Mystery Box: the Opening Line

OMystery Boxur Mystery Box series is a range of posts which are inspired by J.J. Abrams’ concept of ‘the Mystery Box’ which contains all the magic and the unknown of film making. But because we’re nosy we love digging a little bit deeper into Star Wars and everything potentially related to it. So far we’ve had a look at some deleted scenes (definitely expect more posts on that) and the soundtrack. This time we’re looking at one of the most iconic and recognizable features of Star Wars and that is the all-famous and beloved opening line. But that I don’t mean the whole opening scroll, which in and of itself is amazing as well, but the following:

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’

The most obvious thing to immediately comment upon is its position within the films. Lucas and Abrams have set this phrase at the very beginning of each film as an introduction to the galaxy they’re about to take their audience into. Here sound and video come together quite ingeniously because the opening line occurs in almost complete silence. We’ve had the logos of the different production companies with their accompanying melodies and sounds and now there’s the moment where a Star Wars film well and truly begins. It’s a moment of quiet preparation and, maybe, even reflection, in which everyone focuses on the screen, having settled the quarrels about who gets to hold the popcorn etc.. Not a lot of movies have this kind of quiet moment before the actual beginning of the film and it is something that makes the beginning of Star Wars films special. This silence is then of course broken by the Star Wars Fanfare that accompanies the opening scroll, well and truly making sure everyone knows the film has started. Design also plays into making this a singular moment. The font of the opening line is thinner than that of the opening scrawl and it is blue. It takes up a line and a half on its own in a still frame. It doesn’t move, it just appears and disappears. That in itself makes it stand separate from the rest of the opening as a moment in which the business of the adverts and production companies is changed into the business of the film. So one of the opening line’s uses is that it ends the experience of “going to the movies” and represents the beginning of “seeing a Star Wars movie”.

A different but still quite obvious use for the opening line is that it places the whole of Star Wars in a time and place, even if it’s a vague specification. For many people Star Wars is just a sci-fi adventure with loads of amazing technology that we haven’t developed yet. The opening line is the first thing that these people tend to forget about and why they find it odd to find so many references to legends and mythology in something that is supposed to be modern and futuristic. Let’s analyse this opening line then:

A long time ago clearly signifies that this is a historic tale, one that is a part of our past in the way that The Lord of the Rings is arguably set in an ancient European past. Tolkien actively set out to create a mythology for England and therefore created that distant yet recognisable past through employing a number of well-known tales (such as the Arthuriana or Old English poems) that would make his readers feel connected to his text. George Lucas did something very similar with the Star Wars films from the very first moment. In many ways Star Wars is arguably a kind of history and legend for not just America but the whole world because Lucas took influences from a lot of different, international sources rather than mainly European ones like Tolkien. In some ways this part of the line is also a challenge to the audience. Can you look past the glitz and glam of the sci-fi aspects of Star Wars and recognize the more historic and mythological elements of it that place it in our past?

In a galaxy far, far away…, then, both sets Star Wars in a space and doesn’t. All of Star Wars is set in a distant galaxy, one we know nothing about except that it is very far away. Although this is quite a simple thing to accept it is also interesting and I’m going to go a little bit meta here. Don’t abandon me in the process. It is interesting to approach this line as an outside commentary on the film itself, since its placement puts it in this vague “in between” space. The initial part gives a time indication which is vague in and of itself, but this second part implies an outside knowledge that we as the audience may have. We know what galaxies are, we know that the Universe is immense and most of us will have seen a found-footage film in their life. Now, don’t get me wrong, Star Wars is not at all a found-footage film, I’m very well aware. But if you wanted to throw in a bit of conjecture here, would this film be so different from a text like Ivanhoe? Written by Walter Scott, Ivanhoe is set in a very clearly defined historical space (the reign of Richard the Lionheart) and yet his approach to history means he has quite happily brought elements from different decades and centuries to this time. Scott actually did, within the book, pretend he found Ivanhoe in an old manuscript and that it was an original tale from a long ago time. But his text is placed in a space we know well, England. Lucas has taken this a step further and placed his story in a space we technically know but don’t really. We can recognise the existence of different planets, that each might have a different climate and that technology could get us there. So we’re both familiar and unfamiliar and that is part of what makes Star Wars so intriguing.

Source: The Phraseology Project

Finally, there is a quite obvious link between ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away‘ and ‘Once upon a time’. One of the first attestations (proven uses) for the latter phrase is in 1380 and since then it has been a staple in fairy tales. Interestingly, in Bengali there is a phrase which says ‘Ek deshe chhilo‘, ‘In some country, there was’, which combines both the setting of time and place we get in the Star Wars opening. The ‘Once upon a time‘ phrase is one that every child knows. That is how stories start, stories that might have dragons or might have magical beanstalks. It will also have boys and girls defying what we think is normal and it will, hopefully, have a happy end. It has the same qualities as the Star Wars opening line and I take it for granted that the latter is based on the former. Again we have that distance of time. This distance is, as Maria Konnikova argued, very important:

‘Distance is a psychologically powerful tool. It can allow us to process things that we would otherwise be unable to deal with—and I mean this in both a literal and a more metaphorical, emotional sense—and it frees up our mind in a way that immediacy does not.’

So, in conclusion, the mystery behind Star Wars‘ amazing opening line is one which is both complex and simple at once. On the one hand this phrase allows us to create a distance between our own world and the one we’re about to see, opening us up to new ideas and new problems. On the other hand it triggers the simple, child-like excitement of ‘Ooh, a good story is about to begin’. I still get enthralled whenever I see it and I imagine the same goes for you.

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