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At a 20-year remove, George Lucas' Star Wars comes off less as the work of a wizard than as the weird obsessional by-product of an eccentric American primitive.
If you're not a Star Wars fanatic, and you re-see this movie now varnished to a sheen in its self-consciously spiffy new edition, yet stripped of the novelty it had in 1977, you may be amazed that it became a phenomenon. It suffers from unspeakable dialogue (leaving the cast befuddled for an approach to it), very long chunks of exposition, a white-bread view of the cosmos, desexed schoolboy airs and monotonous rhythms. The Star Wars of the title have as complicated a back story as the Wars of the Roses, a presumptuous burden considering that all audiences have to know is that Darth Vader (the voice of James Earl Jones) is bad and that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and friends--feisty rebel Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), lovable mercenary Han Solo (Harrison Ford), guru Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness)--are good. And though comic-book art usually bursts with adolescent sexuality, even the most striking costume designs seem neutered. (Have a codpiece and metallic pecs ever seemed less suggestive than they are on the Imperial Stormtroopers? And why does Princess Leia dress like a vestal virgin?)
The movie isn't a breakneck adventure, either. It's often blamed for the action-blockbuster mentality that's corrupted American moviemaking for two decades, but no studio executive today would green-light such a gassy script. The first hour in particular is heavy lifting, as Darth Vader bullies a horde of forgettable subordinate baddies and Obi-wan convinces Luke to be all that he can be. The movie's hold relies on Lucas' pulp notions of virtue connecting with America's hunger for an all-purpose, ready-to-wear philosophy. What could be easier to swallow than the beliefs of the Jedi knights (compacted from cartoons, sci-fi serials, Westerns and swashbucklers, spiked with '60s consciousness expansion and anthropology)? In spite of the scripture that's grown up around them, their pursuit of positive feeling isn't any more challenging than Green Lantern's faith in willpower.
"I am Oz, the Great and Powerful," declared one of Lucas' major influences, the Wizard of Oz. Star Wars alternates between the Not-So-Great and Powerful, but it is intriguing: uninteresting in an interesting way, filled with notions that don't quite crawl to the level of ideas, and moods that rarely acquire the weight of emotion. There is still something enjoyably jolting about seeing "sand people" with eyes like the air jets above airplane seats, or "Jawas" who look like incongruously jolly leprous monks, or a junk heap filled with mutated gadgets, all rolled out with serene matter-of-factness, as if each had an ordained place in the cosmos. And if you're surrounded by hundreds of rapt viewers--people who've attended the film so many times that they don't clap for the cliffhanger climaxes or laugh at the obvious jokes, but do clap fervently at the end--you have to grant that Star Wars is a genuine Yankee-tinker oddity. It's a cult movie for a mass viewership. And unlike cults for small-scale movies, the Star Wars cultists, like Star Trek's Trekkers, take their preoccupation seriously, as a pop route to transcendence. They turn stick figures into icons and worship the notion of "The Force"--Lucas' variation on the Eastern concept of a vital energy coursing through the universe, here capable of fueling good or evil depending on how it's shaped by humanity.
As moviemaking, Star Wars is telling evidence of why, after this feature (and his two earlier films, THX-1138 and American Graffiti), Lucas gave up directing. He's far better with concepts--an android running up against a mammoth animal corpse in a wasteland, a freak summation of a Darwinian environment--than with flesh-and-blood characters like Luke sitting around the dinner table with his farmer aunt and uncle. And Lucas' fantastic compositional sense is divorced from human drama: He's able to position props (and the characters who might as well be props) as if they were vectors, signifying movement when there isn't any. Yet he can't get a narrative point across without a ton of dead-weight dialogue. Nonetheless, as entrepreneurial invention, the film is flabbergasting. Several times in his career, Lucas has done something most filmmakers do only once--revive or open up genres or areas of subject matter that other filmmakers go on to mine or vary, perfect or deepen. He did it with pre-'62 growing up in American Graffiti, with globetrotting adventure in the Indiana Jones series, and with space opera in Star Wars.
But Lucas has had subtler legacies, too. Would Diner have been financed if the success of an earlier vignette-style coming-of-age ensemble period piece--Lucas' American Graffiti--weren't in studio executives' heads? And the credits to Lucas' directorial efforts are also a credit to his taste, from actors like Richard Dreyfuss and Paul LeMat and Harrison Ford to that sound and editing wizard Walter Murch. The second-unit photographers for Star Wars alone included Carroll Ballard (who went on to direct The Black Stallion), Robert Dalva (who edited The Black Stallion) and Tak Fujimoto (who shot Melvin and Howard, Something Wild and The Silence of the Lambs for Jonathan Demme). Too bad Star Wars has become such a commercial vortex that it's weakened Lucas as a catalyst, sucking down his time.
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