The Force Is Almost With You

The nonhuman characters heist the spectacle, including Han Solo's huge literal grease monkey, the Wookiee Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew); C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), a mechanical, dithering gentleman's gentleman who's like a cross between Stan Laurel and Edward Everett Horton; and that short, stocky can-do droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), who speaks in cascades of pulses, beeps and flatulent static. ("Robonics," I suppose; the splendidly named Ben Burtt did the justly famous sound design.) At its peak, Star Wars is like a trick symphony by Haydn--in particular, of course, the "Surprise" symphony. Lucas is at his best after C-3PO and R2-D2 crash-land on Luke's desert planet, Tattooine, and wander through the endless sandscapes bickering; when C-3PO moans, "We seem to be made to suffer," it's like Beckett for kiddies. When the Jawas zap R2-D2, Lucas wrings a giggle from the squat droid's abrupt collapse. Along with the celebrated, orgiastic cantina scene, it's one of the film's uncanny strokes of humor; it provokes a laugh every time and shows off Lucas's grasp of the ineffable side of objects. So does the bit when the Wookiee howls at a miniature surveillance droid and it scurries off like a frightened Chihuahua. A fanzine called Cinescape, ranking Star Wars right after 2001: A Space Odyssey as the most influential sci-fi film of all time, noted that tiny flourish as an example of Lucas displaying "how much fun a movie could be."

But how much lasting "fun" is the first Star Wars movie, really? Once the blush of the gimmickry wears off, what's left is rather ponderous--the dedicated rebels and the iniquitous Empire and that overarching home religion of the Force. I suppose it's encouraging, in this self-absorbed culture, for a piece of pop mythology to call for some vanquishment of self, which the Force does. But the Force is a two-edged light saber. At the initial stage of the Star Wars saga, it's so general that it can mean almost anything, from God to Emerson's "Oversoul" to New Age cure-alls to the "one big soul" of fellow-feeling in The Grapes of Wrath. "The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded," says Obi-Wan Kenobi. Watching audiences applaud the Triumph of the Will-meets-Emerald City finish--a show-of-force ending to an anti-tyrannical fable--you know that Kenobi's not just talking about Imperial Stormtroopers. To me, what's most astonishing about Star Wars is how it laid the tracks for the infinitely superior The Empire Strikes Back--coming refurbished to a theater near you on February 21.

Star Wars Special Edition.
Written and directed by George Lucas. With Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness and the voice of James Earl Jones.

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