Watch: The Early ‘Star Wars’ Images Predict the Later Ones

Watch: The Early ‘Star Wars’ Images Predict the Later Ones

Taking its inspiration from a quote by George Lucas in which he compares the way images echo each other in the ‘Star Wars’ films to the way they correspond in poetry, Pablo Fernández Eyre has produced a very persuasive video essay; watching the images cycle and reiterate themselves between the 1970s films and those of more recent times is a thrill. Enjoy!

Watch: ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ John Williams, and the Growth of a Soundtrack

Watch: ‘The Empire Strikes Back,’ John Williams, and the Growth of a Soundtrack

Even the harshest critic would have a hard time contesting the quality of John Williams’ soundtrack work for the ‘Star Wars’ films. His sense of grandiosity found a match in the immensity of the story George Lucas was telling with these films–and in case you were wondering what it would be like to be a fly on the wall during his composition, Vashi Nedomansky offers us this remarkable video essay showing Williams watching one famous scene in ‘The Empire Strikes Back‘ for the first time, in which Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is about to be sent into the deep freeze as a prisoner of war, in a sense, and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) blurts out her love for him–to which Solo responds, "I know." (That’s an interesting response, not quite as dated as one would think at first.) Without the soundtrack, the scene could be forgettable, but with Williams’ percussion and string swells behind it, the characters’ interaction reaches its full magnitude.  And as we watch Williams watching the scene, as we do here, we can see a mind beginning to shape a melody, a look of interest, the germ of the final product.

Watch: How the Boulder Scene from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ Was Made and Why It Lasts

Watch: How the Boulder Scene from ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ Was Made and Why It Lasts

There were many scenes from Raiders of the Lost Ark that thrilled my preteen mind: brushing the spiders off a man’s back, the melting eyeballs, the unleashing of the power of the Ark. But, in the end, a scene of Indiana Jones being chased by a large boulder down a long tunnel wins. Why? Not sure. It has metaphorical power, I suppose–maybe it’s the opposite of the myth of Sisyphus, in which a man pushes a boulder up a hill for eternity? Maybe because it was the sort of gut-level entertainment that we rarely see in unmitigated, pure form in films these days? In any event, this brisk and informative "Art of the Scene" installment from Cinefix lays out the history of the film, and, for our edification, the details of the making of the boulder scene. We learn, among many other things, that George Lucas got the idea for the boulder from a Scrooge the Duck comic book, and that the sound of the boulder rolling is actually the sound of the wheels of a Honda Civic, rolling on gravel. Enjoy!

The STAR WARS Films and Their Hold on Viewers’ Inner Lives: A Video Essay

The STAR WARS Films and Their Hold on Viewers’ Inner Lives: A Video Essay

Most American moviegoers who are old enough to have seen the original Star Wars films in the theater, back in the 1970s and 1980s, oversized iced beverage on one side, tooth-rotting candy or dehydrating popcorn on the other, air conditioners blasting, every seat full, utter silence in the days before cell phones, have some emotional relationship with them. It may be awe at the scope of their story, with its aspiration to an epic structure (in the true sense of that word, not the recent malapropic usage that has been popular in recent years). It may be amusement at the stilted acting pervading the original series, the black-and-white themes and messages as tall as the screen on which the tales were projected. It may be disappointment at their successors, which have all been flawed in one large way or another. Regardless, it’s safe to say that George Lucas’s three original films burned themselves into America’s cultural DNA, forming a point of reference for individuals of different backgrounds, tastes, professions, and levels of intelligence. The Prince-Valiant-esque goodness of Luke Skywalker, the raffish heroism of Han Solo, the misshapen evil of Darth Vader are all as familiar to many Americans as apple pie, the American flag, or George Washington. So, too, as this personal and sharply edited video piece by Clara Darko points out, are the ideas the films express. Good may in fact triumph over evil. Self-confidence can help the ordinary human become extra-ordinary. Wisdom trumps reckless ambition. Huge things come in small, odd-looking packages with distended green ears, inverted grammatical constructions, and frog-like voices. And so on. The funny thing about these ideas is that many viewers search for them, perpetually, in films, regardless of how well-trodden they might be. Those ideas might not be sought in isolation–the same viewer might seek out both stories of dissolution and hopelessness along with tales of triumph. The person who watches eight hours of footage of the Empire State Building today might easily gaze at the adventures of dashingly dressed heroes on a desert planet tomorrow. The point about these films is what they tapped into, a yearning for myth, for story, and perhaps for closure that has proven to be universal. Darko calls her piece "All you need to know about life," suggesting that the films taught her many such lessons. And perhaps they could teach these lessons. I wonder, though, if the piece also couldn’t have been called "All you need to know about you."

SIMON SAYS: Even in 3D, it’s still a PHANTOM MENACE II society

SIMON SAYS: Even in 3D, it’s still a PHANTOM MENACE II society


In 1999, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released theatrically. The rest is a blur – for me, at least. I was 12 years old at the time, the ideal age for an uncritical Star Wars fan to see the first entry in George Lucas’ then-new prequel trilogy.

And I liked it!

Or, more accurately, in that hazy period I now refer to as my “pre-taste” period, I devoured it. Though I’m still convinced I’ve only seen Episode I once or twice before last night, I knew the film by heart, having played two of the PlayStation video games inspired by the film. (There was the podracer game and the action-adventure one that always gave me motion sickness…. I only owned the latter once my peers had moved on to the PlayStation 2. I led a deprived childhood, I think.)

nullMy taste in films evolved as the prequel trilogy was released. When Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones came out, I was 15. At the time, I was (and still am) an unabashed nerd but I was only slightly more opinionated. There were things in Episode II that I wholeheartedly enjoyed, like watching Yoda fight Count Dooku. (My sister and I gushed about that scene as we exited our Douglaston multiplex: Dracula versus a Muppet! Okay, a CG Muppet, but still!) Still, there were things about the film I distinctly recall disliking, like Hayden Christensen’s performance. I remained fairly uncritical at this point, though.

Finally, when Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith came out in 2005, I was 18. I was (and probably still am) a raging asshole and as opinionated as I’ve ever gotten. And I hated Episode III. I didn’t think it was the worst thing I’d ever seen but I did think it was pretty awful. Christensen was still bad, his character’s moral conflict was stilted (I still can’t get over the minute pause between, “No, I won’t cut his head off,” and “Okay, I’ll cut his head off!”), the romance sucked, the dialogue sucked and the fight scenes were labored but unmoving. I saw that film under ideal circumstances of a kind, too: with the high school Science Fiction Club that I founded and quickly disbanded thereafter. (This was our last group activity; almost all of us hated what we saw.)

End Prologue

nullThe prospect of revisiting Episode I was daunting. By now, watching awful movies has become something of a passion of mine. But I didn’t watch this film, one that I still have fond preadolescent memories of, for the sake of rubbernecking. When I heard that George Lucas had post-converted The Phantom Menace into 3D, I knew my morbid curiosity would get the better of me and that attention must be paid. I earnestly wanted to know if the film could hold up for me. So I held a seance for my inner child at the Ziegfeld last night.

First, I had a beer and some bangers and mash at the Oldcastle Pub just down the street. This made Semi-Adult Simon happy (I’m 25, lemme alone). Then, I bought a big honking Pepsi and sat down with a friend at my favorite Manhattan movie theater (the opening night 7pm screening was not well-attended, though it wasn’t empty either). I was determined to give Kid Simon a fighting chance against George and what I rightfully feared was a three-dimensional cavalcade of crap.

And for a while there, I thought I could happily regress. The trailer for The Lorax looked like fun and I wanted to see the new Spider-Man movie and, hey, even the Ice Age cartoon in front of the movie made me laugh more than once. I was ready. I even wanted to shush my friend when he audibly rolled his eyes at the instantly recognizable “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” intertitle. But I was ready to like Episode I again. And I wanted to pretty desperately. But while I was open to suggestion, I anticipated the worst.

Everything seemed to be going well for the first few minutes: Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor fighting robots…but then there’s some aliens that talk like caricatures of Asian people, complete with slit eyes, Oriental robes and “w”- for-“r”-and-“l” wisps. Well, that part made sense, I rationalized frantically. In Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, a film whose story was co-written by George Lucas, there’s also an attempt to ground the kind of pulpy story we’re watching in the chauvinistic terms of “white man with whip knows best.” But that superior action film suggests that while Temple of Doom is inhabited by racial and sexist stereotypes, those characters (ex: Short Round and Willie Scott), the good stereotypes, prove themselves to be made of sterner stuff than the bad ones. So before Jar Jar Binks showed up, I was willing to give Lucas’ use of flagrantly offensive racial stereotypes a chance, too.

Then Jar Jar Binks showed up. And my inner child vanished.

It’s not enough to say that Jar Jar Binks is the nadir of The Phantom Menace: he’s pretty much every hyperbolic mean thing that’s ever been said about him by internet trolls and dejected fans alike (there might be a difference…). Jar Jar Binks (voiced by Ahmed Best) is a comic relief character so thoroughly miscalculated that he makes it nigh impossible to totally suspend your disbelief – in every scene he’s in. He’s too clownish, too offensive, too naïve, too pseudo-cute. He’s just awful!
nullAnd unfortunately, so is Episode I. Lucas took a film that I now recognize as being full of problems – especially bad dialogue, stiff acting with bad accents and illogical plot points (why is the Bedouin home of Anakin Skywalker full of so much STUFF? Isn’t this kid supposed to be a slave or something?) – and he made it worse by adding more stuff to it than it ever really needed. Darth Maul is unnecessarily introduced earlier than he previously was, Anakin’s acceptance into the Jedi Order is now over-explained, the podrace is overburdened with more instantly forgettable racers than were previously highlighted and the final fight scene with Darth Maul is now padded with extra footage. Anything that was once almost-spectacular in Episode I is now marred by new, distractingly cheap-looking sequences where characters stiffly intone lines as their CG-bodies bob from side-to-side to simulate human movement. It’s just awful!

Now I’m not sure how to feel about the prequels. Part of me wants to make a pilgrimage to the Ziegfeld for the remaining two 3D re-issues. But I honestly don’t know why. These films were important to me, so the sight of Jabba the Hutt’s son being randomly inserted into the podrace scene does bother me, just as it bothers me to see that a movie I remember semi-fondly was always awful. But George Lucas didn’t rape my childhood and he certainly didn’t ruin anything that wasn’t already ruined. I guess I just want to see this prequel 3D-fication thing through, because I feel nostalgic and, yes, I want to see a Star Wars film on a big screen again. I want to regress that badly, even though I’m now sure that I can’t while watching a Star Wars prequel. Sometimes, being an arrest adolescent really sucks.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in the Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal. His writings on film are collected at the blog, The Extended Cut.



[EDITOR'S NOTE: In a yearly feature titled "Oscars Revisited," Press Play takes a look back at the Academy Awards race from earlier eras. Our inaugural series focuses on the five Best Picture nominees from calendar year 1981: Reds, Atlantic City, On Golden Pond, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Chariots of Fire.]

For years after the release of his box-office breakthrough Jaws, Steven Spielberg fantasized about directing a James Bond picture. He got his chance, sort of, with Raiders of the Lost Ark, his first team-up with his longtime friend and fellow "movie brat" George Lucas. The two were on vacation in Hawaii in 1977 after the release of Lucas' own career-redefining blockbuster Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope but before the release of Spielberg's next movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Spielberg told Lucas of his desire to make a Bond film; Lucas replied that he had a better idea, and Spielberg instantly seized on it as "James Bond without the gadgets." It was about Indiana Smith, an archaeologist who travelled the world unearthing buried treasure, fighting bad guys and witnessing supernatural events; Lucas envisioned it as an homage to the World War II-era cliffhanger serials that he, Spielberg and other '50s kids used to watch in reruns on local TV, only in color and CinemaScope and in Dolby stereo. Spielberg liked the concept but suggested changing the hero's last name from Smith to Jones.

nullFour years and a $18 million worth of Paramount's money later, Spielberg and Lucas released Raiders of the Lost Ark, featuring up-and-coming action hero Harrison Ford — Han Solo in Lucas' Star Wars franchise — as the whip-cracking archaeology professor trying to keep the Lost Ark of the Covenant out of Hitler's hands. As scripted by Lawrence Kasdan, who rewrote the Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back, Indy was a rumpled, unshaven, refreshingly human hero, surly but decent, less like a Bond-style sexy sociopath than a Gary Cooper character in a bad mood. The combination of Ford's casual fearlessness, Lucas' gee-whiz sensibility, Spielberg's kinetic precision and costar Karen Allen's tomboy sass made the film into the year's biggest hit, a sleeper that rolled into multiplexes opposite Superman II and the latest James Bond entry For Your Eyes Only and stole their box office thunder. Raiders grossed $209 million in North America and took the "So popular that we can't ignore it" spot in the following year's Best Picture lineup. It also inspired knockoffs, including the network TV series Tales of the Gold Monkey and Bring 'Em Back Alive and the movies High Road to China, Romancing the Stone and The Jewel of the Nile

nullSpielberg didn't stint on the violent action; this was probably one the first PG movies in which a lone hero singlehandedly and bloodily eliminated scores of foes, and definitely the first in which the power of God made Nazis' heads melt, implode and detonate, spewing meat chunks into the camera. Three summers later, the even more extreme violence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and the Spielberg-produced Gremlins inspired the creation of a new MPAA rating, PG-13. But the film's real draw was its mastery of pacing and tone. For a large production shot in several countries, Raiders was light on its feet, zipping through scenes without a wasted frame. And it managed the same neat trick as Spielberg and Lucas' earlier films in managing to seem at once self-aware and innocent. The duo plundered recent and past film history like kleptomaniacs on a prowl through Macy's. The deranged finale evoked Brian De Palma's Carrie and The Fury; Indy's wild escape beneath the carriage of a hijacked truck echoed a similar stunt in John Ford's Stagecoach; the final shot in which the Ark of the Covenant, recently recovered from Hitler's minions, is wheeled into a gigantic warehouse was filched from Citizen Kane. The transitional sequences depicting the global progress of Jones and company via cross-dissolved travel footage and maps festooned with animated red lines was so brazenly old-fashioned that it made the circa-1981 audiences that I saw it with laugh and applaud. (As I recounted in a piece about Raiders for The House Next Door, this was the first film that made me realize that movies could be expressions of a singular sensibility — that they were directed.)

nullRaiders was a career-redefining entry on the resumes of its major players. Ford stepped into the lead after CBS refused to release the filmmakers' first choice, Magnum, P.I. star Tom Selleck, from his TV contract, and proved he could sell tickets without a laser pistol in his hand; the film's success marked the start of a 20-year run as one of Hollywood's highest-paid actors. Ford's regular employer Lucas showed the studios that he wasn't just the Star Wars guy. The movie also revived Spielberg's career momentum after the box-office flop of 1941 (1979), an epically overscaled bit of period slapstick that in retrospect feels like a dry run for Raiders, an immense physical comedy that owed as much to Jacques Tati and Buster Keaton as it did to poverty row cliffhangers, with a stalwart hero taking on armies. The film and its sequels went on to comprise one of the most financially successful and stylistically influential series ever made. With their superficial awareness of the texture of certain periods and places, Jones' pre-World War II shenaningans felt like a precocious schoolboy's fantasy — flip books scrawled in the margins of a history text. Lucas, Spielberg, Ford and their collaborators pushed this sensibility further in the film's sequels, which saw Indy cheat death in pre-war Shanghai, British colonial India, Nazi-occupied Austria and Germany (where Indy ends up getting his father's Grail diary autographed by Hitler at a book burning!), and an atomic testing site in 1950s Roswell, New Mexico, (which gave prankish new meaning to the phrase "nuclear family"). Although mainstream critics and general audiences enjoyed the series (except for the long-delayed fourth film Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, which some fans viewed as a personal affront) Indy's adventures had their detractors. The New Yorker's Pauline Kael complained that Raiders lacked the human touch of Spielberg's earlier hits and was lukewarm on The Last Crusade — although with typically Kaelian perversity, she adored The Temple of Doom. Alternative press critics pointed out — correctly, but without much impact — that Indy's adventures had an ahistorical and oddly pre-sexual vibe, and that Lucas and Spielberg's depiction of "foreign" cultures was cluless at best, racist at worst; for a long time, Indy's second adventure Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom was banned in India. For a brief period in the late '80s and early '90s, Lucas brought Indy to TV. His youthful adventures were bracketed with segments narrated by a geriatric Indy, a craggy-faced, one-eyed icon whose appearance was inspired by documentary footage of the old John Ford.

The Indy films do have a personal sensibility, although it's admittedly obscured by gunshots, explosions and supernatural maimings. The films feel like daydreams, not product, and their fusion of spectacle, mayhem, slapstick, banter and miracles has no equivalent elsewhere in cinema. And the saga does have an implied narrative that's more knowing and gentle than Spielberg and Lucas' detractors care to admit. Over the course of four films, the arrested adolescent Indy grows up, taking responsibllity for a surrogate family in The Temple of Doom (a prequel that feels like a sequel), reconciling with his estranged dad in The Last Crusade, then coming to terms with mortality and reconnecting with Marion and the son he didn't know he had in Crystal Skull. There's something to be said for Indy's brand of resourcefulness; it's earthbound and useful, rooted in emotional reality and ultimately touching. He's a superheroic everyman, surly and self-effacing — James Bond as Yankee prole. "I'm going after that truck," Indy tells his buddy Sallah, before throwing himself into the movie's most raucous action setpiece. "How?" Sallah asks. "I don't know," Indy replies, pushing his hat down tight on his head. "I'm just making this up as I go."

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and the founder of Press Play.