Reviews of Star Wars (1977) and related work

Star Wars (1977) IMDb

Adventure blending The Dam Busters (1955) and The Hidden Fortress (1958) with added escapism, supernatural fantasy and the trappings of space opera.

Zac Bertschy once observed that Darth Vader’s helmet is as ubiquitous, as recognized and as void of meaning as Hello Kitty (ANNCast, 2011-09-16). Star Wars has attained a level of mainstream popularity that goes beyond association with the films. What George Lucas created here is genuinely very good but remembered for something other than its quality. It is a goldmine for research into modern culture.

I attribute the film’s initial success to four roughly equal factors: The timing, the landmark work at ILM, the rest of the stagecraft—especially the editing—and the deliberate emptiness of the script.

The most moving scene in The Hidden Fortress is that of the heroes coming upon an amoral Shintō ritual of purifying destruction, in which Yuki—the model for Leia—connects with a crowd of ordinary people as her gold melts to slag. She is wiser for it. Compare the panhuman hotchpotch of religions that went into the Jedi. The apparent pacifism of these “knights” is clearly not the message of the film. War is the selling point, right there in the title. What the Jedi actually believe is barely implied and has no explanatory value. Their rituals, if any, are not shown. Compare A Wizard of Earthsea (1968) where the beliefs of peaceful wizards are explored and society is consequently at peace. Lucas inverted Le Guin’s approach, deliberately eschewing cultural specificity, historical or invented, beyond melodramatic moral dualism. If it hadn’t been for producer Gary Kurtz, who knew something about religion, Lucas would have kept a “Kiber Crystal” MacGuffin in the shooting script as an even more shallow symbol of all spirituality, alongside the bits and pieces of California hippie adages. The crystal has survived in the broader canon as a lightsaber component.

Where J. R. R. Tolkien invented cultures, including rich non-human cultures, Lucas instead applied the comparative mythology of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) as a recipe for commercial success. The book was his manual. Crucially, he never made the effort to support its Proppian framework diegetically. By design, there is almost nothing beneath the surface in Star Wars. Like the unexamined, superficial biological diversity of the Rebel Alliance, and the princess fighting for democracy, the description of the Jedi as philosophical or religious or both is just one tool for directing audience alignment through the expected viewer’s pro-religious bias. Obi-Wan is hollow even in comparison to Baslim the Cripple from Citizen of the Galaxy (1957) and named after a belt, the obi of traditional Japanese garb. There is more content and more genuine mystique on any page of Dune (1965) than in the skeptical Alec Guinness’s Jedi.

This emptiness was intentional. Even by pre-video Hollywood standards, Star Wars is a movie intended for truly broad audiences, though primarily for children, so their parents would also buy tickets. Its simple tokens, like earth-tone clothes versus Vader’s black, or Tarkin’s British accent versus Luke’s US accent, were supposed to raise the viewer’s sympathy by association in a short spectacle. The result is intuitive, unobjectionable and lifeless. In a telling anecdote, critic Chris Stuckmann has remarked that his father does not like movies, with Star Wars as a rare exception. Thanks to his collaborators, Lucas actually succeeded in using Campbell where countless later directors would imitate Lucas and fail. Lucas himself used the same technique once before, to create the blandness that makes THX-1138 (1971/2004) an effective dystopia. Star Wars has that blandness.

The Dam Busters at least shows German factory workers escaping by ladder, a tiny concession to the idea of the enemy’s own diversity, autonomy and value. None of that here, just faceless, incompetent stormtroopers designed to look like skeletons. The Dam Busters is open with the fact that its heroes are defending the British empire. Star Wars instead pretends that a minority of anti-fascists without external support are sure to prevail if they simply use force and Force against their galaxy-controlling oppressors, an apparently legitimate regime with vast resources. No rebels talk about what kind of society they want to build, or how. They don’t drum up support, they just destroy things. It’s purposefully naïve, loaded with sugary wishful thinking.

Such emptiness is not always well received, but the timing was right. The most celebrated literary SF from 1977 is A Scanner Darkly, a black eulogy to a generation whose lives and ideals were destroyed by drugs. While US audiences struggled to respond to Watergate, the oil crises, defeat in Vietnam and urban decay, they got science fiction like Colossus: The Forbin Project (1970), The Andromeda Strain (1971), Silent Running (1972), Soylent Green (1973), Dark Star (1974), A Boy and His Dog (1975) and Logan’s Run (1976). Not all SF was so dark, but the brighter, family-friendly films were not as well crafted because the genre had been marginalized by the Z-list productions mocked on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (1988). The fantasy spectacle racket was certainly weak. Star Mark Hamill was also in Wizards (1977), which was originally going to be called War Wizards. Lucas phoned Ralph Bakshi and asked him to change the title to prevent confusion, and Bakshi complied; after all, Lucas’s movie was the more belligerent. In retrospect, it seems like the timing was good for an escapist, violence-positive Campbellian epic with a higher budget and convincing special effects. The revolution in marketing that followed the lesson of Jaws (1975) made it likely that one such film would be a blockbuster around this time. It happened to be Star Wars.

The trilogy became the prime example of mainstream SF with universal name recognition throughout the West, displacing the cheaper and nerdier Star Trek (1966). Ironically, neither franchise has any relationship with scientific methods. If George Lucas had not been first to combine the new advances, history could have taken a different turn in that respect. Instead of deliberately shallow space opera where the fights are patterned after WW1 aerial engagements because WW2 planes were too quick for Lucas, the first modern SF blockbuster could have been hard science fiction with ideas, like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or A Clockwork Orange (1971). The director of those films, Stanley Kubrick, was already processing scripts for what eventually became the insipid A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001). If that had gotten produced under Kubrick in 1977, instead of Star Wars, the vernacular definition of science fiction could have evolved differently.

If that alternate history is too drastic, imagine a smaller change. In Roger Ebert’s review he singled out the cantina as a high point, noting that Lucas “so slyly” has the clientele “exhibit characteristics that were universally human”. In other words, Lucas made sure to harness immediacy, intuitiveness, familiarity and humanity where he could have used literally alien stuff. Take the example of Chewbacca, inspired by Lucas’s dog and named after the Russian word for “dog”. Chewbacca is a mix of dog and man. Without the excellent costume and sound design, he would have been like the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939) or an anthropomorphic cartoon character in a Disney movie: A live-action Pluto with Ebert’s “universally human” characteristics. One of the characters removed from the cantina in official re-edits is even more traditional; it looks like The Wolf Man (1941). Despite the first-class execution, Chewbacca is ultimately just a denatured servant to human interests. He could so easily have had depth. For example, he could have been more like Speaker-to-Animals from Ringworld (1970): Animalistic, huge, intimidating, humanoid and able to make itself understood like Lucas’s Chewbacca but also capable of pursuing its own agenda as part of an alien culture. Such an alternative would have been harder for children and jaded film critics to understand and appreciate at first glance, but it would have made a lot more sense than a human dog.

Lucas invited his audiences to overlook all complexity and shun the unfamiliar. They did. They elected Reagan the actor. They reheated the Cold War, abdicating world leadership to be underdog rebels against the paper tiger of the Soviet Union. While Reagan’s implausible missile defence system got the nickname “Star Wars”, the film got fans outside the mainstream. These people missed the invitation to forget. In the hard core, deeper meanings are invented, controlled and defended. With its sequels, Star Wars achieved a critical mass that lets its geeks live almost entirely on the franchise the way zealots live on holy writ, many as Jenkins’s textual poachers with a vibrant and terrible “fan film” culture, “prequel meme” culture etc.

As a student I briefly described the Imperium of Man to a fellow game-club member who immediately assumed the idea came from Star Wars as opposed to any of the thousands of earlier works describing an interstellar empire. The franchise, by virtue of its entrenched visibility, gets more credit than it deserves. The interest is reproduced generationally, obscuring the original’s context and resetting culture. I first saw it on VHS tapes my parents brought home when I had practically no experience of earlier space opera.

The resetting of culture is mirrored within the franchise. Its creator has replaced and added special effects in several waves, even going back to the original when one change symbolically unmaking Han Solo as an antihero was poorly received, matching neither nostalgia nor the audience’s turbulent desires for credibility and power fantasy. This “controversy” triggered multiple labour-intensive fan demakes. In 2014, a huge amount of licensed material that had been semi-canon as the “Expanded Universe” was thrown out, retconned to make room for more spin-offs and sequels. The franchise is sand.

Success has prompted analysis from many more angles: fairytale (lack of a mother, shades of Arthur), parable (names like Greedo, Solo and Darklighter), history (Rome), Oedipus Rex (kill your father, hit on your sister), 19th-century melodramatic formulae, cinematographic inspiration from Riefenstahl inviting comparison to the Frankfurt school’s idea that modern popular culture repeats Nazi social engineering methods (by telling accident, spin-off novel Leia, Princess of Alderaan (2017) repeats “Strength through joy” as a venerable philosophical maxim), the explosion of merchandising in film, Lucas’s studio-independent funding as bizarro auteurism, the nostalgic reconstitution of pre-TV serial aesthetics (this film being “Episode IV” since the 1981 re-release), and pleasant Kurosawa influences on clothing and terminology (時代 → Jedi). The work itself cannot be disentangled from its sprawling superstructure, but I like that mess. Unlike the movie, the mess says something about humanity.

References here: Nerd argues about distinction between fantasy and science fiction, The Incal (1980), Alien (1979), Urusei Yatsura (1981), Fang of the Sun Dougram (1981), Lensman (1984), The Last Starfighter (1984), “Jumping” (1984), Gall Force: Eternal Story (1986), Legend of the Galactic Heroes (1988), Star Trek V: The Final Frontier (1989), Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory (1991), Golden Wings (1992), Mythbusters (2003), The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), “Industrial Light & Magic: Creating the Impossible” (2010), The Untold History of the United States (2012), The Lego Movie (2014), “Robot on the Road” (2015), “Cassette Girl” (2015), The Legend of the Galactic Heroes: The New Thesis – Encounter (2018).

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The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) IMDb

Seen in 2018.

Chewbacca’s family.

A variety show for television, intended to keep the franchise current between major films. I enjoyed the animated segment, apart from its myopic use of Fett in his introduction. It’s easy to see why nobody likes the rest.

References here: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983), Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003), Empire of Dreams: The Story of the ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy (2004).

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Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back (1980) IMDb

The film that made the franchise with the darker side of Campbell’s wheel and a little bit of human diversity in the style of Star Trek (1966). If Irvin Kershner, Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan had not steered this ship, it would have been as dull as the prequels.

References here: Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987), Despicable Me 3 (2017), Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017).

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Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) IMDb

A prelude to the Endor Holocaust with Leia a damsel once more in distress.

John Schoenherr illustrated “And Seven Times Never Kill Man” (1975) on the cover of Analog, apocryphally inspiring Lucas to think up the Ewoks. I assume it’s not true. The vision expressed here is that of The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), rather than George R. R. Martin’s dark fantasy. The ugly premise of so-called “Force ghosts”, gaining prominence here, reminds me of Christian dross like Mark 9:4, where a luminous Jesus gets to stand around and chat with his predecessors. By this point the lack of other ideas is starting to tell, so Lucas throws in another Death Star.

References here: Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005).

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“Troops” (1997) IMDb

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Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) IMDb

It was already too late to rescue the Force from Lucas’s deliberate depiction of it as an empty symbol of all religion. Given the opportunity, Lucas instead added another layer of non-explanation in the “midi-chlorians”, mystical mitochondria. A strange choice, but in a different context it could have been a good one. He could have taken a naturalistic approach much earlier, adding cultural specificity to various peoples’ reactions to their subcellular supernatural power source. I sometimes imagine that on his good days, he tried and failed.

The use of a conflict apparently over taxation as the inciting incident of the entire “‘saga’” is actually promising in that regard: The very lack of a stereotypical, more personal, protagonist-driven adventure—a.k.a. what the fans expected—serves to illustrate the golden age of galactic democracy. It’s more motivated than Sir Humphrey’s diplomatic mission over money at the opening of The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936). Of course it turns out to be Pal(p)atine setting up the pieces for the traditional adventure, and of course the movie never gets there. It stumbles on walking toys, into plot holes with ethnic stereotypes dressed up as aliens. In the words of Mr. Plinkett, “The unfortunate reality of the Star Wars prequels is that they’ll be around forever.” Like The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), they cannot be erased.

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Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) IMDb

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‣‣ Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003) IMDb

The animation is inferior to that of The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978), which was deliciously fluid and analogue. If you think the Death Star is the dumbest weapon of mass destruction in the franchise, behold episode 12.

Not to be confused with Star Wars: The Clone Wars (2008). I have sampled it and its sequel, Star Wars Rebels (2014): More of the same ugly, tropey shit, though I’m told there’s a high peak at some point.

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“Quentin Tarantino’s Star Wars” (2002) IMDb

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Empire of Dreams: The Story of the ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy (2004) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

The making of the original trilogy, totally ignoring The Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) as taboo, with a few words on the edited versions and the then-ongoing prequels.

A Lucasfilm production and an uncritical salute to George Lucas, who says in this documentary: “I think that if I can get a roomful of people, and they enjoy it, then I’ve done whatever I hoped to do.” That is a low bar, and no sense of vision. It’s a pretty good overview of how the first films were made.

References here: Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005).

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Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) IMDb

The title of this film alludes to one of Lucas’s headaches making the original trilogy. Producer Howard Kazanjian had requested that Return of the Jedi (1983) be retitled Revenge of the Jedi, adding more punch. Lucas had agreed, skipping mere “Vengeance” and changing the word to “Revenge”, but he later changed his mind back. As the story is told in Empire of Dreams (2004), “just weeks before it opened”, Lucas returned to “Return”. This means that, through years of production work, Lucas was apathetic on revenge as a defining moral value of the Jedi. Good writing would have made it clear whether the Jedi should be taking revenge or not. To its detriment, the 1983 movie would have worked either way. It’s a good decision to use “Revenge” here, in the corresponding film of the second trilogy and about the evil counterparts of the Jedi. It is the best of the three prequels, which isn’t saying much.

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‣‣ Star War – The Third Gathers: The Backstroke of the West (2005)

Allah Gold disagrees with the Presbyterian Church, setting himself up for a thrill ride of unintended sexual innuendo.

Probably not the filming of Oswald Spengler’s Der Untergang des Abendlandes (“The Decline of the West”, 1918). A software pirate copied a DVD containing Revenge of the Sith before it got through editing. The copy itself is bad, missing some music, various skips and jumps etc., but someone who understood English made a pretty bad set of Chinese subtitles for it anyway, and those subtitles were consequently translated back into English by somebody who lacked any knowledge of the language whatsoever and/or did not have access to the film. Less than ten of the hundreds of superimposed captions match the original, same-language dialogue. The text is basically a machine translation that somehow manages bad spelling, repeated use of the word “fuck” and replacements of all proper nouns with unrelated phrases because of the phonetic-ideographic ambiguity of Chinese script, e.g. Sith → xi → 西 → west. Great fun for groups of enthusiasts.

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“TIE Fighter” (2015) IMDb

Seen in 2018.

I saw Pascal Ramseier’s nominally ‘remastered’ version, which changes the audio.

Three Empire fighter pilots beat rebels in an open battle.

Good effort, good craft skills, especially in the careful mix of underlying 3D modelling and 2D-cel-style presentation, but the ‘story’ really highlights the silliness of Star Wars technology.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) IMDb

Seen in 2019.

The Battle of Yavin changed nothing. The same rebels are still fighting the evil empire—under a new name—and they’re all still using the same technology they had forty years before: TIE fighters, X-wings, star destroyers, AT-ATs, equivalent droids etc.

The good parts: Poe’s mutiny, the failure of the ludicrous casino plan, the spectacle of Luke milking a docile thala-siren, and the visual design of Crait’s environment.

I like the coup because it shows that concrete and consequential differences of opinion exist within the Resistance, which makes sense, given that the Resistance is portrayed as the only noteworthy non-authoritarian political faction in the galaxy. It’s also an effective way to characterize the instigator, a grace not extended to many in the new cast. The evident diversity of opinion demonstrates a bare-minimum level of storytelling logic that the original trilogy failed to achieve; it is a less cosmetic addition to the formula than the increased diversity of sexes and skin tones in all factions.

The ultimate failure of the coup and its plan to disable the tracker—after many false failures—is mainly an obeisance to Empire (1980). Unfortunately it does not demonstrate any greater willingness to question the matinée impulses that power the franchise. The green milk does question those impulses: Though the scene is brief and framed mainly as a gross-out gag, it is by far the most intimate and transgressive human-alien biological interaction in the franchise, enough so that it could have come from Rick and Morty (2013). It doesn’t go anywhere, but it’s a nice gesture, aligning the elderly Luke with Yoda’s weirdness.

The bad parts, 1/3: The tech still works like WW1, with slow fighter chases, blimp-like bombers and trenches. The killing is as constant, as mindless and as eerily tidy as ever. It’s as if nobody wanted to live. One fight even starts with awful Street Fighter-style dialogue in place of context: “You’re a bug in the system” and “Let’s go, chrome dome.” There is nothing here like the humanity of Hans from Wiedersehen in Hildburghausen (1996). The single protracted chase from the very start of the movie all the way to Crait is very hard to believe, and the cut to Crait-as-Hoth looks like it was made for a commercial break. There is one attempt to innovate in the evidently central military aspect of the story: Laura Dern’s lightspeed suicide attack, which is the sort of thing that would have had larger consequences for the setting decades earlier, when piloting-capable droids and lightspeed-capable light craft became available. Its isolation is nonsensical.

The bad parts, 2/3: Snake-like Snoke is apparently deformed because he is evil or evil because he is deformed, or both. Leia magically survives explosive decompression unharmed, which is a bizarre failure to do something interesting with a vacuum in a movie set in space. There is a faint impulse to portray society outside the war, which is nice, but it begins with war profiteers (said to be the only rich people in the galaxy) and ends with unexplained child slavery in a technologically advanced society; there is nothing like LoGH’s Fezzan or a non-human faction or any third party whatsoever, nor do the rebels seem to have grassroots support, which is surprising.

The bad parts, 3/3: Luke’s hut is from early Christian Skellig Michael, yet another deliberate effort to paint the Force as a symbol of spirituality in general instead of bringing substance to it, and the long-distance dialogue does not help. The sapient “caretakers” who build and maintain the huts are marginalized and abused to such an extent that it gives the lie to greater inclusivity elsewhere. Finally, the title is a lie, and a lie shared with at least two previous franchise products: A 2005 YA book series (The Last of the Jedi) and a 2013 book (Coruscant Nights: The Last Jedi).

In conclusion, while the prequel trilogy was distinctly disappointing, at least it filled a gap in describing the setting. This is a cash grab.

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