WFTB Score: 11/20
The plot: The Galactic Empire, under the stewardship of Darth Vader, looks set to crush the Rebel Alliance with the planet-destroying weapon, the Death Star. However, plucky Princess Leia sends even pluckier robot R2-D2 off to find Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi knight who represents the rebels’ only hope. R2-D2 and his companion C-3PO fall into the hands of Luke Skywalker, leading the youngster into a journey of adventure and self-discovery.
Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), firebrand of the Rebel Alliance, has obtained plans for the Galactic Empire’s massive Death Star; but before she can deliver them to Alliance leaders to find weak points in the space station, she is taken prisoner by the Empire’s chief enforcer, a powerful Sith Lord called Darth Vader (embodied by Dave Prowse, he’s voiced by James Earl Jones). Luckily, she has hidden the plans and a plea for help inside little droid R2-D2 (mobilised by Kenny Baker), who blasts off to Tatooine with pessimistic partner C-3PO (Anthony Daniels). When young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) comes across the message, it directs him to a mysterious hermit called Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) who knows much about Luke and even more about the mysterious ‘Force’, supernatural empathic and telekinetic powers employed by fabled Jedi Knights. Vader’s hunt for R2-D2 lays waste to Tatooine and Luke’s adoptive aunt and uncle, so he travels with Obi-Wan to obtain passage to Leia’s home planet of Alderaan. Charismatic but mercenary smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his furry friend Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) are prepared to take them there at the right price, but on arrival the planet is gone. The Death Star is there, though, and it pulls them in, forcing Luke and Han into a rescue mission and Obi-Wan into a deadly meeting with his former protégée.
You can use your reaction to Star Wars to define your personality (and not only as a film critic): you’re either a movie fan, in which case you think it represents the rebirth of Hollywood, a film which understands that the viewer wants excitement, adventure, and (really wild) things they’ve never seen before; or you’re a cinema lover, in which case you think it’s a cheap, infantile rip-off of much better war and sci-fi films which has garnered unfeasible popularity from a weak-minded army of delusional geeks. The strange thing is, both viewpoints are utterly valid. Until Luke meets up with Han Solo, the film constantly teeters on the edge of disaster, with each interesting bit (anything featuring Vader, or C-3PO and R2-D2’s comic bickering) cancelled out by incredible naffness (the Jawas, the Sand People, Hamill’s bland Skywalker, his uncle’s ‘moisture farm’). Once they get into space – specifically, once Harrison Ford starts to spark off Carrie Fisher – the film becomes a blast, with dogfights and action sequences ramping up the tension, making you forget that much of the film has featured lots of extras running down corridors in silly hats.
It is paradoxical that a film can be simultaneously genre-definingly good and knuckle-bitingly bad, but it’s true of almost every aspect of Star Wars. Hamill’s amateurish acting and Daniels’ prissy, pessimistic C-3PO make you think the film is going to be camp nonsense, but then Guinness comes in and actually makes you believe in it. Ford is also dynamic as the grizzled anti-hero, but what conclusions can you draw when the most popular characters – Vader and the bleeping, clunking box of bits that is R2-D2 – have no facial expressions at all? R2 doesn’t even speak and still outshines Hamill in the charisma department. That said, it’s perhaps not so surprising that the humans don’t all fare well when they’re given excruciatingly bad dialogue like ‘It’s not wise to upset a wookie’, or ‘I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home’, or anything to do with the ‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ riddle (could he possibly be the same as ‘Old Ben’ Kenobi? Mmm, I wonder…unless Kenobi is like Smith or Jones on Tatooine, in which case I apologise).
Then there’s the question of whether you buy into George Lucas’ world. Personally, I don’t find his alternative universe all that interesting, especially when it’s populated by people/beings with stupid names like Grand Moff Tarkin (poor Peter Cushing); but as an area to set up brilliantly convincing space battles, it’ll do fine. Also, I understand that it’s something that people can get caught up in, like trainspotting or stamp collecting, especially when toys, lunchboxes and a barrel of other merchandise validate the hobby. As for the Light and Dark sides of the Force, it’s a neat trick to divide the characters into good and evil, but it makes no difference to our appreciation of the characters in this film. Their light sabers, however, are definitely to be appreciated; the way they look, and moreover the way they sound (the sound in this movie is wonderful), is a stroke of genius, reinventing swordplay for the Sci-Fi generation.
Light sabers, the Millennium Falcon, the tension of the garbage crusher, John Williams’ brilliant, bombastic score (which often tells us more about the scene than Lucas’ turgid words), the soundscape in general, Guinness’ screen presence, Ford’s rugged charm and Carrie Fisher’s diaphanous dress (Lucas apparently told Fisher ‘There’s no underwear in space’); all these things make Star Wars a great film. But they have to be balanced against indifferent acting, poor dialogue and some ideas that are laughable to anyone with an ounce of discernment. It really is that good, and that bad, at the same time, and it’s bizarre that Lucas himself seems so attached to the worst bits (resulting in muck such as Phantom Menace).
The tragedy of Star Wars – if anything about one of the most profitable films in history can be called tragic – is that it works just fine as a quirky, self-contained space action movie with few complications (there’s no Yoda here, no Emperor, and the Senate are mentioned but never seen). Unfortunately, Hollywood has sought to repeat the film’s money miracle too many times since, and Star Wars’ malign cultural influence, manifested most in its own horrible sequels (The Empire Strikes Back excepted), is something that can’t be easily forgiven. Put simply, Star Wars is a massively flawed but enjoyable film; as for the rest of Lucas’ ever-expanding mythology, you take it on board at your own peril.
NOTES: Just a note on the Special Edition VHS, which is what I watched: although it adds some colour and life to a few scenes, and a very little comedy to Mos Eisley, the CGI effects are distractingly different to the original puppets and prosthetics, which were undeniably rough and ready but had their own charm. The reinstated Han/Jabba scene is all wrong – the eyelines don’t work, the CGI doesn’t really work, and Han’s ‘You’re a wonderful human being’ line makes no sense at all, even as a joke.
I should also confess that I didn’t see Star Wars in the cinema, or have any of the toys, as a child. Nor did Princess Leia inspire my sexual awakening. These things undoubtedly help people to remember the film very fondly, but they don’t make for a particularly objective review.