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Today was another in a long series of hectic days, so when I got a chance to take a break around 3:20 p.m., I took it. I followed my usual pattern (lock self in office, goof off on Internet) for about forty minutes, and I felt better.
But that’s not what I’m writing about today. What I’m writing about is that when I came out of the office to start working on dinner, I found my wife and kids watching Star Wars.
In the interest of full disclosure: I was never a big Star Wars fan. I had a bunch of the action figures when I was a kid, but I mostly used them to make up my own stories (kind of like how I write fanfic now). I saw the movies, but largely because my mom (who was a fan) dragged me along with her so she wouldn’t have to go alone. I still haven’t seen Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith or even George Lucas in Love, and the only reason I own VHS copies of the original trilogy is that I inherited them when Mom died. I didn’t hate them or anything — they were fun little space Westerns — but not a big deal for me. Today was probably the first time I’ve seen more than a short clip of Episode IV in over a decade.
And I was shocked by it. I was shocked by … heck, I’m no diplomat, might as well just say it … by how cheap it looked!
I kid you not — it just struck me as so unrealistic on so many levels. The stages looked like stages. The special effects weren’t all that special; you could almost see the wires. You couldn’t possibly convince me that a technologically advanced army would dress their soldiers in uniforms like what the Stormtroopers and Imperial Guard wear. The actors’ blocking was, to put it nicely, clunky — even Harrison Ford’s, which really seems weird in retrospect. For the first time, I could get an idea of why Sir Alec Guinness hated talking about being in the film, even though it made him millions (since his contract gave him a percentage of the gross). Honestly, it looked like a Doctor Who episode — I was waiting for Tom Baker and his thirty-foot scarf to walk on-screen and save the day.
And yet, this was the Movie that Changed the World. It was the highest-grossing film in U.S. history (still is, if you adjust for inflation) and worldwide (again adjusting for inflation, it’s still #2 behind only Avatar). It cemented the concept of the blockbuster film, still current in Hollywood. It changed the language (“light saber,” “the Force”). In science fiction, it made space films viable again, ended the era of dystopian story lines (begun with the Dangerous Visions anthology and 2001: A Space Odyssey in the late ’60s) and paved the way for the more optimistic plots of the 1980s, still my favorite era for SF reading. Heck, it forced the folks at Paramount to get off the schneid and revive Star Trek — for that alone, George Lucas should get a medal.
But you pop it in your video player today, and it’s a 33-year-old space opera with cardboard sets and stilted dialogue. What happened?
Well, technology happened. And Star Wars was part of the spur of that technology that now makes it look so dodgy.
You’ve probably heard the story about how the communicator from the original Star Trek series was the inspiration for the Motorola engineers who created the first flip phone. That’s just one example of how fictional tech can drive the development of real tech, but there are plenty — robots, “waldos” and numerous other modern gadgets started out as concepts in SF stories.
With Star Wars, the connection was a little more direct: Lucas wanted special effects for his film that had never been created before, but 20th Century Fox had shut down its effects division, so he had to create one of his own. That later became Industrial Light & Magic, to this day the premier F/X shop in the movie industry, but in 1977 they were just the Special Visual Effects department on Star Wars.
Once Star Wars became a huge hit, suddenly everyone wanted to imitate its success (that’s how Hollywood works — or fails to work, as the case may be). And that meant newer, bigger and more innovative special effects. At the same time, the computer industry was beginning to move beyond the grasp of a few mainframe companies on its way to becoming the all-pervasive force of nature that’s allowing you to read this blog today. So people who wanted to create greater film effects had new and powerful tools to make it happen.
Now, take those computers, and double their abilities every two years — Moore’s Law in a nutshell. Twenty-two years later, you have PCs that can do over 2000 times more than they were doing. And people using them to do just that, in hundreds of different fields, including movie effects. Or put another way, the folks doing F/X for The Phantom Menace had 2000 times more processing power than the ones doing A New Hope. Any wonder the pod race looks more realistic than the Millenium Falcon did?
(Ironically, Lucas saw the computer revolution coming before most, starting a computer-graphics division at ILM in 1979. Unfortunately, he got over-extended financially, then Howard the Duck cratered and he had to sell off assets to keep Lucasfilm afloat. His friend Steve Jobs bought the CGI division in 1986 for $5 million … and it’s now Pixar. Wonder if Lucas ever feels like hurling a Buzz Lightyear doll against a wall …)
I had a pastor friend who once said that he believed the greatest challenge to the church in the 21st century was virtual reality. No, really. His point was that when someone could create a simulacrum that looks, sounds and feels like reality, how do you tell what’s real and what’s fiction? How do you determine truth at that point? It’s a question worth asking, and one I’m not sure I can answer. Movie special effects aren’t quite at that stage yet — but they seem to be headed in that direction. The effects in Star Wars or 2001, seen today, look like effects — good effects, sometimes, but effects. The ones in, say, Inception, look pretty close to real — even when they’re turning city streets into donuts, you kind of have to remind yourself that that can’t happen in real life.
Between World War II and Star Wars, movies changed dramatically, becoming edgier, more willing to challenge societal mores, and above all faster. I’ve seen a few of the great films of the 1940s — Citizen Kane, It’s a Wonderful Life, Casablanca — and what surprises me about them is how slow the pacing is. Those movies had fewer cuts from one camera to the next, dialogue was filled with more pauses, and usually a fairly basic plot was stretched over two hours with one or no subplots to support it. They were, by modern standards, very simple films. By the 1970s you couldn’t make a film like You Can’t Take It With You — it would no longer be believable to a generation raised on The Godfather and Jaws.
Since 1977, the same thing has happened — movies today are edgier, more challenging and faster — but technology has added a further dimension, because now you can do the impossible (or at least make it look like you’re doing it) in a way you couldn’t portray on the screen when Carter was in the White House. Now it’s The Godfather that looks dated compared to The Departed (its generational successors). Same with Altered States and Inception, The Aristocats and Ratatouille … or Star Wars and Avatar. Times change, tools develop and the world moves on.
It’s sad in some ways to think that Star Wars has become less watchable. But so did Citizen Kane. They’re still good films, but they’re not what they once were. We’ll survive — and knowing the human race, we’ll be ready for what happens next.
For instance … Tron: Legacy, anyone?