Since today, May the 4th, marks the annual celebration of that film in the galaxy far, far away known to the billions of generations as Star Wars, I thought it would be fun to go back to 1976, the year right before the film was released when filming was still underway and a generation of science-fiction fans were being teased with elements and characters from the upcoming space opera, most notably at that year’s San Diego Comic-Con.
The SDCC that everyone knows today circa 2016 was nothing like what it was four decades ago. There was no social media; there was no hint of that kind of anticipatory buzz that comes with each upcoming Con as the New Year bell tolls; cosplay was a term that was non-existent in those days, as well as even trying to get licensed or unlicensed for that matter favorite character paraphernalia to dress up in. You wanted a Spidey mask to wear? You best ask your mom to ask your grandmother to knit one out of itchy yarn. The things that Comic-Con goers take and see as gospel in today’s climate was light years away, unheard of, in 1976.
But what was becoming heard of was a buzz about this new film by George Lucas, the director of prior films such as American Graffiti, his love letter to the early 1960s, and THX-1138, which set a new standard for Sci-Fi films and unofficially ushered in the apocalyptic and paranoid kind of narrative and worlds found in many later films of the genre during that decade. Now he had a project which was an outer space nod to Kurosawa’s Rashomon with some 1930s Buck Rogers serials thrown in for good measure. Brainstormed in early treatments around 1973, the film, called The Star Wars, which later would lose its definite article and be simply and now legendarily known as Star Wars, was currently a production snatched up by 20th Century Fox that was underway when news of it was leaked in visual senses at the 1976 Comic-Con.
The buzz created seemed curious at best, as sci-fi fans of the time, mainly weaned on Star Trek and classic B-pictures of the 1950s, holding 2001: A Space Odyssey as the intellectual achievement of the genre, seemed to not know what to think of this upcoming nice little production. Watching clips and seeing stills of characters such as the evil mastermind of the tale and galaxy Darth Vader in an almost benign fashion, the crowd was witnessing something that they (and in essence no one) realized would turn out to be lucky royalty in many respects, as they were sitting and seeing for the first time, and in hindsight they were one of the scarce few, a glimpse of characters that would turn out to be folklore in American storytelling, and didn’t have a clue what to think about them. What must have been most interesting sitting in those chairs, side by side next to each other in a room that was a shoebox compared to the famed Hall H which in contemporary age, screens footage and puts on panels for upcoming films to audiences that reach over six thousand at once; but here, in this tiny room, it appeared as if barely 100 people were watching, and all of them were equals in a way as fans of the upcoming release.
The crucial distinction regarding that last statement is to take for instance last year when the buzz for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was on nosebleed high at last year’s Star Wars convention in Anaheim when the trailer was first premiered to a rabid audience that screamed, hollered, and whooped joy on decibel levels that would rival standing right next to a 747 on full engine rev. But here, as the crowd looked at a still of Darth Vader on a screen that looked like it came out of an Anytown USA high school A/V department, everyone was equal in terms of the Star Wars world. There were no rabid fans who knew every single shred of detail and point about the film; there were no light fans and zealous ones; no obsession of any form was in manifest yet. In a strange way, unbeknownst to all, it was the last time that any comic or science-fiction convention would be in a still, placid kind of obsession that permeated the conventions atmosphere prior to the release of Star Wars. Once the film was released in 1977 and the phenomenon was let loose into the world, there was a rabid air of high energy that would permeate these conventions and never, ever let go, getting stronger and tighter each successive year, finally peaking with the revamp of the Star Wars franchise by Disney, starting with last year’s The Force Awakens.
It was already a subculture in itself when the comic conventions started getting in vogue around the late 1960s and then took a national stage when the resurgence of Star Trek in syndicated reruns took firm footing in pop culture around the early 1970s with the Trekkies, but even those events and cultural benchmarks weren’t what Star Wars would bring and keep firm to the present, that kind of childlike excitement and awe, which taps into emotional levels of the heart and reactive synapses in the brain and creates feelings unlike almost anything else in entertainment, past, present and it’s a safe bet to say, future. All elements no one had a clue about, including the filmmakers, with their little modest booth, and unusual and amusing and rather slight marketing materials including a stark painting of Luke Skywalker looking rather dynamic and semi-super natural, affixed to T-shirts and banners in which the actor who played Skywalker, and still does — Mark Hamill — wore and beamed a smile that glowed end to end in publicity photographs. Again, it was a world where buzz meant a term when someone said they were going to call you on the telephone later.
Most people barely heard about Star Wars at the time, unless you were at one of these conventions and even then, the ambiguity attached made it seem not much more than another Dark Star or Logan’s Run, two films released rather recently by the time of the 1976 Comic-Con and films that didn’t make the kind of impact to make the industry think the genre was back in full swing again with the movie going public.
In a million years and a million galaxies, no one would have ever thought or imagined that it would be this little unassuming and rather complex film known as Star Wars that would change the industry to levels it still adheres to in today’s day and age, and may (along with Jaws) stand as the main progenitor and template for the multi-billion dollar blockbuster generation that chokes us yearly in the 21st century with franchise after franchise and 200 million dollar plus budgets that are spent on everything from 10-foot-tall billboards in Times Square to likenesses of main characters on cereal bowls, towels, fast food glasses, toys, clothes, and anything else that will allow itself to be affixed with a logo or film face. But that wasn’t anyone’s intention in 1976. The intention then was to make and tell a good story, a Flash Gordon sort of yarn done with a sort of futuristic realism to landscape and surrounding attention and create a tale that would be remembered and enjoyed by fans to this very day. That part has succeeded and then some, obviously. The execution and then presentation of Star Wars in 1977 may be the purest example of lightning in a bottle the entertainment industry has ever seen. And from it, it spawned a kind of herculean force that has been with us ever since, always.