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Opening Shots: 'Star Wars'

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The crawl recedes...

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The camera tilts down.

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The surface of a planet spans the lower part of the frame as a ship passes through the top.

"Star Wars" has, not surprisingly, been the popular favorite among Opening Shots contributions. Here's how several of you saw it:

From Barry Toffoli:

"Star Wars" opens with a shot of space and the soft sound of John Williams score, then the shot shifts to a planet. So right away we know we’re in for adventure on foreign soil, in outer space no less. Then a small vessel comes from the top of the screen. This is quickly followed by a series of blasts as the score turns into that famous booming on sound, akin to Gustav Holst’s ‘Mars’ [from "The Planets"]. This is all quickly followed by the enormously famous and copied shot of a behemoth star cruiser coming in from the top of the screen and going on forever. It doesn’t take long to figure out that this story is a tale of good versus evil, the little guy getting bullied by the big guy. Even the planet in the shot plays into the theme, representing a new undiscovered world a new hope for freedom and life. But we know the journey will be hard as the star cruiser looms over everything from the rebel ship to the planet below to the audience watching it in the theatre.

And long before the death star ever shows up we fear this massive beast could blow up the planet below just as easily as it could blow up the tiny ship, setting the stage for one of the greatest adventures in film history.

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A larger ship flies over.

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And it gets bigger and bigger and bigger...

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... and bigger and bigger... Notice how the open bay and the underside dome are used as visual landmarks to convey just how BIG this thing is.

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End of punch line.

From Justin Russo, Portage, IN:

I've got to nominate "Star Wars." Though I didn't see it during it original run (i wasn't born yet), I'd seen countless times on video and when it was rereleased in '97. It's still mildly disturbing to see the little tiny space ship being chased down by the big hulking mass of gray metal. The tiny ship making feeble attempts at destroying the behemoth by shooting it with piddly lasers. It's that spirt and determination that becomes one of the central themes of "Star Wars" and each subsequent movie. The little guy fighting the big guy no matter what the odds.

From Mike Leto, Bethpage, NY:

"Star Wars: A New Hope" -- My favorite opening shot of all time but the problem is that it's really only effective on the big screen. The TV screen takes away all the power out of the shot. Of course we all remember the "Star Wars" logo flying backwrds into space and the "Flash Gordon" summary rolling up the screen. But what effects me is what happens next. We tilt down to see the planet Tatooine and we see the rebel space cruser fly overhead. It's obviosly being chased and we see lasers going back and forth. Then, we see the Imperial ship fly overhead and it takes up the entire space of the screen. It almost seems to big to fit on the screen and thats how I viewed the rest of of the film. I saw the story take place in a world to big and wonderful for us to imagine. That makes for not just an entertaining film, but a great one.

From Alex Murillo:

"Star Wars" (1977): There is no need to explain the opening shot in terms of thematic relevance or aesthetic beauty. Like the rest of the film, all that can be explained is one's awe-struck reaction to it. Here's how mine always goes: "That big globe-thingy is pretty impressive. What an elegant tilt down so that we can see the planet that globe-thingy is orbiting. Hmm...that spaceship sure is zipping along...looks like it's under fire. Wow...the spaceship chasing it is a heck of a lot bigger. Holy crap...that spaceship chasing it is much, much bigger!!! HOLY CRAP!!!"

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The shot from "2001: A Space Odyssey" (1968) that inspired the opening of "Star Wars." From here...

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... to here. The gigantic dish and the engine tail-section (very much like the one in "Star Wars") are the visual landmarks here.

JE: As I said in reply to Mike earlier, I like (don't quite love) "Star Wars" ("Empire Strikes Back" is definitely my favorite of the series) -- and the wit and invention that Alex describes is exactly what makes this shot, and the rest of the movie, so much fun. It wouldn't work without the image of that first smaller ship setting your expectations, which the rest of the shot trumps magnificently! The way the Mutha Ship keeps going and growing (recalling the spermatozoa Discovery Mission ship in "2001") is the perfect punch line.

In some ways, this shot makes me a bit sad today, 29 years after it first wowed us on the big screen. First, it reminds me that Lucas meddled with one of the most successful and influential cultural phenomena of the latter part of the 20th Century when he released the tampered versions of Episodes IV - VI in 1997, though the good news is he's reportedly finally agreed to allow the originals on DVD for the first time (for release in September, 2006), after persistent demands from thousands of outraged fans. And when I see this shot now, it reminds me that this was the beginning of the end of Lucas's directorial career. He was so promising, with "THX 1138" and "American Graffiti" -- then along came the surprise smash of "Star Wars." And he immediately retired from directing. One could argue he's still retired after the lethargic direction of Episodes I through III, which lacked the sense of spontaneity and fun that made the earlier films so enjoyable. The enterprise felt over-planned and contrived, and the direction like that of somebody going through the (mostly CGI-generated) motions. Sure, the original "Star Wars" trilogy wasn't known for its performances (though Harrison Ford had swashbuckling charisma), but when your most noticeable performance (in the second trilogy) is the digitally enhanced Jar-Jar Binks (perhaps the most hated character in contemporary pop culture), you know you've got a problem. Still, this moment from "Star Wars" brings us back to a time -- a long time ago, in a world far, far away from today's -- when the franchise was fresh, the promise of the future was still before us, and the best (meaning "Empire") was yet to come...

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