I saw the original Star Wars when it first came out in the theater. I was 8. Years later my Dad told me that his reaction to the Imperial ship that appears in the first scene was that “it just kept going on and on.” To me, it didn’t seem like anything special. Wasn’t this how science fiction was supposed to be?
Star Wars is the first great triumph of action and visuals over story. In that way it’s truly the film that separates the movies that preceded it from the movies that followed it. This is not to say there’s nothing else to it: There’s plenty of fine acting (alongside some truly terrible acting) – some of it perhaps all the more fine because they manage to turn some pretty awful dialogue into memorable lines and scenes. For all his flaws – on ample display in the prequel films – George Lucas hits the right notes in both writing and direction: The visuals are not quite up to 2001 standards (we’d have to wait for The Empire Strikes Back for that), but they’re still impressive for the era. The pacing is just right, moving the story along to keep getting back to the action and dialogue; despite that, there’s plenty of room for the setting to breathe, perhaps only getting bogged down in the Mos Eisley sequence. The extra footage in the special edition – especially the Han/Jabba sequence – is completely superfluous and was correctly left on the cutting room floor.
I think it’s fair to take everything in the original film at face value, and indeed one of the film’s strengths is that it suggests a lot without digging into it. There’s a rebellion against the Empire which has just won its first major victory. Leia is a princess of Alderaan whose father is backing the rebellion. Luke’s father was killed by Darth Vader when he was a boy. There’s no reason to believe Luke, Leia and Vader are related.
I’m never sure what to think of Lucas claiming to have been influenced by Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth; does it really matter? Storytelling is storytelling, and the film’s visceral impact, as far as the story goes, has more to do with the colorful characters, and the fact that Luke is so readily identifiable by the viewer as the hero. (Luke’s whininess early in the film is often mocked, but it’s essential to making him someone we feel for.
I also generally reject claims that Lucas had much of anything beyond the first film planned out ahead of time. Much like J.K. Rowling’s claims decades later of having concocted the entire Harry Potter arc up-front, it feels like after-the-fact rationalization (or mythologicization), trying to fit the tap-dancing after the property became big into a bigger framework. I think fans of these franchises are too willing to believe that the creators had a grand plan which they neatly executed. I think it’s all hogwash.
Nonetheless, Star Wars is a story of redemption, just not of Luke redeeming the sins of his father Anakin. Rather, in the first movie Obi-Wan meets the son of the man who died because he failed to train Vader appropriately, and he sees the opportunity to give Luke the ability to avenge his father and follow his dream of fighting for the rebellion. Luke is redeeming Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan even gives up his life to afford Luke this opportunity.
While Star Wars is the story of a boy becoming a man, The Empire Strikes Back is the story of that man learning that the reality behind his boyhood dreams is much darker and more serious than he’d believed. It’s an adult story with adults doing adult things (I didn’t appreciate the interplay between Han and Leia when I was 11, but it’s one of the best parts of the film to me as an adult.) It’s a much better crafted film than the first one, with fewer of the storytelling glitches that we were cheerfully overlooking the first time around. (To my mind the biggest glitch is a subtle one: The Leia/Han story thread appears to take place over a few days – maybe a couple of weeks once they get to the cloud city, while Luke seems to spend months – maybe even a year – on Dagobah being trained by Yoda.) It doesn’t quite have the thrill of the first film, and of course it ends on a down note. I vacillate between the two films and which one I like more.
Unfortunately Empire was also the start of the cracks in the franchise. The main in-story crack is the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father. When I first saw the film, I felt this was a stretch. But maybe they could pull it off. Maybe Obi-Wan didn’t know, that he’d been tricked or something, or maybe there was something even more sinister going on. Or maybe Vader was just lying – he’s the villain, of course he could be lying. Given the way things played out, the revelation was a short-term shock was ended up being a story disaster. They should have just gone with “Vader was lying”.
Outside the story was the indication of how marketing and merchandising was going to disrupt the franchise. I remember the action figures being highly desirable at the time, and the Boba Fett action figure was given heavy promotion. I didn’t understand it at the time (remember, I was 11) – why should I care about this character I hadn’t even seen yet? And then he had a negligible role in the film. In hindsight, this was one of the early signs of Lucasfilm and its allies making a big cash grab. Boba Fett was a disposable character who didn’t even look very cool, but he was hyped up to make some money. This was the future of the franchise.
As far as I’m concerned, Return of the Jedi was functionally the end of the franchise. Indeed, after the opening sequence where Han is rescued – which may be the single best set-piece in the whole series – the film starts going downhill and then picks up speed. Actually the film starts off on a low point, with the creatively-bankrupt introduction of a second Death Star. Lucas was pretty clearly out of ideas, and consequently the film’s best sequence is just the payoff of the cliffhanger from the previous film. From there we have way too many made-up aliens, ridiculously complicated space battles, Ewoks (which should have been Wookees), and of course the ludicrous revelation that Luke and Leia are siblings (thus undercutting most of the dramatic tension of the protagonist’s romance). As a series of fight scenes, Jedi is decent enough, but as the capstone of a three-part story, it’s a mess.
Around that time there were rumors that Lucas was planning to do a 9-episode arc, filming the three prequel films next, and then three more films afterwards. I remember reading how old the actors would be if they continued to release a film every 3 years – by 2001, Alec Guinness would be 87 years old (in fact he died in 2000). After the disappointment of Jedi (particularly in contrast to the tremendously rewarding Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan the year before), it was kind of a relief at the time to learn there would be no more Star Wars films. The term “jumping the shark” hadn’t been coined yet, but the franchise had pretty clearly done it – really, it had just barely limped to the finish line under the collective weight of its implausible backstory and increasingly-grandiose special effects. Ultimately, the series would have done better to have disposed of the shocking revelations and just focused on straightforward action and suspense.
In the early 90s, Dark Horse Comics got the license to produce Star Wars comics (the largely-forgettable Marvel Comics series having been cancelled a few years earlier). At the time Star Wars felt like an enjoyable childhood adventure film, but did anyone really care 10 years after the last film enough to buy any comic books? Apparently they did. I wondered a few years later of this was the leading edge of Lucasfilms getting Star Wars back in the public consciousness in advance of the prequel series. (Now, 20 years later, Disney owns both Marvel Comics and Lucasfilm, and is pulling the license back from Dark Horse.) The “special edition” versions of the original trilogy came out not long after, with their newer-technology special effects that stripped some of the charm from the original films.
I have little to say about the prequels. I was moderately enthusiastic about The Phantom Menace, but it was godawful. I wasn’t very excited about the next two, and indeed all three are basically forgettable. They’re not even like some recent action films where there are a few good scenes worth watching if you turn in on TV at the right time – they’re just soulless and bad.
Over time, I’m less and less a fan of “franchises”. It feels like most of the DC and Marvel comic book characters are long past their sell-by date. These days Superman and Batman feel more like parodies of their original (or their most popular) incarnations. Star Wars seems no different. I often wonder what keeps its fans enthused about the franchise, but I guess I just don’t understand since I think he franchise has had negligible entertainment value since Return of the Jedi. I really have very little interest in the about-to-start-filming Episode VII. Though based on Star Trek Into Darkness, it seems likely that J.J. Abrams should be able to follow the “series of action set-pieces with limited story content” formula. I also secretly hope that Mark Hamill will speak all of his lines in the voice of The Joker.
Watching the original film, as I have been while typing this, it still stands up as an entertaining action film, with snappy dialogue and a little heart. But compared to the Star Wars franchise today, it also feels like it was made a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away.