Directed by: George Lucas
Premise: The original installment of George Lucas’ six-film space adventure. Set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) finds himself thrust into a galactic space conflict between the evil Empire and the Rebel Alliance.
What Works: Much has been written about Star Wars and its impact upon the culture. Like Jaws, Star Wars has generally been derided for leading to the end of the New Hollywood era. And like the attacks made against Jaws, this accusation is both impudent and untrue. The end of the New Hollywood era was brought on primarily by box office failures, not successes, and studios reasserted control over productions as filmmakers spent more and more money on projects that had diminishing returns rather than balance their artistic aspirations with financial sense. That said, Star Wars is an extremely well crafted film and today, with the market saturated with science fiction and fantasy product, it still stands among the great pictures of the genre. Star Wars is partially an updated version of the science fiction serials of the 1940s like Buck Rogers and this first installment captures that more successfully than any other film in this series. Like Steven Spielberg’s reworking of genre in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws, Lucas demonstrates good sense for what elements of the past to keep and combines those elements with storytelling styles that appeal to the contemporary audience. In particular, the characters and the dialogue of Star Wars walk that line between camp and seriousness very well. The lead characters are very human and likeable, especially Harrison Ford as Han Solo and Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, and the picture includes one of the great film villains of all time, Darth Vader (acted by David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones). As a genre story, Star Wars takes the setting of a science fiction film but also incorporates elements of other stories such as the Western and Japanese samurai films. In this way the film is able to transcend the appeals of other story genres and escape the clichés that usually trap these movies within formula. Aside from the film’s work in story, the filmmaking craft and design of this film are also very good and key to the defense of Star Wars as a significant piece of cinema. The sets established the “used future” look and are shot with a realistic style that sells the fantasy. Most of the original special effects, both visual and aural, continue to hold up and the editing of those effects, especially in the last half hour, are as exciting as a viewer could ask for. The score by John Williams stands as one of the great soundtracks in American film and in an era where synthetic music and songs by pop artists were most popular in film, Star Wars brought back the orchestral sound of the studio era in a way that served the story and allowed the composer as much creative freedom as the writers and directors of New Hollywood were enjoying. As a piece of New Hollywood cinema, Star Wars is interesting in its relationship to the themes of the period. Many New Hollywood filmmakers were interested in ideas of revolution and new beginnings, and many films undermined traditional views of heroism. Star Wars presents the Rebel Alliance fighting for democratic values against the threat of totalitarianism and in that respect the film is a throwback to pre-Vietnam, post-World War II (or a precursor to early Reagan era) politics. However, Star Wars was made in the wake of Vietnam, and its presentation of a small rebellion defeating a larger, militarily superior force smacks of subversion or at least a mixed message. So while Star Wars at least superficially reaffirmed traditional values and gave America something to believe in again the film also reflected New Hollywood tendencies toward redefining those values.
What Doesn’t: Although Star Wars taps into important cultural archetypes this does not in itself make Star Wars good and despite being extremely entertaining it is not a particularly deep film like The Godfather, Raging Bull, or The Planet of the Apes. The social and symbolic significance that Star Wars has come to take on largely has to do with what the culture has ascribed to it rather than anything in the film itself.
DVD extras: Star Wars has gone through several adjustments over the years with minor changes made here and there. The most significant change came in the 1997 “Special Edition” which saw new footage, some of it computer generated, incorporated into the film. These changes were again adjusted for the 2004 DVD release. Whether these changes help or hinder the film has been fiercely debated and the ability of the director to make changes to his film have serious implications for the film medium, implications that are too complicated to get into here. The 2007 DVD release of Star Wars is a two-disc edition that contains both the 2004 edition and the original 1977 version. This release includes a commentary track, an Xbox Game Demo, and a Lego Game Trailer.
Bottom Line: Star Wars in an important film for historical, business, and financial reasons but also for aesthetic reasons. It remains one of the most influential pictures of New Hollywood or any era of American film and decades after its release the film has retained a joy in its viewing that makes it a pinnacle of entertainment.
Episode: #213 (November 9, 2008)