Today, I’m going mainstream. I’m always thinking about what might make interesting pairings, and I don’t want to limit myself too much. But I had set up some guidelines early on, such as I would focus on older movies, at least 10 years old, and that I would attempt to focus on films that I hadn’t seen before. But these are guidelines, not rules, and I thought it would be interesting to look at two space operas from different eras. So today’s films are:
George Lucas – Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
James Gunn – Guardians Of the Galaxy (2014)
While I’ve definitely done some well known films before, this is by far the most mainstream pairing I’ve written about.
One reason I wanted to avoid movies I knew very well was because I felt like I’d gloss over details or miss things. With films like these, I’m usually watching them on auto-pilot, with the film in the background while I do something else like play a game, or read.
But I challenged myself to really dig into the details of these films, and follow the process I’ve been following by taking careful notes and trying to make connections. I wanted try to view these films as a first time viewer, and try to pull out what the filmmakers were trying to do.
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
Star Wars is one of the most well-known films of all time, still, let’s start with a synopsis, just in case. Star Wars is the story of Luke Skywalker, a young farmer, who learns the legacy of his father as a mystical knight, and takes a journey across the galaxy to support the activities of a group of rebels against the Empire, the ruling government of the galaxy.
That’s a description that is completely accurate, but fairly useless. I’m actually kind of proud of it. But of course, we all know it’s more than that, so let’s get into it. But first, let me mention the version I’m watching. Because there have been several official and unofficial versions, I’m watching the digital version of Star Wars available on Amazon.com. I believe this is the same version on the Blu Ray sets that were released.
The film has one of the most famous openings of all-time, John Williams score playing along with the opening crawl. The opening crawl is an exceptional idea because it sets up all the exposition we need at the start of the movie, and lets Lucas get on with the story. Films that are trying to build a world are rife with exposition, and it’s the kind of thing you can’t miss once you know what it sounds like. For anyone confused by the term, exposition is when a character explains information that is known to them, but that the audience needs to know for context in the scene.
Filmmakers have a complex relationship with exposition. If you actually showed everything the audience needed to see to understand your complex backstory, the film would be 18 hours long and cost 2 billion dollars. That’s not practical, so filmmakers need a character to explain it through dialogue. Star Wars does a fairly good job of keeping exposition low, but it’s still there.
One quick example, in the scene when Han Solo is making the jump to light speed for the first time, Lucas needs to explain how this works. So Luke complains that it’s taking too long, and Han Solo angrily tells him that he needs precise calculations or the ship will be in danger. Luke is often used as the viewpoint of the audience in the film, asking the question that the audience might be asking.
But back to the opening scene. There are a lot of things that set Star Wars apart from other films of the era, but one of the big things is the sound design. The sound when the storm troopers break through the door and the battle begins is almost overwhelming. The laser blasts, the explosions, the shouts, they all come together to assault the audience in a way that makes us feel the panic of the battle. Later, we’ll get iconic sound effects like the light saber, the jump to light speed, Darth Vader’s respirator, and on and on.
Sound is something I haven’t talked about much on this blog, but it’s an underrated aspect of a lot of films. I think there are a lot of director’s that can put beautiful images on film. Get the right lens, the right lighting, and the right setting, and beautiful things can happen. But get the sound right, and it takes the film to another level. And Star Wars is a film that takes major advantage of the sound design to put us in that sci-fi world.
Lucas uses a lot of short hand in the world to avoid exposition. A lot of sci-fi movies are just struggling under the weight of exposition, but Star Wars manages to keep it low. When Vader appears, we learn the following things:
- He’s dressed all in black = He’s a villain
- He’s head and shoulders above everyone else = He’s strong
- We hear his respirator = He’s not completely human
Whether you specifically think those things when you see him, it makes sense. Vader is set up from the beginning as having no equals in this film. No one can challenge him and win (reinforced with a later scene when someone does challenge him and is immediately punished). Without using the costume, actor and sound to tell us these kinds of things, Lucas would have to set up some kind of scene where Vader explains to someone how his suit works or some background characters would have to explain it. The most explanation we get is from Obi Wan Kenobi a bit later, when he mentions Vader is “more machine than man”. And that’s all we really need. Interestingly, Obi Wan is also set up as a figure without equal, so when they meet for a fight later in the film, we’re really anticipating what might happen.
Similarly with the droids and aliens. We see C3P0 and R2D2 early on, and we can see that they’re robots, but what can we say about the broader world? Lucas gives us a window into that when the droids are captured and sent to the Jawa Sandcrawler. As the droids reunite, we see many other types of droids. We now know that these droids are common in this world, and diverse. The same principle is at work in the bar scene later. If we’re wondering about aliens in this world, we get to see tons of them. While this film doesn’t really make use of alien races, it broadens the world, and sells to us that we’re not in a familiar environment.
Every character gets some kind of intro to tell us who they are without them having to blurt it out. Luke is trapped, and dreaming of leaving, Han is only interested in money, Obi Wan is stalwart and ready to help those in need, and Princess Leia is strong and capable. In fact, the most exposition we get is from Obi Wan who has to explain the force to us. But even then, he pays it out slowly, giving us a few scenes where we see various force powers, sometimes explaining them (usually to Luke), or just letting them speak for themselves.
Modern movies seem to have an addiction to exposition, and we’ll see a lot of it in our second movie today, but Star Wars is able to keep it to a minimum, which speeds up the story and cuts down the running time.
In addition to the sound design, and the reduction in exposition, the biggest thing Lucas contributed to the genre with this film is the way he mixed other genres into sci-fi to make something that felt fresh and new. The most famous was the decision to make the space battles feel like old dogfighting movies, like Hell’s Angels. But there’s more here. For example, Han Solo is a character right out of a Western. Solo carries himself with cool confidence, going wherever the next job will take him, facing problems as they come, but with a dark past that’s catching up with him. Obi Wan has some of the mysterious aspects of Eastwood’s The Man With No Name as well.
When the characters end up on the Death Star, we suddenly find ourselves in a prison break movie, which leads into a series of perils more attuned with a Saturday action serial from the 50s. Then we wrap up with a standard war movie dogfighting scene with a perfectly placed suspense timer: The Death Star will be in range to fire in 30 minutes, and the Rebellion knows how to destroy the Death Star. Only one of them can complete their goal.
There’s been a lot made of how Lucas used The Hero’s Journey as a template for this film. The Hero’s Journey is a template popularized by Joseph Campbell who looked at many stories from different cultures and found that many of them shared similar traits. Campbell theorized that since these traits were universal to stories across cultures and eras that there must be something about them that spoke to the human condition. Lucas used these traits as a template for Star Wars. Since it’s success, The Hero’s Journey has become an almost required template for stories in Hollywood.
I won’t go through all of them, but they’re definitely here. Here’s the first 5:
- Ordinary World – The hero lives in ordinary world with nothing much happening. (Luke lives on the farm with his aunt and uncle)
- Call To Adventure – The hero receives an opportunity to leave his home and go off on an adventure. (Luke finds the message in R2D2 and learns of Obi Wan Kenobi)
- Refusal of the Call – The hero decides not to leave his ordinary world, based on fears he has. (Luke decides not to go with Obi Wan to Alderaan to deliver the message)
- Meeting the Mentor – The hero meets a mentor who gives him something essential to his journey. (Obi Wan gives Luke a light saber, this happens before the refusal in this film)
- Crossing the Threshold – The hero receives some kind of push that makes him leave his old world behind. (Luke returns home to discover that Imperial storm troopers have killed his Aunt and Uncle)
And Lucas was right, it’s a really effective storytelling format. Unfortunately, Hollywood has deeply overcorrected, and now many films follow this format without trying to evolve it. Which leaves us with a lot of unsatisfying and mediocre films.
But here, we can draw parallels to this film from modern films by things it doesn’t do. For example, in the famous trench run scene at the end, Luke says “Just like Beggar’s Canyon back home.” In a modern film, we probably would have had this set up differently, maybe even seeing a scene where Luke flew a ship through a tight canyon with his friends when he was younger. But in this film, Lucas just has the line of dialogue tell us that it’s a familiar scenario for Luke.
One last thing I want to mention in the film that I’d never noticed before. Lucas makes heavy use of fate, or coincidence to drive the plot forward. First of all, as C3P0 and R2D2 are escaping the ship in the first act, the Empire has the opportunity to destroy the pod. But they hesitate, not sensing any life forms, they let the pod go. Later, when Luke and his uncle are buying droids, they buy a red unit instead of R2D2. Coincidentally, the red unit breaks down immediately, and his uncle buys R2D2 instead.
Later, when Obi Wan and Darth Vader are fighting in a light saber battle, a group of storm troopers guarding the Millenium Falcon see them and are drawn away, allowing our heroes to get to the ship and escape.
I’m sure there’s more examples that I’ve missed. Most filmmakers avoid coincidence at all costs, Lucas seems to revel in it. This might be his way of saying the Force is guiding actions and events, but maybe not.
This is an all-time classic film, and I’m certainly not a leading expert on the film. But so many times I’ve watched this film just to spend time with the characters, or experience the story. This viewing gave me a new appreciation for Star Wars as a filmmaking endeavor. Lucas crafts an incredibly satisfying film here.
While the movie is a classic, there are of course some issues. The dialogue is mostly terrible, particularly from Luke. In addition, the special edition scenes really stick out like a sore thumb and distract from the rest of the film. It’s unfortunate that Lucas couldn’t just do a simple remaster and leave it at that. But that’s all been discussed to death.
Of course, this film is part of a series, and a world that has been built around it, and it’s hard to separate the single film from everything that came after. But when looking at it by itself, it’s a really successful, effective film.
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy is a film based on the comic book of the same name about an unlikely group of heroes that come together to save the galaxy. It centers on Peter Quill, aka Star Lord, who is part of an outlaw gang called The Ravagers. He acquires an orb that he soon discovers is worth a lot more than he realizes.
The orb in the film is a classic Maguffin. A Maguffin is a term Hitchcock used to describe any object that everyone wants in a film. It’s there to motivate all the characters and get the plot to move forward. In this film, we have the orb. The orb is discovered by Peter Quill on a barren planet in the first major scene, and it’s the axis on which the entire film turns. Peter is attacked for it, his boss threatens him and puts a bounty on his head for it, when he tries to sell it, he is attacked from all sides again. From the film, we know that the orb is valuable, and dangerous, but at this point, it doesn’t really matter what’s inside of it.
The film does a great job of setting up the characters and telling us what their powers are as the team is built. Quill has lots of gadgets and is a quick thinker in crisis. Gamora is a hand to hand combat expert. Rocket Raccoon can build anything and has lots of weapons at his disposal. Groot is a giant living tree, and can grow new pieces of himself at will. And Drax, who appears later is incredibly strong and brave.
Probably the strongest aspect of the film is how Gunn plays with our expectations for the Marvel universe. Lots of Marvel movies had been released at this point, and Marvel had managed to keep a really consistent style and tone across all of these films. But Gunn goes away from it with this film. The setting is the most obvious departure. Only one scene of this film takes place on Earth, so Gunn really has license to create an entire world. He does an amazing job of creating interesting worlds for the characters to visit, differentiating them. For instance, the idea of Knowhere, a severed head of an ancient being is an amazing idea that he pulled from the comic books and realized for his film. He also does a great job of differentiating the different environments throughout the film.
But the thing that really makes this movie pop is the cast and the way they interact. Gunn really captures the ‘building a team’ genre, but takes it even further by turning these people into a family. They start out rivals, then temporary partners, but they really begin to care about each other. Quill sums it up in a speech leading to the climax of the film when he talks about their common trait: loss. They’re not a family by blood, but they’re a family of circumstance. And I think that really speaks to a lot of younger people in the audience, myself included. There’s the family you’ll always have, that have been in your life forever, and that’s incredibly important. But there’s a magic to the family you choose for yourself. The people you allow into your life, and would do anything for because of what they mean to you, out of no obligation at all.
This is what Gunn is really great at, and it shines through here. If you go back to my post on The Specials, which he wrote, it’s got a similar flavor of a team of superheroes coming together and realizing that they have more to offer the world together than apart. People who wouldn’t normally stick their necks out for others discover that it’s easy to do it with these other people by your side.
The film is also really funny, but something I noticed on the rewatch is how it uses the comedy. We generally have a serious scene, explaining what the characters are planning next, and then something funny will happen, undercutting it and releasing the tension.
The music mixes traditional score with a major departure for a superhero film. It uses pop songs from the 70s and 80s for many scenes. Many of the songs you wouldn’t expect in a superhero film, but maybe a romantic drama, or a comedy. In all honesty, this shouldn’t work, but in every scene, it makes total sense, and enhances the scene. From the opening credits, to romantic scenes, these pop songs make the movie completely unique. It even enhances the plot, as the songs come from Quill himself. The mix tape he listens to was a gift from his mother, and he will sacrifice anything to protect it. He attacks a prison guard for the songs, and refuses to leave the prison rather than leaving them behind. They’re as important to his characters backstory as anything else.
The film also mixes in traditional score. There’s one specific piece of music that’s especially important. It’s the theme of the entire team together, and it only appears once they have joined forces. The first time we hear it is in the jail scene. The team has all come together to execute Rocket’s escape plan and they manage to get to the control room at the same time. The door opens on the entire team in a hero shot and we hear the music for the first time. This music will recur a couple of times, but most memorably during the climax of the film.
The climax pulls everything together. As is common with the current era of films, the climax underscores the larger theme of the movie, in this case, Peter dealing with his mother’s death and the loss of his family by accepting his new family, and calls back to something we saw earlier. In the climax, Peter must withstand the force of the Infinity Stone that has been held in the orb. We saw it destroy someone who touched it earlier. Gamora holds out her hand, and we flash back to the moment his mother died, reaching out for his hand. Peter finally finds the courage to reach out, and while he couldn’t do it alone, with the help of his friends, together, they can wield the Infinity Stone and defeat the villain and save the day. It’s really satisfying.
This throughline is completed when Peter finally has the courage to open the present his mother gave him just before he died. He’s been carrying it with him ever since. When he opens it, he finds a new mixtape, which of course plays into the sequel.
Guardians of the Galaxy is a great movie. It manages to fit into the Marvel universe that’s been established, but be completely unique. Unlike a superhero team film like The Avengers, Guardians hasn’t had half a dozen films of backstory to deal with. Because of this, Guardians can be much more personal, and focus more on the characters and how they interact, giving us just enough of the overall conflict to keep the plot moving.
This film does have it’s issues of course. It drips heavy with exposition. Almost every scene includes some kind of expository dialogue. This is not completely unexpected, and it’s a trope of sci-fi films with complex worlds to build. For audiences who don’t read comics religiously, you have to explain what an Infinity Stone is, why it’s valuable, and why a villain might want it in order to set up the conflict of the film. Gunn does a good job of making it a normal part of the dialogue of the film, and it’s never too painful to listen to, but it’s there.
Even so, for me this is the most satisfying Marvel movie, and one of the best sci-fi adventures ever made. The cast is perfect, the music is revolutionary, and Gunn does a great job of taking a movie that should be formulaic, and making it feel fresh.
The Double Feature
It was really interesting to compare these two directly. I’ve seen Star Wars probably 30 or 40 times, and I’ve probably seen Guardians of the Galaxy between 6 and 10 times. Both films are special to me, but I don’t know if I’d ever really dug into them and tried to look under the surface. It was a really valuable exercise, and I think I’ll definitely do it with more films that I’m really familiar with.
I struggle with choosing these sometimes. I want to challenge myself to go further than “Let’s go with two comedies.”, but I have to admit, looking at two sci-fi films really makes for an enjoyable experience. In the past I’ve avoided picking films that were too similiar, but I think it’s clear that two similar films really work together.
The biggest difference between these films is just the era they were made in. Audiences in Lucas’ era were expected to know a little more, and work a little harder. In the modern era, filmmakers don’t trust audiences to understand the visual shorthand. Gunn does a good job of using the shorthand, such as in the scene when Quill, Gamora, Rocket and Groot meet and fight for the first time. We see their powers explored, and we can easily understand what they’re capable of. But then after they are captured, there is another scene when they are being processed, where John C. Reilly’s character explicitly explains all their powers. It’s a funny scene, but we got a lot of this information earlier.
But on the other hand, Guardians moves at light speed. I normally take notes on major plot points and anything I think is important visually or sonically. But that was almost impossible in this film. Star Wars is a leisurely stroll through the galaxy compared to Guardians. It gives us another glimpse into how much films have changed in the intervening 40 years.
It’s been an up and down kind of week, and it was tough writing this post. I normally can write a post in a couple of sessions. But I got seriously blocked when trying to write about Guardians of the Galaxy. I’m not totally sure why. I might just be too close to it, or it might just be harder for me to unpack a really recent film, as I’ve mostly been looking at classic films. Not sure.
I’m taking a short trip later this week, so I might miss a post later in the week, but I’m hoping to get far enough ahead that it won’t be too delayed.
So, how about the next two films? It’s tempting to just stick with films I know really well. It’s comfortable, it’s safe, and they’re easy to watch. But we can’t keep doing that forever. I’ll save those for special occasions.
So for the next post, I’m going to dig into pulpy noir. The next two films are:
Samuel Fuller – The Naked Kiss (1964)
Robert Aldrich – Kiss Me Deadly (1955)
Also, I’m going to make a slight change to how I name the posts. I’ve been going with the director names, but there’s a problem with that. If the director is really famous, then there might be a dozen films that I could be doing, and if the director is relatively unknown, especially by their last names, then it’s just too obscure except for the most dedicated film nerds, which doesn’t even apply to me most of the time. So after this post, I’ll be naming the posts after the actual films I’m covering. We’ll see how that goes. See you then.