The Popcorn Champs
The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?
Sometime after George Lucas’ 1977 Star Wars had become the highest-grossing movie of all time, Francis Ford Coppola told Lucas that he should just go ahead and start his own religion. “I remember Francis saying, ‘With religion, you really have power,’” Lucas remarked years later. Lucas demurred. Maybe he realized that he’d already started a religion of sorts.
Today, Star Wars actually is a literal religion; the IRS granted tax-exempt status to a creed known as the Temple Of The Jedi Order in 2015. But the cultural power of Star Wars goes far beyond the obscure faith of Jediism. It goes right to the heart of global popular culture. The biggest cultural story of this winter might be the noisily mixed reception that has greeted The Rise Of Skywalker, the film that’s being marketed as the ninth movie in the saga that Lucas began almost 43 years ago. The Rise Of Skywalker seems to be a self-conscious repudiation of the previous film in that series. A few generations after Star Wars, filmmakers seem to be feuding with one another, through the medium of blockbusters, over how to best honor Lucas’ vision. It looks a whole lot like a religious schism.
These days, it’s hard to even think about the original Star Wars movie through all the noise that has surrounded it for decades. Star Wars became American myth practically on arrival. It spun off a vastly popular series of films. (To date, there have been 11 live-action Star Wars features, and at least eight of them will eventually appear in this column.) It spun off into toys and TV series and a disco instrumental that went to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. It also affected the way movies look and sound and feel; those of us who grew up on ’80s sci-fi basically subsisted on a diet of Star Wars and movies that were trying to be Star Wars.
On top of that, it’s hard to literally see that original Star Wars. The version that’s easiest to watch remains the one with all the aggravating CGI fill-ins that Lucas put on the market in 1997, throwing off the rhythm of the original movie in all sorts of tiny ways. But Lucas has been tinkering with Star Wars almost since the beginning. Originally, the film didn’t announce itself as Episode IV of anything; that subtitle was added to the opening crawl a few years later. George Lucas, understanding the power of this legend that he created, couldn’t stop himself from continually messing with it for years afterwards. If Disney hadn’t paid Lucas a few billion for the intellectual property in 2012, he’d probably still be messing with it.
Watching Star Wars now, especially in the context of writing this column, one thing that strikes me is how very little about the film seems culturally tied to the 1970s. Lucas came up alongside Coppola, and he was friends with fellow ’70s New Hollywood filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma. He cared deeply about what those guys thought. (De Palma helped Lucas edit the text of the opening crawl down to something vaguely understandable; Lucas’ first draft was apparently something perilously close to gibberish.) But where those guys were attempting to interrogate the social realities of their time, Lucas couldn’t have cared less about all that. Beyond Mark Hamill’s floppy Tiger Beat hair, nothing about Star Wars even looks ’70s.
There’s a bit of mystic stoner post-hippie logic at work in the basic idea of the Force, explained by a wise old space wizard as “an energy field that binds all living things.” If you really wanted to reach, you could probably find Vietnam parallels in the story of the battle between the scrappy, guerrilla-fighting Rebellion and the heavily-armed, ruthless, clumsy Empire. (Lucas has said that the film “was really about the Vietnam War” and the question of “how do democracies get turned into dictatorships?” He was probably reaching there.) But the sheer otherworldly power of Star Wars is in how little it resembles messy, petty, squalid human life.
Most of Lucas’ reference points in making Star Wars didn’t have anything to do with lived experience. Instead, he was connecting dots among dreams. Lucas grew up on Flash Gordon serials, and he only made Star Wars when he failed at getting the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie. (Three years after Star Wars, a Flash Gordon movie did come out, and it was an operatic, over-the-top Star Wars ripoff.) Star Wars is built on those Flash Gordon serials and on allusions to Westerns, war pictures, ’60s epics, Disney, and sci-fi pulp epics like Dune.
The connections to Akira Kurosawa samurai films, especially The Hidden Fortress, are so overwhelming that Lucas originally attempted to cast the great Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune as Obi-Wan Kenobi. When Mifune turned it down, that role went to Alec Guinness, the one actual movie star in the cast. Guinness had the gravitas that Lucas needed, and he was a familiar face, especially when you consider that audiences had already seen him bearded, dressed in flowing robes, and dispensing desert wisdom in Lawrence Of Arabia 15 years earlier. (Guinness didn’t think much of Star Wars, but he made 2.25% of the movie’s grosses. My man got paid.)
Point is: Lucas’ points of reference came from movies and serials and comics, not from actual human life. He was a pastiche artist. Lucas contemporaries like Martin Scorsese were just as in love with cinematic history, but they mined those shared dreams for moments of messy realism or shock value. Lucas wasn’t interested in any of that. Instead, he did everything he could to push movies into pure self-conscious mythmaking. His vast success is a crazy thing to consider in retrospect.
Lucas spent years writing and rewriting his Star Wars script. His debut film, the 1971 dystopian nightmare THX 1138, had failed at the box office. His follow-up, the low-budget 1973 teenage flashback American Graffiti, was a surprise smash. With Star Wars, Lucas aimed squarely at audiences of children, but he imagined a world of tremendous scope. Tiny little one-off lines in Lucas’ Star Wars script would later launch entire spinoff novels and TV series. It’s a testament to the level of writing; you hear someone say the words “clone wars,” with no added context, and you want to know more.
Lucas made a whole lot of extremely smart decisions when making Star Wars. He turned down an extra $500,000 in salary, for instance, to own the rights to his sequels and toys—understanding, long before the movie studios, that both of those things could be absolute goldmines. And he made some brilliant decisions in casting and in imagining the feel of the thing. Lucas knew, for instance, that fantastical exposition would go down a lot easier when delivered by a weathered, weary Shakespearean actor. When he cast Alec Guinness, he set the stage for decades of similar casting decisions; the Lord Of The Rings and Harry Potter movies would be almost unthinkable without that calculation.
Lucas also had the foresight to cast Harrison Ford as the wisecracking space pirate Han Solo. Ford had spent years as an unnoticed background actor, and he’d left the studio system to work as a carpenter. He was 34 when he was cast in Star Wars, and it’s amazing to consider that someone with that much laconic presence could go that long without catching a break. How did every room not stop when Harrison Ford walked in? It’s a mystery. But Lucas, who’d already cast Ford in a small American Graffiti part, apparently understood the actor’s inherent charisma.
Star Wars sometimes gets knocked for its performances, but I like all of them. Luke Skywalker should be a slightly whiny and annoying kid; that’s the point of the character. He’s sick of living with his family, and he’s terrified of staying in the same place forever. You know that kid. Maybe you’ve been that kid. He sucks. He’s annoying. He has to be. It’s part of the journey. And Carrie Fisher, 19 when she was cast, is tough and funny and unflappable and entirely at home in Lucas’ dreamworld. She should’ve been as big a star as Ford.
Beyond the leads, Lucas came up with characters like a shaggy space-ape co-pilot, so he cast the 7'3" Peter Mayhew. He imagined a small, sassy beeping robot, so he cast the 3'8" Kenny Baker. Lucas found hulking British bodybuilder David Prowse to fill the Darth Vader costume, and he gave the character the voice of James Earl Jones, maybe the most sonorous and commanding in the world. This character could’ve easily come off as deeply silly, so Lucas used everything at his disposal to make sure that Vader was impressive and imposing instead.
Lucas also went to the absolute limits of what that the special effects, sound editing, and cinematography of his era would allow him. Thanks to the prequels, we now know how Lucas’ visions look when he has nothing constraining him. They’re visually cluttered and desperately ugly. But forced to film in actual deserts and jungles, to stage space battles with miniatures, and to fill his movies with almost-lyrical stretches of nothingness, Lucas comes up with something that resonates like nothing else.
George Lucas did not reinvent cinema with Star Wars, and he didn’t change the sorts of stories that movies were telling. If you look at the other hit movies of 1977, you’ll find plenty of Star Wars echoes. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, the big sci-fi swing from Lucas’ buddy and eventual collaborator Steven Spielberg, had interplanetary communication, gorgeous physics-defying spaceships, and a low but universal spiritual pulse that causes a regular schmo to leave his life behind and head off into the heavens. (Also: blinky lights.) Saturday Night Fever had a provincial kid with hidden talents and big dreams who wants to run off and join the grand story he sees unfolding somewhere else. (Also: more blinky lights.) And Smokey And The Bandit had a lovable smartass smuggler who evades authority and delivers his payload while falling in love with a girl from a completely different world. (No blinky lights this time, but plenty of jumped-up fast-moving vehicles.)
So Star Wars was part of a cinematic continuum. It was also part of a trend toward triumphant-underdog stories. But where Rocky, from the year before, wrapped its fairytale up in the costume of ’70s social realism, Star Wars zigged hard in the opposite direction, presenting something proudly fantastical. Rather than tying his story to our world, Lucas went off and imagined a world of his own. Forty-three years later, we’re still exploring that world. This past year, it spawned both the incoherent Michael Bay-esque spectacle of The Rise Of Skywalker and The Mandalorian, a spare and imaginative and oddly soothing series. Those two wildly divergent visions both came from the same place. There’s something almost religious about that.
In a way, the most depressing thing about The Rise Of Skywalker, one of the most rote and cynical and joyless theatrical experiences I’ve had in recent years, is that it attempts to build on something so pure and weird. Star Wars is the work of a young movie dork vomiting his influences up on celluloid, building a whole galaxy out of a sarcastic beeping trashcan and a new-age space sorcerer and a garbage snake and an exploding planet and a few dozen allusions to offscreen adventures. It’s a strange little vision that became such an unprecedented success that nobody remembers its strangeness anymore. And the great tragedy of Star Wars may be that the movies it inspired—the ones that it continues to inspire—are nowhere near as weird as that first vision.
The contender: The aforementioned Saturday Night Fever, with its monster Bee Gees-dominated soundtrack and its blinky lights, has to be one of the oddest blockbusters in history. The film looks and feels like an underdog-triumph similar to the previous year’s Rocky. (Rocky director John G. Avildsen was hired to direct Fever but was fired a few weeks into filming. Fever protagonist Tony Manero still has a Rocky poster up on his bedroom wall, right next to Bruce Lee and Farrah Fawcett.) But Fever is something else entirely.
In all the scenes of a young John Travolta dancing, Saturday Night Fever offers up pure spectacle nearly as thrilling as anything in Star Wars. But the actual film is much smaller and more depressing than that. Tony Manero looks like a god on the dance floor. But in real life, he’s a confused idiot kid who attempts rape, hates his friends, can’t stand to be around his family, and longs for a big-city life that he can’t even properly contemplate. He’s a mess, and the movie never tries to make him anything other than a mess. It’s fascinating, especially when the film’s main legacy is just the image of Travolta pointing at the sky while lights blink all around him.
Next time: Grease builds on the ’50s nostalgia craze that George Lucas helped kick off with American Graffiti, putting together a much sunnier tableau around the image of John Travolta shaking his ass.