Friday, September 06, 2019

Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, USA, 121 minutes
Director / writer: George Lucas
Photography: Gilbert Taylor
Music: John Williams
Editors: Richard Chew, Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas, George Lucas
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, James Earl Jones, David Prowse, Peter Cushing, Phil Brown, Peter Mayhew

[John Williams theme, play continually while reading]

It's tempting, of course, to start by waxing nostalgic about George Lucas's stupendous commercial feat, because I actually did happen to wander into a theater and see it in the first week of its release, some little time before it became the certifiable phenomenon. I was impressed. It was a good day at the movies. The rave-up attack on the Death Star for the big finish was exhilarating, a bonanza of special effects operating in all three dimensions (not just one or two, like car chases). Many of us had imagined scenes like these, notably Stanley Kubrick, but no one had ever seen them before. The nightclub sequence was memorably weird and charming too—cool nervous jazz music! And this thing about "the Force" was almost uplifting in the context of the underdog story. Released late in May, by summer's end all my friends and half the population of the present-day right-here galaxy had seen it (and seen it and seen it and seen it, in some cases), laying the grumbling grounds of my personal contrarian backlash.

Forced by the eternity of hoopla and some peer pressure to see it again, all its poor qualities leapt to the fore—the wooden style, thuddingly dull story, and plodding tempo swamped whatever I still liked, and now the Force made me wince. Close Encounters of the Third Kind had come at the end of 1977 with good special effects too, plus it seemed to understand religion and science fiction better. They almost seemed like the Beatles and Stones of '70s sci-fi, except neither movie is as good as either band.

Another view of this white whale comes via the big list at They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, where it presently sits at #115. Gone With the Wind, the only movie that is its superior in the commercial realm, sits six notches higher, at #109 and has actually been as high as #60 in this roundup of critical opinion, which suggests critics on some level are not entirely immune to the siren call of moneymakers (I'm not either evidently, as I've now reviewed six of the top 10 inflation-adjusted all-timers). On the other hand, a few years ago, after Disney and J.J. Abrams rekindled the franchise (third time's the charm!), the original Star Wars never did get the bump I expected to see on this list. Its peak to date came before that, at #100 for two years in a row. The revival apparently didn't budge critical opinion and maybe even dimmed it a little. But let's also remember that, at the moment, aggregated critical consensus still says there are only 114 movies better than Star Wars.

I note that they stick with the title of Star Wars rather than its retrofitted and corporately insisted upon incarnation, to wit: Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, a terrible name for a movie, with way too much punctuation. My latest look at it was my fourth, possibly fifth. There was the first one in May 1977, another one in 1978 registering the historical event, a VHS viewing in about 1996, and then last night. It seems like there might be another in there somewhere but I can't place it. The '96 viewing was at the home of a fan who was eagerly anticipating the second coming of the franchise (1999-2005), and it's probably the most fun I've ever had with it, catching a hit of infectious enthusiasm. The action seemed swashbuckling, lighthearted, and capable of thrilling. All the characters were familiar and I liked them all. I've never liked any movie in the franchise more, ever.

But at this point I don't have much more to give. I feel bludgeoned by popular culture. All these years of action figures, lunchboxes, t-shirts, coffee mugs, board games, video games, online games, Trivial Pursuit editions, that self-laughing Chewbacca mask, fast food promotions, jewelry, tattoos, "May the Fourth be with you" (celebrating May 4 in competition with Dave Brubeck, because 5/4, as well as Kent State, of all the indignities), and more. Not to mention the informal competition for numbers of times seeing any single picture, and the fan fiction, and the exhausting fan theories. Approximately 8% (made-up figure) of all verbiage on the internet up to and including social media is devoted to  S - T - A - R   W - A - R - S.  I tend to avoid anything associated with it as much as I can now, though I've seen all the core movies except Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi, including my share of spinoffs and whatnot. That's my way of saying Star Wars is inevitable and what you or I think doesn't matter. We are all William Shatner now. Get a life!

The most unsettling part about looking at Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope—in a way for the first time, under that title—turned out to be a sense of lost moorings, dislocation, confusion. Was this really the movie I saw in 1977? I know it was more than 20 years even since that VHS afternoon, and memory fades, but it felt remarkably different and somehow unfamiliar, as if touched up, like seeing someone for the first time who may have "had some work done." No doubt the differences, such as they are, are scrupulously inscribed somewhere on some dozen online forums or other. I saw on YouTube someone has attempted to reconstruct the original from fragments. And I understand there has been a terrorist corporate campaign to rid the world of the early VHS versions and at least one specific scene. I didn't have the heart to dive into any of that. Some differences were obvious, like the famous scrolling prologue, now headed "A New Hope." Maybe the language there was changed too. But they couldn't change that much when the principals are on the screen, right? Right? But it felt like every frame had been touched and it was as deadly dull as anything from that second trilogy (first, whatever). When the principals are on the screen they have the dynamics of '70s TV, alternating between Starsky & Hutch and Three's Company. (I realize the wooden style is intentional, to mimic '40s serials.)

So I don't know. In a way, that makes Star Wars an interesting anomaly. On the TSPDT big list, there are lots of "lost" or damaged movies, many of them famous for exactly that: The Magnificent Ambersons, Greed, A Touch of Evil, Nashville, Intolerance, others. Star Wars may be the first to be lost in the glare of its own success, tweaked and dumbed down to make it work with its inferior franchise brethren. Maybe someday a miracle will occur and the original will be restored or mostly restored, like The Passion of Joan of Arc and Metropolis. It's also possible that I just never liked Star Wars very much, that it's actually as good as it ever was, and that any changes are quite minor and purely improvements. I take it you've had a chance to see it yourself by now.


  1. Ambersons, Greed, Touch of Evil, Intolerance (didn't realize there was a different Nashville), all of those are great movies even in their truncated state. Star Wars will never be great. Close Encounters, on the other hand ...

  2. I'm with you on Star Wars, which at its best is only intermittently entertaining. I included Nashville because of the rumor that Altman could only cut it down to six hours (after first trying to sell the studio on a 12-hour cut). I understand those longer versions have been destroyed but I can always hope.

  3. Nowadays they'd just turn Nashville into a six-part Amazon mini-series.

  4. Yeah, the last time I watched Star Wars it looked more like Spaceballs than the Saturday afternoon Sci-Fi adventure I vaguely remember from back in the day.