I had no intention of watching the movie. Dad had been flipping channels and found that some station was showing the original Star Wars (TM) “with minimal commercials.” Ye gads, Sweet Saint San Andreas save us from what their normal commercial load is. After some discussion about what did they mean by calling it “The New Hope,” because Dad Red didn’t notice the full title of the move 39(!) years ago, and my grousing quietly about Mr. Lucas’s re-writes (come on, Han shot first. It’s that kind of bar and he’s that kind of man. Sheesh.) he started watching the film. I was reading, and MomRed was doing something, studying I think. I did not intend to watch the movie.
I got sucked in. Despite the hokey story bits, despite some of the no-longer-stunning special effects, despite everything that’s happened since 1977, I got pulled into the film. Alas, I had to go to bed just as the X-wings launched from the moon of Yavin so I didn’t get to see the ending.
What happened? How did I get pulled in so hard? If I knew, I’d use that trick in my books and in the classroom, although a few times I’ve managed it without realizing it, in the classroom at least. Full-time eye contact, describing details, raising and lowering my volume as the story of history unrolls . . . But I can’t predict when it will happen, or guarantee that it will work the next time.
I knew Han, Luke, and company were going to get away from the Death Star. I knew, how the film would end, but I still fell into watching, tense, on the edge of getting breathless. The author part of my brain can look back and see how well the pacing works, how each scene builds, then eases, then builds a little more, then eases. The characterization is also excellent, with each “stock” character having enough of a twist that they are memorable and interesting. And the special effects still work. Part of me knows what are mattes and what is camera tricks and what is animation, but the rest suppresses that in favor of the story.
So why does it still work? Because the STORY strikes a chord. The bad guys are bad. All later naval-gazing aside, Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin are not nice people. They are not misunderstood, they are not the products of deprived childhoods. You know that they choose to be on the side of the Empire and they choose to be bad. Princess Leia and Obi-one Kenobi are good. Han Solo could go either way, although he seems a bit more good than he’d like the others to think. Luke is clueless, but competent in his own way, but the good guys know that they do not want evil. Even Han doesn’t seem tempted to try to bargain with the Empire. Yes, I know, technically he’s never in a position to do so, but that’s not what the story suggests to the watchers.
I think it is easy to get lulled by all the modern and post-modern, well, crap about even bad people are still people and have good-to-them reasons to do mean things, and we can’t judge people who are not the same as we are because we don’t know where they are coming from and what is motivating them. That Darth Vader is really just a sweet kid who was manipulated into making Bad Choices. Which, as an aside, means that his redemption in the third movie loses all its power and guts the whole story. Star Wars is refreshing because the bad guys are Bad, the good guys are Good, and we, the audience, are free to cheer for the good guys without worrying about the motivations and childhood traumas of the Grand Moff and his associates. Any institution that will happily blow up an inhabited world just to show that it can really has no redeeming features (as if that had not already become apparent by the massacre of the Jawas and Luke’s uncle and aunt).
Recently I’ve been reading the Wearing the Cape novels. Yes, they are a little more pricey than I’d like, but they are fun reads, and very clear. The bad guys choose to be bad. They have the option to use their new talents for good, as the protagonist and others do, but they say, “Heck no, I’m gonna break the law, scare people, rob, assault, and generally cause mayhem” because they want to. There’s lawful evil (the Mob) and chaos evil, a few neutral characters who just want to be left alone to do their thing their way, and the reader knows the bad guys have chosen to be bad. Just like people do in the real world.
Star Wars is about good versus evil, evil knowingly chosen, evil embraced. And that has power in a story, just as a character choosing good has power. Add good pacing, neat character twists, humor when it fits, spectacular-for-the-time special effects that do not get in the way of the story, and it pulls the viewer, reader in, even though they know what will happen, even though they want to do something else. A natural history of Trilobites can’t compete with the Millennium Falcon, no matter how well written it is.