How did mature science fiction fans react to the biggest event ever in cinema SF?
I ask because I’m genuinely keen to know.
Much of what has been written about the release of Star Wars in 1977 has been about how it affected impressionable children. I was one of those kids and have contributed to the countless words written on that subject, as you’ll see over at my own blog, Episode Nothing. But much less has been written about how the film went down with people who were already pretty well-versed in science fiction?
It’s easy for a post-Star Wars generation to forget that there was a sizable SF community back then – a community which was on the verge of getting Star Trek brought back, for example. But George Lucas was well aware of the fan community’s existence and its importance to his film.
Lucas later described the title Star Wars as an “insurance policy”. Twentieth Century-Fox’s research had suggested that the word “war” in a title would turn off women. “But we calculated that there are something like eight million dollars’ worth of science fiction freaks in the USA and they will go to see absolutely anything with a title like Star Wars,” Lucas said.
While shooting was underway in the UK, the film’s merchandising and publicity supervisor, Charles Lippincott, toured SF conventions, displaying models and pictures from the production. Later on, producer Gary Kurtz would do the same thing. It was vital that a hard core of SF fans saw the film, even if few other people did.
The Star Wars novelization was published in August 1976 in an effort to create interest in the film ahead of its release. Credited to George Lucas but ghost-written by Alan Dean Foster, it reads like an attempt to impress fans of literary SF as much as the general reader or movie-goer.
The novel begins with a prologue taken from an imaginary text called ‘The Journal of the Whills’, as though the volume we’re reading is part of some Dune-like epic. Foster uses downright grandiose vocabulary throughout: the phrase lambent topaz crops up at the start of Chapter One, and thereafter he writes of arroyo, xenologist, mahouts, sussuration and chakedomy. Foster generally does a rather good job of reinventing the screenplay as a novel, but you can sense how keen the book is to be taken seriously. And the book certainly accomplished its task of piquing interest in the film – by February 1977, three months ahead of the film’s release, it had already sold half a million copies.
Lucas had read a wide range of SF while he was writing his script, even though he admitted not enjoying a lot of what he read. It did not automatically follow, of course, that fans would be impressed by the film – but clearly a large number of them were.
In his book The Primal Screen, critic and novelist John Brosnan recalls his own feelings about seeing the movie for the first time.
“It looked – almost – as good as 2001 but it was a riproaring space opera. Images that I’d previously only seen on the covers of sf magazines or comics paraded by one by one up there on the big screen,” he said.
“Lucas had taken so much from SF illustrators and writers. For example, certain images in the movie seem directly based on sf magazine cover illustrations by such artists as Ed Emshwiller, John Schoenherr and Kelly Freas, and Lucas seems to have borrowed freely from Frank Herbert for his desert world at the beginning of the movie, and from Isaac Asimov for his idea of a galactic empire.”
Among the fans who saw the film on day one – May 25, 1977 – was Steve Davidson, today the publisher and editor of Amazing Stories. A long time before its release, he points out, The Star Wars (as it was still being called) was being hyped as a modern take on Flash Gordon, with little emphasis on literary progenitors – and certainly no mention of the influence of Joseph Campbell and his The Hero With a Thousand Faces, whose influence Lucas would later talk up. While stressing that these are fallible personal memories of almost 40 years ago, Steve gave me the following account:
“Having discussed the advent of Star Wars with fans at the time – from the moment that hints of the film (Hollywood is funding an SF blockbuster), through the various news snippets (models being built in London, special camera techniques being developed, etc), watching the film, having Gary Kurtz specifically attending Worldcon the year of release and talking about it afterwards, again, with fans – here’s what I remember:
“We were all hopeful that with a big budget, someone would finally do something to rival 2001. We all knew early on that it was originally to have been Flash Gordon and we all knew that King Features would not release the rights and so they were not calling it Flash Gordon – but we all seriously suspected that it would be Flash Gordon in all but name.
“Then we started hearing about ‘wookiees’ and ‘droids’ and the wind went out of nearly everyone’s sails. It was going to be big budget schlock; no one connected to it ‘knew’ science fiction (yeah, SFX guys did but they had no control); plus – all the promises made about The Star Wars were the same ones they’d made about Logan’s Run – and that sucked.
“‘Reserved judgment’ was the best anyone could say leading up to the release.
“And then: OMG!
“They had spaceships that looked like spaceships (even if they did fly like fighter planes); they had multiple robots of different kinds; they had aliens – mostly believable looking ones – all over the place; they had planet scapes that looked great.
“And they had a crappy story, overblown acting and storm troopers in white who couldn’t freakin’ hit anything.
“The visuals were hailed as a breakthrough. The first time in modern reckoning that some of the things we’d barely imagined in our heads were right there in front of us in living color. I was blown away. It made so much money that we were all convinced that the golden age of SF film had arrived.
It strikes me today that a genre fan looking ahead to the two big SF movies of 1977 would have had reason to be cynical. One of those films, Star Wars, might suggest the genre had not moved on intellectually since the days of Buster Crabbe. The other, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, threatened to associate SF fans with delusional people who believed in UFO abductions. (I’ve discussed my mixed feelings about Close Encounters here.) Yet one of these films was from the director of American Graffiti and the other was from the director of Jaws – and as it turned out, both films were made with such astonishing panache that they disarmed all but the harshest critics.
Were you a genre fan before Star Wars, and if so, what was your reaction to the film? I’d love to quote some of those memories on my own site, so if you have a comment to leave, I’m eager to read it.