With the release of The Last Jedi, I’ll be reviewing every Star Wars film not currently covered on this site, which means all the pre-Disney films excepting the indomitable Empire.
Star Wars fan-boys fall head over heels for George Lucas’ world-building, but the standout quality of Lucas’ first Star Wars film is it vision of a world already built, destroyed, and stratified. Narratively and commercially an infamous break from the serious dramas of the New Hollywood during the early ‘70s, the visual style of Star Wars is nonetheless heavily schooled in the dog-tired, emptied-out malnourishment of ‘70s cynicism. The town of Mos Eisley in particular, druggy, hallucinogenic Cantina aside, could slide neatly into any washed-out Southwestern American state circa 1977. Visually, Star Wars bears all the bruised beauty and shambolic, hang-dog lethargy of a revisionist Western.
Narratively, of course, it’s another story. It’s for the best that the plot can be summed up so eloquently, because the film certainly doesn’t always do so. Lucas’ underrated knack for visual suggestion is not even remotely matched by his lead-footed screenwriting most obviously reflected in his infamously explanatory, banal dialogue that reverberates like human reason gone truly haywire. But we’re not there yet. For the moment, let’s just say that the dramatic outline – Star Wars works best as a sketchbook galvanized as a bracing series of beautiful visual stanzas – is essentially great, or at least potentially great when it is fertilized by Lucas’ imagery.
There isn’t really much to write about the plot itself, except that it is perhaps beyond explanation at this point, so we’ll just say a boy finds a robot with important evidence of an evil cabal of space Nazis, and they team up with a wise old sage, a smuggler, and the smuggler’s hirsute partner to rescue the robot’s royal owner from the space Nazis and then blow up their base, thereby hopefully not only disrupting their prospects but laying their plans in the grave before they’re even born.
Simple, stupid, elegant, and for this film, at least, a perfectly anonymous shell to freight with some of the finest cinematic audio-visual credentials of its decade. Beneath Lucas lies a shadow army of extraordinarily talented crafts-persons who essentially invent the moods and textures of the film wholesale. There’s John Barry’s forlorn production design, quietly expressing the hollowed-out haze of a life protagonist Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) lives and the barren possibilities that exist even beyond his hermetic existence. There’s Gilbert Taylor’s gloriously grainy cinematography, all blasted-out exteriors and callow, infected interiors. (All the skillful mimicry of the new films cannot replicate the essential materiality of ‘70s celluloid). There’s John Dykstra’s cinema-changing special effects, all of which emphasize a tangible, weighty materiality that emphasizes an effect’s physicality in the world, its existence as three-dimensional materiality sucking up space in a world that is simultaneously hopelessly cavernous and extraordinarily, uncomfortably occupied and busy. (Just consider the fantastic negative presence of the opening Star Destroyer, which turns a behemoth visual presence into an absence of screen to escape its hulking Hobbesian monstrosity). And there’s John Williams’ score, almost single-handedly standing against the dying of the light with an astonishing fleet of narrative-driving cues that do not merely demand attention but which reconsider the very spirit of the drama and orient our feelings.
And ultimately, there’s the script, where all the film’s problems lie. Beyond merely flawed, Star Wars’ writing only occasionally circumvents Lucas’ impenetrably poor ear for human rationale, succeeding primarily in the moments where Lucas’ personal interests take control or creep around the back. Most of his passions – mid-century pulp, Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films – are displaced to the visual mountings around the story, which necessarily hobbles the personal quotient of the narrative itself. The lone exception is Lucas’ fetish for vehicle culture as an avenue for teenagers beleaguered by aimless ennui and malaise, an outlet for youths to bide time and keep the emptiness around them at bay. Speed, motion, and velocity are harnessed for a perpetual-unknown that is always constantly out of reach, and thus always ready to be driven to. But most of the care is on display only in the cinematic execution, the transmission from paper to screen.
Especially once we leave Tatooine, things quickly devolve into a hustle of running around indifferently that is itself indifferently-played by the three co-leads, all of whom are alternately over-playing (Hamill), under-playing (Ford), and over-playing, then under-playing, and then over-and-under-playing at once (Fisher). Ford in particular wouldn’t do anything interesting with his much-hated role until his final screen appearance as the character nearly forty years later. During the latter portions of the film, in fact, the supporting players are frequently the only on-screen figures throbbing with any life at all, even if it is a deathless, zombified life rooted in subscription to evil ideology (James Earl Jones and David Prowse as the voice and body of Darth Vader respectively) or a life-as-shadow-of-its-former-self world-weariness (Alec Guinness, wonderfully seen-it-all as Obi Wan Kenobi, especially when he plays Lucas’ dialogue with a sense of unfazed amusement rather than apocalyptic concern).
Still, it’s the craft that ultimately catalyzes the film’s reputation, and the craft which is the primary character of the work after all these years. It’s all extremely influential, extremely important, and, for the most part, extremely wonderful. So influential that the wide swath of subsequent popcorn cinema sometimes plays like a flotilla of acceptances and minor alterations, each film judged simply by its ability to be or not be Star Wars. Naturally, most films emerge as little more than distant echoes rather than thoughtful refractions of existing themes. So where did it all go wrong then? Part of the problem is that the mounting sense of existential futility Star Wars and its first sequel dole out so wonderfully – and which, for my money, only Rogue Squadron really recreates – have become looking glasses for all “respectable” blockbuster cinema. Darkness becomes a lens through which “good blockbusters” may not only be understood but seemingly must be understood.
That’s because “mature” pop cinema continually returns to the same water-hole, considering “depth” not as Empire does – as a way to break the rules, to expand cinema adventurously, an urge felt and understood in every image of toxic futility or loss – but as a way either to “show-off” a darkness that would make Goya blush or a simple addendum or addition to a backbone of gee-whiz giddiness. We get moments of maturity in many modern blockbusters, but they are either compulsory – see Christopher Nolan’s Batman films which seem to treat darkness as a forced affectation rather than a natural progression of themes – or complimentary – see the Marvel films where “political themes” are stocking stuffers that filmmakers can open or not depending upon whether it will disrupt the flow of their narrative, whether it is convenient for them. The latter feel indifferent to darkness and the former feel thematically-enclosed by it rather than enshrouded in it or liberated through it.
Thus, no film in the series has yet to really mine the themes implicit in Star Wars for all they’re worth, because they all treat “seriousness” as a heroic impulse, a reason to raise the mood lighting and darken the color scheme to a binary of slate grey and steel blue all while submerging the drama in layers and layers of artificially-weighted importance. Few can match the lightness of touch that the original Star Wars has, its disinterest in underlining its themes or bolding or italicizing every image that speaks to the ragged, lost-in-the-sand nature of the tone here. The style and tone are almost too lonely, too empty, too minimalistic – as weird as that is to write for a Star Wars film – to be comfortable for a 200-million dollar blockbuster that wants to demand its audience’s attention.
A truly heroic Star Wars in this day would entail a different kind of heroism, a heroic realization of the recidivism inherent to these films at a thematic level, a commitment to analyzing the fact that these films – for all their heroic credentials – repeat themselves ad nauseam. This repetition could be a way of cracking open the potentially terrifying implications of the personal dialectic of destiny inherent to most of this series and many blockbusters more widely. Luke is obviously melancholic about his life as a farmer, but does “accomplishing great things” actually do more for him beyond granting him an equally foretold penitentiary to model his life after? None of the Star Wars films truly question their confinement to the corridors of their chosen moral spectrum or their belief that self-fashioning oneself to achieve greatness should be predicated on a quasi-aristocratic “chosen one” lineage that totally undermines any potential populist message. They all promise an extraordinary sense of possibility, and they regurgitate bromides about fulfilling known trajectories, about “becoming your true, pre-destined self,” about slotting into position along good and evil dichotomies that are punishingly fixed in orientation. The first Star Wars ever so slightly motions toward the still-exhausting caliber of these moral confines or normative structures with its desolate cinematography and production design, just as potently empty when Luke “succeeds” as when he wallows in torpor. Empire Strikes Back pushes even further on the limits of this vision, but the series almost entirely lost the train after that. We’ll get there in due time, but if the original Star Wars is a commendable start, a truly masterful film would imply a sense of self-scrutiny – of pushing beyond the limits of the moral imperative to “push beyond one’s limits” – that this film is not quite up to the task of.