Revenge Of The Sith (Episode III)

Stars:  ***1/2 out of 4

Summary:  Big darn space tragedy.  It’s a been a long wait, and I’m satisfied.  Thanks, George.

Oh, yeah.  That's what this movie really needed.  Too bad he only shows up for 5 minutes at the end.

Oh, yeah. That's what this movie really needed. Too bad he only shows up for 5 minutes at the end.

Review: By the time the esteemed Mr. Lucas got around to unleashing the final produced installment in ‘Star Wars’, the Prequels already had a pretty mixed reputation among hardcore fans, for varying reasons. It’s safe to say you can’t please everyone, and the expectations were so high that it was all too easy for Lucas & Co to let the audience down. The biggest complaint I remember ringing in my ears, as a young ‘Star Wars’ nut, was not in regards to plot or character or even Jar Jar Binks; it was the lack of Darth Vader, arguably one of the greatest bad guys ever put to celluloid. After ‘The Phantom Menace’, I think people understood that George was going back and telling the origins of Vader specifically, and that would be the dominant story arc over the Prequels. In Episode II, when Hayden Christensen — who is not a bad actor — showed us an Anakin Skywalker that was less cool than we had expected, I think folks were just ticked and wanted their favorite helmeted villain back.

Unfortunately for the large population of the movie audience that wanted all the Vader they could get, Lucas had other things in mind, and we were just going to have to live with it. To the satisfaction of many, however, Episode III proved to be the best of the Prequels, making up for our disappointment pretty well. ‘Revenge of the Sith’ is much better conceived and executed than its Prequel predecessors. It’s the most fun, the most emotional, and the most like the Original Trilogy.  It also provided me with an Eureka moment about Lucas, the Prequels, and really the entire saga.

Lucas is actually a whole lot more clever then people give him credit for.  The melodramatic hammy dialog of the Prequels is apparently by design.  I don’t have this confirmed exactly when it comes to the screenplay, but I do have a yes in regards to how the dialog is delivered on screen.  Considering that he had a major hand in writing all of the Original trilogy — especially Episode IV — I think it’s safe to say he does know the difference between good and bad dialog.  The huge effort creative effort he put into realizing the Prequels is indicative of his lack of laziness when it comes to ‘Star Wars’.  It appears to be that the melodrama is intentionally operatic and expresses a different kind of story than the Original trilogy did with its witty banter and frontier mentality.  Sometime during the production, didn’t any one of the very competent actors turn to George and give him the classic “You can write this shit, George, but you can’t say it”?  My impression is, they didn’t.  Lucas probably clued them in on what they were doing.  The Prequels are truly space opera; the Originals are space adventures enriched by space opera.

Episode III is very good.  It shows how well Lucas’ intentional “mistakes” work.  The exaggeration prevents the intense tragedy from punching us in the heart, but the tragedy still works phenomenally well, and reminds us that yes, Lucas does know how to write an effective, emotional story.  Even with a sad lack of suited Darth Vader, it feels like a fitting bridge to end the saga, and it has become my second favorite ‘Star Wars’ movie after Episode VI.

Philosophically, this is one of the richest of the saga.  Anakin’s metamorphosis into Darth Vader is predicated by the fear of loss.  We already know that “Fear is the path to the dark side!” According to Master Yoda, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate… leads to suffering.”  Yoda adds in Episode III, “The fear of loss is a path to the dark side… Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy. The shadow of greed that is.”  This is closely related to Buddhist and Orthodox Christian philosophy.  In Orthodoxy, the triumph of Christ over death is paramount, and says that death itself is dead.  It’s unable to truly destroy any longer.  The fear of death and loss, then, is a perversion of the truth and is a path to suffering and evil.  To let go and trust God in the face of death is essential.  The next major theme is Darth Sidious’ rise to power and the creation of the evil Empire.  Lucas based its evolution on the creation of real dictatorships.  When a person is given power in time of crisis, what guarantees that they will let it go when the crisis has abated?  What happens when the leader created the crisis as a power grab?  History and the Prequels both testify that it is terrifyingly easy for a corrupt leader to engage in a Xanatos Gambit and twist their organization to their own ends.  Other themes also exist in the film, but I covered them in my review for Episode II.

I’m very glad the Prequels were made.  They’re highly imaginative and they really do feed into and enhance the awesomeness of the Originals.

Attack Of The Clones (Episode II)

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Still plagued with problems similar to its mixed predecessor, ‘Clones’ shows us just a little more of what we wanted to see, and when it works, it works.

Thank God for Drew Struzan.

Thank God for Drew Struzan.

Review:  As the ‘Star Wars’ Prequels carried on, Lucas kept pushing technological innovation, enabling the crew to achieve a vision of the space opera that is much closer to Lucas’ original conception of it.  Circa 1974, Lucas had written a spectacular and veritably impossible-to-make film called ‘The Star Wars’, which included hundreds of elements that would show up in all of the final films.  The technology necessary to transfer this rough draft to the screen in a convincing manner wouldn’t exist until the early 2000s.  Along with its wild action and splendor came story elements, especially in the second Prequel, ‘Attack Of The Clones’.

The Jedi protagonists, Anakin and Obi-Wan, inherited the relationship between the “Jedi Bendu” master and apprentice in the original ‘The Star Wars’.  Their bickering, Anakin’s desire to be free of Obi-Wan’s wise restrictions, etc. are all there.  This works pretty well in the ’74 script, but seems kind of out of place in this film because Anakin and Obi-Wan have been master and padawan for about 12 years, while in the ’74 script the apprentice had been transferred from the tutelage of his dying father to this new master, and was bitter about it.  No such bitterness aught to be here.  This criticism aside, once again, the master-apprentice relationship is the strongest interplay of the movie.  The other relationships are somewhat lacking, or just bad.  In particular, and infamously, the romance between Anakin and Padme, which is pretty badly written.  The weakest aspect of Lucas’ original ’74 ‘The Star Wars’ draft was the dialog, and it comes back from the dead to torment the Prequels.

Thankfully, though, the technology had finally caught up with Lucas’ idea of what the action should look like and feel like.  The visceral scope and feel of the birth pangs of the Clone War are pretty spectacular.  Their main weakness is a lack of the warm character interplay familiar to the Original Trilogy.  Part of this weakness is again the dialog, especially in how the actors choose to deliver it.  It comes across as either stilted or overblown, most of the time, and the actors who seems most comfortable with the material and sound more convincing are Ewan McGregor (Obi-Wan), Samuel L. Jackson (Mace Windu), Frank Oz (Yoda), and Christopher Lee (Count Dooku).  These folks are good enough at their trade that performing against a soulless blue screen — a major drawback to the new tech — doesn’t hamper them too much, even when the writing lets them down.

The best part of the movie, the part worth seeing, is Obi-Wan’s travels across the galaxy to unravel the mystery of the Kaminoans and their clone army.  The action is much, much closer to the tight, visceral tone of the Original Trilogy in his scenes, and he’s a likable guy going up against a well-done enigma.

Philosophically, the film suffers a bit, because the romance is so trite (despite being of great importance to the story), the clone army isn’t examined in the ethical light that it should have been, and the Separatists bad guys are never given a sympathetic light that would have explored the degeneration of the Republic.  Nevertheless, I will do what I must.  I’ll try to dig in and infer things from the narrative.

The forbidden romance seems to be an attempt to explore the ancient struggle of love vs. duty, which also shows up in classic works like ‘The Prisoner of Zenda’.  Is following one’s feelings, especially love, more imperative than performing one’s previous high obligations?  A possible solution is to suggest that the particular duty be judged in a utilitarian manner, which, in addition to being hilariously ironic if you know anything about ethics, would allow a person to weigh the benefits of either path without a blind devotion to his duty, or his love.

The clone army is pitted against the Separatist’s mechanical army.  The clones, being human beings, can react rationally and creatively to any number of situations, despite being genetically altered to be obedient without question.  The droids are easily taken by surprise and require a great deal more control from their flesh-and-blood masters.  The clone army contrasts with the droids while shedding light on something more terrifying, something directly connected to the rise of Darth Vader and the Empire:  The blending of machines and mechanical principles with sentient beings, a kind of “Anti-Force”.  The clone army are created with mechanical manipulation, they eventually lead to the creation of the Empire (which dominates and manipulates people as if they were mechanical), and the Empire is also created with the help of Darth Vader, who is transformed into a person who is mostly machine.  The enemy droids themselves are just a part of the Sith gambit to capture the Republic.  To contrast with the Sith use of machines to manipulate life, Lucas holds up the pristine planet Naboo in the Prequels, and the planets Yavin, Endor, and Degobah in the Original Trilogy.  They each are tied to characters that represent biological communion with the Force and oppose the Empire, the Sith, and the perverse use of machines.  Here’s what I think Lucas is saying:  Biology and spirituality are symbiotic, but machines should never have this kind of relationship with biological beings.

The Separatists, an evolution of the villains from Episode I, are the great dupes of the Prequels.  They’re portrayed as unsympathetic and unjustified in their separation from Republic control.  The only time that a major character makes a statement that shows some understanding of their point-of-view is in Episode III.  The Separatists are basically greedy.  There’s no indication (in this film) that they have a good reason for waving goodbye to the Republic.  So, we’re never able to explore in greater detail the real underlying problems with the present system that Darth Sidious exploits.

I’m surprised I was able to get that much out of it.  This is a good movie, but it could’ve used a rewrite.

(Future me:  Actually, I had a chance to read the whole second draft of this movie, and was very impressed.  It dragged on at a couple points, but was overall much better than the final film.  Ironically, the rewrite might have hurt it this time, though it was probably necessitated by length.)

The Phantom Menace (Episode I)

Stars:  *** out of 4

Summary:  Though suffering from lackluster characters and a plot that lacks common sense, ‘The Phantom Menace’ still manages to get back some of ol’ ‘Star Wars’ charm.

Such a great poster.  Hey, if they had released just the poster and not the movie, it would've pleased the fans more and would've spawned more wild mass guessing than is reasonable for any film.

Such a great poster. Hey, if they had released just the poster and not the movie, it would've pleased the fans more and would've spawned more wild mass guessing than is reasonable for any franchise.

Review:  I admit it.  I’m a sucker for ‘Star Wars’.  I’m a huge fan of the Original Trilogy, but I was also one of those people whose childhood was jazzed up considerably by the anticipation and experience of the new Prequels, and who then ungratefully proceeded to denounce them as inferior.  I think it’s totally fair to say that the Prequels are inferior, but in a stunning twist, I’ve finally made peace with my generation’s installments of the beloved space saga.  I don’t hate them anymore.  In fact, I like them.  A lot.  The trick is to recognize what exactly Lucas was going for.  It’s supposed to be his own kind of ‘Flash Gordon’ or ‘Buck Rogers’, not an airtight, gritty sci-fi movie along the lines of ‘Blade Runner’ or something.  These are family-oriented fantasy films, so ‘kiddy-ness’, in varying doses, is to be expected.  The bad writing is another issue, but we’ll tackle that film-by-film.

‘The Phantom Menace’, while a great, accessible sci-fi adventure in the same vein as the Original Trilogy, has one central weakness:  It lacks a strong dramatic train of thought.  The Originals all had their great focuses that fueled the action.  This first Prequel starts off with a pretty good pace and suspense, but this kind of erodes, only to return at the end of the film.  It gets bogged down.  The podrace sequence is pretty cool and dangerous, but should have been less of a detour.  It is necessary to the plot, but lacks the tightness and character impact that practically every moment has in ‘A New Hope’.  This signals the beginning of a problem that plagues all three Prequels, that of a sense of unpolished scripting that could’ve been fixed by a rewrite or two, or three.  Episode IV, by contrast, was practically overwritten, and was fully mature as a story.  It’s not that George Lucas is a bad storyteller, but I suspect that he was unwilling to replicate the painful process that created the Original Trilogy, which I can’t blame him for.

Anyway, nevertheless, the film is pretty strong.  Liam Neeson plays the best character in the piece, as Obi-Wan’s master, Qui-Gon.  Actually, that master-apprentice relationship is the best written part of the movie, with a pretty good conclusion in their duel with Darth Maul.  Which segues me to the villains, the weakest aspect of the film, and of the Prequels in general.  Darth Maul makes an excellent Sith villain, mysterious, dangerous, and used like a potent seasoning.  The shadowy Darth Sidious, later the Emperor in the Originals, is great.  The problem is, they’re mostly in the background in this film, and the up-front bad guys — the Trade Federation — are pretty darn lame.  They are not intimidating in the least, and suck the urgency right out of the movie.

The other supporting characters are also pretty weak, especially the dreaded Jar-Jar Binks, who isn’t that bad, except for being slathered all over the movie like barbeque sauce.  Young Anakin and his mother, Shmi, are actually an exception to this rule.  They do pretty well — despite slowing the pace down far too much.

Philosophically, here’s my take on it.  An interesting — and very controversial  — addition to the Force mythos is the idea of a biological connection to it through “midi-chlorians”, apparently symbiotic creatures that live inside of everyone’s cells in differing concentrations.  There is some complaint that this saps the mysticism out of the Force/person relationship, but it can be argued that this was a pretty clever way of showing synchronicity between science and spiritually in ‘Star Wars’.  Because the midi-chlorian count in Anakin’s blood is the determining factor of his special identity, this shows that this new take on the Force is a subtle but central theme in ‘The Phantom Menace’.  Lucas has said that part of his motivation for making ‘Star Wars’ was to reintroduce a mythological and religious logic to youth of his generation.  Since he’s continued to be interested in educating young people, it may be that ‘The Phantom Menace’ includes this theme in order to combat a burgeoning anti-spirituality, embodied in “The new atheism” of my generation.  It certainly seems consistent with Lucas’ understanding of fantasy that transforms real paradigms.

The next major theme I want to cover is the titular threat, ‘The Phantom Menace’.  There are several interpretations of what this refers to, the most common — and possibly canon — guess being that it is Darth Sidious, the evil Sith pulling the strings to topple the Republic.  Or, I would suggest, it refers to Anakin Skywalker.  Lucas has stated that the story of ‘Star Wars’ is all about Anakin, and since this is the chronological first in the series, it would make sense to refer to the protagonist.  Yoda states, when young Anakin is brought before the Jedi Council, that he senses a dark and evil future for the boy, or, one could say, a phantom menace.  This nagging fear of Anakin’s evil fate will eventually swallow up the story of the Prequels, as it rightly should, so even though Darth Sidious becomes the mechanism by which Anakin is brought into his destiny, it’s reasonable to conclude that the phantom menace is Anakin himself.

Anyhow, this is actually a pretty good and fun ‘Star Wars’ movie.  It’s arguably the most kid-friendly (the intense climatic lightsaber duel notwithstanding).  Certainly, there’s no good reason to be bitter about it or condemn George Lucas to fanboy hell for “ruining your childhood”.

Classic Review: Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)

Stars:  **** out of Four

Summary:  A thrilling, angsty finale for a classic trilogy, with the best effects and the best music, to boot.

This is a good poster, for a multitude of reasons...

This is a good poster, for a multitude of reasons...

Review:  Starting with the gleeful innocence and spectacle of ‘Star Wars’, going to the troubling middle chapter of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, and now into the dark, unexpected finale of ‘Return of the Jedi’, the Original ‘Star Wars’ Trilogy cemented the legacy of George Lucas in modern film.  The blockbuster and the summer tentpole were now the economic foundations of the film industry.

Before ‘Return of the Jedi’ was released, there were high expectations as to how Lucas could possibly wrap up the Trilogy.  After it was released, though it was still highly regarded and was a box office smash, there was some disappointment in the content, with some believing that the spirit of the mature middle chapter had been compromised and that Lucas was pandering to kids.  The reason being the Ewoks, a race of teddy-bear-like aliens, who manage to overwhelm Imperial forces on their home moon.  I find it ironic that this is considered a betrayal, after all, ‘Star Wars’ was intended to be escapist adventure.  There isn’t anything inconsistent in having something that seems ridiculous, as long as it follows the film’s internal logic, which it does.

The film does, in fact, take the darker nature of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ and continue it, while keeping the spirit balanced.  The film opens with all of the heroes in deep trouble, and keeps that tone all the way to the end.  The Empire, in essence, continues to strike back.

The good guys head to the planet Tatooine, hoping to free Han Solo from the gangster Jabba the Hutt.  All of them fail, including, most famously, Princess Leia, who finds herself forced to become what is essentially a sex slave for Jabba, clad in only a gold bikini.  As revolting and seemingly unnecessary as this is, it does make the ultimate triumph of the heroes over Jabba seem more glorious.  Ironically, Jabba is strangled to death by Leia, using the very chains he used to control her.  The sexual aspects of this whole sequence are not particularly explicit, and it never leaves PG territory.

The Force, it seemed at the time, was fully elaborated on in this film.  The nature of the Light versus the Dark is now shown before us in the ultimate struggle, as Luke is tempted by the Emperor.  Where the real struggle lies, however, is in Darth Vader.  He is the Anti-Hero.  In my interpretation of the final conflict, Luke allows the Emperor to attack him directly, goading him, which triggers the latent hero in Vader.  This seems to make sense, but don’t take it as the definitive explanation.

Also of note is Luke’s dark wardrobe.  The implication seems to be that, although he is now a Jedi Knight, due to the revelation of his father’s identity he has unleashed a dark part of himself.  Aesthetically, it makes Luke appear more mature than the previous films.  Not only is he a Jedi Knight, he is a full-fledged hero, no longer in Han Solo’s shadow.

Dualism is the primary philosophy behind the Force.  Here, though, the Dark Side seems questioned; it is not as strong as Light, it merely thinks it is.  The Emperor claims the whole final battle, allowing the Rebellion to know the way to knock out the new Darth Star, is part of his plan.  This seems to be a defensive reaction to his own failure.  So what is Lucas saying here?  Is the Dark merely under the impression that it is stronger, or is it undone only by human error?  We are never told.

The artistic merits of the film seem the strongest of the Trilogy.  The music is in top form, with fully developed cues, and a new theme for the Emperor to distinguish him from Darth Vader.  The visual effects take us places we’ve never been before.  The battle around and inside the Death Star is no longer depicted with mere trenches, but with super-massive inner workings.  The lightsabers are crisp, and the resonant sound effects make Luke’s lightsaber a reflection of his own maturity.  Ewoks run at the feet of convincingly composited machines, and the sail barges on Tatooine are natural.

Performance wise, Mark Hamill comes out of the gate with his strongest portrayal of Luke.  Now that young Skywalker is a complete hero, it gives the actor playing him a chance to shine.  Ian McDiarmid, who plays the Emperor, was only in his 30s at the time, but you wouldn’t know it.

A rollicking good time with an angsty soul, this is my personal favorite of the Trilogy and the one that is the most unfairly derided, in my view.

Classic Review: The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)

Stars:  ***1/2 out Four

Summary:  A darker mythic adventure that raised ‘Star Wars’ from pulp to legend, excellent writing and talent abounds as ‘The Empire Strikes Back’.

If you werent thinking of the Imperial March before, you are now.

If you weren't thinking of the Imperial March before, you are now.

Review:  After the unexpected success of ‘Star Wars’, George Lucas immediately put into development his first sequel, which he had planned out before ‘Star Wars’ was released.  Lucas again took a gamble with the audience, hoping they would stomach a darker sequel.

It worked.

Rather than trying to create a story that replicated the successful elements of the first film, the filmmakers pushed the story forward into a dark middle chapter.  The heroes weren’t going to triumph as absolutely as they had in ‘Star Wars’.  Unlike most sequels, where the same premise returns with thinner characters, ‘The Empire Strikes Back’, by necessity, focused on the inner struggles and philosophies of each principal character.  Luke found out it wasn’t easy to defeat the Galactic Empire, and that the Dark Side of the Force was much closer to him than he realized.  Han and Leia’s relationship began to thaw, and they realized they were improbably in love.  Darth Vader would turn things personal, obsessed with finding Luke and turning him to evil.  There wasn’t a single, clear obstacle to surmount, no Death Star to destroy.

While it is undeniable that the fun, Flash Gordon-esque elements of the previous film are still there, the ‘Star Wars’ franchise had suddenly taken a turn into serious myth.  ‘The Empire Strikes Back’ is not just a second act in a three-act narrative, it is a tragedy.  It has a downbeat ending, though not devoid of triumph.  Luke emerges from his battle with Darth Vader victorious in spite of seeming defeat, due to his refusal of Vader’s offer to rule the Empire.  Though Han is frozen in carbonite and taken by a bounty hunter with the Empire’s blessing, Leia still has the assurance she can find him again, alive.  Even for Darth Vader there is hope; famously, he reveals in his combat with Luke that he is the boy’s father, Anakin Skywalker.  This is what established him as the most famous film villain of all time.  He was now a tragic figure, and not just a dark sorcerer with no past and no future.  The audience is left wondering, if Anakin was turned to evil, can he be turned back?

The nature of the Force is truly explored for the first time, on the planet Degobah with the help of an old Jedi named Yoda (Played by Frank Oz).  Basically a glorified Muppet, with the limitations thereof.  This little guy doesn’t just inherit the role of Ben Kenobi from the first film; he has a very different approach.  Yoda helps Luke confront his own dark side, and even before we know that Darth Vader is Anakin, we know that Luke is in danger of becoming like him.  The Force is a murky spirituality indeed, so it is hard to say much about it other than, well, negative emotions lead to negative results and positive emotions lead to positive results.  In real life, though, it doesn’t take a genius to grasp that emotions are neither positive nor negative.  Hate, said to be a negative emotion by Yoda, can be a good thing.  Let’s say I hate slavery, or murder.  Then my hate is supporting my love of humanity, and is obviously not negative.  So even though it “works” in the ‘Star Wars’ films, the Force is far too simplistic.  To me, this just reinforces the fantasy aspect; it’s like applying rules to King Arthur’s sword and scabbard.  It works in the story as a spiritual thing, but it doesn’t have any bearing on real life.  Also, considering Lucas’ other works, like ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, it would seem he doesn’t believe every word of the Force dogma anyway.

Once again, the film was a technical triumph.  The effects were slightly improved, as ILM figured out what the limitations were of their methods, and if their methods needed to be retooled all together.  The lightsabers are a good example; in ‘Star Wars’, they tried blending luminescent sticks with animated beams, which made the effect inconsistent.  Here, they ditched the luminescent rods and went the solely animated route.  It worked much better, and let the choreography loosen up quite a bit during the fight scenes.

John Williams’ music took on a new flavor, becoming much more the ‘Star Wars’ sound we are familiar with, especially due to the Imperial March, which stole the show.  There’s not a whole lot to say about it, really, only that it was excellent as always.

Overall, I like this film less than ‘Star Wars’.  I do appreciate the direction Lucas took the series with ‘Empire’, but on its own merits ‘Star Wars’ is slightly better.  But only slightly!  This is widely considered the best of the series, though, and if you’ve only seen the others in the series, you have to give this one its time of day.

Classic Review: Star Wars (Episode IV)

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.

Only half this poster is true.  Luke is not ripped, but Leia is very sexy.

Only half this poster is true. Luke is not ripped, but Leia is very sexy.

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.