores helped to cement the name space opera to big SF productions.
All of that, when applied by the right people, served to give us some incredible science fiction movies, and a few television shows, over the years. Unfortunately, the one downside of Star Wars—the plain-vanilla kid’s story about good and evil stereotypes—also became a major element in many future SF productions. Innocent but gifted kids, cackling bad guys, flashy-but-impossible battles with space-fighters or laser weapons, medieval-inspired territorial and ruling disputes, aliens straight from 2nd grade doodles or artists’ nightmare fantasies… all to save the day and get the girl. Most movie studios had a hard time imaging science fiction stories as anything else, despite the years of stories like Metropolis, Things to Come, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Silent Running, Solaris, Planet of the Apes, and so many others. The dumbing-down of SF movies was also a thing, bringing a temporary end, at least, to the period when SF was considered an intelligent subject; and for years afterward it was considered by many an embarrassment to admit you enjoyed the genre at all.
Older versions of science fiction cinema were reanimated to follow this trend, like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers; but after being dumbed-down and reduced to eye-candy, they suffered spectacularly at the hands of modern studios. Even one of the penultimate science fiction television series, Star Trek, was brought to the big screen courtesy of the success of Star Wars… but it was also rebranded as a Star Wars sibling by Paramount, pointedly dismissing its more intelligent aspects of exploration, diversity and challenging the mind instead of the fist, and turning it instead into space battles with 2-D villains and ugly aliens. These dumbed-down science fiction productions overshadowed years of quality SF through box office domination, until the public (and even SF fans) are hard-put to remember the intelligent, high quality SF that has come since.
But I remember. Movies like Blade Runner, Brainstorm, Alien, Akira, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, Gattaca, Sunshine, 12 Monkeys, The Thirteenth Floor, Jurassic Park, The Adjustment Bureau, Minority Report, Moon, Children of Men, Cowboy Bebop, Paprika, Her, Dark City, Vanilla Sky, Solaris, Cloud Atlas and Interstellar all stand as shining examples of movies that weren’t brought down to Star Wars‘ juvenile story level. And the best part is, we probably wouldn’t have gotten many of these movies, if not the the initial success of Star Wars.
So, again, I raise my glass… not for the incredible achievement of Star Wars itself… but for all it made possible afterward. Salud.