Retro Film Review: Star Wars (1977)

in film •  last month 

Countries and legal systems that take the Rule of Law principle seriously, have forbidden judges and juries to make judgments in all matters that could involve them personally. Luckily, movie reviewers aren't burdened with such legislation. Otherwise, small pool of very special movies would be forever ignored by this reviewer. In case of
Star Wars, 1977 science fiction epic by George Lucas, the consequences would be even more severe, because that film is very special for tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of fans. In any case, objectivity is something seldom seen in Star Wars reviews, because undisputed majority of reviewers rate it as one of the best, if not the best film of all times. Those who don't usually have some difficulties in hiding their artistic snobbery.

The author of this review must also concede his inability to use cold, objective standards in reviewing this film. Like so many previous reviewers, I must note that I watched *Star Wars for the first time twenty years ago, and that I remained enchanted by the experience ever since. Perhaps it was childlike fascination with, until then unimaginable, wonders that happened long time ago, in a galaxy far away. Or perhaps it was the rush I felt minutes before the opening shots, with my expectations already pumped up by serialised comic books and novelisation I had read before. Anyway, watching of Star Wars was one of the most important movie going experiences of my life. And it was also unmatched for many years to come, because very few movies managed to have such a strong impact on me like George Lucas' epic.

Star Wars wasn't just important movie for me (or the millions of fans who probably share the same sentiment). It was the defining moment in the history of modern cinema. Until than, American motion picture industry was in a limbo; social turmoil in 1960s practically destroyed the Old Hollywood, and new authors filled the void, mostly by using Hollywood's financial and technical resources to create serious, "personal" or "artsy" movies. As a result, audience, traumatised of dark reality of Vietnam and Watergate, didn't want to see the same dark and serious content on the silver screen. George Lucas with its science fiction epic was among the first to come into rescue. The audience responded with unprecedented enthusiasm, and huge financial success of the movie, later backed by supplement industry of toys, books, comics, role playing games and other merchandise, slowly began to change the face of Hollywood. Serious, adult movies with artistic ambitions faded into oblivion, and were replaced by industrial products of "blockbuster" philosophy.

One of the biggest casualties of that trend was the science fiction movie genre. Until 1977, science fiction movies were mostly in B-production domain. In late 1960s, bigger budgets for science fiction didn't look so strange anymore, thanks to the great success of 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the same success coincided with the surge of pesimism, and Hollywood science fiction was as bleak as the rest of its production - mostly dark, dystopic movies. However, in 1977 Star Wars showed once and for all that this genre can be inspiration for popular movies, even among the audience that usually doesn't like it. As a result, seriousness in cinematic science fiction began fading away, although some good, dark and cult quality SF and continued to be filmed until early 1980s. After that, science fiction continued to be considered a synonym for family entertainment.

Ironically, the man responsible for Star Wars was in its time considered to be member of "New Hollywood" generation of young movie authors who made "artsy" and "personal" films in early 1970s. George Lucas established himself with the dystopic SF movie THX 1138, and nostalgic drama American Graffiti. Both movies were considered "personal" in its time, despite latter one becoming very popular. In a sense, Star Wars is an also very "personal" film, and the thorny way to the final production shows that commercial considerations were against it, not for it. But unlike many "personal" movies of the era, its "personality" was in line with the wishes of the general audience.

The plot, set "a long time ago, in a galaxy far away", begins in a time of civil war. The evil Empire is threatened by rebels who want to restore the old Republic. In order to quash any opposition, the Empire had built Death Star, superweapon powerful enough to destroy whole planets. The information about Death Star, acquired by Rebel intelligence, is being transported by Princess Leia Organa (played by Carrie Fisher) when her ship gets intercepted by Imperial cruiser. Princess is arrested by Imperial warlord Darth Vader (played by David Prowse and voice by James Earl Jones), but the information is being sent to nearby desert planet of Tatooine via two humanoid robots - C3PO (played by Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (played by Kenny Baker). Those two robots are sold to the family of Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill), young restless man who wants to leave his farm and become space pilot. His adventure begins when R2D2 escapes, because the information must reach mysterious local hermit Obi Wan Kenobi (played by Alec Guiness). Old man is actually the last surviving Jedi knight, member of the ancient order that defended Republic through the use of mystical Force. After some hesitation, Luke agrees to join Obi Wan in his mission to save the Princess, while the old man would teach him the ways of the Force. Their small band comes to the colourful spaceport of Moss Eisely, where they hire the spaceship owned by rogue pilot Han Solo (played by Harrison Ford) and his furry sidekick Chewbacca (played by Peter Mayhew).

Critics who don't like the movie, especially those who can't forgive Lucas for his contribution to the quashing of "New Hollywood", are prone to point the lack of originality. On the surface, they might be right; Lucas himself admits that he found a lot of inspiration in the lore of Old Hollywood - westerns, WWII aviation movies, old SF cliffhanger serials of the 1930s and 1940s; yet the most obvious element would
be Akira Kurosawa's samurai classic The Hidden Fortress. On the other hand, those who had spent last two decades studying the movie to death would say that the inspiration for Star Wars went even further - into collective subconscious of Western civilisation (hinted by some mild Tolkien references). The others would find the author's element within the story - Star Wars could be seen as an anti- establishment film; young, long-haired, easy going, nature-loving heroes are fighting against old, uptight and oppressive forces who use supertechnology in most demonic purposes.

Even out of its historical or social context, Star Wars is an impressive as a strictly technical piece of the seven art. George Lucas' direction is very good, with the clever editing and a well-paced segments between action and dramatic buildup. Characters are well-drawn and deliver all the necessary ingredients, both for the space opera and Hollywood blockbuster. We have a "coming-of-age" hero, damsel-in-distress (somewhat toned down due to the popular feminist trends of the time), reluctant helper, benevolent mentor, diabolical villain and, finally, comic relief in form of two non human characters. Some of the actors are very good - Alec Guiness in his most famous role to date, James Earl Jones whose voice is enough to cause unease, Peter Cushing as an incarnation of pure evil in human form. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for the main leads - among the main trio of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, only the last one had the character three-dimensional enough to launch his further acting career.

The thing that looked like the most important segment of Star Wars phenomena during its initial release was the new level of special effects technology. Often comparisons with 2001: Space Odyssey, another ground-breaking SF film, were citing the sheer number of effects as a proof of the Lucas' superiority over Kubrick. However, the special effects by John Dykstra and John Stears are indeed impressive, even after two decades (although 1997 Special Edition did improvež them significantly), yet they aren't the most remembered trademark of the movie. That honour should definitely go to the "Oscar"-winning soundtrack by John Williams, whose work on Star Wars is probably the brightest gem in his brilliant career.

Newer generations of viewers might be somewhat deprived of the enchantment that still holds those lucky enough to witness Star Wars original release. Yet, even if they are immune to the George Lucas' magic they should watch this film nevertheless, perhaps only to become familiar with something that is essential part of contemporary culture.
RATING: 9/10 (++++)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on October 28th 1998)


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