It was the year of punk, the year of the Queen’s silver jubilee, the year of Voyager 1 and the space shuttle. But for students of film history, 1977 is ground zero for modern multiplex cinema, as an unheralded space adventure set in a galaxy far, far away laid the groundwork for a new kind of effects-led, heavily marketed, audience-friendly blockbuster filmmaking. After this, science fiction cinema – and indeed the entire film industry – would never be the same again.
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George Lucas was a punk. He may not have had a Mohican or a safety pin through his nose, but the California-born director’s bloody-minded determination to make ‘Star Wars’ his way – building from scratch his own SFX studio, refusing to cast major stars, ignoring the advice of experienced industry insiders left and right – displayed a total dedication to the DIY ethos. Of course, it paid off handsomely, but there was never any guarantee. And if audiences hadn’t warmed to this odd little film about spaceships and mystical forces, the movies as we know them might look very different.
‘Star Wars’ has been blamed for everything from infantilising filmgoers to celebrating American military might and thereby putting Ronald Reagan in power. But it also brought joy to millions of people around the world, and helped to make filmmaking a more democratic, grassroots process. God save George Lucas. We mean it, man.
The likelihood is you’ve never even heard of ‘Damnation Alley’. And yet this bleak post-apocalyptic adventure was tipped to be the big sci-fi smash of 1977. Costing $17 million ($6 million more than ‘Star Wars’), the film was viewed by Twentieth Century Fox as by far the safer proposition, reflecting as it did widespread fears about nuclear war and the breakdown of society.
The film performed dismally at the box office – following a disastrous shoot and a lengthy recutting process. Its failure, coupled with the success of George Lucas’s altogether more jolly space adventure, meant that this kind of gritty, downbeat science fiction was firmly a thing of the past, at least for the major studios. Whether or not this was a positive outcome is a matter for debate, but it’s too late now.
Those who accuse the post-‘Star Wars’ sci-fi boom of infantilising audiences tend to conveniently overlook Steven Spielberg’s ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’. Here is a film with all the epic scope and special effects razzle-dazzle of ‘Star Wars’, coupled with the emotional richness and keen cultural nuance of earlier 70s masterpieces like ‘The Godfather’ – the perfect blend of spectacle, sentiment and smarts.
And it was a huge success. Not as big at the box office as ‘Star Wars’, but one of the year’s biggest films, and a critical favourite to boot. Arguments over which is the ‘better’ film are moot (though our voters convincingly went for Spielberg over Lucas in our list of the 100 best sci-fi movies), but there’s no denying that ‘Close Encounters’ is more intimate, more troubling, and – let’s face it – more grown up.
Take a look at your local multiplex listings. We pretty much guarantee that at least one of the movies on offer features a young man in Lycra doing his damnedest to save the world – and this has been the norm for at least the past half-decade. Superhero movies are ubiquitous now, and it all started with Richard Donner’s reinvention of the original clean-cut all-American kid from outer space, which began shooting in 1977.
‘Superman’ set the tone for modern superhero movies – knowing full well that post-Vietnam audiences would never swallow a straight-up tale of American might, screenwriter Mario Puzo (of ‘The Godfather’ fame) subtly undercut his source material throughout: this is a film with tongue firmly in cheek, but which never allows the satirical edge to detract from the simple excitement and humanity of the tale. Every single superhero flick since has walked this same line – with mixed results.
Questions over the future of the ‘Star Trek’ franchise were rife in 1977. An attempt by director Philip Kaufman to fashion a big-screen reboot – entitled ‘Planet of the Titans’ – had just fallen apart in the face of studio disinterest, leading to the development of ‘Star Trek: Phase 2’, a TV series featuring the original cast with the exception of Leonard Nimoy, who didn’t want to be typecast as Spock.
Again, the huge success of ‘Star Wars’ intervened: ‘Phase 2’ was junked just a few weeks before it was set to start shooting, and the pilot script became a feature film, to be titled ‘Star Trek: The Motion Picture’ and released in 1979 to middling reviews (the franchise would find its way with 1982’s ‘The Wrath of Khan’). Meanwhile, Kaufman headed off into altogether more oblique and intriguing science-fictional territory, brilliantly remaking the iconic ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’ and reinvigorating small-scale paranoid sci-fi in the process. Was it any coincidence that the film also starred Leonard Nimoy?