Review: Star Wars

[Originally published in Movietone News 55, September 1977]

Relevance has always been the great bugaboo of science fiction film. Among film genres, sf (“sci-fi” is a flippancy coined during the Fifties by people who took the genre less than seriously; those who know and love science fiction call it sf) has been a distinctly poor relation for the last several decades, sharing with hardcore pornography the obligation to have redeeming social value in order to be acceptable. Even when Westerns, swashbucklers, historical epics, war films, romances and those most improbable of fantasies, musicals, were allowed to justify themselves for entertainment’s sake, or for the sake of a well-crafted work, meaning and social relevance aside, the sf film had to teach a lesson if it was not to fall under suspicion of rotting young minds. It’s as if all those scientists existed to show us that we must not meddle in things man was not meant to know, and all those monsters and invaders came to teach us that we must use science wisely, or that we must trust in God, or in love, or in each other, or remain eternally vigilant against those who would destroy us from within.

The extent to which George Lucas’s Star Wars liberates an entire film genre from this stigma is signaled by the film’s tagline, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” It’s a way of saying that this film has nothing whatsoever to do with human life on earth, now or in the future. In making that clear, Lucas sets his film apart from every other science fiction film. But in setting aside the sf film tradition until now, and returning (might one call it “pre–Flash Gordonism”?) to the aboriginal wellsprings of mythic art, above the watershed where social relevance diverges from the course of pure fantasy (many call it “escapism”), Lucas nevertheless has had to acknowledge the influence of several generations of motion picture genres and styles on his new adventurism. If Star Wars celebrates its own freedom from the generic restrictions of Metropolis, Things to Come, The Thing, This Island Earth, or 2001: A Space Odyssey, it also commits itself to the tradition of Tarzan, Tom Mix, Douglas Fairbanks, James Bond. Lucas uses opticals that place us squarely in the world of the Republic serials; and an analysis of the structure of Star Wars reveals a seemingly insoluble crisis about every ten or twelve minutes, with appropriate combat scenes in between (it would be interesting to see how easily commercial breaks could be spaced into Star Wars for a TV run). The message, if there is one, is nothing more than that adventure is fun; exhilaration of the human spirit is enough to justify a work of entertainment or of art.

Of course, the many ways in which Lucas acknowledges that romantic fantasy tradition are not always so obvious as Luke and Leia swinging across a chasm from a length of cable, or hotrodder Han Solo admitting that the Millennium Falcon “doesn’t look like much, but I’ve added a few modifications of my own.” There is, for example, the futuristic garbage compacter, an image that leaps time and space to link a medieval torture dungeon cliché with a world that never was. And the creature there in that metallic bilge: aren’t there always rats to make the bad worse when hero and heroine are trapped in the villain’s castle? And, in quite a different vein, there is the reverence and boldness of the nod to Disney’s Fantasia: John Williams’ score quotes Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring just as See Threepio comes across a huge saurian skeleton bleaching on a desert world.

Star Wars is not just about a heritage of film on film, either. As its hero’s first name implies, it is a thoroughly personal film of its director—in a sense, his first-person fantasy. From his own THX1138 Lucas reprises and refines one of his favorite motifs, the interrelation of names and numbers: not only the obvious See Threepio and Artoo-Detoo, but also the sound of other names: Obi-Wan (OB-I?) and Chewbacca’s nickname, Chewy (2-E?). The film also bears the ubiquitous Lucas trademark: “Prisoner for transfer from cell block one-one-three-eight!”

It isn’t easy to mount a pure fantasy like this, avoiding tiresome, esoteric self-indulgence on the one side and heavyhanded relevance on the other. Lucas hasn’t escaped all the pitfalls. In inventing a world with its own logic, history and order, the creator of space opera trades the obligation to be consistent with observable reality for the equally stringent obligation to keep his fantasy world consistent with itself. Why do no nonhumanoids participate in the rebellion against the Empire, though we know the galaxy is full of them? Why doesn’t Chewbacca the wookie get a medal in the end, as Luke and Solo do? Why are Chewbacca and the two robots on the one hand given positions of great dignity, clearly calling for intelligence and judgment, and on the other used condescendingly as essentially comic devices to set a scene, punctuate a cut, or end a sequence on a light note?

These are piddling objections, pointing out only that, if Star Wars is the first major step taken in sf since 2001 (and that the first major step since Forbidden Planet—”once in a decade,” a blurb-writer might pen), there is still further to go. Chiefly, though, Star Wars succeeds not just as the pinnacle of a genre but also as a skillfully crafted tour de force of sustained stylistic excitement. The film is a thrilling event not because of a few memorable moments (the first shift into hyperspace drive: drifting stars begin to streak: points become lines; or what happens in the music and in the picture as Luke melancholically watches the setting of Tatooine’s two suns), but because it is filled with moments like that. It’s a feast for the eyes and ears, and you just can’t say that about very many movies.

STAR WARS
Screenplay and direction: George Lucas. Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor. Production design: John Barry. Art direction: Norman Reynolds, Leslie Dilley, Leon Ericksen, Al Locatelli; set decoration: Roger Christian. Special photographic effects: John Dykstra. Editing: Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas, Richard Chew. Music: John Williams. Music editing: Kenn Wannberg. Production: Gary Kurtz.
The players: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Peter Cushing, David Prowse, James Earl Jones (voice).

© 1977 Robert C. Cumbow

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.