I want you to come back with me on a trip through time.
It’s 1977, in the small town of Huntsville, Arkansas. There’s this little theater on the town square called Madison Theater. This in in the days before the multiplexes, so there’s only one room. The theater runs movies Thursday through Sunday, with matinees on the weekends. The shows are second-, maybe third-run affairs, six months at least past their release dates, especially for the big releases.
And we’re about to go in and see what’s become a big release.
We sit in our seats. There aren’t any cup holders, and the chairs don’t recline. The best seats are usually about halfway down. The walls are covered with curtains, and the floor is sticky from where somebody spilled their soda last showing. Popcorn in one hand, drink in the other, we sit in the cool dimnness, waiting for show time.
There aren’t any commercial PowerPoints going on the screen. In fact, we can’t see the screen yet as there’s a genuine curtain covering it. This is a theater, not a multiplex. There’s no surround sound, though there are multiple speakers, and the only sounds in here for now are those of people talking and laughing. No piped in radio stations that broadcast for this chain because it’s an indie theater, locally owned.
Then, finally, the lights dim and the curtain parts, just like it would for live theater. The screen lights up—maybe off-frame at first, because these aren’t digital projectors we’re talking about here—and then the first preview comes on. Again, no commercials for cars or cell phones or what have you. Just trailers for upcoming movies.
Disco is stronger than ever, thanks to the release of Saturday Night Fever, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind has everyone interested in UFOs and little gray men. Clint Eastwood expends a million rounds in The Gauntlet, and another huge fish terrifies everyone in Orca.
Then the previews are over. The 20th Century Fox logo comes on, with its roving spotlights and heavy music, and the screen goes dark. This is the movie everyone’s been raving about, so there isn’t any talking. Then, there they are, in the middle of the screen, the words that would become world-famous:
Man, with words like that to open the thing, it must be a good one.
Then the music hits, that sweeping orchestral theme, its big sound hinting at big things to come, and the Star Wars logo swoops into view, receding into a glittering field of stars and the screen crawl starts, tilted away from us and following the logo into the black distance. There’s no chapter heading because this is Star Wars, not A New Hope. This is long before the prequels, long before this setting became the monster it is today, but we don’t know that yet. Science fiction movies, as a rule, aren’t very successful, and those of us who are fans of the genre worry this might be another one of those disappointing things that pale in comparison with the good books we’ve read.
The words scroll on, informing us that it is a period of rebellion in the galaxy. We read them all, enthralled, and watch as they disappear into the depths of space. What’s this Galactic Empire and what is it like? Ooo, what’s a Death Star? That sounds bad. And who is this Princess Leia and what does she look like?
This might actually be good.
The music gets quieter for a moment and the camera pans down. There’s a half-moon of in the distance, then a planet, its atmosphere a blue haze, its surface a mix of dull browns. The music swells again and there’s a sound like we’ve never heard before. A spaceship with multiple thrusters speeds over and away from us, followed by the biggest damn thing we’ve ever seen. It seems to stretch on forever before we see its huge thrusters, easily as large as the ship it pursues. The camera’s angle finally changes and we see this thing dwarfs the first ship, with a huge bridge like one of our battleships sticking up from it. It’s triangular, and it’s firing green laser bolts at the small ship.
We’re caught up now. The camera goes inside the small fleeing ship to show us two robots navigating a corridor. One of them speaking with a clipped British accent, the other with electronic noises we don’t understand. An exterior shot shows the larger ship capturing the small one. Ominous noises ensue, and crewmembers run past the robots—away from the camera—blasters at the ready. When the camera shows us their faces a few moments later, their expressions are grim but determined. They focus on a door at the end of the corridor.
We get their POV. The door’s edges flash, a laser bolt whips through as the door disappears in a shower of sparks, and then soldiers come through, dressed in white armor from head to toe, firing on the ship’s crew without remorse. A short battle follows, one that isn’t good for the rebels, and then…who’s this? He’s dressed all in black: sweeping cape, scary looking face shield, not an inch of his body showing.
If you’re a fan—or maybe even if you’re not—you know the footage I’m talking about. But we didn’t then. This is before the prequels, before the Special Editions, before Greedo shooting first, before Han stepping on Jabba’s tail. It’s one movie, and it has us caught up in it already. We have a dark villain, a beautiful princess (even if her hairdo is a bit weird), two robots that remind us of maybe a high-tech Laurel and Hardy, and this world we’re looking at feels real.
Yes, the corridors of the ship are, at first, clean and shiny. But as the movie progresses, we see that this setting has rough edges. The robots are dirty, and everything on Tatooine is pitted and scoured by its sands. We learn about Jawas and Sand People and Mos Eisley and…
The Force. It’s a mysterious energy field that surrounds and binds the galaxy together. That’s it. All the time Luke is learning about the Force, no one, not Obi-Wan (who, in the prequels, tested Luke’s father Anakin), not Yoda, not even Darth Vader or the Emperor, ever made mention of midi-chlorians.
And that was good. We went away from the movie talking about the Force. What was it? Was it magic? Or something else? Ben’s description left a lot of room for speculation, and that’s what made it alluring: it was mysterious, and we didn’t understand it, so we could interpret it in our own way.
This movie was different. We loved it from the start. The world it presented us was real and gritty and we could see ourselves living in it. Luke Skywalker and the possibility of him falling for Leia was all we talked about for years. And then, when The Empire Strikes Back came out, well, the possibility that Darth Vader was Luke’s father…no, that couldn’t be.
These days, it’s called A New Hope and it’s part of this huge merchandising empire and moneymaking machine owned by Disney. Even George Lucas admitted it changed him from being one of the maverick filmmakers to one of the big corporations he rebelled against. He went from being part of the Rebel Alliance to running the Empire.
It’s been almost forty years since I saw Star Wars the first time (for me, it will always be Star Wars; I’m still uncomfortable calling it A New Hope), but I can still put it in the DVD player—even though I own the Special Edition—and feel a faint echo of the magic I felt the first time I experienced this movie in that little theater in Huntsville, Arkansas when I was twelve years old.
Regardless of what’s happened with the Star Wars Universe since then—and I have to say that not all of it has been good—the original movie, in fact, the original trilogy, was a game changer for me and my friends. It took us somewhere we hadn’t even dreamed of going, and we spent hours talking about it. It meant far more to us than who shot JR Ewing. Who cared? Darth Vader was Luke’s father and Leia was his sister.
And the fate of an Empire rested on Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber blade.
What more could you ask for?