I was recently asked where my love of films came from. Thinking about it I have realised that it was these two sci-fi trilogies that established and then consolidated my passion for cinema, one kicking off in 1977 when I was just starting school and the other in 1985 as I was on the brink of teenage.
It doesn’t take much introspection to realise the significant role that the adventures of Luke, Han, Leia and Chewie played in my life. Star Wars was the first film I saw at the cinema and it shaped my childhood. (My parents had obviously heard about it and decided it was something I would enjoy, a foresight on their part for which I will be forever grateful.) 99.9% of my pocket money was spent on Star Wars figures, every Christmas and Birthday brought a new spaceship (my favourite was the B-Wing with the cool gyroscopic cockpit), I play acted the film in the playground, taught myself to make the perfect lightsaber noise by humming through my mouth with my bottom teeth pushed up against my top lip and the first woman I ever loved was Princess Leia.
This isn’t to say that my passion for these films is purely based on nostalgia, Star Wars and it’s sequels are undeniably great works of cinema and along with the heroic characters and exciting adventure, George Lucas created the best and fullest fantasy world since Middle Earth spilled out of Tolkein’s Oxford-educated brain. The fact that we all got to play in it was just a bonus (and clever marketing) and the idea that a film maker as skilled as J.J. Abrams is taking us back there is exciting no matter what you thought of episodes I through to III.
Clearly as any self respecting science fiction nerd will tell you, The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the trilogy. As the Star Wars prequels showed, George Lucas is not a great director and the decision to let someone else call action on the first sequel was wise. The Empire Strikes Back is a moodier and more atmospheric piece of work than Episode IV and is all the better for it. There are also some nice emotional moments, my favourite of which is the moment when Leia and Chewbacca realise as the snow base doors close that they may never see Luke or Han alive again. The despair in the wookie’s growl is genuinely moving and it can’t be easy to emote through a hairy bear suit. It is like seeing a seven foot Greyfriars Bobby howling at his master’s graveside and it is a moment of real pathos.
Of course we shouldn’t forget the gut punch of that final revelation concerning the heroic father figure little Lukey has been idolising all his life. As far as accepting hard truths about your parentage go it’s right up there with Oedipus. Those that brush Star Wars off as a brash and shallow light show need to pay The Empire Strikes Back a bit more attention. (Just ignore the giant space worm.)
Return of the Jedi is a bit more of a ripping adventure but has some of the most exiting sequences and biggest laughs and who doesn’t love kick ass Teddy Bears? So much of the ongoing story is also paid off in this final film and there isn’t a single loose end, which when you look at other sci-fi trilogies such as The Matrix, isn’t something to take for granted. These three films tell a complete story with rounded character development, humour and yes, special effects.
Of course from 1977 to 1983 my celluloid diet wasn’t purely Jedi flavoured. My developing love of all things filmic was further fuelled with cinema rereleases of Disney animated classics and old black and whites running on BBC2. Joining George Lucas in my cinematic education were great teachers such as Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chan, Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes, Harold Lloyd, James Bond and the girls of St Trinian’s.
As much I was enjoying the home study there is nothing like the release of a new film in the cinema and three years after the release of Return of the Jedi I was turning 13 and ready for something new. The Star Wars figures were packed away in the loft and I felt the need to (temporarily) turn my back on the things of my childhood. I needed my cinematic heroes to be cool and teenage but preferably still surrounded by special effects and engaging in exciting flights of fantasy. Enter Marty McFly, skateboarding into my life at exactly the point I needed him to.
Like young Master Skywalker before him, the protagonist of Back to the Future is also struggling with a disappointing father figure and like Luke is on a mission to redeem him. He also has to contend with getting an inappropriate kiss from a female family member although this time it’s his Mum not his sister. The greatest parallel though is the hero’s relationship with a white haired old surrogate father figure who lifts him out of his ordinary life and sets him off on a great adventure.
I’ve heard people ask why and how a 17 year old and a weird and slightly reclusive older man would ever end up becoming friends but I’ve never had a problem with this. Some contrivance clearly led to Marty stumbling across the doc’s house, I expect he was skating by one day, heard a small explosion and when he went to investigate came across the Doc and all his cool stuff. The Doc would have been glad to find someone interested in his inventions and thus one of the greatest friendships in cinema was formed.
The simple moment in the third film when the two characters instinctively say one another’s catch phrases (“Great Scott!” “I know, this is heavy.”) is a beautiful example of how close they have become and for the audience it has been a pleasure to watch the relationship grow. The reason the now pretty famous mash up trailer for Brokeback to the Future (http://youtu.be/8uwuLxrv8jY)
is so brilliant is that it only has to exaggerate things very slightly and there is something actually quite sweet in thinking of these two characters in that way.
Back to the Future Part II, jumping off from the lines at the end of the first film, gives us one of the most imaginative visions of our future since The Shape of Things to Come in 1936. Self Drying Clothes and Food Rehydrators all seemed kind of feasible at the time but now that 21st October 2015 is a little over two years away I’m beginning to accept that perhaps the future may be a little different (I get regular mailings from Honda about maintaining my FRV but they’ve yet to offer me a hover conversion and the fact that old Marty is fired by fax is pretty amusing now).
This whole future section of the film is just set up though, for the real adventure. So many sequels just retread the original movie in a tired fashion but in Back to the Future Part II the way this is done is a masterstroke. Rather than trying to appeal to audiences who have not seen the first film, it rewards those who have, which I appreciate.
Then of course we get to Back to the Future Part III and it is here that the real appeal of both the Back to the Future films and the original Star Wars trilogy is most obviously played with. The Western setting of the film is a clear celebration of a certain cinematic heritage but in actual fact all six of these films are heavily referential of movie conventions without going anywhere near parody or deliberate post modernism.
Marty makes judgements on what to do in any given situation based on what he has seen in a movie; ‘I am Darth Vader from the planet Vulcan’, ‘Clint Eastwood’, ‘Bullet Proof Vest, brilliant’, ‘Looking at me Punk?’. These are films that know films and the protagonist is influenced by them in the same way we are.
Star Wars on the other hand doesn’t have Luke Skywalker quoting Robert De Niro but I remember reading something twenty years ago about how Star Wars is a celebration of everything that had come previously in American cinema. I don’t recall the details but in essence it argued that the movie took all the best elements of what had come before and repackaged them. We get the Laurel and Hardyesque R2D2 and C3PO (himself also derivative of Metropolis), the Tarzan rope swing (twice), the roguish Bogart figure in a bar, the gangster kingpin (albeit as a giant space slug), the swashbuckling sword fights, the aerial dogfights, the wookie as primative Tonto style sidekick, the princess, the love story, the dispassionate nazi style villains and in the Ewoks the anthropomorphised animals of the Looney Tunes and Disney cartoons.
To love Star Wars is to appreciate a hundred years of cinema and to love Back to the Future is to recognise its role in popular culture and that is why these six films were among the most important in a certain fledgling film fan’s life.
There have clearly been other great trilogies (although not many) and in terms of consistency maybe even better ones (The Dark Knight, Toy Story) but never has there, will there or could there be any film series that will hold the same significance for me and at the risk of being overly sentimental, the same place in my heart.