Last Gen X American Theater Review: Star Wars

I saw Star Wars last weekend. Not Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I mean Star Wars, the original. As in, the opening crawl included neither “Episode IV,” nor, “A New Hope,” just “STAR WARS” and then text, signifying that this was indeed the 1977 version. Sometime in the mid-2000s, Lucasfilm caved and offered a limited edition of the original three Star Wars movies, which included bonus DVDs of the un-CGI-ed movies I grew up with—in widescreen. I haven’t so much as tested the “Special Edition” discs.

I think I’ve seen Star Wars twice in the last decade, with the last time being the uncut version (29:22!), so with some time to let it rest in my mind, and watching it with someone who’d never seen it before, I approached the movie with as fresh a mind as I could. I’m certain I watched it scores of times since childhood (once dubbed in Japanese, which was awesome), so I’m definitely unprejudiced. Here are my thoughts:

Luke Skywalker:

Luke wasn’t as whiny as I remember, but he didn’t have much of an arc. Sure he goes on the hero’s journey, but he’s never given an opportunity to opt out. Either he runs off with Ben Kenobi on a swashbuckling adventure, or he sweeps his relatives’ charred corpses into the ditch and becomes a moisture farmer. It’s not much of a choice: “Steinbeck in Space” would’ve been a hard sell.

Part of my problem is that the movie builds up to Luke rejecting Uncle Owen’s libertarian isolationism, but Luke is cheated of that moment. It would’ve more exciting if, rather than being murdered, his aunt and uncle cooperate with the Empire to recover the droids. Uncle Owen may’ve figured the droids weren’t worth his life. He would try to convince Luke to give the droids to the stormtroopers and Luke would’ve said no, perhaps knowing that his decision would doom his relatives.

It’s dark, but Star Wars paints Luke as released when Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are killed, like lifting a great weight from him. He never pins a stormtrooper down and blaster-rifle-butts his face in screaming, “You killed my family, you bastards!” That would’ve even offered a motivation for him to experiment with the dark side of the Force.

Imperial Savagery:

Relatedly, Star Wars depicts the Empire as alternately incompetent and downright savage—off screen. Luke asks why the Empire would want to murder Jawas, but simply answering, “It’s the droids, dummy,” isn’t good enough. Sometimes people will answer your questions without needing to shoot them or even threaten them beyond showing up with a platoon of stormtroopers. They get the hint. The Jawas had no reason to resist the Empire either. They didn’t have the droids and they’d already been paid. It’s not like they owed customer confidentiality to Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru.

As stated earlier, Luke’s relatives didn’t need to resist the Empire either. The stormtroopers had every reason to give them the, “Sir, can you call your nephew and tell him to bring those droids right back here? He’ll be in deep trouble if he doesn’t” treatment. Sure, the scene of Luke returning to his burning home is iconic and superbly executed, but it’s the easy way out for the character.

So, did the Empire kill every single person they came across on Tatooine who so much as looked at R2D2? I think not. Just when it was convenient.

Han Solo:

I chuckled when he shot Greedo. First. It was a great scene to establish the character. However, this time around I found him bizarrely reckless. His fearlessness is endearing, but he runs after some stormtroopers in the Death Star for absolutely no reason. Luke rightly cries, “Where are you going?” He also fires his blaster needlessly at times, e.g. at the trash compactor monster. It’s a wonder he wasn’t killed. At least he has more of an arc than Luke because he decides to go back and join the attack on the Death Star, but it isn’t particularly deep.

The Death Star:

Watching the Death Star scenes, both the interior and the final attack, a wondered, “Just how big is it?” I’d always thought it was colossal, crammed with military arsenals for all kinds of operations and hundreds of thousands of stormtroopers. Like, mind-boggling overkill in every dimension. Watching it this time, though, I think it’s either much smaller than I imagined (or its size varies depending on the plot). I’ve always been mesmerized by its surreal, endless shafts, and vertical lighting that emphasizes them, but nevertheless the characters have no difficulty whatsoever navigating it.

Maybe that’s a case of the saying I’m told is attributed to Aristotle, “It’s better to make the impossible plausible than the implausible plausible.” I can believe in a moon-sized space station that can blow up planets, but I can’t believe the protagonists can run around inside like it’s not the Minotaur’s maze. On the other hand, Star Wars is a heroic epic, and perhaps the genre enables heroes to wander around the Death Star. I’m confident that a movie made today with a location like the Death Star would not work without more explanation of how the characters can move around so brashly. Now, I’m wondering how big it was in Lucas’ head. In my mind, it’s now much smaller in size and scope.

Additionally, the trash compactor monster bit was much sillier this time around. Then again, the Death Star’s interior is a different universe than the rest of the movie.

The Force:

The other thing we have to accept is how much subtler the Force is in Star Wars than its successors. Only when Darth Vader chokes the Death Star’s commander do we have any reason to believe that the Force permits telekinesis, but even that appears as a kind of magic or spooky mind control rather than physical action.

To be honest, I prefer this Force to what comes after. Once Luke uses Force telekinesis to pull his lightsaber to him from the snow in The Empire Strikes Back, the nature of the Force goes downhill, becoming an object of manipulation available to the chosen few. But in Star Wars there’s a possibility that if you believe in the Force, you can tap it to a degree, yet it just happens that no one believes in it. Now it’s just a vehicle for video game power-ups.

Han can question the Force as “hokey religion” in Star Wars because it’s so unobvious, but once we see Jedis whisking stuff around, it’s difficult to be incredulous. I appreciate The Force Awakens‘ attempt to remind us of this “Force doubt” when Han confesses to Rey that it’s all true, but if Kenobi just yanked Han’s blaster from his holster in the original, the issue would’ve been moot. If Han is our window into the everyday person’s perspective of the galaxy, it’s strange that anyone would be incredulous or forget about the Force and the Jedi.

The Villains:

One reason I think Star Wars works so well is that it doesn’t end with the protagonists killing the ultimate villain, the emperor. In fact, the lead villain, Tarkin, isn’t killed in personal combat with any of the main characters. Only Princess Leia ever interacts with him—or Darth Vader for that matter. Most other movies would add a scene where the (male) protagonists meet the villains (whether they’re captured or not), learn their plans, and then conspire to foil them. However, Star Wars goes nowhere near that. Only Princess Leia conveys the villains’ plans to the male protagonists, and it doesn’t matter because she’s the one in charge of the rebellion. Han bails once he’s paid, and Luke was going to join the rebellion anyway. Luke wasn’t even tasked with leading the attack on the Death Star; he’s charged with supporting the experienced commanders and only attacks himself when they fail.

Meanwhile, Tarkin isn’t a portrayed as a Ming-the-Merciless warlord, he’s a ruthless general. His motivation is to serve autocracy, and he’s fine with that. He’s evil, but professional. More importantly, Darth Vader obeys him, which is more evidence of a weaker (and I think better) conception of the Force than in all the sequels.

Princess Leia:

…Is not really a damsel-in-distress character as I imagined, other than being a princess. She isn’t captured out of her incompetence. In fact, she’s almost as trigger-happy as Han. She initiates the plot by loading the Death Star plans into R2D2 and rescues the male protagonists by discovering the trash compactor. The biggest complaint against her is that she rushes to the rebel base on Yavin knowingly allowing the Empire to track her. The movie should’ve given her a chance to explain this decision. Again, to its credit, The Force Awakens hints at this omission when Han tells Finn and Rey that they need a clean ship because the Millennium Falcon is “hot.”

Leia’s problem is that she’s introduced at the tail end of her story in order to tell us about Luke’s journey to embracing his paternal origin as galactic actor rather than withdrawn moisture farmer. That’s Star Wars‘ gender problem. Disney will never make it, but a Princess Leia prequel could be quite good. We could see her become tough as nails as she’s forced to decide whether to sacrifice innocent civilians to free the galaxy. Leia Guevara would be overboard, but it could draw the character better than Star Wars does with Luke.

I still haven’t read Dune, but…

Rewatching Star Wars left me with a somber realization: No number of re-viewings will give me the experience of seeing Star Wars as a twelve-year-old in 1977. Perhaps the First Gen X American can write that one up, but everything I know about Star Wars‘ origins and proximate impact is second hand. What I did see was a well-paced reduction of baby-boomer icons: the wild west cowboys, Buck Rogers, and WWII air battles. I haven’t read Dune, and I haven’t seen Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, but I know they’re in there as well.

Cramming all this stuff together should fail for its cumbersomeness. Certainly the pacing, the editing (love the wipes), special effects that work with and not against the story, and undoubtedly the score lift it beyond just being good or entertaining.

Whether Star Wars endured because ’70s cinema was “boring” or “cynical,” redeemed the post-Vietnam American psyche, or arrived just in time for folks like me to rewatch it endlessly on VHS, I don’t know. But if a movie was going to become American pop-culture religion, there could’ve been worse candidates, and Star Wars itself could’ve been much worse.

2 comments

  1. I think people overthink Star Wars. A great many of narrative and setting choices the movie appears to make weren’t really crafted by Lucas so much as borrowed from earlier works. The genius of Star Wars was entirely a stroke of luck- it could just as easily have ended up as another awful Lucas movie.

    Lucas basically made a list of ideas he liked that didn’t really fit together, combined them into an overly long mess of a movie, and then his wife (who happened to be an incredible editor) edited them into a great movie. She divorced him after ESB, in case you couldn’t tell.

    The fundamental theme of Star Wars is one of borrowing and combining. So when you see the bottomless chasms of the Death Star, just think “oh I’m seeing the bottomless chasms of Forbidden Planet again.” When you see the well thought out desert planet of Tatooine, remind yourself that Lucas read has read Dune. In all fairness, Vader is a fantastic stand in for Ming the Merciless. You get the idea. Others have written at far greater length on this subject than I’m bothering to do here.

    Star Wars hints at an enormous and complex universe just beyond the camera, but the truth is that Lucas thought out absolutely none of that at the time and most of his subsequent efforts at fleshing out the universe were a horrible mess of one dimensional characterization, racist stereotypes and of course prior canon ruination. Mitichlorians.

    Many have tried to create a consistent hard science fiction basis for the Star Wars universe, but it’s ultimately futile because everything in Star Wars happens at the speed of plot and is governed by what looks cool on the camera. Try estimating the speeds of laser bolts or ships in Star Wars for a good time. This is how the millennium falcon ended up with multiple hyperdrives that run at different speeds.

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