5 great Star Wars pop-cultural oddities
The cultural influence of Star Wars is impossible to overstate. The original 1977 movie changed filmmaking forever, ushering in a new era for editing, sound design, and visual effects. (And, many would argue, helping to destroy the serious-minded, filmmaker-driven cinema of the 1970s. Let’s just say you should at least also blame Heaven’s Gate.) Even the less-beloved prequel trilogy proved deeply influential — Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were among the first prominent movies to be shot digitally rather than on film.
And of course, Star Wars has spawned countless books, videogames, comics, imitators, spoofs, homages, holiday specials, what have you. There’s a whole universe of Star Wars-related pop-cultural detritus out there, and while hardly all of it is worth your time (The Ewoks and Droids Adventure Hour, anyone?), there are more than a few strange relics that you might find unexpectedly interesting, or at least mildly amusing. Ahead of The Rise of Skywalker’s Dec. 20 release, here’s a guide to five great Star Wars pop-cultural oddities.
Star Wars parodies are practically a franchise unto themselves, from Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs to Family Guy’s trilogy of spoofs. But first, there was Hardware Wars, a 12-minute short film completed less than a year after A New Hope’s original release. San Francisco native Ernie Fosselius masterminded this ramshackle riff on Star Wars, which follows Fluke Starbucker, Ham Salad, and Augie “Ben” Doggie on their quest to rescue Princess Anne-Droid from the sinister clutches of Darph Nader. It’s as giddily ridiculous as those names suggest, boasting comically low-budget special effects (spaceships become such household implements as toasters and irons) and production design (Princess Anne-Droid wears actual cinnamon rolls on her head), and wry narration by veteran voice actor Paul Frees (among many, many other credits, he voiced Boris Badenov on Rocky and Bullwinkle).
Like Star Wars itself, Hardware Wars was something of an unexpected phenomenon. It reportedly earned $800,000 from theatrical bookings and other engagements, and maintains a legion of devoted fans — including Rian Johnson, who included a nod to it in The Last Jedi — and George Lucas himself has called it his favorite Star Wars parody. Fosselius later worked in the sound department for Return of the Jedi, among other films — including, fortuitously, Spaceballs.
The Muppet Show: “The Stars of Star Wars”
It’s time to play the music, it’s time to light the light… sabers? A few months before The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, and Peter Mayhew guest-starred on The Muppet Show in character as Luke Skywalker, C-3PO, and Chewbacca, along with R2-D2 (playing himself, per the episode’s credits). The story line sees Luke and the droids bursting into the Muppet Theatre (bumping the planned guest star, Angus McGonagle, the argyle gargoyle who gargles Gershwin, in the process) in search of the Wookiee. When Kermit requests a song-and-dance number, Luke, in an inspired bit, brings in his “cousin”: Hamill, playing himself. Fun as the episode is, it makes for a profoundly strange viewing experience in hindsight, with Empire and subsequent films having taken the franchise in a much darker, weightier direction. It’s simply hard to imagine a goofy, fourth-wall-busting stunt of this kind happening nowadays, even with Star Wars and the Muppets both under Disney’s ever-expanding corporate umbrella. (Incidentally, the episode eerily ends with a group performance of the Disney anthem “When You Wish Upon a Star.”)
Star Wars Uncut
In July 2009, Casey Pugh, a former developer for Vimeo, launched an online call for submissions. Star Wars fans could claim 15-second chunks of A New Hope and remake them any way they saw fit, for potential inclusion in a shot-for-shot remake of the 1977 classic. The result was perhaps the ultimate Star Wars fan film, Star Wars Uncut, released online in August 2010. Pugh and his crew cobbled together the selected submissions into, essentially, a supercut of homemade Star Wars re-creations, and earned a Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Achievement in Interactive Media. The film’s quality naturally varies on a 15-second basis — whiplashing, across a cut, from Yellow Submarine-inspired animation to a kid wearing a bear onesie backward to play Chewbacca. But there’s something undeniably charming in the film’s DIY spirit, the way it mobilized a veritable legion of amateur filmmakers. Here’s hoping whoever produced one delightfully demented segment in the Mos Eisley cantina (44:11 to 44:26) has been able to keep creating in the decade since.
Splinter of the Mind’s Eye
The story behind Splinter of the Mind’s Eye — an officially sanctioned Star Wars novel by Alan Dean Foster, released in 1978 — might be more interesting than the book itself. Foster wrote the first Star Wars novelization (which was actually released six months before A New Hope) and was contracted to write a follow-up novel. The plan was to use it as the basis for a low-budget Star Wars sequel if the original film was only a modest success. And so Foster set Splinter on a dark, fog-shrouded planet (to reduce potential set-construction expenses), left Han Solo and Chewbacca out of the story (Harrison Ford had not signed on for any sequels at that point), and had to cut a space battle sequence that Lucas considered too expensive to film.
The resulting story line follows Luke and Leia, having crash-landed on the planet Mimban, as they embark on a quest to find a Force-related artifact called a Kaiburr crystal. Darth Vader also shows up in time for a climactic battle, in which Luke slices the Sith lord’s arm off. (Call it pre-revenge for Cloud City.) Though it’s obviously no longer canon, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye is still in print, and endures as a fascinating oddball entry in the vast catalogue of Star Wars novels, weirdly detached from later notions of what makes Star Wars, Star Wars. It’s like a miraculously obtained relic from an alternate universe where Lucas’ weird little movie never became a phenomenon. (Let’s all imagine that universe for a moment. Would Disney own Star Trek instead?)
R2-D2: Beneath the Dome
Another official, Lucas-approved peculiarity, Beneath the Dome strives to answer that age-old question: What if R2-D2 was an a—hole celebrity? This tongue-in-cheek 2001 mini-mockumentary (which you can watch on the Star Wars YouTube channel) riffs on shows like Behind the Music to tell the feisty droid’s “life story.” Among the little-known “facts” contained herein: R2 almost played Michael Corleone in The Godfather, had a rivalry with Richard Dreyfuss, helped Samuel L. Jackson break into show business, and treated his costars terribly. (Hayden Christensen: “When it’s his close-up, I give him my full performance, and then when it’s my close-up, he just reads it from a little page. And it affects my work.”) Credit Industrial Light & Magic employee Don Bies for coming up with this absurd concept, and credit Lucas, we assume, for somehow convincing boldface names like Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Carrie Fisher to participate.