As I work on my inevitable list of best films of 2012 I started thinking about Argo. Not the Ben Affleck film that we saw, but the un-filmed Star Wars rip-off Sci-Fi movie that featured in it. For as long as I can remember Star Wars has been essential Christmas viewing, but why? Probably because as an action adventure fantasy film it is yet to be surpassed. It is often stated that Star Wars changed films for ever, it certainly built on the idea of the summer blockbuster that began with Jaws two years before. All this is most probably true, but surprisingly Star Wars has never inspired a successful and credible action adventure set within a alien universe. The greatest failing of most of them is an unnecessary attempt to ground the plot in the reality or to earth, this is true from The Last Starfighter (1984) through to Avatar (2009). It worked for Star Trek as the idea of humanity exploring space was central to the premise. After its cancellation in 1969, it gained cult status, around the time of Star Wars a plan to resurrect the television series as Star Trek: Phase II. It was a planned and quickly abandoned, ideas from the pilot were however saved and became Star Trek (1979). The highlights of the film series that followed are: Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991), Star Trek: First Contact (1996) and the reboot Star Trek (2009).
The latest failed attempt of the genre was John Carter (2012) based on A Princess of Mars by (Tarzan author) Edgar Rice Burroughs. So uncomfortable in its own skin the producers dropped the Sci-Fi “of Mars” title from the movie shortly before it hit cinema screens. Telling the story of a civil war era gent who is transported to Mars that is going through its own Civil War. A lot of the story involves the fish out of water scenarios as Carter adapts to the culture of the society and then imports his own sensibility. Going back to the time of Star Wars, the biggest of the early attempts to cash in on the Star Wars was unsurprisingly by Disney. The Black Hole (1979) had a budget of around $20million, around double that of Star Wars but only grossed around the same as Star Wars took in its first weekend. There is a good reason, for all its technical accomplishments, the movie is just plain dull. I have seen it at least twice and remember very little about it. With a budget of around $4million Starcrash (1978) is certainly low budget but isn’t quite the Z Movie it is often claimed to be. Poorly acted with terrible effects and unintentionally funny moments it isn’t very good. However it does deserve a certain amount of praise as a low budget movie that has grander ambitions than many of its contempt competitors, it is also good silly fun at times.
The one success of the genre (artistically if not financially) was Flash Gordon (1980). The plot is a rehash of the original thirteen part film serial starring Buster Crabbe from 1936. One of the reasons the movie looks so good and worked so well is the retro design including long shiny almost phallic spaceships that were inspired by the original 1930’s comic books. The result is utter camp, the characters and the performances are totally bonkers and over the top in the vein of Barbarella (1968). All this was held together by a an equally camp and over the top score by Queen.
The story goes that David Lynch turned down Return of the Jedi instead opting to replace Ridley Scott as the director of Dune (1984). Unlike most people, I am glad he did. I first saw Dune on video in 1985 and loved it. A few years later I read the first three or four of Frank Herbert’s novels. It was the first David Lynch film I saw, I have seen and loved everything he has made since. The movie shares producer Dino De Laurentiis with Flash Gordon, that is where the similarity ends. While Flash Gordon is fun and camp, Dune is sombre serious but when you strip away all the religious symbolism, mythology and the ideas of loyalty and betrayal it is simply a story of trade and politics, possibly an allegory for the fight for the control of the worlds supply. The TV mini series is heralded as a superior adaptation, it may be but it is painfully dull, something the movie can not be accused of even in its three hour cut.
Star Wars often plays like a western set in space. This is where the genre has found the most sucess. A film that took this idea a stage further was the Roger Corman produced Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) that took its plot from Magnificent Seven/Seven Samurai. It has a certain degree of pedigree with a screenplay by John Sayles, a score composed by James Horner, and the special effects directed by a young James Cameron. A similar idea had been attempted in the “High Noon in space” Outland (1981) with Sean Connery in the Gary Cooper role. Not a classic, but far better than its reputation. The best space western is probably Serenity (2005) based on the too short-lived TV show Firefly (2002-2003). It is still rooted in the reality of humanity but unlike the movies that suffer for this, Serenity plays its hand perfectly.
The Star Wars prequels failed to live up to their billing, will the new Disney produced movies be more successful or will we have to wait for someone else to create a new Space Opera in a believable alien universe? Star Wars: Episode VII is expected in 2015.
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