Star Wars blurs the lines between science fiction and fantasy, adding a heavy dose of the “John Williams” genre

To realistically gauge how many times I’ve seen each of the three original Star Wars films would be an exercise in futility, and a sad one at that. For me, Star Wars fever began near the end of elementary school, at which time I began accruing toys, action figures, and trading cards, watching the films whenever I had the chance, especially on days when I would be home sick from school. It remains a staple in my life, as well as in my girlfriend’s life, as we return to watch the trilogy from beginning to end at least once a year to relive the magic. (She’s a keeper.)

As Michel Chion writes in Film, A Sound Art, everybody — including Ewan McGregor on set during production of The Phantom Menace — mimics the noise of the light saber during a mock light saber battle. It is perhaps this single detail that best makes his point about the new and different world the Star Wars films situate themselves in. As he writes, the sounds are there to get us to play along, with ships whooshing in outer space, laser blasters all adhering to a similar zapping sound, and light sabers crunching when they collide. However, I must say my favorite sound effects are the sound of the death star charging its canon, the indescribable screeching of the tie fighters as the zoom through space, and the sinister laughing of Jabba the Hutt and his belly companion, Scrum. I’ve been known to walk around our apartment mimicking each of these, including the cry of the Tuscan Raiders.

If these sounds aren’t enough to convince to you we’re not in this world, consider the fact that all the humans speak English, Chewbacca is a seven-foot Lassie that can communicate complex ideas with a single roar, and that the laws of physics are all but non-existent. One scene that drives me nuts the most comes in The Empire Strikes Back while the Millennium Falcon is attached to the back of the star destroyer. The ship is docked at 90 degrees, but gravity hasn’t changed a bit. They should all be falling over. That’s a bunch of crap right there. From this perspective, Star Wars almost bears more resemblance to fantasy than science fiction.

Falcon on star destroyer

Seriously, which way is gravity going?

However, let’s take a closer look at the sound of Star Wars, using Chion’s analysis as a starting point. Chion writes that George Lucas was criticized for not using a traditional science fiction score, blurring the line between the diegetic and non-diegetic and using sound an electronic, “other” soundtrack. While the Star Wars films — particularly A New Hope — keep the diegetic and the non-diegetic healthy distances apart, there’s still a fair amount of electronic whirs. For example, consider R2D2, beeping and chirping with human-like emotions or the interrogation droid that approaches the princess with its little syringe. But what would Star Wars be like if it adhered to a more thoroughly electronic score, like Forbidden Planet? This returns us to the issue of overcoming the changing perceptions of historic styles, which now render the Theremin and other electronic sounds and scores cheesy. It may be a valid hypothesis that Star Wars wouldn’t be the iconic franchise that it is today.

However, the orchestral soundtrack by John Williams also brings up an entirely new series of questions. Williams — perhaps the most successful modern composer when it comes to becoming a household name — has quite a distinctive sound. I own at least a half-dozen of the soundtracks he’s scored, and although each boasts a different set of melodic motifs and themes, each sounds remarkably similar. If I were to randomly select a John Williams track from my library with my eyes shut, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t immediately be able to identify which soundtrack it came from. Star Wars: A New Hope sounds remarkably like Hook, which sounds remarkably like Jurassic Park, which sounds remarkably like Jaws, which sounds like Munich sometimes, which sounds remarkably like Schindler’s List, which sounds remarkably like Saving Private Ryan, and you get the idea. “John Williams” can almost be considered a genre in and of itself. It’s a cinematic sound moviegoers have all grown accustomed to, and each score he writes provides a slightly different twist on the core of his musical aesthetic. His work on Star Wars was more or less at the beginning of his career, and much of his acclaimed work would follow, further developing his iconic sound. Does considering the score of Star Wars: A New Hope from a contemporary perspective — taking into account all of John William’s subsequent works — change the way you feel about it? 

Perhaps viewers have grown so accustomed to hearing Williams’ works that his sound makes them feel completely at ease and familiar with what they’re watching. Given that most of Steve Spielberg’s major releases have included a John Williams score, perhaps they have. If the critics of A New Hope’s soundtrack had known Williams success would span generations, would they still be critical? Nonetheless, it still might make you scratch your head that anybody criticized Star Wars for taking advantage of Williams. He won his first Oscar in 1971 for his work on Fiddler on the Roof, and he had begun receiving nominations four years prior. Williams would even go on to win both an Oscar and a Grammy for his score for Star Wars. Also, given that Star Wars deals heavily within the fantasy genre, did those critics have any basis for their criticisms? This last question raises an entirely new debate, which may have to be saved for a different post.

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