AFI #13: Star Wars

star-warsIt’s not often that a film makes as big a mark on the world as Star Wars did in 1977. You can argue that it’s a bit corny and that the special effects don’t hold up, but you can’t really argue that it changed the industry forever. From a box office perspective, the original 1977 film kicked off a franchise that has earned more than $4 billion (yes, I said billion). Star Wars: A New Hope has made three-quarters of a billion over the years. In 1977 the film earned more than $300 million — prior to Star Wars, the highest profit 20th Century Fox had every made in one year was $37 million. It is, to this day, the sixth highest grossing film (domestic) of all time!

The film also changed special effects forever. Sure, they look hokey today, but at the time of the film’s release the special effects were mind-blowing and set the bar for decades to come. And of course, the cultural impact of Star Wars continues today as we prepare for the latest installment in the franchise to be directed by JJ Abrams. Even kids born in the last few years know the difference between a Jedi and a Sith, know Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, and know what one means when they say “may the force be with you.” Star Wars is, to be sure, a deeply ingrained part of American (and global) pop culture. Not bad for a little $11 million film that nobody expected to be successful.

But if you are of a certain age (say 47 for example) then Star Wars likely played an integral role in your childhood. Much like the generation before remembers where they were when Kennedy was shot, my generation remembers the time they went to the theater to see Star Wars. For me, it was some time around Memorial Day 1977 and I saw it at the Loma Theater on Rosecrans Blvd. in San Diego and I waited in a line that wrapped around the theater. By the way, the Loma Theater is no longer with us but the sign remains as part of a Bookstar. My generation had Star Wars lunch boxes, Jedi t-shirts, made models of the Millenium Falcon and played with Luke and Han action figures. It was the first true blockbuster and the first film to make millions off tie-ins and toys. Like I said, it changed Hollywood forever.

So, the question is, is it a good film? Is it worthy of the number 13 slot on the AFI list? Hell, most of us could argue that it isn’t even the best of the franchise (Return of the Jedi is the best in my book). But really when you combine the film itself with the impact it had it’s hard to argue against its place among the best American films ever and I will not argue against it.

I love Star Wars. I have loved it since that day in 1977 when I was 11 years old and I loved it again today when I watched it for the umpteenth time. It has everything a kid needs in a film. Action. Heroes. Villains. Spaceships. Lasers. Explosions. A sexy princess (what 11-year-old boy didn’t have the hots for Carrie Fisher at the time). Sure, the plot is contrived and cliché, but who cares when you have Luke and Han firing lasers at storm troopers.

Next up: The Searchers

AFI #62: American Graffiti

I think a lot of so-called great films are fully dependent on the generation of the viewer and as I make my way through the AFI Top 100 there have been several examples of this generational bias. American Graffiti is definitely a film that reaches a certain demographic. Set in the early 60s and made in 1973, the film is not much more than a nod to that mythical time known as “the good old days.” For director George Lucas, the film is a bit of a love letter to his teenage years growing up in small town Northern California when kids cruised the streets and pranked each other with shaving cream and the biggest issue was whether or not they should leave this Rockwellian dream for the big city (or in this case, college “back east”). American Graffiti captures that moment in time quite well, and it obviously had an impact on viewers of a certain age.

That being said, for my money American Graffiti is just an average film that isn’t even among the best of its genre. The Hollywood Knights is basically the same plot but a much better film overall. Barry Levinson’s Diner also delivers the same emotion and is one of my favorite films of all time. I think American Graffiti gets more recognition because it’s Lucas’ first film and because it stars young actors who later become very famous, including Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford. It’s an enjoyable little film, but it’s certainly not one of the 100 best American films of all time.

Nostalgia is a great film genre that has delivered some amazing films. Last year’s wonderful Super 8 comes to mind. But nostalgia films are by their nature going to be more meaningful to those who lived during a similar time and can therefore relate to the nostalgia. I’m not a baby boomer, and I can appreciate how cool it must have been in the 50s and 60s to cruise your car up and down the street and have burgers delivered to your car by a hot girl on roller skates, but I’m not going to be moved by a time period that I didn’t live through. I imagine baby boomers don’t feel the same way I do when I watch Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club. And that’s okay, but don’t tell me American Graffiti is one of the best films ever. It’s not.

By the way, I’ve seen bits and pieces of American Graffiti before but this is the first time I’d ever sat through it beginning to end. There are some memorable scenes (like the one in which Toad tries to buy some whiskey and ends up in the middle of a hold up). But seeing it all the way through — the damn thing has a really depressing ending. Cindy Williams almost dies in a car crash, Toad gets killed in Vietnam, Milner gets killed by a drunk driver, Steve ends up selling insurance in Modesto because he doesn’t go to college and Curt moves to Canada. Geez…good times.

Next up: Sullivan’s Travels