For all of its unforgettable character moments, Star Wars is hallowed in the history of cinema for its imagery. Sweeping shots of unchartered planets, vast cities and boundless deserts frame the universe far, far away. Director George Lucas is to film landscapes what JMW Turner was to paintings. So where did Mr. Lucas get his inspiration? As with J.J. Abrams and The Force Awakens, Lucas turned to cinematic masterpieces to sharpen his intergalactic vision.
As December 18th nears, let’s take a look at the films that influenced George Lucas, the movies born in the wake of Star Wars, and the films J.J. Abrams watched to prepare for directing Episode VII.
Here are the 10 Movies To Watch Before The Force Awakens:
10 Apocalypse Now
The international trailer for The Force Awakens contains a clear homage to this Francis Ford Coppola classic. With TIE Fighters soaring in the distance framed by a massive and fiery star, they evoke the "Ride of the Valkyries" scene in Apocalypse Now, moments before the American helicopters rain hell on the Vietnamese village below.
What makes the comparisons all the more interesting, however, is that George Lucas was once in line to direct the Vietnam epic with a script from his friend, John Milius. Harrison Ford also had a bit part in the film, but both the actor and star would remain focused on the extraterrestrial after Coppola took over the reins. As The Force Awakens nears, expect battle sequences that have a similar quality of chaos seen in Apocalypse Now. If the trailers are any indication, things could get ugly.
9 Once Upon A Time In The West
For Americans, the west represents romance. Once upon a time, it was the unexplored, uncivilized and raw territory that only sagebrush inhabited. It embodied our desire for freedom and opportunity. Sergio Leone monopolized the western genre, knowing its resonance with people of all ages.
With Once Upon A Time In The West, Leone mimicked Kurosawa before him, and as a result, created his most enduring film. Filled with action and romance in the middle of a proper good vs. evil battle (Henry Fonda vs. Charles Bronson), Leone’s classic set the tone for a futuristic adventure up in the stars. The breathtaking landscapes and frequent camera sleight of hand would make their way into the Star Wars storyboards, particularly for the desert planet Tatooine.
8 Hidden Fortress
Don’t let the black and white fool you. Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress was a primary influence on George Lucas, helping him identify the locus of the Star Wars narrative. Kurosawa was a master storyteller who relied on visuals and strong characters to enrapture his audience.
Hidden Fortress tells an adventure story of war and treasure that is equal-parts thrilling and humorous. The catch? Kurosawa puts two peasants at the heart of the story, Tahei and Matashichi, to maximize the film’s accessibility. It’s no accident that R2-D2 and C-3P0 are so often in the middle of the action. Mimicking Hidden Fortress, Lucas focused on the lowest characters in the Star Wars universe to tell the story.
7 Blade Runner
Sandwiched between Episodes IV-VI and I-III, Ridley Scott’s noirish sci-fi thriller is a byproduct of Star Wars’ success. Based on the Philip K. Dick novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Blade Runner does away with the pomp and circumstance of Star Wars by asserting a dystopian take on the future.
The opening shot establishes Los Angeles as a city of both angels and demons, with massive fire towers spurting into the atmosphere. No wonder LA has smog. Harrison Ford was hand picked for the role, thanks to his performance as Han Solo, but he’s far more dour and saturnine in this version of space. Thanks to extra preparation time (due to a writer’s strike), the film's production design is unparalleled, with some of the Blade Runner architecture even influencing the look for Coruscant City in Attack of the Clones.
6 Super 8
“Production value!” As the key line throughout the film states, Super 8 is a Hollywood blockbuster homage to the medium of filmmaking itself. How fitting for Steven Spielberg to produce J.J. Abrams’ movie about kids making movies. They do it not for glory but for the love of the game. Through all of the hype and promotion of The Force Awakens, Abrams has remained exceptionally genuine and passionate about making fans a worthy sequel, rather than getting lost in the cultural hullabaloo surrounding the Star Wars franchise.
Super 8 has that innocent air of enthusiasm, like E.T. of the modern era. There’s very little cynicism in this modern monster movie with small-town values. It’s good vs. evil, the hallmark trait of George Lucas’ franchise. Super 8 was the perfect launch pad for Abrams’ career and ideal practice for his trip down Lucasfilm lane.
5 The Rocketeer
Few people behind the camera get the credit they deserve. George Lucas may be the granddaddy of Star Wars, but the visual design and creativity is due in large part to designer Joe Johnston, the creative father of the AT-AT, among other iconic Star Wars accouterments. He was a mere 27 years old while working on A New Hope, and today, after winning an Oscar for his work on Raiders of the Lost Ark, he’s a prolific director in his own right.
His 1991 film, The Rocketeer, is the most direct descendant of the George Lucas-style of filmmaking. With special effects created by Industrial Light & Magic (a subdivision of Lucasfilm), its vivid and bright color scheme matches its sense of adventure. Rocketeer is like Star Wars in 1940s drag.
Rian Johnson is on deck for Episode VIII, and as soon as the credits roll on The Force Awakens, he’ll be at the center of the Star Wars maelstrom. His 2012 writer-director entry, Looper, sealed the deal with Kathleen Kennedy in his bid to play in the George Lucas sandbox.
His Bruce Willis/Joseph Gordon-Levitt action thriller is both mind-bending and thrilling, a technical feat that few directors could accomplish. Indeed, Johnson’s script feels like a Philip K. Dick concept, which bodes well for his original screenplay currently shooting under the working title, Star Wars: Episode VIII. The guy can write. Watch Looper to witness a true visionary director take risks both in writing and on screen. Lucasfilm is lucky to have him on board.
3 High and Low
Kurosawa was a master of designing visual feasts. His films remain a fixture of our best directors’ cinematic education. They turn to Kurosawa to be reinvigorated by the power of the camera and movement. Indeed, J.J Abrams recently acknowledged that he took in the “unbelievable scene choreography and composition” in Kurosawa’s High and Low, a movie that would otherwise have little in common with Star Wars.
Each frame is complex and fluid, however, filled to the brim with interesting and eye-catching elements. With the size and scope of Star Wars, along with the multiple plotlines, there’s no time to waste. Kurosawa told mini stories with each perfectly planned shot. It’s no wonder, then, that J.J. Abrams studied him before tackling Episode VII.
2 Tree of Life
In a recent interview with Empire magazine, J.J. Abrams talked about watching Terrence Malick’s films in preparation for The Force Awakens. He spoke of the “powerful stillness” present in his cinematography, admitting “It’s not something I would normally have thought of coming to Star Wars.”
While he didn’t specify which films he watched, Tree of Life contains some of Malick’s most celestial photography. Shots of various galaxies and nebula frame his interpersonal story of love and loss. Long, unbroken takes zoom into the actors (Brad Pitt, Jessica Chastain) and seek out their innermost thoughts.
Set amid breathtaking deserts and beaches, The Tree of Life is a gorgeous film that asks: what is the best way to go through life: through nature or grace? Perhaps The Force Awakens can help answer that question.
1 The Searchers
In addition to watching Terrence Malick’s work, J.J. Abrams mentioned “the confidence” of John Ford’s westerns as a strong influence for The Force Awakens. Indeed, John Ford’s epic revenge tale, The Searchers, formed the bedrock for much of the Star Wars narrative. It’s a western, after all, and much of the arid setting laid the foundation for Lucas’ creation of Tatooine.
In The Searchers, Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) tracks down the abducted women and children from his brother’s ranch. Ford’s elusive enemy, the Comanche, is portrayed much like the Tusken Raiders in A New Hope. Indeed, the theme of returning home to utter destruction resonates in both films, as Luke Skywalker finds his aunt and uncle dead, similar to Ethan Edwards’ rude awakening at the ranch. If not for the iconic cinematography and script, give The Searchers a watch to imagine a similar Star Wars plot set on terra firma.
There you have it! Have a favorite? Let us know in the comments below
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