When the new Star Wars movie came out, I was a bit taken aback at how it now seems to be the conventional wisdom that the first Star Wars movie (I won’t call it “A New Hope”; to me, it’s just “Star Wars”, which was the name of the movie when it came out in 1977) was a true classic, and that everything with the new movie would be OK if it could capture some of that original magic. I get that a lot of people truly deplored the prequel films and wanted something to remove the tarnish they had brought to the franchise. But as someone who finds ALL of the Star Wars movies to be pretty silly, I was confused at how even normally cynical critics were talking about the original films (well, mostly “Star Wars” and “The Empire Strikes Back”, not “Return of the Jedi”) as if they were exemplars of a golden era of film-making. Didn’t people used to disagree about this? I found myself thinking.
I decided to go looking for the evidence to prove that I wasn’t crazy. Below is the result of my research. Obviously, Star Wars was released before the internet was a thing, so most of these came from archives of various kinds: books of essays, scanned items that I found in image search, etc. Where they did come from the ‘net, I’ve included links. There are some really trenchant and interesting criticisms here. I was particularly struck by Joanna Russ’s thoughts on “addictive culture” and Pauline Kael’s comments on video-game tie-ins and merchandising. So much that is bad about modern big-budget movies — the crash-bang hollow spectacle, the sequel-itis, the absence of real characterization or decent dialogue –- can be traced back directly to this film. Sheesh.—–
John Clute, in a critique of the Star Wars script related to a potential novelization (1976)
Handwritten at top of page: “In conversation, I told the editor that if they really had Alec Guinness in a major role then they should take this seriously – he didn’t, I’m afraid.”
A very dodgy venture without knowing a lot more.
The script we have here is very ambitious as a film script, very post-Kubrick in its special effects demands, and very [u]un[/u]ambitious as a space opera tale designed specifically for the adolescent market. Added to that, internal evidence on reading the thing (items like the absence of any strong resolution to the story, the survival unscathed of the chief villain, the large number of protagonists, all of whom also survive) leads one to the surmise — nay assumption — that THE STAR WARS is some kind of pilot, which means the beginning of a series. […]
The story: young Luke Starkiller comes across a couple of darling robots on his frontier planet. They have been in a spacefight in the system, their leader (a Princess, God help us) captured by Darth Vader, ‘right hand of the Emperor,’ who is trying to stamp out Rim Star insurgencies in the days of the decline of Ecumenical rule (this is the mise en scene of most modern space operas, and exists as a clear subtext for instance, in the Dumarest sequence). Darth takes the Princess off to torture her to find out the location of the rest of the rebels. Luke takes the two robots to his dead father’s old fighting companion, Ben Kenobi, who has retired. Ben is galvanized by the Princess’s plight into exercising again, and off they go, the four of them, to rent a spaceship to take them to the rebel planet. They get a pirate spaceship, with flamboyant pilot and enormous sidekick. [u]All these characters survive[/u]. Off they go, to find the rebel planet destroyed by the Death Star, then introduced. Then they track down Darth Vader in the prison planet where the Princess is hanging upside down (being tortured). Lots of fighting. The four of them get the Princess, fight off the villains, get away with her, [u]but[/u] Darth Vader has it all planned: they will now lead him to the rest of the rebel strongholds. [u]But[/u] Ben Kenobi has retrieved his long-lost Kiber Crystal from the prison planet and now has lots of mental force and rapport with kharma. And the pirate spacecraft has been jiggered with so it can outrun most dreadnoughts. Still, Darth Vader, in the Death Star, which is a circular ship that can blow up a planet, follows, and there is a final battle (pro tem) in which the good guys win, the Princess is very happy, and so forth.
As a prose fiction, hard to visualize as saleable. The tropes are out of the 30s, and without any of the gutsy (if illiterate) sweep of E E Smith. No novelization, I suspect, could handle the Kiber Crystal and genuine Princesses and Darth Vader in his face mask without stumbling badly. Luke Starkiller himself is a total cipher-. The assumption that it is the beginning of a series (of a sort I mildly deplore and don’t feel I can argue for the way I could for DUMAREST or Leigh Bracket) is so strong, I think I had better leave the report pending until you get some data, if there are any.
Alec Guinness, from Alec Guinness: The Authorised Biography by Piers Paul Read (2003) (via)
“Can’t say I’m enjoying the film. New rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper — and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable.”
[On a meeting with George and Marsha Lucas:] “He was sounding me out, of course, about appearing in Star Wars III. I was non-committal, but said I couldn’t see myself in it if I had to expound the force or any phony philosophy. I left them saying ‘I’m an unreliable character’.”
When a mother in America boasted of how often her son had seen Star Wars, Alec made him promise that he would never see it again. His hut at Kettlebrook Meadows grew cluttered with unopened sacks of fan mail. “Star Wars people ask me for an interview — I continue to refuse,” he noted in his Small Diary on January 16, 1997. “They are ghastly bores.” February 13: “Was unpleasant to a woman journalist on Telegraph, who wanted to know how much I earned on Star Wars. Oh, I’m sick of that film and all the hype.”
Samuel R. Delany, from Star Wars: A Consideration of the Great New S.F. Film, Cosmos (1977)
[Note: Most of his review is fairly gushing praise for the film’s visuals, background detail, and engaging action. But then he gets to this bit, which he says got him a lot of hate mail.]
[…] As frequently, however, it is also childish. And the childishness, whether in the dialogue or in the general conception, doesn’t work. It is not interesting. And it doesn’t come close to being exciting. Sometime, somewhere, somebody is going to write a review of Star Wars that begins: “In Lucas’s future, the black races and the yellow races have apparently died out and a sort of mid-Western American (with a few South Westerners who seem to specialize in being war ship pilots) has taken over the universe. By and large, women have also been bred out of the human race and, save for the odd gutsy princess or the isolated and cowed aunt, humanity seems to be breeding quite nicely without them…”
When these various reviews surface, somebody will no doubt object (and we’ll recognize the voice; it’s the same one who said earlier, “… it’s got a good, solid story!”) with a shout: “But that’s not the point. This is entertainment!”
Well, entertainment is a complex business. And we are talking about an aspect of the film that isn’t particularly entertaining. When you travel across three whole worlds and all the humans you see are so scrupulously caucasian and male, Lucas’s future begins to seem a little dull. And the variation and invention suddenly turn out to be only the province of the set director and special effects crew.
How does one put in some variety, some human variety? The same way you put in your barrage of allusions to other films, i.e., you just do it and don’t make a big thing.
To take the tiniest example: wouldn’t that future have been more interesting if, say, three quarters of the rebel pilots just happened to have been Oriental women — rather than just the guys who didn’t make it onto the Minnesota Ag football team. It would even be more interesting to the guys at Minnesota Ag. This is science fiction after all.
No more explanation would have been needed for that (They came from a world colonized by Chinese where women were frequently pilots? Possibly they came from a dozen worlds and volunteered because they were all historically interested in the Red Guard? Or maybe it’s just because there are, indeed, lots of Chinese women?) than we get for why there just happens to be an Evil, Nasty, Octopoid Thingy in the Death Star garbage dump. (It was busy metabolizing garbage? Maybe it was an alien ambassador who felt more comfortable in that environment? Maybe it just growed?) That kind of offhanded flip is what you can do in science fiction.
In the film world in the present, the token woman, token black, or what-have-you, is clearly propaganda, and even the people who are supposed to like that particular piece of it smile their smiles with rather more tightly pursed lips than is comfortable. In a science fiction film, however, the variety of human types should be as fascinating and luminous in itself as the variety of color in the set designer’s paint box. Not to make use of that variety, in all possible combinations, seems an imaginative failure of at least the same order as not coming up with as interesting sets as possible.
Pauline Kael, from a New Yorker review of Star Wars (1977)
“Star Wars” is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip. “Star Wars” may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring…. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood.
Ursula K. Le Guin, from “Close Encounters, Star Wars, and the Tertium Quid” (1978), collected in Dancing at the Edge of the World
The end of Star Wars kept bothering me after I saw it the first time. I kept thinking, such a funny silly beautiful movie, why did George Lucas stick on that wooden ending, a high school graduation, with prizes for good citizenship? But when I saw it again I realized it wasn’t high school but West Point: a place crawling with boots and salutes. Are there any civilians in this Empire, anyhow? Finally a friend who knows films explained to me that the scene is a nostalgic evocation or imitation of Leni Riefenstahl’s famous film of the 1936 Olympics, with the German winners receiving a grateful ovation from the Thousand-Year Reich. Having dragged Dorothy and Toto and that lot around the cosmos a bit, Lucas cast about for another surefire golden oldie and came up with Adolf Hitler.
Anyhow, what the hell is nostalgia doing in a science fiction film? With the whole universe and all the future to play in, Lucas took his marvelous toys and crawled under the fringed cloth on the parlor table, back into a nice safe hideyhole, along with Flash Gordon and the Cowardly Lion and Huck Skywalker and the Flying Aces and the Hitler Jugend. If there’s a message there, I don’t think I want to hear it.
Joanna Russ, from “SF and Technology as Mystification” (1978), collected in To Write Like a Woman
Consider, for example, Star Wars. I was dragged to see this film past a bookstore displaying the sword-and-sorcery novel a friend of mine has rather unkindly nicknamed The Sword of Sha Na Na. What is important about coupling these two in one sentence (and one event) is not that the film is as bad as the book, but that both are bad in exactly the same way. This is not to say that either is without some interesting or seductive elements. For no addictive stimulus is simply bad or dull; if it were, nobody would want it at all. What such artifacts do is follow the formula for physiological addiction in the psychic, cultural realm: they satisfy a need partially, and at the same time they exacerbate it. Publishers’ and movie-makers’ formulas for a “real hit” are obviously those of an addiction: not just enjoyment or desire but intense craving (lines stretching around the block), not just intense craving but sudden intense craving that must be satisfied at once (opening in 16 million theaters tomorrow, at a theater near you!), not just sudden intense craving but insatiable craving; thus people see the film many times and — this is a dead giveaway — a minor industry grows up about the film: buttons, sweatshirts, TV programs about how the film was made, TV programs about how the first TV programs about the film were made, and so on. These are what the trade calls “spin-offs”.
Please note that addictive culture is not identical with what we like to call “escapist culture.” Perhaps there is no way of escaping in art from one’s society, as any social product will of necessity embody the society’s values and pressures, and the less these values or pressures are confronted and examined in the work, the more in force they will be. Thus Star Wars — which is being sold to the public as “fun” — is, in fact, racist, grossly sexist, not apolitical in the least but authoritarian and morally imbecile, all of this both denied and enforced by the opportunism of camp (which the youngsters in the audience cannot spot, by the way) and spiced up by technical wonders and marvels, some of which are interesting, many of which are old hat to those used to science fiction. […]
Star Wars, I think, addresses itself to a dim but powerful desire for “fun,” i.e., excitement and self-importance. These are human desires and not bad ones, but the film satisfies them by simplifying morality, politics, and human personality to the point where they can all safely be ignored in the interests of the “fun.” However, morality, politics, and human personality are most of the world and the film cannot actually do without them without renouncing drama altogether. Thus we have a work in which the result of the simplification isn’t to banish morality, politics, and human personality (which is impossible) but to present them in their most reactionary — and dullest — form. Thus monarchies are better than republics, slavery is noble (the machines are conscious personalities endowed with emotions and free will but it is still unquestionably right to own them), everyone human in the film is white (with the possible exception of one extra in one scene), and after the hero’s mother (disguised as his aunt to avoid the real parenticidal wishes no doubt present in the teenagers in the audience) dies, there is only one woman left in the entire universe. This universe then goes into terrific plot convulsions to aid, nurture, and glorify one very ordinary white, heterosexual, male, bucktoothed virgin. To judge by the film’s last scene, which is modeled on Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (a Nazi propaganda film made of the Nazi Party Congress held in Nuremberg), the director intended Star Wars as a half-hearted comment on the whole genre. I believe that his recent allegation on television that the film is “wholesome” is simply dishonest. Of necessity addictive art must be bad art, or at least half-bad art; that is, in order to concentrate on the adventures and special effects, we simplify politics, economics, history, personality, morality, and human relations (which otherwise tend to get rather badly in the way, just as they do in life). But drama — and fiction — is what happens to people, i.e., fiction is politics, economics, history, personality, morality, and human relations.
[…] In the physiological model of addiction there is an increasing spiral of physical need; in the cultural model, an increasing spiral of what I shall call (for want of a better term) emotional need. In hypoglycemia the need is for an elevated blood sugar, but the means used to achieve it (refined sugar) only leads to a less elevated blood sugar. In Star Wars the need is for self-worth and pleasure (I believe this is what the “fun” represents). The means used to achieve these are, roughly, sexism, racism, heterosexism, competition, and macho privilege. But this kind of privilege is exactly what is producing a world in which most of the viewers of Star Wars do not have the self-worth and the access to excitement and pleasure that they need.
Pauline Kael again, from a review of Return of the Jedi (1983), collected in For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies
It’s one of the least amusing ironies of movie history that in the seventies, when the “personal” filmmakers seemed to be gaining acceptance, the thoughtful, quiet George Lucas made the quirkily mechanical Star Wars – a film so successful that it turned the whole industry around and put it on a retrograde course, where it’s now joining forces with video-games manufacturers. If a filmmaker wants backing for a new project, there’d better be a video game in it. Producers are putting so much action and so little character or point into their movies that there’s nothing for a viewer to latch on to. The battle between good and evil, which is the theme of just about every big fantasy adventure film, has become a flabby excuse for a lot of dumb tricks and noise. It has got to the point where some of us might be happy to see good and evil quit fighting and become friends.