The Force Is Almost With You
At a twenty-year remove, Star Wars comes off less as the work of a wizard than as the weird obsessive outgrowth of an eccentric American primitive. George Lucas is a tycoon version of those self-taught craftsmen who fill backyards, storage rooms and cramped city apartments with paintings, gewgaws or wire-hanger sculptures. Fine-arts critics have a name for what these characters produce: Their quirky private mythology is called "outsider art." Lucas at his most likable has a strain of the outsider artist in him; when he made Star Wars, he was following his own impulses and bucking the studio heads who thought space fantasy and heroic legendry were dead. What's unsettling about Lucas is that his stubborn idiosyncrasies are devoid of anything controversial or outre. He's an outsider with inside intuitions--he created the new mainstream, and it swamped Hollywood.
If you're not a Star Wars fanatic, and you re-see this movie varnished to a sheen in its self-consciously spiffy new edition yet stripped of the novelty it had in 1977, you may be amazed that it became a phenomenon. The dialogue is unspeakable (and the befuddled cast can't figure out how to speak it), and there are long chunks of exposition, a white-bread view of the cosmos, desexed schoolboy airs and monotonous rhythms. The Star Wars of the title have as complicated a back story as the Wars of the Roses, a presumptuous burden considering that all audiences have to know is that Darth Vader (the voice of James Earl Jones) is bad and that Luke Skywalker and friends--feisty rebel Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), lovable mercenary Han Solo (Harrison Ford), guru Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness)--are good. And though comic-book art usually bursts with adolescent sexuality, even the most striking costume designs seem neutered. (Have a codpiece and metallic pecs ever seemed less suggestive than they do on the Imperial Stormtroopers? And why does Princess Leia dress like a vestal virgin?)
The movie isn't a breakneck adventure, either. It's often blamed for the action-blockbuster mentality that's corrupted American moviemaking for two decades, but no studio executive today would green-light such a gassy script. The first hour, in particular, is heavy lifting, as Darth Vader bullies a horde of forgettable subordinate baddies and Obi-Wan convinces Luke to be all that he can be. The movie's hold relies on Lucas's pulp notions of virtue connecting with America's hunger for an all-purpose, ready-to-wear philosophy. What could be easier to swallow than the beliefs of the Jedi Knights (compacted from cartoons, sci-fi serials, Westerns and swashbucklers, spiked with '60s consciousness expansion and anthropology)? In spite of the scripture that's grown up around them, their pursuit of positive feeling isn't any more challenging than Green Lantern's faith in willpower. (Lucas and mythologist Joseph Campbell are now intertwined in the public mind; in 1985 Lucas told the National Arts Club that Campbell "has become my Yoda." But Campbell appears only in a footnote in Dale Pollock's 1983 Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, written with Lucas's cooperation. Pollock cites Carlos Castaneda and his Tales of Power as the main source of the movie's mysticism.)
"I am Oz, the Great and Powerful," declared one of Lucas's major influences, the Wizard of Oz. Star Wars alternates between the Not-So-Great and Powerful, but it is intriguing: uninteresting in an interesting way, filled with notions that don't quite crawl to the level of ideas and moods that rarely acquire the weight of emotion. There is still something enjoyably jolting about seeing "sand people" with eyes that resemble the air jets over airplane seats, or "Jawas" who look like incongruously jolly leprous monks, or a junk heap filled with mutated gadgets, all rolled out with serene matter-of-factness, as if each had an ordained place in the cosmos. And if you're surrounded by hundreds of rapt viewers--people who've attended the film so many times that they don't clap for the cliffhanger climaxes or laugh at the obvious jokes but do clap fervently at the end--you have to grant that Star Wars is a genuine Yankee-tinker oddity. It's a cult movie for a mass viewership. And unlike cults for small-scale movies, the Star Wars cult, like Star Trek's Trekkies, take their preoccupation seriously, as a pop route to transcendence. They turn stick figures into icons and worship the notion of "The Force"--Lucas's variation on the Eastern concept of a vital energy coursing through the universe, here capable of fueling good or evil depending on how it's shaped by humanity.
As moviemaking, Star Wars is telling evidence of why, after this feature (and his two earlier films, THX 1138 and American Graffiti), Lucas gave up directing. He's far better with concepts--an android running up against a mammoth animal corpse in a wasteland, a freak summation of a Darwinian environment--than with flesh-and-blood characters like Luke sitting around the dinner table with his farmer aunt and uncle. And Lucas's fantastic compositional sense is divorced from human drama: He's able to position props (and the characters who might as well be props) as if they were vectors, signifying movement when there isn't any. Yet he can't get a narrative point across without a ton of dead-weight dialogue. Nonetheless, as entrepreneurial invention, the film is flabbergasting. Several times in his career, Lucas has done something most filmmakers do only once--revive or open up genres or areas of subject matter that other filmmakers go on to mine or vary, perfect or deepen. He did it with pre-'62 growing up in American Graffiti, with globe-trotting adventure in the Indiana Jones series and with space opera in Star Wars. For my money, no other part of the Star Wars trilogy approaches the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, which was directed by Irvin Kershner. (Empire and the third entry, the mechanical Return of the Jedi, are also scheduled for deluxe revivals before winter's out.)
But Lucas has had subtler legacies, too. Would Diner have been financed if the success of an earlier vignette-style coming-of-age ensemble period piece--American Graffiti--weren't in studio executives' heads? And the credits to Lucas's directorial efforts are also a credit to his taste, from actors such as Richard Dreyfuss, Paul Le Mat and Harrison Ford to that sound and editing wizard Walter Murch. The second-unit photographers for Star Wars alone included Carroll Ballard (who went on to direct The Black Stallion), Robert Dalva (who edited The Black Stallion), and Tak Fujimoto (who shot Melvin and Howard, Something Wild, and The Silence of the Lambs for Jonathan Demme). Too bad Star Wars has become such a commercial vortex that it's weakened Lucas as a catalyst, sucking down his time.
The highly publicized changes Lucas has wrought for Star Wars Special Edition won't alter anyone's view of the picture--if anything, they're dismaying in how they betray the picayune level of his obsessiveness. He uses computer tricks to animate creatures in scenes that he always thought too static, to populate the streets outside the Mos Eisley Cantina more friskily, and to reincorporate the intended (but ultimately cut) debut of the loathsome, gelatinous Jabba the Hutt (now computer-generated) and bounty hunter Boba Fett. (He also includes a brief rah-rah segment pumping up Luke's reputation as a pilot prior to the screaming-eagle finish; the total of the "new" outtake footage amounts to four and a half minutes.) The one Star Wars devotee in my viewing circle considered the new stuff classy, enlivening, and superior to what Spielberg offered up in Close Encounters--The Special Edition. I actually think that apart from punching up one gag that now has Han Solo dashing headlong into a horde of Stormtroopers, the additions are a wash. They may draw one breed of "close readers" who'll scan the screen for the slightest alteration. But others will feel as if their long-term recall has been zapped.
And the slicker the movie gets, the more it loses character. Because Lucas pioneered seamless meldings of special effects into live-action footage, his trilogy has left a glossy afterglow, though one of its charms is how knocked-up its futuristic vision gets--even that golden boy C-3PO has a charming collection of dents. Part of the Star Wars appeal for a non-technical, non-cult audience came from its transposition of World War II propaganda and baby-boomer youth culture to that "long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." It was a daydream come true for many members of the Woodstock generation--fighting Nazi-like Imperial Stormtroopers as their fathers did, but with the vaguely countercultural Force as their weapon. One of the several spontaneous chuckles at the screening I attended came when Luke begs off cleaning up the androids because he's got to go to "Tosche station to pick up some power convertors," sounding for all the universe like a Valley Boy aching to get some new shocks for his jalopy. In his enormous "Letter From Skywalker Ranch" in the January 6 New Yorker, John Seabrook writes that people applaud for Lucas "because he is Star Wars. It's difficult for brains braised in Star Wars from early adulthood to conceive of Lucas in any other terms." But even at the time of its premiere, movie fans couldn't help seeing Luke as Lucas. In Star Wars, Luke is thrust into an intergalactic civil war when he's nothing more than a kid from a desert nowhere-land who would fit right into the Modesto of American Graffiti--and he ends up triumphing over the evil Empire by sticking to his gut urges, just as Lucas ended up conquering Hollywood. The movie's one heartfelt twinge comes when John Williams's music wells up like tears as Luke, profiled against a melancholy double sunset, laments what promises to be a fate of rural drudgery. (In general, Williams's score carries the emotional load: When you saw the film without the score, Carroll Ballard told Lucas biographer Pollock, "you couldn't take it seriously. But the music gave it the style of an old-time serial.")
The filmmaker means for the fresh-faced innocent Luke to function as our stand-in. But he's inadequate except as a mirror image of Lucas, who was already an American success story after American Graffiti. The other human characters don't fill the bill, either, at least not at this point in the saga. Harrison Ford hadn't yet gained the swashbuckling authority to pull off the role of a bluff gambler-adventurer. He may grimace and snarl like a rough, but he looks unmarked by experience, like a kid doing Bogart for Halloween. Carrie Fisher plays interstellar royalty like a summer-camp thespian, hitting every wrong note imaginable for a freedom-loving princess; even when she stoops to admiring Han Solo's gumption--"He's got courage"--she descends with a nincompoop's noblesse oblige. And Alec Guinness lathers on his trademark understatement as Obi-Wan Kenobi: He's so wise-old-owlish you half expect him to say, "Whoooo." Those few curious adults who'll be seeing the film for the first time may wonder, as a friend of mine did, "What's the difference between an archetype and a stereotype?" (In Skywalking, Pollock finesses the issue by calling the heroes and heroine "fairy-tale prototypes.")
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.
Get the Film Club Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.