Star Wars (1977, George Lucas)
!! CAUTION !!
The inexplicable level of mythology attached to this children’s film needn’t concern us here, not least because it’s an utterly dull tangent about an utterly dull movie. Whereas the Star Wars series would eventually own up to its pretension with the satisfyingly self-serious The Empire Strikes Back and to its utter corn with the half-decent B-movie Attack of the Clones, what we’re talking about here is the movie that is, despite its creator’s best efforts to awkwardly change this, called simply Star Wars. We’re talking about George Lucas’ followup to his equally mystifyingly worshiped teenage jukebox movie American Graffiti: an audaciously silly wish-fulfillment adventure film that evolved from an earnest desire to reinvent the Flash Gordon serials for a 1970s audience. Not Star Wars the international institution or the commercial-hotbed franchise, that all came later. We’re here to talk about Star Wars — and unlike those slightly upbeat revisions mentioned above, it’s a rather awful piece of work: hackneyed, falsely sentimental, cutesy, rife with pseudo-philosophical mumbo jumbo, and insanely boring, it’s the very worst kind of kitsch: kitsch that thinks it Means Something.
But it’s also, frankly, the movie that a certain breed of Baby Boomer wanted to see projected, a fantasy of onscreen wish-fulfillment that calls back to no less vital a film than Psycho. When Alfred Hitchcock proposed that film to a skeptical Paramount, his notion was to create a B-picture, a low budget quickly-produced little nothing made with a TV crew, akin to the ones Roger Corman was churning out at AIP and making buckets of money on — but one with a good director, a good story, good actors. One also thinks of Kubrick’s (possibly apocryphal) comment to Terry Southern that he would one day make “a porn film with a good director” (Eyes Wide Shut?). In essence, the underlying idea Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz had was a solid one: transfer the positive adolescent memories of an artless form to a movie that smartly harnesses and elevates those memories to celluloid. He’d have some success developing the same notion into the Indiana Jones series, but that had the advantage of peer review from director Steven Spielberg.
Yet, Lucas isn’t a bad director exactly, just a somewhat anonymous one who tends to favor playing scenes in the stodgy, straight-and-scrappy manner of Fred Zinnemann over the dreamlike textures of avowed influences John Ford and Akira Kurosawa, which might be all right if dreaming didn’t seem to be at the core of what’s required for a film like this. Because accidentally or not, today the Flash Gordon revivalism has been overshadowed (along with memories of the Saturday matinee serials themselves) by what now looks like a less noble pursuit: to apply the eye-popping space effects of 2001: A Space Odyssey to a bold-colored, idiotic story packed with action scenes, which are the other thing Lucas cannot handle. His rhythm is good — the story flows fairly naturally, even if the first act on planet Tatooine seems to go on for centuries — but the staging that’s merely awkward in quiet moments seems to go wildly off the rails as the film picks up energy, throwing out and dismissing ideas breathlessly, not one of them particularly well-developed.
But before we go on, we must outline some of the things that do work about Star Wars and which one assumes are a key to its success, most of them technical. Cinematographer Gilbert Taylor’s work is, as ever, phenomenal; the visual effects by Lucas’ own company Industrial Light & Magic remain — at least in the original 1977 version of the film — engaging and beautiful, rendering it all the more a pity that they’re in service of such a superficial and violent tale, a stark contrast to 2001‘s thoughtful message of evolution and peace. Most impressive of all, however, is John Barry’s magnificent production design (assisted by artists Leslie Dilley and Norman Reynolds), endlessly iconic, vivid, and spectacularly detailed. His meticulous work had been in evidence most prominently on A Clockwork Orange, and his visual mark upon the sets and universe of Star Wars would remain a vital factor in the unforgettable look of the films well into the 21st century, when they would continue to be produced. Tragically, following a promotion to second-unit director for sequel The Empire Strikes Back, he would die just two years after this film’s release. Lucas owes him a great deal.
Without these visual achievements, what are we left with? Mostly, a threadbare fantasy story, with all the genre’s inherent problems of strange intricate mythologies possessive of no serious relationship or interest to reality. It’s too much like reading the fucking Bible, or a severely simplified version of Tolkien. There’s a lot of guff about rebellions and empires, a whiny boy wonder, a cranky princess, a wise elder statesman, a wisecracking hunk, a “walking carpet,” a couple of doddering robots — C3PO’s automated hand-wringing the neutered echo of HAL 9000 — and a shadowy, cape-wearing dark villain about whom we needn’t know anything except that he is Evil and our guys are Good. Mixed in with all this is some feel-good Rhonda Byrne / Eckhart Tolle pseudoscientific pop-religion, manifested as “the Force,” a Thing that the great Jedi Knights possessed, explicated in a series of surely the most painful lines ever read by poor Alec Guinness as the all-knowing Obi-Wan, a hermit whose knowledge of our hero Luke Skywalker’s past seems curiously complete, the sort of person who hears the sound of distant voices screaming out, a “disturbance in the Force.” This irksomely pat spirituality doubles as an easy way to wrest our heroes from the grasp of danger while avoiding plotholes — a lazy screenwriter’s dream, maybe even a prototypical Scientology recruitment ad. Did we mention this all takes place in space? In the past?
One way in which Lucas cuts short his tendency toward cringe-inducing dialogue is to render a number of his major characters incapable of delivering it: Chewbacca yawns, R2D2 whistles, and Darth Vader breathes, mostly. When his characters speak, they say things like “Now, I am the Master” and “The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line… fear of this battle station!” Running across all of this pompous nothing — essentially an expanded MacGuffin that becomes the entire film, and that we’re meant to care about — is the thinnest of plotlines, of a simple defeat against the evil presence of a destructive space station called the Death Star, some feather in the cap of “the rebellion.” But why should we care? Our context is next to nil, the film just treats itself — and us — as if we’re already involved, as if these pratfalls and victories have a bearing upon us. Of course Lucas would later provide plenty of context — too much, honestly — but that only makes the self-contained point A to point B nature of this story odder still. As it is, this is icing with no cake: all the pathos and catharsis of some great sweeping fairy tale, but without the actual substance to story and characters that might justify it.
John Williams’ thunderous score booms and crashes instructively, filling in the blanks the story can’t. Early on, we’re seemingly meant to believe that this is the story of Luke Skywalker’s evolution from a restless farm boy to a warrior for “the rebellion” — but this transformation is experienced wholly secondhand, as is the faintly dismissive texture of Leia as a figure of importance, something that’s never well justified: we’re more interested in macho Han Solo (Harrison Ford, saddled with the least wooden character and thus provider of the best performance here, Kenny Baker’s R2D2 and James Earl Jones’ effectively nasty Vader voice disregarded) and all his attempted squeaks away from responsibility. That said, Han’s purported transformation is so poorly staged — he takes the reward for rescuing the princess then skips, only to suddenly return in the heat of the Death Star battle — it’s hard to even tell he’s been gone, or that it has some story importance when he returns.
Lucas seems most at home the closer he stays to Perils of Pauline theatrics — the trash compactor sequence is classicist adventurism in the treacherous vein of The African Queen — or to copping scenes wholesale from other films, especially The Searchers (the beautiful return to Luke’s aunt and uncle’s house on Tatooine is a deliberate reference), The Hidden Fortress, and most disturbingly the Third Reich documentary Triumph of the Will in the eerily Aryan celebration at the finale. His appropriation of grandiose ideas from elsewhere in service of so much bland material is a benchmark of his own pretension. And as a match to the insular nature of it all, we’re parading this one-sided world so terribly like our own wherein a mass killing, even if it’s of the Bad Guys, is something to be unironically and jubilantly celebrated, no consequence visible except the magically loud and satisfying Space Explosion. It’s violence in a purely American sense, directly suggestive of a gung-ho war film mentality Lucas undoubtedly grew up with but that nearly on its own renders this pathetic story impossible to take seriously.
Lucas’ errant, cutesy writing and direction take care to combat this darkness by placing the bumbling robots at the forefront of much of the narrative — R2D2 and C3PO are the vessels upon which the story relies to be set into motion, which gives Lucas the opportunity for the sort of sideshow-critter invasion that would continue through Ewoks and Jar-Jars all the way into his influence upon the fourth Indiana Jones film. The toy potential is impossible to ignore, so since Star Wars‘ leaden pacing allows excessive time for it — action scenes and expository quiet ones both go on ages after they’ve made their points — a disgusting collision of commerce and casual destruction results. It’s pretty loud and makes sure to stake its claim on your attention, but this just isn’t fun… it’s Fun™.