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In Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, the planet Alderaan is obliterated by the Death Star on the orders of Grand Moff Tarkin.

For cinema audiences at this time, was this act by a movie villain seen as notably egregious and shocking?

In my movie knowledge, there is no prior instance of villainy on the scale of instantaneously obliterating a population of billions to prove a point to a helpless captive. Does this level or scale of brutality have a parallel in prior work on screen, or would this be unknown and dramatic to the audience of 1977?

I should emphasise I'm specifically looking for audience reactions to satisfy an answer to this question - I was born in 1986, so I am well removed from any firsthand knowledge of this.

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    I think one thing to keep in mind about audiences in the 1970's is that they were only 30 years removed from the Second World War, which saw continental scale destruction, genocide, and the use of atomic weaponry.
    – tbrookside
    Jun 21 '20 at 0:00
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    At 15 years old it was not shocking. It was, after all, a movie.
    – Jon Custer
    Jun 21 '20 at 0:20
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    "I am trying to think of prior villainy in movies that I am aware of, and the best I can think of is Ming the Merciless' infliction of devastation on Earth in Flash Gordon". If you mean Max von Sydow's portrayal of Ming, that was in the 1980 film, so it wouldn't be "prior villainy" for Star Wars' 1977 release. Jun 21 '20 at 1:28
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    @Tom W Tarkin didn't order Alderaan destroyed to prove a point to captive Leia who after all was scheduled for termination.. He destroyed Alderaan because Alderaan was a planet secretly supporting the rebellion. He intended to destroy Aleraan all the time., and only promised to spare Alderaan to get Leia to reveal the location of the rebel base. He was willing to wait a short time to destroy Alderaan inthe hope of gain useful informatin from Leia. Jun 21 '20 at 5:38
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    "A Single Death is a Tragedy; a Million Deaths is a Statistic." - the psychological/emotional effect was muted considerably by the fact that you only saw the planet from afar - no scenes of destrubtion and people disintegrating on the surface; nor did you see what the planet was like, nor what its people were like, before the explosion.
    – einpoklum
    Jun 21 '20 at 8:25
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Cinematic villainy and destruction were not new to audiences in 1977. Obviously, the destruction of a whole planet is unusual, and done in such a casual manner highlights the pure evil of the Empire and Grand Moff. On the other hand, the audience has no real attachment to Alderaan.

Consider movies like the 1953 War of the Worlds, where we see the merciless destruction of Earth and its cities, and the mass slaughter of people. I would argue that this would have had much more emotional impact on audience.

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    Forget about the audience, it barely seem that Leia has any attachment to Alderaan - shortly after its destruction we see her in excellent mood over a fairly inconsequential military victory, and then Alderaan is never mentioned again. I used to think "well, there's no time for sentimentality in a war", but given the total lack of empathy in SW my new explanation is, "they look human, but the sure ain't human". The only person in SW who shows long term grief over something is Anakin, and it drives him mad. Humanoids in the galaxy far away are just not equipped for deep feelings. Jun 21 '20 at 7:14
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    @EikePierstorff Star Wars shows the characters caring about things roughly as much as the audience will care. Realistically, Luke would be more upset about his adoptive parents dying than Obi-Wan, a man he hardly knows, but that's not how the audience feels, because we've spent more time with Alec Guiness. Doing it this way makes the emotions of the story more relatable, if not more logical. Maybe we should assume that characters grieve for the people we don't care about when they're off-screen. Jun 21 '20 at 10:03
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    @user3153372 I am fully aware that this is only a movie :-) However if we stopped asking for internal consistency and said that everything can be explained by the fact that it's just a movie, that would defeat the purpose of this site, and, in fact, that of movies. As for your suggestion to fill in the gaps in my imagination, that's what I did, only I like my pet theory better than yours. Jun 21 '20 at 15:40
  • @EikePierstorff That's interesting. You know how humans have that maximum social circle about 150 people? Suppose if you're maintaining relations all over the galaxy. Seems that would be difficult to do if you weren't able to psychology did not allow you to maintain a larger social circle. With that psychology in mind, maybe their whole world can be so much bigger that some things just matter less. Anakin's world also was very, very small living on the farm until he was quite old. Whereas Leia was doing politics between the stars her entire life.
    – DKNguyen
    Jun 21 '20 at 19:10
  • Even Leia doesn't seem deeply devastated by the destruction of her home planet. Jun 22 '20 at 7:55
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I was 18 when I saw the original Star Wars movie in the cinema, a few days after it was released, with no prior knowledge of the plot. I thought the destruction of Alderaan was pretty intense, but it didn't exactly shock me. As HorusKol & others have mentioned, we had no emotional connection to Alderaan, and the scene of destruction was remote, with no gory details.

However, I'd been an avid reader of science fiction from the age of 9, and I'd read about large scale destruction in the works of E. E. "Doc" Smith, etc. So the concept of planetary destruction wasn't new to me. Back then, being a science fiction fan meant you were a reader of science fiction. Sure, there were some science fiction TV shows, like Star Trek, Lost in Space, and The Time Tunnel, as well as various movies, even going right back to the days of silent movies (eg Metropolis), but they were relatively rare compared to more mainstream shows and movies.

So for the hard-core sci-fi fans in the audience, Star Wars was fairly tame, compared to the concepts we'd encountered in printed science fiction.

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  • Personally, I remember thinking first, "wow, how did they do that effect?", then the nerd in me thought "wait, there's no way that mass just evaporated into little sparkles"... Now let's talk about the Jaws shark jump scare... that one almost had me pissing in me pants.
    – CGCampbell
    Jun 23 '20 at 0:55
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At six years old I found the combination of several small green lasers into one big green laser fascinating. I imagine I would've found the destruction of Alderaan shocking but I can't recall it registering that it was an inhabited planet. What stood out was those lasers.

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    To me (as a six y.o. as well) the most shocking/impressive thing was that Solo shot first.That (one of ) the Heros plays dirty was quite a new concept to me.
    – lalala
    Jun 22 '20 at 9:53
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    @lalala I think the point of that scene (and the reason everyone complained so vehemently when Lucas started messing with it) is that you don't know Solo is a "good guy" when you first meet him. He really wasn't - he was a mercenary scoundrel and that "shoot first" thing was there to make that abundantly clear. His transformation into a hero is what's interesting about his character arc. Luke's transformation from whiny farm-boy to super-powered ninja was far less interesting to me as it'd been done a million times before (minus the laser-swords maybe). Jun 22 '20 at 14:37
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I was in high school when it came out. For me, the things that stood out were the gigantic Star Destroyer in the first scene, the even more gigantic Death Star, the princess who talked tough and aided in her own rescue, the petty bickering among the heroes, the robotic comedy team, the villain with the Nazi helmet and the metal face, the grease and dirt on stuff, Chewbacca....

You have to understand: this was the first movie in which we saw any of this stuff, let alone all of it. It was one amazing thing after another.

This was Star Wars.

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I was only 6 when it came out, so like a previous comment, was more interested in the cool lasers and weirdly constructed X-wings than the level of cruelty. But no one seemed particularly shocked at the callous destruction of Alderan.
Mind you, if you have a look at the sf BOOKS of the time, destroying planets wasn't that big a deal. Also, when you realise that SF movies pre-'77 included lots of dystopian futures, plus things like Death Race 2000 where a contestant got a hundred extra points for killing an innocent bystander in a wheelchair ... well no one would be that surprised.

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It's not what you tell but how you tell something that may shock your audience. The story may be just about some harassment done to a character and yet viewers may perceive it as shocking if they deeply connect with the victim. In A New Hope there is only one feeble connection to the people of Alderaan: princess Leia (who was brought up and had family on it). Her reactions in the scene are all there is to feel any sorrow for the Alderaans. Frankly too little to build up something more than "darn! the Empire IS evil". I was a child when I saw it and was not shocked at all. Nor were my friends.

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    There was a Japanese comic adaptation of the movie, and the destruction was a lot like the similar attack in The Force Awakens - we see the reaction of the people on the planet's surface as the laser comes from the sky, and we see Leia's grief and rage right afterwards. It's not what you tell but how you tell something. Jun 22 '20 at 4:36
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A few years early, in the Star Trek series, entire (inhabited) planets were destroyed willy-nilly. In a science-fiction setting, atrocities are rather casually ratcheted up simply because they can be: obviously, if a few billion people were killed in a movie about, say, Victorian England, it would necessarily end the story. Nobody would be left. If an entire galaxy is your fictional setting, your villain can do a lot more damage and there is still room for a triumphant victory of good over evil.

Still, it’s a little jarring to see Leia, just a few days after her entire family and everyone she has ever known were murdered before her eyes, all smiles as she presides over the award ceremony at the end.

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