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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Why we celebrate ‘Star Wars’

Sometime in the ’70s, my parents took me to see my first movie at a theater – a little science-fiction film, made at London’s legendary Pinewood Studios, starring acclaimed British actor Peter Cushing. The budget: $1 million. The title: “At Earth’s Core.” Also starring: Doug McClure.

It was terrible, but I loved it.

I remember sitting on top of my seat, waving my arms and screeching like one of the psychic pterodactyl men from the movie. I must have been adorable.

A year later “Star Wars” (it wasn’t called “Episode IV – A New Hope” until later) hit theaters and changed motion pictures forever.

To understand just how great “Star Wars” was, you have to compare it to a movie from the same time and genre. For instance, if you want to know how good “Back to the Future” is, see “My Science Project.”

It’s the same with “Jaws” – see “Orca,” starring the great Richard Harris.

“Raiders of the Lost Ark”? See “King Solomon’s Mines” (1985).

With “Star Wars,” there are a few comparables. Try “Battle Beyond the Stars,” starring Richard “John Boy” Thomas, a movie famous for having a spaceship with female eh hem … “features.”

But “At the Earth’s Core” is truly the one you need to see to compare to “Star Wars” – and it’s available on Netflix, as episode 12 of “Mystery Science Theater 3000.”

Up to this point, Cushing was best know for his performances in Britain’s Hammer horror films in the 1960-70s, such as “The Hound of the Baskervilles” and “The Horror of Dracula.” (He co-starred with Christopher Lee from “Attack of the Clones” in several Hammer movies, including “The Gorgon” and “Dracula A.D. 1972”). In “At the Earth’s Core,” Cushing plays a character who builds a machine to drill to the center of the planet. A year later, Cushing will play a character who builds a machine to blow up a planet.

See what I did there?

There has never been such a disparity in character types than in these two films. Dr. Abner Perry, the bumbling professor, versus Grand Moff Tarkin, a badass who builds a machine to blow up a FREAKING planet!

I can’t imagine what it must have been to take a short walk from one studio building to the one next-door to start filming “Star Wars.” Do you think he knew he was making history?

Did he think that Grand Moff Tarkin would define his career and that children would be saying “Mummy, please buy me a Peter Cushing action figure for Christmas!”

Could he even comprehend how people would still be talking about his glorious vestige decades later? And then, taking that vestige and putting it into a computer and making it perform for future generations in “Rogue One”?

Today, I don’t love “At the Earth’s Core” as I did as a child. Doug McClure was no Harrison Ford. Its budget was about $10 million shy of that of “Star Wars,” making the special effects and makeup not just bad but grotesque. But I urge you to watch it and then watch “Star Wars.”

Some might say “Star Wars” is a little tired and it shows its age. And yes, it’s turned into a multi-billion dollar juggernaut. It’s been made and remade – in fact, it’s very difficult to see the original theatrical version. There’s seven sequels and prequels, with “Last Jedi” hitting theaters in December and more to come. George Lucas not only created a classic, but an entire universe of make-believe.

“Star Wars” is special because we’re still talking about it. This is the Peter Cushing movie, made at Pinewood Studios in the ’70s that everyone remembers. Not “At the Earth’s Core.”