Today at the State, our small, independent Art House theater joins 4,300+ cinemas around the globe in opening STAR WARS: EPISODE IX – THE RISE OF SKYWALKER, the final chapter of the Star Wars saga as we know it!
Though it will hardly be the last film that takes place within the greater Star Wars franchise, Rise of Skywalker marks the final installment of what is now being called the “Skywalker Saga”, meaning the last film that will feature the characters we’ve grown to know and love since they were introduced in the original line of films that began with George Lucas’ original space opera epic, retroactively titled A New Hope, in 1977. In Rise of Skywalker, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher (in her last onscreen film appearance) return as Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa alongside Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian, Ian McDiarmid as the evil Emperor Palpatine, and Anthony Daniels as C-3PO, the only actor that has been in every installment of the franchise. But of course, they’re not alone. Since Director J.J. Abrams relaunched the series in 2015 with The Force Awakens, he introduced us to new heroes and villains, led by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac and Adam Driver who will propel and conclude this saga to its epic finale.
This new line of sequels represents for many a return to form in the long-running series, which in the late 1970s stunned audiences with its mostly unprecedented, practically designed visual effects and sweeping adventure fueled narrative. After the release of the “Prequel Trilogy” that begin in 1999, which featured an over stimulus of CGI characters and settings, J.J. Abrams released the new films with a promise to return to the inspirational and original aesthetic: shooting on celluloid, designing practical on-set effects, and even utilizing tangible alien characters created with costumes, makeup, and puppeteers. It was this ingenuity, after all, that inspired him and an entire generation of young filmmakers that it was possible to enter the field and follow in the footsteps of the young upstart filmmakers leading the New Hollywood movement like Lucas, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert Altman, and Stanley Kubrick.
Though now owned by Disney, Star Wars was built and founded by George Lucas with the attitude and philosophy that Art House and independent filmmaking still adhere to today. It’s a philosophy that says anything can be built, and everything is possible as long as you understand and have a passion for your vision, and there’s a practical solution to every problem. Rise of Skywalker is not just a culmination of a massive, nine-part series of films, but a celebration of the life that Lucas’ independent product blossomed on its own. And a celebration that generations young and old, as well as cinephiles and casual movie fans, will be able to appreciate together.
A Bit About George Lucas and his Humble, Scrappy Space Opera
To appreciate what Star Wars means and why it’s one of the greatest independent filmmaking success stories of our time, let’s look back on the career of the creator. Lucas had early success directing short films at USC before founding his first studio, American Zoetrope, with Francis Ford Coppola in 1969, highly influenced by the dawning of the New Hollywood movement that opposed the studio system with titles like Bonnie & Clyde, 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Wild Bunch. After his first feature THX 1138 played at the Cannes Film Festival and was mostly well-received, he formed his own company Lucasfilm, Ltd. and received funding to make American Graffiti in 1973, which gave him 5 Academy Awards nominations including Best Picture and Best Director at just 29 years of age. With the film’s sale to Universal Pictures, he fulfilled a promise to his parents that he would be a millionaire by the age of 30. With fans inside the executive offices at 20th Century Fox, Lucas received funding to make Star Wars on his own terms, and after it became the most successful film of its time, he began his sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, with funding from his own pocket.
The original Star Wars was released in May 1977 after the initial 76’ Christmas launch was delayed by reshoots and various difficulties with special effects and editing. Though it became a massive success, this came as an extremely pleasant surprise to almost everyone involved, including Lucas himself who had made a bet with his friend Steven Spielberg that Close Encounters of the Third Kind would outperform Star Wars by the end of the year. But on May 25, 1977, Star Wars opened across the nation….in just 32 theaters. Due to this lackluster opening weekend, 20th Century Fox had to bait exhibitors to play the film by issuing an ultimatum to play the film if they wanted to show their next, highly anticipated June release, The Other Side of Midnight.
The rest is, of course, history. Star Wars riled unsuspecting audiences not only with its unprecedented visual effects, but it also awed and delighted classic moviegoers with its cinematic allusions to classic World War II and samurai films, as well as serialized Westerns and science fiction programs like Flash Gordon. In fact, possibly the greatest attribute the sequel films have possessed in the last decade is their dedication not only to the original, classic Star Wars films but also to the original inspirations themselves. Although the previous installment, The Last Jedi directed by Rian Johnson (Knives Out), received some criticism from fans for taking certain creative liberties regarding the classic characters, its greatest attribute was its call-backs to Kurosawa and war films as Lucas did, most notably Rashomon and Henry King’s 12 O’Clock High starring Gregory Peck.
Thanks to Star Wars, George Lucas has become one of the most financially successful filmmakers of all-time. Though some might argue that the films have become something that he always opposed, massively produced studio products, this actually happened pretty organically due to the film’s reach to audiences young and old around the world who perpetually want more. And now that it’s all coming to an end, the series will be free to move on to different, hopefully more diverse stories that will take on lives of their own as well.
And What it All Means
Star Wars has grown tremendously from its youthful independent roots more than any other film of its era. Though it is mass-produced, it represents one of the most impressive success stories in cinematic history and still celebrates and stretches those roots by giving opportunities to talented, scrappy young filmmakers like Rian Johnson, and very most recently Deborah Chow and Bryce Dallas Howard, the first female to directors to leave their mark on the franchise by taking on episodes of the Disney+ program, The Mandolorian.
Today marks a cinematic and cultural milestone, especially as we close a decade that has been characterized by high octane, budget fueled extravaganzas. This year alone we’ve already said goodbye to many of Hollywood’s most lucrative franchise tent-pole characters and can probably expect to say goodbye to a few more next year (I’m looking at you, James Bond). Looking ahead, next year’s Marvel films are considerably lower budget and new Star Wars films have yet to be confirmed. And with the success of Knives Out, we may see the large budget franchises find a compromise with the independent scene to create more mid-level projects.
Though I’ve alluded that Star Wars exists with a bit of irony due to what it has become, I certainly don’t want to present these feelings as negative. Disney and Marvel are producing this generation’s studio epics, reminiscent of the classic studio system that produced Cleopatra, The Ten Commandments, Ben-Hur and Lawrence of Arabia, and that’s how they’ll go down in history. And yet they’re different in the best way possible because they’re opening their stories to more diverse audiences than ever before. At the end of the day, these films will inspire future generations of filmmakers to come, as Lucas’ original film did back in 1977. So let’s say goodbye to Star Wars, and to a wildly divisive decade of cinema, together and look forward to what the next decade has to offer.