Stars: ***1/2 out of Four
Summary: With a simple but mythic story to tell, ‘Star Wars’ continues to captivate audiences and deliver an authentically adventurous cinematic experience.
Review: In the 1930s and 40s, people often flocked to theaters to experience the thrilling exploits of heroes such as Zorro and Flash Gordon, in an action-driven form of film known as the serial. Serials are what they imply; episodic sections of a story, in this case usually about 20-30 minutes long, ending in a “cliffhanger” that sets up audience expectation for the next chapter. These were shown before the main picture. They focused on plot, action, and suspense, and were often done with stock footage and dismally small budgets.
People like George Lucas grew up watching Flash Gordon’s matinee adventures, though he was not around for their initial theatrical run, and they left an indelible impression on him. When he started rising as a filmmaker, he tried to purchase the rights to film a ‘Flash Gordon’ feature length adaption, but he couldn’t. Instead, he invented his own, and after taking many forms it became the modern classic ‘Star Wars’.
Unlike the more serious and grounded bent of science fiction in the late 1960s, ‘Star Wars’ was to be a throwback to the serials, with a mythic heart. It is, more appropriately, fantasy than science. As his later character Indiana Jones was prone to do, George made it up as he went along, inventing and reinventing methods of filmmaking, making flashy special effects henceforth connected to what became known as the blockbuster. Along with his friend Steven Spielberg’s ‘Jaws’, this film defined the summer movie and the idea that wide release was the best possible way to rake in the cash. George wisely mixed high adventure with deep mythic tradition, using Jungian archetypes and ideas drawn from Greek theater. That’s not to say that ‘Star Wars’ is strictly a game for the intellectual, it has a much broader appeal than that, catering especially to the youth market, causing impressions much like Flash Gordon had on young Lucas.
The film opens with a device that nearly all of the serials used; concise, dramatic text, framing the action that was to come. Unlike its inevitable imitators, ‘Star Wars’ uses a very simple structure for its famous opening crawl, and doesn’t dump information on the audience. After the yellow text vanishes into the starry background, we already know there are an EMPIRE, DARTH VADER, a DEATH STAR, a PRINCESS and a REBELLION. Each word, though not completely telling, reveals enough to get us interested.
After this, we take in the battle between two spaceships, an Imperial Star Destroyer and a Rebel Blockade Runner. The superior firepower of the Star Destroyer quickly overtakes its prey, and we quickly sympathize with the Rebels on board the captured vessel as they are stormed by, well, Stormtroopers. The Evil Galactic Empire draws heavily from serial villains, which incidentally drew heavy inspiration from Nazi Germany. The Nazis were a threat everybody could hate, and so everybody modeled their bad guys after the fascists. The main villain, Darth Vader, with his black helmet and mask, evokes both the vampiric horror films of the serials’ era and the Nazi soldiers’ helmet designs. With a baritone voice provided by the legendary James Earl Jones, Darth Vader is just about the most classic villain ever created. It’s proof that execution, not concept, is key, as the serials had their own Darth Vaders, but none were anywhere near this guy’s level.
Despite all my glowing praise and desire to pick apart this beloved film scene-by-scene, I should look at this concisely and objectively. Let’s be honest: ‘Star Wars’ isn’t Shakespeare. It doesn’t try to be terribly clever, and really, the reason it goes over so well with kids is that it is gleefully archetypal and black-and-white. The bad guys are bad, the good guys are good, and even though we would find out things are more complex than that in the sequels, this same tone of simplicity was carried on throughout. It’s important to know there’s nothing wrong with this. Intellectualist film critics tend to dismiss films such as ‘Star Wars’ (at first glance) for somehow being less-than, since they don’t strive to be any more than fun. The film received a mixed reaction upon release, but the audiences loved it. It connected. There is beauty and poetry in simplicity, and in straightforward, mythic storytelling, not just in the complexities and angst of hurt lovers like Romeo and Juliet.
In a technical sense, the film was extraordinary for its time. I mentioned its effect on the summer blockbuster, how it created the pattern of “Wow!” films, which continues to be followed each year. The battles in space, forgoing the scientific realism that Stanley Kubrick invested in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, allowed for sound and drama, again evoking World War II. Lucas watched old dogfight footage for inspiration, and having viewed a few hours of similar footage myself, I can definitely see its influence. After so many blockbusters pushing the envelope and blurring the lines between reality and special effects, you can see how dated ‘Star Wars’ has become, in one view. On the other hand, the drama is so effective that despite the technical shortcomings, it has added to the charm.
Now, for music. I keep reviewing films where John Williams was involved! He’s definitely my favorite composer, which is probably why my mind keeps coming back to these movies in particular. His work on ‘Star Wars’ shows much less of a Bernard Herrmann influence than ‘Jaws’ did, instead it takes influence from Gustav Holst’s Planets Suite. This isn’t my favorite of his scores, and fans of the ‘Star Wars’ series that haven’t revisited this film in a long time will notice the absence of the Imperial March, which he wrote for the sequel, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.
One big stumbling block for the religiously concerned- particularly Christians -is the quasi-spiritual “Force” that ultimately helps Luke Skywalker, the hero, destroy the Death Star. Now, it is true that George Lucas was interested in “reintroducing” spirituality to youth, but he has also stated his complete disapproval of the ‘Star Wars’ inspired Jedi Church, a really weird but real religion. It’s only a movie. Of course, we can say that about all kinds of things, from sex to violence to satanic rites, but the Tao-inspired, while ultimately fake, Force is just an invention to drive the plot, not to corrupt the audience. It is part of the mythic flavor of the story. If ‘Star Wars’ is taken as what it is- myth with a moral -then it makes balking at the Force seem silly.
After everything I said about complexity versus simplicity, it is ultimately a lack of complexity that keeps the film off the Four Star mark for me. That’s just my personal feelings. I don’t like it as much as ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, which is pretty much in the same vein, but I gave that film the maximum number of stars. Why? Well, it just seems more solid, better woven, and the complexity is a part of that. Nevertheless, ‘Star Wars’ accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do, bring back the spirit of adventure to film, and we should be tremendously thankful that George Lucas did not fail.