From Boba to Yoda: The A-Z of Star Wars
‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ is out on December 17th. Here’s your Star Wars guide
Calm down. Calm down. We still have just over a month to wait until Star Wars: The Force Awakens strikes domestic cinemas. Despite the disappointment of the prequel trilogy, hopes are high that JJ Abrams will restore energy to the dormant franchise. He’d better. Work is already underway on the next Star Wars episode and a series of spin-off movies is also in pre-production. Kill time with our far-from-definitive A to Z of the world’s best-loved space opera.
Attack of the Clones Which one was this? Was this the one with the unspeakably dreadful Jar Jar Binks? Not really. That awful character was shuffled into the wings for the second film in the prequel trilogy.
Was it the one with the tolerable chariot race in the middle? No, that was the best bit of The Phantom Menace. If Attack of the Clones is remembered for anything (and it probably isn’t), it’s for the scenes in which Yoda gets tasty with a light sabre. The next one was a bit better, thank heavens.
Boba Fett Listen to me. Nobody knows who Boba Fett is. Okay, that’s not quite true. Among Star Wars fanatics, the bounty hunter with a pot on his head has achieved something beyond cult status. He first appeared in the notorious Christmas holiday special and then popped up as a secondary villain in The Empire Strikes Back, and as a child in Attack of the Clones. The main attraction is that he’s the sort of character that only “proper” fans will recognise. If you wouldn’t know Boba Fett from Bob Hoskins then it’s you who is the saddo. Got it? Shortly to get a standalone film.
C-3PO and R2-D2 Perhaps the most inspired decision George Lucas made when writing Star Wars was to tell the story from the perspective of a camp robot and an irritable droid. The characters drew their personalities from Laurel and Hardy. The shape and mechanism of R2-D2 (below left) owed a great deal to similar machines in Douglas Trumbull’s superb Silent Running. The narrative ploy nods towards Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. What remains remarkable is that, communicating merely with bleeps, R2-D2 seems as rounded as any other character in the opening film. We are happy to report that Anthony Daniels (C-3PO) and Kenny Baker (R2-D2), now theatrical veterans, reprise their roles in The Force Awakens.
Darth Vader Almost every citizen born later than the mid-1960s spent some of their childhood with hands clasped over mouth attempting an impression of the series’ most notorious villain. What they normally said was: “Luke, I am your father!” (If this constitutes a spoiler then we are happy to welcome your recent recovery from that tiresome coma.) It seems as if, among evil parents of a certain intergalactic bent, Darth was the unavoidable “Jack” of its day. Others with that name include Darth Maul, Darth Nihilus, Darth Bane and Darth Blennerhassett.
The Empire Strikes Back The doctrines of Star Wars fandom are clear and inflexible. Everybody hates Jar Jar Binks. Everybody likes Han Solo. The Empire Strikes Back is the best film in the entire series.
This is not such a ludicrous suggestion. Utilising a significantly larger budget than the first picture, Empire had an energy and a sweep that you rarely got from sequels in those years.
It also managed to avoid the sense of a “holding pattern” that too often hangs around the middle section of trilogies. The titles spawned a million tabloid borrowings (“The Umpire Strikes Back” was particularly popular during John McEnroe’s time).
The Force Awakens Which is why we’re all here. The secrecy surrounding JJ Abrams’s seventh episode in the Star Wars sequence has been totalitarian. But enough details have emerged for fans of the series to foster sprigs of optimism.
Keeping (roughly) with earth chronology, the film takes place around 30 years after events in Return of the Jedi and places characters played by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and our own Domhnall Gleeson alongside veterans such as Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. Such are the absurd expectations that if the film fails to become the third biggest of all time it will be deemed a financial disappointment.
George Lucas The creator of the Star Wars franchise has one of the oddest careers in the movie business. When he was at the University of Southern California in the 1960s he was seen as a potential champion of the avant garde. His brilliant debut, THX 1130, leaned towards the high-brow school of dystopian science fiction.
Yet it was Star Wars, made on a modest budget with obscure leads, that launched the blockbuster ethos under which Hollywood still operates today. After flinging brickbats at The Phantom Menace and its successors, even the most hardcore fans welcomed the news that Lucas would have little creative involvement with The Force Awakens.
The Holiday Special Obviously this entry should really be taken up with Han Solo, but the temptation to make fun of the notorious Star Wars Holiday Special is irresistible. Broadcast on Christmas 1978, the show comprised a profoundly baffling mix of animation, light entertainment and sentimental comedy. David Hofstede, in his book What Were They Thinking?, identified the show as the “dumbest event in television history”.
Lucasfilm went on to bury the show in the same basement that welcomed the Ark at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s still better than The Phantom Menace.
Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand Either the luckiest men in cinema or the most unfairly overlooked, Kershner and Marquand directed two of the most successful films of all time. Yet their names are known to only a relatively small huddle of movie fans. Kershner, director of The Empire Strikes Back, went on to shoot the “unofficial” Bond film Never Say Never Again and RoboCop 2. Marquand, the man behind Return of the Jedi, made the hugely successful thriller Jagged Edge before dying of a stroke at the unkind age of 49.
Jedi Written when the scent of 1960s mystical hooey was still in the air, Star Wars swelled with gibberish concerning the spiritual and monastic cadre known as the Jedi. Lucas cannot have imagined that, decades hence, the fictional code would spawn something like a real religion. To be fair, almost all adherents have their tongues firmly in their cheeks. That noted, the 390,127 people who declared their religion as “Jedi” on the 2001 census in England and Wales pushed their faith ahead of Sikhism and even Judaism. The figures have since declined.
Kurosawa Here’s a statement. No director outside the English language has had a greater influence on post-war American cinema than Akira Kurosawa. Yojimbo became A Fistful of Dollars. The Seven Samurai became The Magnificent Seven. Star Wars is not quite a remake of The Hidden Fortress (1958), but Lucas has acknowledged its profound influence. Most conspicuously, the robots C-3PO and R2-D2 share characteristics of the peasants played by Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara in the Japanese director’s period film.
Luke Skywalker I don’t want to be unkind, but has any successful film series had such an underwhelming lead character? Like so much else in Star Wars, Luke emerged from creative templates in the writings of then-voguish “comparative mythologist” Joseph Campbell. He is the archetypal young man dragged away from the family hearth to live a life of danger and excitement. Fair enough. But does he have to be such a wet dishrag? Mark Hamill, the lucky actor picked to play Luke, will know not to complain, but, the Star Wars trilogy aside, he appeared in only a handful of films that made it past the VHS bargain bin.
Merchandise Hang on? There are Star Wars films? When did that happen? Cynics will argue that George Lucas’s greatest stroke of genius was to negotiate a cut from the sales of toys and other merchandise when setting up the deal for Star Wars. As a business decision of brilliance, it compares with Bill Gates’s near-contemporaneous choice to retain the rights to MS-DOS when working on the IBM PC. It is no coincidence that The Force Awakens arrives just in time for Christmas.
A New Hope That’s what Star Wars is called now, you know. Well, that’s not quite true. The first picture is now officially titled Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. The fourth film is titled Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Happily, as we’re now following up the original trilogy, the forthcoming seventh film is actually episode seven. But that number doesn’t appear anywhere on the poster. J J Abrams’s film is, apparently, called just Star Wars: The Force Awakens. My head hurts. I still refer to A New Hope as Star Wars. I also use the word “wireless”.
Obi-Wan Kenobi Sir Alec Guinness is one the greatest actors of the last century. He was owlish as George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and brave to the point of derangement in Bridge on the River Kwai. For all that, he’s now probably best known (really!) for playing Obi-Wan Kenobi, a sort of warrior monk, in the first Star Wars films. Guinness allegedly once gave a young man an autograph on the condition that he’d never watch Star Wars again. If that happened today, the publicity department would have both actor and fan shot.
The Phantom Menace Still a symbol for the way in which wretched disappointment so often follows optimistic hype, Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is, on mature reflection, not nearly so bad as . . . Oh, who am I kidding? The much-delayed fourth film in the series is a tedious dud of intergalactic proportions. Emerging in 1999, the picture shows what happens when in-universe mythology becomes more important than the rudiments of story. Only high druids of the Nerdosphere cared about the corners of backstory that were filled in so assiduously.
Qui-Gon Jinn Mind you, there were some good actors in The Phantom Menace. Liam Neeson, coming off the back of Schindler’s List and Michael Collins, growled charismatically as the mighty Jedi warrior who teaches the young Obi-Wan Kenobi to be the man he ought to be. Throughout his scenes you sense Liam running that famous quote from Harrison Ford through his head. “You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it,” the older actor is reported to have quipped. Neeson claims he was talked into the role by an old pal in Belfast’s famous Crown Bar.
Return of the Jedi Orthodoxy states that the last film in the opening trilogy progresses perfectly well until we encounter the cute, but ferociously brave, Ewoks. This is because orthodoxy is established by bores who believe that Star Wars is only marginally less significant than the Dead Sea Scrolls. In fact the Ewoks are completely awesome. They are funny, charming and very effectively realised. The same people, when Disney acquired Lucasfilm, began ranting that the new film might now end up being aimed at children. Of course it’s aimed at children. It’s Star Wars.
Star Wars Island (formerly Skellig Michael) Site of a monastery from as long ago as the sixth century, the historic rock off the coast of Kerry was renamed earlier this year following a campaign by Darth Egbot of Aosdána. Arlan the Stout, another member of that Jedi cadre, explained that, following the scandalous incident when a member of the Star Wars crew caught his jacket on a medieval doorjamb, the island should carry the tainted moniker for centuries to come. Do I have this right? Anyway, Star Wars Island is set to make a few fleeting appearances in The Force Awakens and whatever Episode VIII is called.
Trailer The rise of trailer hysteria can be dated back to the appearance of the first promo for The Phantom Menace in November 1998. Films such as The Waterboy and The Siege experienced a surge in ticket sales as punters paid to catch their first glimpse of Star Wars characters in the guts of two decades. There were reports of dozens tramping for the doors when the main feature started. Now, middle-aged pantywaists film themselves blubbing at their desks as they watch the Force Awakens trailer for the first time. Pull yourself together.
Unfinished Cut Perhaps the most famous legend from the making of the first film concerns the unfinished version Lucas showed to his pals Brian De Palma, John Milius and Steven Spielberg. The special effects were nowhere near complete and the director was forced to place second World War dogfights where the battles in space would later be inserted. By all accounts, Milius and De Palma could make neither head nor tail of it, but tellingly Spielberg immediately saw the potential. Steven and George then conquered the known universe.
Video Games Star Wars arrived just as the first wave of video games – in arcade form – were beginning to dull impressionable minds such as . . . Erm, where was I? Oh yes. In recent years, gamers have taken to the utterly charming Lego Star Wars series (which arguably promote both the toys and the films). But the best game is obviously the Atari arcade classic from 1983. The opening dogfight was good. The bit where you eliminate rising turrets is excellent. But the section where you get to destroy the Death Star is better than any other contemporaneous cultural entity – including Midnight’s Children.
Wookie It’s nice that Star Wars still retains traces of its origins in the 1970s. If Chewbacca emerged today he’d appear as a smoothly animated, sleekly convincing wad of digital imagery. Such technology was not available in Britain during the Callaghan years.
So Han Solo’s great friend – a Wookie from the planet Kashyyyk – still looks like a tall man wearing your great aunt’s most fag-burned rug. The charming Millennium Falcon co-pilot looks set to return for The Force Awakens.
X-Wing Fighter Did you know that Joe Johnston, who later directed Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, designed the first X-Wing Fighter when he was working for Industrial Light and Magic? Well, you do now. Though the Millennium Falcon remains the series’ most famous vessel, the X-Wing Fighter is surely the most recognisable marque of flying vehicle. The spaceship, the Rebel force’s own Spitfire, was deliberately designed to be more reassuring in design than the Empire’s abstracted TIE fighters. Make of that what you will.
Yoda The era of Star Wars, the late 1970s and the early 1980s were. Also the time of the Muppets it was. With the creation of Yoda – the hugely wise, implausibly tiny Jedi master – the two empires together delightfully came. By Frank Oz voiced, the character to demonstrate that heroes need not be enormous and mighty existed. For all that, most heroes in the Star Wars universe more like Harrison Ford than an ambulatory prune look. Parodies of his syntax never old get.
Zarkplonk the Komistikak A 1,000-year-old lizard-like seer whose treatise on the Clone Wars proved to be a formative influence on the teachings of Obi-Wan Kenobi. He does not appear in any of the films, but an animated incarnation – voiced by Christopher Biggins – turns up in two episodes of the series Star Wars: Panic Stations. Zarkplonk also features prominently in a tetralogy of “non-canonical” novels entitled The Envy of Zarkplonk. Actually, none of this is true. I just made it up because I couldn’t think of an entry for “z”.