Sunday, June 27, 2010

What were George Lucas' five best Star Wars ideas?

This occurred to me recently and I wanted to ask what other Horrorthonners thought. Obviously you could say "the Force" or "the Jedi" but I guess I'm asking in a more abstract, elemental "pure cinema" sense. What were the basic visual/auditory innovations that gave the thing its fundamental punch, up on the big screen for the first time? Anyway here's my list:

1) lightsaber (probably his best idea ever)
2) spaceship dogfight
3) droids
4) orchestral score
5) use a Muppet*

Comments welcome. (I'm posting on my phone from a Massachusetts cabin, which is pretty cool.)

*(not just a mere puppet but a Muppet, specifically, complete with Frank Oz.) (Go ahead and give me a hard time about not sticking with the first movie if you feel like it.)

ADDENDUM: Others that occurred to me included "Vader mask," "dirt everywhere," "Death Star trench (you could just say the Death Star itself but that had kind of been done before, albeit never so well)," "Letting them try to build the Dykstraflex motion control system even though it was the pre-PC era and they had to make their own fucking printed circuit boards" etc. He had a lot of good ideas, and so did the people he brought together.


The Mr. said...

Planet sized WMD's

HandsomeStan said...

I wouldn't argue with any of those 5. It's also important to realize that Lucas not only surrounded himself with brilliant people, but he also layered the whole story with elements that were borrowed from EVERYWHERE. Witness:

- Vader's mask/helmet is essentially a Japanese samurai's.

- C-3PO comes straight out of Metropolis

- The opening scroll is borrowed directly from the serials (notably Flash Gordon) from the 40s

- Obi-Wan is basically Merlin

- The hero wields a magic sword (staying within the King Arthur myth)

- The trash compactor is the belly of the whale (Jonah)

I could go on. The beauty of Star Wars is that it made the old new again; it took a great number of disparate elements from myth & culture and fused it into a new fairy tale. The amazing part is that it felt original, like a story no one had ever told before.

To answer the question, the lightsaber WAS his best idea. The Leia bikini is a strong second.

Jordan said...

Stan, yeah, those are all good points. What you're discussing is the kind of pseudo-mythic borrowed material that has made Star Wars such a goldmine for semioticians and film theory types. That's why I'm re-asking the question , couched in these simpler "film-gimmick" terms.

The lightsaber is like the best gimmick ever because it's light and sound, and swashbuckling, and the super-dramatic ignition moment every time (not to mention the WHAM! WHAM! WHAM! that beats the hell out of the "clink clink clink" of Errol Flynn swordfighting.

HandsomeStan said...

Not to get away from your original question, but I think that the single most "creative" person on the film (not including Lucas in the argument) was Ben Burtt.

Between the snap-hiss of the lightsaber, R2's beeps, Chewie's roar, the TIE fighters' screaming engines, etc etc, the stuff he came up with and HOW he came up with it are nothing short of magical. (If I'm not mistaken, the lightsaber effects are all gleaned from whacking a high-tension powerline. You know, obviously.)

Jordan said...

Along those lines it's a toss-up between Burtt and Ralph McQuarrie.

You know the drill: industrial illustrator for Boeing...Lucas realized that expecting studio executives to "use their imagination" was a mistake. But it's remarkable how much McQuarrie work is in the movies (literally, since he executed several of the matte paintings).

But yes, Burtt's stuff was crucial. My favorite Ben Burtt touch (which he repeated in Star Trek last year) is the distorted, fucked-up "radio" signals coming from the X-wings in the final sequence.

This is a great way to talk about the movies (ignoring everything except the pure kinetics).

HandsomeStan said...

I would totally agree with McQuarrie. His stuff has always been mesmerizing; in some ways I find his conceptual worlds more compelling than the movies that came from them.

He was also never afraid to throw in a That Big Thing Back There, either.

Jordan said...

Yeah, McQuarrie totally understood the "big thing back there"!

What's interesting is that discussing McQuarrie brings us back around to another of my original points: the dirt. frequently the big difference between the McQuarrie version and what you see on film (with the exception of all the gleaming Imperial technology and settings) is how dirty and scuffed everything is. The dirt is an absolutely crucial element of the movie(s).

Jordan said...

Continuing along the same lines of discussion, yes, Threepio is basically a retread of "The False Maria" in Metropolis (just like Vader is indeed a Samurai mask); the visual nods are indisputable.

But when I wrote "droids" in my original list, I meant more that Lucas seemed to take a look at the history of sci-fi robots (Forbidden Planet, Lost in Space, The Day the Earth Stood Still, and, yes, Metropolis) and thought, These are all examples of "star" robots who are placed front and center amongst the characters like they're "special guests" or something. Let's make utilitarian robots that are all over the place, cobbled together, dirty, second-hand, etc. like cars are in America today. Just appliances.

Another clever trick is to set up pairs of characters where one of them doesn't speak English -- and is conspicuously deprived of subtitles. Think about it: Greedo and Jabba get subtitles. But R2-D2 and Chewbacca don't, because it's better (and funnier) if we only have a vague sense of what they're saying, so that all the conversations play like theatrical phone calls with the other party only coming through as a messed-up noise.

The robots are derived from the servants in the Kurosawa movie (as we've been told) but the basic idea of "droids"...crappy, disused, un-respected (but sentient!) robots all over the one of those great Lucas ideas, in my opinion.

HandsomeStan said...

One of my way-back-burner projects was to go back and actually put in the subtitles for R2 & Chewie. Lord knows we certainly figured out what they were saying after 3000 viewings in college.

My personal favorite exchange, on Jabba's Sail Barge:

3PO: Artoo? What are you doing here???

R2: Serving drinks. Duh.

3PO: Well, I can see you're serving drinks, but...

Also, the PLacement Droid in Jabba's Palace:

R2: (beeps, whistles)

Placement Droid: You're a feisty one.

(R2's line had to be something along the lines of "Bite me.")

Jordan said...

Or how about "Don't call me a mindless philosopher, you overweight glob of grease!"

Jordan said...

I know others disagree, but I've always loved the opening sequences in Return of the Jedi. The total weirdness of the tone (given what's happening in the galaxy) totally adds to the Star Wars mystique. It's something he tried to pick up in Phantom Menace: it's a big galaxy, very decadent, and even at the most crucial moments in galactic politics and war, the fringes of the society are still the same mercenary environment as always. I love the freedom of the Star Wars universe not to make any specific sense beyond the sensuality of the scenes and visuals and sounds.

I should just come clean: I've spent some time over the past few weeks watching all six films and I'm convinced he's a total genius.

Jordan said...

Plus that "Imperial Shuttle" routine that opens Jedi makes it quite clear that you're in a gothic environment that doesn't match up with the previous movie at all.

Jordan said...

I'll tell you something: I put in the disc of Star Wars (the "I'm-a-dick" 2007 DVD copies of the laserdiscs that aren't even anamorphic) and I watch the opening moments of the movie and I still can't even believe, 33 years later, how fucking good it is. That's all.

Jordan said...

Having just watched the first 9 minutes of Star Wars (NOT the special edition) I'm convinced once again that it's a work of unparalleled genius. I'm glad I was there, the first time around, when it was in theaters.

Johnny Sweatpants said...

I was always enamoured by the creature cantina which is essentially a bar where scary monsters and thugs go to unwind after a long day of iillegal activities. When I was a kid I thought that was the coolest thing in the world. (Still do.)

Octopunk said...

Here I thought all the good ideas had been listed and JSP pops up with "bar full of aliens." Another old idea (Westerns, Casablanca) put through the SW filter to emerge as compelling and original.

Reading the post I was going to say "dirt everywhere" until it got said already. It makes me think of how the first movie hit the kids in their teens that year, that instead of another space movie with squeaky clean surfaces they were treated to something that matched their scuzzy front yards where they worked on their Camaros. I bet that was universally awesome in ways few of them even understood, although understanding was not required to love it.

Jordan said...

Great point, Octo. (Welcome to the party, Pal!)