Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Great Movies: "Star Wars"

At the Movies with Michael5000

Star Wars
George Lucas, 1977

Previous Contact: I first saw Star Wars in its original release, as a nine year old boy. I was entranced. Upon returning home, I immediately asked for permission to see it again the next day. I may have eked out a third watching during the original release, and I'm sure I would have gone to see it every night given the option.

Also, I don't think it is too revealing to mention here that the character of Princess Leia was the subject of my conscious sexual awakening. This is after all true of every heterosexual American male born within a year either side of me.

My most recent viewing was during its 1997 20th Anniversary re-release. That time around, it seemed mostly pretty dumb.

- - - - -

A while ago somebody saw Star Wars (now rather fatuously, I note, marketed as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) coming up on the Great Movies list and objected that its sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, is the better movie. Well, maybe. I personally find the sequel a more interesting film. But in terms of sheer cultural impact, not to mention impact on subsequent movie making -- both on how movies are made and on what kind of movies get made -- the original Star Wars is by far the "greater" of the two. Indeed, it is easily the "greatest" movie made in my lifetime. A case could be made, I think, that it packed and packs more cultural significance than all the other movies made in my lifetime put together. If ever there was a Great Movie, Star Wars is a Great Movie. So it's too bad that it kind of sucks.

For it really does kind of suck. I mean, sure: the technical effects, the editing, the music, Sir Alec Guiness -- all terrific. The costume design, the set design -- impeccable. Clearly, it was an incredibly successful entertainment, and I'd be a fool to deny that. But it is also a profoundly stupid movie, and -- here's the important point -- it didn't need to be. It could have been massively entertaining and smart, but George Lucas was either unwilling or incapable of making it so. He went the low road instead. And given the movie's incredible and enduring cultural power, that's kind of tragic.

Ways That Star Wars Sucks

1. It is politically reactionary. In the first sentence of the famous opening titles, we are told that there is an "evil galactic empire" and a virtuous rebel army. Says who? I bet some people in the galactic empire think that the men and women of their armed forces are heroes protecting the established order against rebel terrorists. And yes, I noticed that the Death Star is used to make a statement by blowing up a civilian planet -- in much the same way that, say, the Allied air forces firebombed German cities during the Second World War -- but beyond that, we aren't given any reason to support one side over the other. We are just told to. And this, not to put too fine a point on it, reeks of fascism.

2. The plot hinges on an "armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet." Big whup. Once you're in space, you can drop a big rock -- say, half a kilometer across -- and effectively destroy an entire planet. For a trillionth the cost of the Death Star, the Empire could strap engines onto small asteroids and take out entire planets by the score. Conversely, the Death Star's allegedly critical design flaw -- that its "fusion core" has a two meter vent on the outside surface -- is completely irrelevant. It is every bit as vulnerable as a planet, or anything else in space, to having a big rock thrown at it, except that since it's pressurized the rock wouldn't have to be so big. Therefore, the entire premise of the movie is ridiculous. Call me crazy, but I think this takes a little something away from the viewing experience.

3. Luke Skywalker's long day. He wakes up in the morning to find one of his new robots missing. He goes looking for it, gets mugged, gets rescued by a local oddball, returns home to find that the only family he has ever known has been killed, travels with the oddball to the big city for the first time in his life, then heads into space, rescues a princess from the Death Star, and returns her to her rebel base. This is all explicitly shown as continuous action -- it's one day of his life. When he discovers the charred skeletal remains of his aunt and uncle, he seems a little saddened; when Ben Kenobi, whom he has known for perhaps twelve hours, vanishes mysteriously in a cloud of cloak, he acts as though he has lost the most important person in his life. A few scenes later, asked about the robot R2D2, he will exclaim "that little 'droid and I have been through a lot together." This is not true. He bought that little 'droid yesterday afternoon, and even since then they've spent very little time in the same room with each other.

4. Mark Hamill. He had perhaps the most visible role of all time, and yet it did not launch a successful acting career. And boy, you can sure see why.

5. A million little inanities:
  • Your ship has been swallowed within another ship thousands of times its size. A boarding party enters, and you line up to shoot at them. What the hell for? If you want to make a significant sacrifice, blow your own ship up and cause some damage. Otherwise, surrender. Resistance is, quite literally, useless.
  • Luke's little jalopy has what is clearly a jet intake mounted immediately behind his head. Yet it does not rip his head off of his shoulders and spray a plume of red foam out behind the vehicle, as one would expect.
  • Kenobi points to damage on a desert vehicle and notes "only Imperial storm troopers are so precise." For the rest of the movie, no Imperial storm trooper can hit the broad side of a barn.
  • The stupidest alien ever born holds Han Solo at gunpoint, but then allows him to fish around under the table, draw his weapon, and fire. Seriously? That's a mistake a bounty hunter is going to make?
  • A Storm Trooper tells his men to "load your weapons" as they trot into action. None of them respond to this command, which kind of makes sense, because their "blasters" clearly aren't a kind of weapon that one would "load" with something.
  • Spaceships make noise. Specifically, they sound almost exactly like jet airplanes.
  • At the beginning of the movie, the robots are allowed to get away because the pod they are in is remotely scanned and no "life signs" are found. When the Millennium Falcon is sucked into the Death Star, four large mammals are able to hide in the closet.
  • Luke Skywalker, whose sole credential is that he managed an inept but extravagantly lucky rescue of the Princess earlier in the day, is given a military spacecraft to pilot in the assault on the Death Star. Uh-huh. This is only slightly more far-fetched than the possibility that you, dear reader, might be allowed to volunteer later today to fly a combat sortie off of an aircraft carrier. Hell, I'm sure you could handle it. You know how to drive, after all.
  • When all three survivors of the attack on the Death Star return to base, everyone is exuberant and joyful -- until they notice that a robot has sustained temporary damage.
6. Things that may just be personal annoyances:
  • C3PO
  • The idea that the Death Star followed the Millennium Falcon through hyperspace. This is no more unreasonable than anything else going through hyperspace, I suppose, but it just kind of feels wrong for something the size of "a small moon" to be that nimble.
  • Darth Vader's piloting skillz. What is that he's doing when he's flying his personal spacecraft? He constantly looks like he's opening a hip flask. Maybe flying makes him nervous.
  • From having seen the sequels, we know that when Vader's troops kill Luke's uncle, they are in fact killing their commander's brother. Now clearly Darth isn't above a little casual fratricide, but it is not like him to let the event pass without some ceremonial gloating.
  • I have always found the Leni Reifenstahl-style award ceremony that concludes the movie kind of embarrassing to watch. It's a surprisingly leaden ending for a movie that, despite all of the above, certainly manages to keep a strong sense of momentum right up through its penultimate scene.

Plot: Naive farm boy gets embroiled in an epic geopolitical struggle about which he could not possibly have any real understanding. After a few minutes' training with an oddball mystic, he pilots a small, unfamiliar spacecraft to destroy the most sophisticated piece of military technology ever created.

Visuals: Nothing like Star Wars had ever been seen before. To say that the visuals were amazing is an understatement. It almost goes without saying that my imagination and fantasy life have been deeply etched by the visual world of Star Wars, and that yours have too.

Dialog: With the exception of the action that takes place within the Death Star, easily the best stretch of the movie, the script is really pretty wooden. Obviously this didn't hurt the movie's impact, but a little wit or freshness of writing wouldn't have killed anybody. Even Harrison Ford, a very talented actor, is not always able to make his lines work. Sir Alec Guiness does manage to make all of his lines work, and to watch him do so is a fairly awesome demonstration of the actor's craft.

Prognosis: Mandatory for cultural literacy, of course, and a required stop on the History of Film grand tour. As an entertainment, highly recommended for nine year old boys.


Cartophiliac said...

You tell `em, Comic Book Guy!

Elizabeth said...

Suspension of disbelief! Suspension of disbelief! LA LA LA LA LA LA I CAN'T HEAR YOU!!

mysterymoor said...

Can you believe I've never seen this? It's on my new year's resolutions.

KarmaSartre said...

I think that was your best critique. Very true. Very funny write-up.

DrSchnell said...

"This is not the Great Movie you're looking for...."

Did you see the original one, or the one that Lucas added a bunch of computer graphics to about eight years ago? That one's definitely worse.

Upon re-seeing this several years back, I also was appalled at just how bad an actor Mark Hamill was/is. Plot holes aside (I'm all for willful suspension of disbelief, a la Elizabeth), during this recent re-viewing, I also found myself rooting for the Empire because he was such a whiny, annoying little putz.

Also upon my re-viewing, I thought it was odd how we were supposed to root for the restoration of some sort of dingbat monarchy (Princess Leia) over an Evil Empire. Neither sounds all that appealing. Related: I never could stomach the movie The Lion King, since the entire movie is basically a defense of the divine right of kings, and nobody'd better get uppity about it.

DrSchnell said...

Oh, and as bad as this one might be, it is a masterpiece in every way compared to Volume 1 of the second trilogy (Phantom Menace).

DrSchnell said...

Oh, and originally, Star Wars also had the "Episode IV: A New Hope" on the opening crawl, which was really confusing back in second grade.

The Calico Cat said...

You know, I have never seen any of these...

gl. said...

for sven's sake, i will pretend i didn't read this. ;)

Ben said...

Not to nit-pick nitpickyness, but wasn't Luke's "uncle" actually Anakin's STEP-brother?

Aviatrix said...

Dr Schnell: I did not remember that Episode IV thing. I guess if I noticed it at all I thought it was part of the conceit that this was an ongoing saga.

Michael: Brilliant and true. That plot summary is getting forwarded. I had been under the impression that Mark Hammill's career was stopped by a disfiguring accident. He does voiceover work nowadays.

IamSusie said...

Can you pick apart Avatar like this? That would be great.

gl. said...

oh, god yes! please pick apart avatar!

Jenners said...

This was awesome! As someone who has recently watched all 6 of the Star Wars movies (due to my son's falling under the Star Wars spell), I got a lot of chuckles out of this post! Please, watch all 6 and analyze them. I need to hear what you think of the horrific Jar Jar Binks!

DrSchnell said...

Ah, Jar Jar. The only one of the "new" trilogy of Star Wars that I've seen is the first one, and that explains why I haven't seen the two after that. I remember hearing the controversy over Jar Jar Binks as a racial caricature, and thinking, "I bet people are just getting their knickers in a twist about nothing." Then I saw it, and darn it all if my knickers didn't get all twisted too.

Rebel said...

Your mild annoyances will turn into awesome hillarity if you play the star wars drinking game: http://www.comedycorner.org/82.html

Michael5000 said...

@Carto: Touche, mon frere.

@E: My review will be with you always, Elizabeth.

@andrea & Calico: It really is kind of hard to imagine someone not having seen Star Wars. I think your first experience of it will be different than my first experience of it was.

@Karma: Mercy. And good to see you.

@DrSchnell: "This is not the Great Movie we're looking for."

@gl.: Oh, I think Sven could mount an effective rebuttal.

@Ben: I will take your word for it.

@Aviatrix: Says on the Wiki that Mark Hammill actually had a successful stage career before going into voice acting. More power to him. The Star Wars script didn't exactly give him a lot of opportunities to shine.

@IamSusie & gl.: But I'd have to WATCH avatar!

@Jenners: Like the good doctor, I saw the fourth one -- "Episode I," the one with Jar Jar Binks -- and declared that from that day on, I would consume Star Wars product no more forever.

@Rebecca: That drinking game would be lethal even if played with water. There's only so much liquid a human body can contain.

mhwitt said...

When I was age 10 and saw 'Star Wars' in the theater, my only thought about Princess Leia was that her hair looked kinda like the Los Angeles Rams helmet design. That underwhelming feeling might also be why I did not see it again until I was a freshman in college as an on-campus $1 movie and my friends really wanted to see it. Poor film projectors and sound quality aside, it was actually a better setting, but I could have skipped it even then.

In short, I was over the whole 'Star Wars' idea a long, long time ago... even if they are cool to look at.

Thanks for the thoughtful review though. I can almost never see the plot contradictions that leap out at smart folks like you.

Did you catch this interview?

Vaughn said...

I agree with most of your criticisms. Thanks to Star Wars, we get blockbusters like Avatar that look incredible, but with a script and acting performances that suck ass. I watched "A New Hope" recently and was depressed that it wasn't all that much better than the recent Prequels. "The Empire Strikes Back" is the only really good film of the 6, though Harrison Ford, R2D2, the Stormtrooper costumes, and Darth Vader make the 1st 3 at least enjoyable.

Voron X said...

Great review. I should post a link here to the most hilarious revews EVER of the Star Wars Prequels (all three), which as has been said, make the Original look like a cinematic masterpiece. Highly reccommended to anybody who hates George Lucas for what he did to the backstory/franchise.
They're pretty long, btw, but worth it.

Voron X said...

Oh yeah - I forgot to add - I saw Empire first before I ever saw the original (I was about not even 4 when that came out!), so I didn't get to see A New Hope till it was on VHS, and then it was on a tiny early 80s color TV in standard framing and questionable quality. Not as earth-shattering in the visuals department. And, of course, Return of the Jedi utterly blew away my 9 and a half year old self, ewoks notwithstanding.