STAR WARS
The week of December 13, 2015
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The world before ‘Star Wars’

By Noel Murray

In 1977, 20th Century Fox spent a lot of money making and promoting Damnation Alley, a post-apocalyptic car-chase thriller that took bits of what was already popular at the drive-in—namely badass motor vehicles and killer animals—and dressed it up with major-studio production values. Fox slated Damnation Alley’s release for the fourth quarter of the year, planning to roll it out across the country through the holiday season. Meanwhile, the studio dropped its other 1977 science-fiction film into a pre-Memorial Day release slot, hoping to make a little money before the bigger summer movies steamrolled over it.

That other movie was Star Wars.

The rest, as they say, is history. Star Wars was so successful that it was still playing in some theaters by the time Damnation Alley came out, and it was such a leap ahead in epic fantasy filmmaking that it made Fox’s preferred project look dinky. But why did it shake out this way? The studio’s executives were smart enough to give Star Wars creator George Lucas the resources and freedom to make his movie the way he wanted, but how did they not understand right away that they’d hit the jackpot?

The answer lies in the random mishmash of fantasy films that came out in the United States between May 1976 and May 1977. It’s not like there were no movies that looked like Star Wars in the mid-1970s, or even that that there were no fantasy movies with Lucas’s kind of narrative ambition. But nobody had put the pieces together quite like he and his collaborators did. While the “New Hollywood” wave of savvy young filmmakers were reimagining the Western, gangster, action, and horror genres, science-fiction remained largely premise-based, with even the highbrow efforts selling one sharp hook—and one only.

Because distribution models were different then, it’s hard to get an exact listing of every movie relevant to this discussion, but generally speaking, they broke down into the following subcategories:

Big ideas

The two most enduring science-fiction films of 1976 arrived stateside almost exactly one year before Star Wars. Director Nicolas Roeg’s arty take on Walter Tevis’s literary sci-fi novel The Man Who Fell to Earth opened in the U.K. in March, but in New York City on May 28. A month later, MGM’s large-scale adaptation of William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson’s dystopian novel, Logan’s Run, became a sizable hit, ultimately inspiring a spinoff TV series (which debuted in the fall of 1977, after Star Wars had Hollywood scrambling for any sci-fi projects they could rush to market). The Man Who Fell to Earth and Logan’s Run are both quasi-allegorical, commenting on contemporary life—the former via the story of an alien, played by David Bowie, who becomes weaker and pettier the longer he interacts with humanity, and the latter by depicting a future world where the younger generation ritually executes anyone who reaches the age of 30.

Visually, Logan’s Run has more in common with Star Wars, with its elaborate sets and costumes. The Man Who Fell to Earth is more akin to the trippy, intellectual science-fiction films of Andrei Tarkovsky (whose Solaris, released in 1972, had its first extended run in New York in October 1976). Really, the closest contemporary analogue to Star Wars came from an unlikely source: animator Ralph Bakshi, whose Wizards was set on a future Earth where good and evil magicians are locked in a fierce battle waged both on the ground and in the realm of ideas. From the rich mythology to the family ties, Wizards aspired to Lucas-level world-building. (It even has Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker, voicing a fairy king.)

Big creatures

One of the most expensive movies of 1976—and one of the biggest money-makers—falls into the general order of science-fiction/fantasy. Producer Dino De Laurentiis’s remake of King Kong opened just before Christmas and was treated as a major event, central in a mini-wave of movies about oversized beasties wreaking havoc. South Korean producers capitalized on the King Kong hype by quickly making and releasing a competing film called Ape, while 1977 saw limited runs for Tentacles, a quasi-disaster picture about a giant octopus battling with likes of John Huston, Shelley Winters, and Henry Fonda; The Last Dinosaur, in which polar explorers find a preserved, volcano-heated prehistoric world under the ice; Planet of Dinosaurs, where astronauts crash on a primitive Earth-like world; and even the original Japanese Godzilla, colorized and rereleased with an enhanced soundtrack by an Italian entrepreneur.

The dino-strewn “lost world” premise was commonplace in the mid-1970s, as seen in the Sid and Marty Krofft TV series Land of the Lost—which aired between 1974 and 1977—and in the British fantasy-adventure At the Earth’s Core, which opened in the U.S. in July 1976. The real inspiration for the “giant killer animal” trend, though, was most likely the 1975 surprise blockbuster Jaws, directed by Lucas’s friend Steven Spielberg. Jaws transcended the then-burgeoning eco-horror trend while also offering a kind of “proof of concept,” showing that audiences would flock to films where ordinary folks were gobbled up and beaten down by natural forces. Two more such pictures came out in the summer of 1976: a cruddy American International Pictures adaptation of H.G. Wells’s The Food of the Gods, written and directed by oversized-monster expert Bert I. Gordon, who played up the big rats and wasps in Wells’s story, and Squirm, another AIP production, starring enormous flesh-eating worms.

Robots! Robots! Robots!

Inspired in part by the Japanese subgenre of giant robot movies, the 1976 Korean animated feature Robot Taekwon V is a charmingly chintzy-looking cartoon about a heroic scientist who counters his evil counterpart by pitting his lone super-android against the villain’s mechanical army. When the Star Wars robots debuted a year later, they were so charming that they altered the way these kinds of characters were deployed in the years that followed. Pre-1977, robots in 1970s science-fiction movies tended to be personality-free tools of justice or weapons of war. Sometimes they were malicious in another way entirely, as in the 1973 thriller Westworld and its 1976 sequel Futureworld, where advanced animatronic amusement park attractions develop sentience and begin to kill the guests. In that same sinister vein, the big-screen adaptation of Dean Koontz’s novel Demon Seed, released in April 1977, stars Julie Christie as a woman who gets impregnated by her estranged husband’s supercomputer.

Evil aliens

During the first big science-fiction cinema boom of the 1950s, the movies expressed a common theme: We have enemies, hovering just beyond our atmosphere. That remained a motif well into the mid-1970s, though with new variations. In the 1976 East German space-opera In the Dust of the Stars, human intergalactic travelers get lured to a planet where their deceptively gracious host enslaves his guests. In Track of the Moon Beast, a hunk of lunar rock turns a scientist into some kind of a were-reptile. And in Larry Cohen’s bizarre God Told Me To, a cop investigating an inexplicable shooting spree traces its origin back to an alien deity—and discovers he has an unexpected personal connection to whatever the thing may be.

Mythological adventure

Really, only one movie released between May 1976 and May 1977 fits this description: Gulliver’s Travels, a partially animated musical version of the Jonathan Swift novel, with Richard Harris in the lead role. But throughout the first half of the ’70s, there was a mini-revival of classic fantasy swashbucklers featuring stop-motion animation effects by Ray Harryhausen—a man whose oeuvre had charmed Lucas’s generation of filmmakers and inspired a lot of the creative effects work on Star Wars. For those who think of Star Wars as being as much a descendant of mythology and sword-and-sandal movies as it is a scion of the science-fiction lineage, that credit largely goes to Harryhausen projects like 1973’s The Golden Voyage of Sinbad.

Other

By no means do the above films represent a complete list of every fantasy-skewing genre project released in the year leading up to Star Wars. There were a number of horror movies that danced along the edge of being considered science-fiction, as well as indescribable period artifacts like the softcore porn musical Cinderella 2000 and the whimsical hourlong children’s picture The Glitterball (which has a plot much like a proto-E.T., with kids helping an alien get back home). It’s also worth remembering what was on TV at the time. Star Trek had been canceled years earlier but was more popular than ever in syndication. The syndicated British series Space: 1999 carried on the Star Trek tradition of brainy space-hopping adventure between 1975 and 1977. The Six Million Dollar Man was hugely popular, especially with younger audiences. And in rock ’n’ roll, bands like Yes were marrying complicated song structures to elaborate fantasy imagery.

The point is that the appetite for something like Star Wars was clearly there. But Lucas didn’t feed it in any kind of cynical or calculating way. Like his New Hollywood cohorts Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma, Lucas was a film geek who’d internalized the classics of world cinema, developing an innate sense of which artifacts from the past could still impress in the 1970s. Lucas was also a geek-geek who was into pulps and boyish genre pieces. With Star Wars, he made a movie that children loved and that made adults feel like children—without feeling like they were being pandered to or having their intelligence insulted.

The problem for Old Hollywood was that there was no way to create someone like Lucas out of whole cloth. Pre-1977, the industry largely approached science fiction either as brainy art-pieces or as cheap kicks for kids. Star Wars’ individual components weren’t entirely original, but the assembly was so inspired that once the movie arrived, it was hard to believe that it hadn’t already been done. But it took George Lucas to actually do it.

Illustration by J. Longo