Saturday, June 12, 2010

The Great Scenes: Star Wars

Note: This is the first post in what will be a recurring feature on some of the greatest individual scenes in movie history. Please be aware that the posts in this series will often reveal major plot elements, and maybe even surprise endings, of the movie in discussion, so proceed with caution if you haven't seen the movie before.

Star Wars (1977) - Directed by George Lucas

"Binary Sunset" (Scene 11 on the DVD)

Remember when George Lucas could make a good movie? No, I don’t either, because I actually wasn’t alive for it. But while everyone seems to agree that Lucas used to be a great director, and now he no longer is, not many people seem capable of pinpointing why. What did American Graffiti (1973) and Star Wars (1977) have that the “new trilogy” doesn’t (besides that elusive thing I like to call “quality”)? The scene above goes a long way towards explaining the issue. Watch it again—it’s 36 seconds long, and absolutely nothing happens, but it completely illustrates why Star Wars captured the collective imagination of an entire generation and remains one of cinema’s greatest achievements of entertainment.

“Binary sunset” is pretty close towards the beginning of the film, and all that has really happened so far is that Luke Skywalker, a teenager living in his uncle’s farming community, has just purchased two droids (helper/slave robots) that appear to have previously fought in a major rebellion in other parts of the galaxy. The notion of finding out about this rebellion greatly excites Luke, as farming is all he has ever known, but his prospects for a different life seem quite low. A dejected Luke, who has just found out his uncle expects him to stay on the farm for at least another year, walks outside to look at the beautiful sunset provided by the twin suns of his home planet, Tatooine. Anyone that has seen Star Wars knows Luke’s life changes forever the next morning; he meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, finds out his father was a great Jedi Knight who fought and died in the rebellion, finds his aunt and uncle murdered by the empire, and goes off to help rescue a princess held hostage on a space ship that destroys planets.

A lesser storyteller wouldn’t have placed a transition moment between Luke’s two realities—we simply would have seen Luke Skywalker: galactic redneck one day, and then Luke Skywalker: savior of the universe the next. That’s certainly the Michael Bay way of doing things. But once upon a time, when George Lucas understood the vocabulary of great cinema, he gifted us with a perfect 36 seconds of nothing and everything.

I say nothing because, as mentioned earlier, nothing actually happens in the scene; I say everything because, as corny as it sounds, this is the moment where Luke recognizes his destiny of greatness, as well as the moment where the audience invests in the mythology of the Star Wars universe. One of the best things Lucas did with the original Star Wars was beginning in the middle. He transported us immediately into an epic that had been going on for a long time without us, and then slowly, methodically, filled us in on key important elements of the story. In the movie, Luke represents the audience, as we learn and experience with him the reality and scope of the rebel alliance against the empire. And for both Luke and us, “binary sunset” is the moment where we collectively understand “hey, I think there’s something bigger going on here.”

In all of the great hero sagas and myths, there’s typically a moment where the hero, while not necessarily becoming the hero yet, at least takes the first step towards recognizing that they have a greater calling. For Luke, this is that moment; when he gazes out at those twin suns, with his wispy hair at the apex of 1970s cheesiness, we can see that he recognizes he’s just not meant to be a farm boy. Something inside of him clicks, and we implicitly understand that longing for a life of greatness.

Of course, the John Williams score is of incalculable importance to the scene. People often ask me why I so adamantly prefer film over prose, and this is one of the scenes that I always think of. Could it exist in prose? Sure. Could it work? Absolutely not. No matter how impressive their word prowess, no author could adequately create the “goosebump” effect achieved by the combination of John Williams’ “Force Score” crescendoing in unison with Luke looking down, doubting himself, and then having the inner strength to look back up and metaphorically seize his destiny.

So seriously, how is it possible that the man who gave us those 36 seconds of cinematic nirvana can, 20+ year later, churn out the flaming soufflĂ© of nerd posturing and CGI diarrhea that is the new trilogy? I truly have no idea. The old clichĂ© about success is that it makes us turn our best habits into our worst habits, by overindulging in them while ignoring everything else. I suppose that’s essentially what happened to Lucas; he assumed that the special effects and technological advancements of the original trilogy were far more responsible for its popularity than apparently minor things like character and fun. But even though Lucas has clearly forgotten what makes a good sci-fi adventure movie, the lessons he taught us have not been lost. Check out the trailer for J.J. Abrams’ excellent Star Trek reboot from last summer, particularly starting at about the 55 second mark. Long before he was Captain of the Starship Enterprise, all James Kirk really needed in order to recognize his true calling was to gaze into a binary sunset of his own.

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