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The Best Summer Movie Ever is ‘Star Wars’

Forty years later, and still nothing compares.
Fsr Bestsummermovies Starwars
By  · Published on April 25th, 2018

It’s Debate Week. This article is one of sixteen arguments competing for the prize of being named ‘Best Summer Movie Ever.’ Read the rest throughout the week here.

Forget it all. Forget the toys and the parodies, the party plates, and the pencil sharpeners. Forget the sequels, the books, the video games, the fan conventions, the trailer premieres.

Forget it all, and remember ten words, projected in vibrant blue and shining with possibility: ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…

Remember that split second pause, and then that blast of trumpets, accompanied by two massive words, so wide that they literally block out the stars.

It’s easy to be cynical about Star WarsIt’s a multibillion-dollar franchise that’s yielded more than its fair share of toxic Internet whinging, and its societal omnipresence makes it weirdly easy to dismiss. There’s nothing cool about liking Star Wars. That isn’t because it’s niche or nerdy; it’s because everyone likes Star Wars. You aren’t making a statement if you sing the praises of Mozart. Star Wars has become the victim of its own success, an easy target made even easier by decades upon decades of dilution by extreme overexposure.

Star Wars

But put all of that baggage aside, because it doesn’t matter. What matters is the raw power of a spaceship consuming the screen, followed by the singular image of a cloaked figure stalking through bleached corridors. What matters is the effortlessly iconic status of every frame that follows. You could pause the original Star Wars at literally any point and find an image that’s plastered on a dollar-store poster somewhere. It’s our modern myth, the purest lightning trapped in a bottle. Of course it’s the best summer movie of all time. What else could possibly compete?

The fact that Star Wars is watchable at all is a minor miracle. George Lucas’ 1977 production was a costly mess, shepherded by a filmmaker inexperienced with big-budget fare and starring a cast largely made up of fresh-faced unknowns. The robot didn’t work, Lucas was so stressed he was hospitalized, and the special effects team literally had to invent entirely new technology before they could even start work on the film. Despite all that (and thanks to some uncredited work from Lucas’ wife Marcia, on loan from Martin Scorsese’s editing department), Star Wars was an instant phenomenon. Upon release, it was the highest-grossing film of all time, a title it held until the 1982 release of E.T. the Extraterrestrial. Adjusted for inflation, it remains the third highest-grossing film ever made, behind only Gone with the Wind and Avatar.

On top of all that, Star Wars isn’t just watchable, it’s exceptional. Even with all the sloppy imperfections that come with its production woes, it manages to be the purest feat of filmmaking imagination of all time. What’s really astounding about Star Wars today is how matter-of-fact it is about its strangeness. Decades of pop-culture dominance may have inured us to its quirks, but make no mistake about it: Star Wars is deeply strange and incredibly bold.

Let’s put it this way: In the early 2000s, most superhero movies came pre-packaged with a painfully dull audience surrogate, to guide the way into a weirder world that studios feared audiences wouldn’t be prepared for. Think the dull vanilla agent in Hellboy or N’Bushe Wright’s borderline nameless doctor character in Blade. In Star Wars, a similar idea is employed, except in this case, the audience surrogates are a pair of bickering robot servants. One of those is a prissy English butler type. The other one is a trash can who speaks only in bleeps and bloops. And these two are the first characters we meet, our guide through the meandering chunk of the movie. We spend a good quarter of the film with them on a grimy trek through the desert, before we’ve even met our main character, and it’s utterly entrancing.

Star Wars

From there, the film jumps from set piece to set piece with wild abandon, bursting at the seams and radiating the pent-up energy of a child who’s just downed ten Pixy Stix. We meet hooded junker aliens and our protagonist, a young man aching for adventure and about to get it. Our cast of characters grows, expanding to include a cynical gunslinger and a wizened old man who hints at a larger world of magic and mystery. There are aliens lurking in Old West saloons, some friendly and furry, others vicious and cruel. There are princesses who don’t need to be saved. There are figures of good and evil wielding blades of light, and behind it all looms the vastest of galaxies. We see only a few corners of this galaxy, but we know it’s there, just beyond the twin suns, shrinking away into hyperspace.

For the most successful populist hit of our time, there’s something almost subversive about Star Wars. It disguises its gonzo spirituality and bold mythmaking, couching those elements in a background we subconsciously recognize. Just as its sequels have trafficked in the instantaneous cultural osmosis of Star Wars, the original film uses Campbellian mythology as leverage, jury-rigging a hero’s journey to the back of a ramshackle starship and jumping to lightspeed. The movie is a hearty stew of mythology, leaping from western gunfight to samurai stand-off so quickly that you don’t have time to register how truly bizarre it all is. It’s a prison-break movie; it’s a flying ace movie; it’s a space movie; it’s a fairy tale. It’s all of these things and more.

Modern blockbusters ape Star Wars the way Star Wars apes Flash Gordon. They have all the quips and high-wire action, and none of the heart. The cinematic alchemy of Star Wars is impossible to replicate. It’s there in that opening fanfare, knocking the wind out of us with its energy and its enthusiasm. It’s there in the freewheeling chemistry of the cast, just barely threading the needle between charming self-awareness and wide-eyed, goofy sincerity. It’s there in the high-wire tension of the climax, the exhilarating rush of adrenaline that comes with that final attack run and the abrupt sense of release that comes with its conclusion. Star Wars is the purest distillation of cinematic imagination. It speaks to the young person inside all of us, the child staring off at the horizon and dreaming of a world that they aren’t ready for. Is anything else seared into your brain like this is?

It’s inimitable. It’s perfection. It’s the best summer movie of all time.

The artwork for #DebateWeek was created by the wonderful Eileen Steinbach, whose work can be found on her website and on Twitter @sg_posters.

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Writer and student based in New York. Ask me about my Blu-Ray copy of The Book of Henry.