The five themes that made ‘Star Wars’ an epic for the ages — Ultimate Movie Year

Ultimate Movie Year finds the best films from weekends past to build an all-star lineup of cinema.

“Star Wars”
Released May 25, 1977
Directed by George Lucas

No movie’s been written or talked about more than “Star Wars.”

The original film that took us to a galaxy far, far away was an immediate, pop culture juggernaut hit upon its release in 1977, and it’s only grown larger since then … for better and worse. “Star Wars” changed the way we absorb and engage with movies, including going to screenings on premiere night, buying merchandise to continue celebrating the franchise, and now fans passionately debating the highs and lows of a series that’s now a cultural religion.

I refer to the first movie as “Star Wars,” although marketing has updated the title as “Episode IV: A New Hope.” Taken on its own, it’s a simple story: A young man heeding the call of adventure, alongside a mentor and a rogue, to rescue a princess from an evil dark lord. Creator and director George Lucas were inspired by several sources (including Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” which examined the hero’s journey). Still, when it’s all said and done, the simplicity works foundationally. The imaginative world-building on display is just icing on the cake.

As a lifelong fan, I lament the toxicity that’s grown around the franchise, but if there’s one thing that’s aged better with time, it’s the original score by John Williams. Simply put, “Star Wars” has the greatest film music of all time, and it continues to pay dividends as the series has continued over the following decades. Williams excelled at composing beautiful arrangements that also drew feelings out of the audience like excitement, yearning, fear, and courage.

“The films themselves showed us characters we hadn’t seen before and planets unimagined and so on, but the music was — this is actually George Lucas’s conception and a very good one — emotionally familiar,” Williams said in a 1997 interview with Film Score Monthly. “It was not music that might describe terra incognita but the opposite of that, music that would put us in touch with very familiar and remembered emotions.”

The score also helps raise the epic stakes of this grand conflict, sometimes even better than the dialogue and action. Lucas said this was intentional, connecting “Star Wars” with the traditions of early cinema like silent films and weekly serials.

“The music has a very large role in carrying the story, more than it would in a normal movie,” Lucas said. “In most movies, the story is carried by the dialogue. In Star Wars films, the music carries the story. Without that music there to smooth it out and take you from point A to point B in an elegant way, it becomes very jerky and confused, and the story doesn’t work very well. The film doesn’t work very well.

Let’s take a look at some of the best musical moments from “Star Wars.”

Main Title, or “A New Hope”

The movie opens with the most recognized musical cue in cinematic history, a moment of silence before the loud horns blare, and a giant “Star Wars” logo fills the screen. The opening theme allows Williams to bring the audience into the story that’s about to unfold, filled with adventure, peril, heroism, and even a little romance. The scrolling text is meant to bring audiences up to speed on what’s happened so far, but it’s the music that truly sets the mood for us. It’s a perfect summarization of everything about Star Wars, and it’s the only music that’s remained unchanged as it continues to introduce every saga film.

Princess Leia’s Theme, or “Help Me Obi-Wan Kenobi”

Leia is one of the most essential characters in the entire franchise. Still, she was mainly the only active female in the original trilogy of movies, so she had the burden of being representative of a whole gender in this space fantasy. Fortunately, Carrie Fisher, who gave us one of the sharpest and most capable heroes in the saga, played her. The Williams theme compliments Leia, first heard when she entrusts R2-D2 with the plans of the Death Star. The theme begins with soft melodies of flutes and clarinets and gradually builds with more strength as other musicians join in with the repeated leitmotifs. Leia’s theme doesn’t get as much play as the other music on this list, but it’s still vital, as she is one of the only characters with her own individual melody and confirms the gentle strength of Fisher’s hero. It was also the highlight of a memorable scene in 2017’s “The Last Jedi” when Leia is put in mortal peril, adding real drama a year after Fisher passed away. Blown out into space, Leia floats lifelessly, but then the music stirs. She opens her eyes, and she saves herself. You have to be made of stone to not get emotional at that moment.

Binary Sunset, or “Use The Force”

Early on in “Star Wars,” Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), our hero, faces rejection from his family to move on with his life. He stares out wistfully to the horizon, as the two suns of Tatooine set in the distance. It’s the central scene of “Star Wars” that summarizes Luke’s motivation: He knows there’s something out there that calls to him, but isn’t quite sure what it is. At this moment, Williams drops the soul of the Star Wars franchise for the first time, a leitmotif now known as the Force theme. The Force theme connects us with the heart of Star Wars and is tied to its most memorable moments, from the beginning whispers of the teaser trailer to “The Phantom Menace” to Rey accepting her destiny in “The Force Awakens.” The motif and visuals of the binary sunset even return in “The Last Jedi,” as Luke faces his fate to bring it all full circle. And to think some people don’t like “The Last Jedi,” which is crazy!

Cantina Band, or “A Wretched Hive of Scum and Villainy”

Both visually and musically, the Cantina scene in “Star Wars” opened up a new world, and what the franchise could be. The majority of the movie falls into a good vs. evil conflict with humanoids. Luke and Obi-Wan search for a pilot in the Cantina, and encounter dozens of different alien races are socializing in a bar. For the first time, we see a world and galaxy beyond the central conflict, and we are only following one story. For the scene, Williams composes a fast-paced jazzy space song for the band to play in the background. Musically, it also stands apart from the rest of the score. Williams said he tried to imagine what it would be like for an alien race to interpret and play the music of Benny Goodman’s swing band. It’s a fun sound, and one that lets us take a break from the space opera we’ve been engaging with.

The Throne Room, or “Great shot, kid!”

In the final moments of “Star Wars,” the heroes celebrate their victory over the evil forces with an awards ceremony, free of dialogue, and set to the triumphant march of Williams. The Throne Room music has similarities to the main title but feels like a salute to the adventure we were all just on, as the cast takes a spiritual bow to the audience to send us out.

Having just one film theme become instantly recognizable to the populace is a feat in itself. Still, Williams wrote several iconic compositions in “Star Wars,” and then many more throughout the series. The score to “The Empire Strikes Back” is excellent as well, as it introduces the famous Imperial March that accompanies Darth Vader, the melodic Yoda theme, and the thrilling chase through the asteroid field. It’s just as good as the “Star Wars” score, but it would not be possible without building upon the original.

The score is just one of the fantastic elements that brought “Star Wars” to life in 1977. While the reputation of Lucas absorbed damage following his direction on the prequels, the original film is an astonishing accomplishment. He crafted a sound archetypal story about heroes and villains and surrounded himself with master artists, craftsmen, and technicians that brought their best, most creative work to the screen.

“Lucas combines excellent comedy and drama and progresses it with exciting action on tremendously effective space battles,” wrote Ron Peddington in his original Hollywood Reporter review of the movie. “Likeable heroes on noble missions and despicable villains capable of the most dastardly deeds are all wrapped up in some of the most spectacular special effects ever to illuminate a motion-picture screen. The result is spellbinding and totally captivating on all levels.”

“Star Wars” was a genuine phenomenon when it was released, breaking the record for the biggest box office gross of all time with $461 million in sales, still good enough to remain in the top 20 in 2020. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director for Lucas. It ended up winning seven, including a Special Achievement Award and Best Original Score for Williams. The movie rates high on the American Film Institute’s Best Films list and the music is ranked first on the AFI Film Scores edition. I suspect if the Academy Awards ever did an all-time ceremony, Williams would again walk away with a statue for his work on “Star Wars.”

The legacy of the film is almost too vast to contemplate. At a basic level, it launched an entire franchise of movies, but also connected books, television series, games, toys, theme park attractions, and other assorted merchandise. Behind-the-scenes features and documentaries about Star Wars is almost a genre into itself.

And then there is the fandom. There are millions of Star Wars fans, but each has found their own way into it, and thus, have a different interpretation of what is good about Star Wars. In many cases, their love has become an entitlement, leading to toxic discussions, negativity, and gatekeeping that have become super-sized with social media. The common critique about the community, “Nobody hates Star Wars more than Star Wars fans,” is correct because nobody else would let the franchise live in their heads rent-free.

I still love it because of its contributions to cinematic innovation and its grand, epic mythos. I like thinking about my childhood fandom when my memories are more tied to reliving moments through action figures and baseball cards than seeing the movies in theaters, and I enjoy new contributions like “The Last Jedi,” “The Mandalorian,” and “The Clone Wars.” There’s so much of it now that it’s easy to ignore the stuff that’s not good.

However, if I could only keep one aspect from Star Wars, the natural choice is Williams’s soundtrack. Each score tells a story on its own, as it inspires, haunts, and excites through the incredible compositions. Listening to the soundtrack allows me to remember my favorite moments from the films, but is beautiful enough that I can be lost in my own worlds for a while.

More than four decades after its debut, the music of “Star Wars” remains a foundational element of our shared cultural memory. Given the onslaught of choices we face in culture, John Williams has become our modern master classical composer by creating orchestral music that is instantly recognizable around the world. I believe half the reason the current movies score such big box office numbers is that they are marketed with the classic themes composed by Williams. All it takes is a few notes from your childhood, and you have instantly transported back into a galaxy far, far away.

“What is the greatest film score,” asked composer Nicolas Buc on “The Art of the Score” podcast. “‘Star Wars’ is definitely up there. Greatest is hard to quantify, but yes, I would have to say it’s one of the most influential film scores ever written. It really caused, not only in film but with music, a whole generation to look at the way we listen to film music ever since.”

The Force is with us, always, through the work of Williams. The ultimate score for the Ultimate Movie Year.

The Weekend: Memorial Day weekend is one of the biggest weekends of the year for movie fans. It’s an extra day off to catch a flick at the theaters and gives us a signal to start looking forward to summer. In cinema, that weekend tradition started with “Star Wars” in 1977, established the template and rollout of the biggest movies of the year. For the next 25 years, the most high-profile film on the calendar was released on Memorial Day weekend, and grossed enough money to rank in the top 10 box office draws of the year. “Star Wars” is not only excellent in all the ways we go to the movies for, but also its legacy as one of the first movies of the so-called summer blockbuster cemented its place for inclusion in the Ultimate Movie Year.

The success of “Star Wars” also set the stage for the release of the sequels. “The Empire Strikes Back” was released on Memorial Day weekend in 1980, and is considered as one of the best sequels of all time, and possibly even better than the original. It would be a strong contender for the Ultimate Movie Year as it extends and deepens the Star Wars mythos even farther than the original, but as great as it is, it stands on the shoulders of the 1977 film as the music does. “Return of the Jedi” followed this weekend in 1983 to close out the original trilogy. Lucas returned to the franchise with the first of the prequels, “The Phantom Menace,” which debuted in theaters in 1999. It would mark the last of a Memorial Day weekend premiere for the Star Wars franchise; the next two prequels were released a week earlier in the calendar, and most of the recent Disney-era films were released in mid-December. However, “Solo: A Star Wars Story,” was released in this familiar spot in 2018.

While “Star Wars” welcomed audiences into a space fantasy, director Ridley Scott modernized science fiction in film in 1979 to let them know no one can hear you scream. “Alien” turned the idea of a spaceship on its head, designing a vessel that resembled more of an oil rig than a smooth, shiny future. The workers upon the ship encounter a new organism that turns into a vicious xenomorph, and all hell breaks loose. “Alien” showed another side, grittier of the future, creating another film series and influencing many of the science fiction movies that followed, including “Blade Runner,” “The Terminator,” and “Total Recall.” The second sequel in the series, “Alien 3,” also debuted on Memorial Day weekend in 1990, and was the feature film debut of director David Fincher. Scott would go on to direct another modern classic, “Thelma and Louise,” with Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis. The “women on the run from the law” action drama was released in 1991.

Circling back to that glorious year of 1980 when audiences were just starting to wrap their heads around the events of “The Empire Strikes Back,” one would think what movie could be crazier than that ending? Welp, you didn’t have to wait long, because Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” came out the same weekend. Based on the famous horror novel written by Stephen King (who hated the movie adaptation), “The Shining” sees Jack Nicholson take his family up to an empty remote hotel resort to care for during the winter, and well, all work and no play makes Jack go a bit crazy. Despite the misgivings of the author, Kubrick’s adaptation would become one of the most stunning and astonishing horror films of all time. Imagine what went on in the minds of the people who saw “The Empire Strikes Back” and “The Shining” for the first time on the same weekend.

The summer of 1982 is probably one of the best three-month spans of movies for an entire generation. That year’s Memorial Day offering was “The Road Warrior,” the sequel to the cult hit “Mad Max” from director George Miller and starring a young Mel Gibson. The second movie really expands Miller’s vision of a post-apocalyptic future, becoming an influential work for many young filmmakers. Miller would top his work here more than three decades later with “Mad Max: Fury Road.” Gibson would go on to become a director himself, helming the historical adventure drama, “Braveheart,” which premiered here in 1995 and went on to win several Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

Once the Star Wars trilogy concluded, another Lucas property, collaborating with Steven Spielberg, secured the coveted Memorial Day weekend opening. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” opened during the holiday weekend in 1984, followed by “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” in 1989 and “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” in 2008. Spielberg also directed the sequel “The Lost World: Jurassic Park,” which opened in 1997.

A star for years, Tom Cruise mostly avoided the kind of long-running film series many of his peers signed onto until he appeared in Brian DePalma’s “Mission: Impossible” in 1996. Based on the old spy show television series, Cruise and company successfully updated that world for a modern audience. “Mission: Impossible 2” recruited John Woo as a director when it was released Memorial Day weekend in 2000. While the Mission: Impossible series proved to be successful for more than two decades, the other sequels were released at different weeks of the year.

By the time the Fast and Furious franchise became a global sensation, the heat you could get from opening your movie on Memorial Day had largely vanished. Still, the series was coming off its best installment, 2011’s “Fast Five,” when it premiered “Fast and Furious 6” this weekend in 2013, which speaks to how confident the producers were at the moment. That confidence paid off, as the franchise continues to get bigger and bigger.

Other franchise sequels include “Rambo: First Blood Part II” in 1985; “Beverly Hills Cop 2” in 1987; “Back to the Future Part III” in 1990; “Godzilla” in 1998; “Shrek 2” in 2004; “X-Men: The Last Stand” in 2006; “The Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End” in 2007; “Terminator: Salvation” in 2009; “Shrek Forever After” in 2010; “The Hangover Part II” in 2011; “Men in Black 3” in 2012;” and “X-Men: Days of Future Past” in 2014. That’s a lot of re-heated content for not much quality, and I’d suspect the run of subpar to horrible sequels that began in 2006 through 2012 did as much as anything to kill the attraction of a Memorial Day weekend opening.

There have been several amazing films released to counter the big bangs if you’re in the mood for movies without explosions. Terry Gilliam brought his surreal touch to the adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in 1998. Coming off the success of his breakout film “Memento,” director Christopher Nolan followed up with the thriller “Insomnia,” starring Al Pacino, Robin Williams, and Hillary Swank, in 2002. The distinctive Wes Anderson released one of his most beautiful and heartfelt films, “Moonrise Kingdom,” in 2012. Director Richard Linklater and stars Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy reunited to conclude their trilogy in 2013’s “Before Midnight.” Finally, Olivia Wilde updated the high school seniors comedy genre with her directorial debut, “Booksmart,” a 2019 film starring Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein.

Other notable films include “Willow” in 1988, “Bruce Almighty” in 2003, “Madagascar” in 2005, “MacGruber” in 2010, and the live-action “Aladdin” remake in 2019.

Next Week: “Wonder Woman”

Originally published at https://ultimatemovieyear.com on May 21, 2020.

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Mark Ciemcioch

Mark Ciemcioch

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