Saturday, March 20, 2010

Star Wars is a Really Good Movie

This evening I watched Star Wars with my seven year-old son for the first time. He's just a little younger than I was when I first saw the film back in 1977 and, while he "knows" Star Wars through pop inculturation, he'd never watched any actual Star Wars movies until today. He enjoyed himself well enough, but I don't think it had quite the same impact on him that it did on me over three decades ago. For example, R2-D2 was the character he seemed most interested in, so the perils of Luke, Leia, and Han were generally of secondary importance to what happened to everyone's favorite astromech droid. I can't say I'm terribly surprised by this. My son lives in a post-Star Wars world, so many of things that made the original film such a revelation to me and others in 1977 are pretty banal nowadays. Honestly, I'd have been rather amazed if he'd come away from watching it with anything close to the euphoric buzz I had when I first saw it more than three decades ago.

This was also the first time I'd watched the film in a while and I came away from it more convinced than ever that it's a really good movie in its own right. Just about everything in it works and does so without either pretension or self-consciousness. Indeed, it's the utter lack of self-consciousness that most impressed me, as it's the quality that most separates the original film from all of its successors. Star Wars is the only one of the series that simply tells a story rather than telling a story about Star Wars. To varying degrees, all of the sequels and prequels exist, at least in part, to tell us more about the characters, places, and events of the original film.

A friend of mine once said that Star Wars is the only one of the series that didn't take place within the Star Wars universe. By that he meant that, until a second film had been made, there wasn't really such a thing as "the Star Wars universe," at least not in the sense that we use that phrase now. Certainly there were lots of details established in the first film, but most of those details existed primarily to advance the story it was telling rather than to flesh out the setting of the story. It's the only film of the series that's like that, which probably explains why, even after years of interminable "expansions" to the original through movies, TV shows, comic books, novels, and other media, it still retains a freshness and vibrancy that the others lack.

I say this not to denigrate everything that came after, some of which I like a great deal, but only to note that the original Star Wars is a very different animal than the phenomenon that it spawned. It exists in a world before Ouroboros and I'm glad of that.


  1. Soon you'll confront the conundrum: In what order should young newcomers view the whole Star Wars series? If you start them at Episode 1, the whole Ep 5 Darth-Luke surprise is lost. (Though practically, I expect that surprise has already leaked entirely into the pop culture.) The best advice I've heard is to show Episodes 4 and 5 first, then jump back and show Episodes 1-3, and finally jump forward to Episode 6 for the story's resolution.

  2. I think you hit upon why so many people consider Star Wars their favorite film of the series even though I believe Empire is much more "critically acclaimed" and Jedi had Ewoks (kidding ... kidding)

  3. Allen:
    The answer is simple, ignore the prequels in your house.
    My son may see them somewhere but not "under my roof", or at least not with my aid. If he goes and gets the DVD himself I see no reason to have a fight to stop him.

    I am also waiting for my son to hit 7/8 and be old enough to watch Star Wars. Although, popular culture is already starting to seep in.

  4. I was 5 when I saw Star Wars (back in the UK) but I don't think we'll be showing it to our son quite yet (he's 5 now). I think 7 seems like a good age for that. :)

  5. This is a very solid analysis, but it doesn't change my mind that Empire is the best in the series. Empire had a bigger budget and aspirations but was close enough to the original that it wasn't taken in by them and ruined by them. It also has the best writing, dialogue, and directing of any of the films.

    The original SW, however, would make the best pulp sci-fi adventure module.

  6. I loved the original when it came out --- if only because we hadn't seen anything like it before... other than maybe Star Trek on TV.

    We were just a lot less jaded then. And the whole thing of having a friend who could control other mens minds (these aren't the droids you are looking for...), then disguising yourself in stormtrooper armor, shooting a bunch of people and then jumping down garbage hatches only to be attacked by a trash monster, then almost getting squeezed to death...and still escaping to come back and save the day? It was like a really good D&D session before we ever played D&D or knew what it was(well, that and Indiana Jones and that big rolling ball in the temple...).

  7. I'm with Brandon: Empire just nudges New Hope out of the way for the crown.

    Couldn't get my five year old into New Hope; the opening battle held her attention, but she never made it to the cantina.

    Bizarrely, Empire grabbed her and didn't let go. Then I got her to watch Jedi--Ewoks helped, but she likes Luke and Darth Vader more. I think the father/son dynamic was intelligible to her.

  8. > Really Good Movie

    Yeah, "movie" but not story. Or, rather it's the same damn story I've seen a hundred times. It's not even real sci-fi, just set in space. Could of been set as western, WWII, etc.

    btw to clarify "real" sci-fi for me is what I believe is called social sci-fi. Movies like "Silent Running", "Farienheit 451"(or modern remake "Equilibrium"), "Logan's Run". Using sci-fi to talk about / point out current or feared social issues. But, that's cause I grew up reading Vonnegut.

  9. until a second film had been made, there wasn't really such a thing as "the Star Wars universe,"

    I'm not so sure. The novelization of the first movie was, I might argue, "bigger" than the movie itself. And there was Splinter of the Mind's Eye the very next year, so the Star Wars Universe certainly started growing before Empire Strikes Back came on the scene.

    And for the record, I prefer episodes 4-6 to 1-3, and find episode 5 the best of the lot, but I'm not a prequel-hater.

  10. The 1977 Star Wars film is my favorite movie of all time.

  11. btw to clarify "real" sci-fi for me is what I believe is called social sci-fi.

    I hate this attitude about sci-fi. "Social" sci-fi, "hard" sci-fi, "dark" sci-fi. All it does is split the genre into meaninglessness. If Star Wars isn't "real" sci-fi just because it's adventure or fantasy or space opera too, then most of what people think to be sci-fi really isn't.

    Jeez, what if somebody said the same thing about some other genre, like fantasy or mystery? "Your fantasy isn't really fantasy because it's not as dark as the pulp swords & sorcery novels I read." Pfft, I'd think this person were talking out their arse...

  12. Star Wars(77) is the only one that is a complete movie. You don't need to know anything going into it and it wraps up it's story. The others don't do that. They were made to be part of a story.

  13. Jumping off from Allen Varney's comment...

    One of the most pernicious things about the prequels is how difficult it makes talking about the order of the movies. It's like a dang Abbot & Costello routine. "The first movie is movie number four in the series, not the first in the series that was the fourth movie released." BAH!

    I agree with EvilDave, what prequels? *does Jedi handwave* "You don't need to see the prequels. These aren't the Gungans you're looking for. Move along..."

  14. For those who haven't seen it yet, I strongly recommend this video review of The Phantom Menace:

    Star Wars: The Phantom Menace Review

    It is very funny (though a couple moments are too quirky for my taste). It is an absolutely fascinating critique of why it fares so poorly against Episodes 4-6. It will give you a whole new perspective on the subject.

  15. Let's get one thing straight: Star Wars is not sci-fi. It's fantasy set in a futuristic/advanced universe.

    I saw it when I was 3. Not sure I stayed awake for the whole thing, but I vividly remember seeing the opening sequence (crawl, looming space cruisers, stormtroopers, escape pod, etc.) and recreating it with the figures I soon acquired.

    To say it's not a "great" story is a missive, IMO. Perhaps not original, but originality never made anything great. It's in the way the story unfolds in a sort of hyperventilating, fever-dreamy-ness that was not just easy to digest, but like a hot-fudge-sundae-of-fun on your birthday.

  16. I like the prequels, myself. They're a very different beast but they worked out alright, in my opinion.

    But ANH is still probably the best movie ever made.

    Anyway, Varney: The order I like best is 4-1-2-5-3-6. First you get ANH, the best possible introduction to Star Wars, then you get some of the background of the universe, what the Jedi were like, what Anakin is like, and you're in suspense for it to all go to hell like you know it's going to. Then ESB comes along and the surprise of Vader's identity is preserved, as is the revelation of Palpatine's identity, and in the end you get the resolution of the story, along with a happy ending with ROTJ. When I have kids that's how I'll probably show it to them.

  17. Star Wars IV *isn't* an original story. It's not supposed to be. It's supposed to be a modern (well, modern in its time) synthesis of the monomyth. Dinging it for lack of originality is meaningless; it's like being upset that the alfredo sauce you were served has cream and parmesan in it.

    Frankly, the further the series got from the monomyth, the less compelling it was. This is why I feel the only scenes in Ep.VI that actually work at all are the ones with Luke in them, and the entire prequel is an unstructured, incoherent mess.

    Ep.IV is the best of the series for this reason. I mean, Lucas consciously set out to structure Ep.IV from Campbell's work, and it really shows. Even when you don't like Luke, you still are bought into his journey.

  18. (On kids: I've 'shown' IV to my 2 year old. He likes stars. He doesn't care about the rest of it, and wandered off shortly after the droids landed on Tatooine. So, unsurprising data point: 2 is Too Young.)

  19. James - I hope you were able to get your hands on a copy of the "old school" ep. 4. We had to settle for the special edition recently and all the CGI cruft on Tattooine really detracted from the integrity of the effects.

  20. I first took my daughter to see Star Wars when it was re-released for the digital makeover, and at four years old, it was her first proper visit to the cinema. She was overawed by the experience and she gladly went to see the next two films. She almost blew the truth about Darth Vader, but that only came when she saw Return of the Jedi, her saying in a loud voice, "That's Luke's father that is."

  21. Got into Star Wars with the paperback of the ESB comic adaption and then ESB and RotJ in the theaters. Don't think I actually saw Star Wars until video so ESB has the top spot for me.

    Fair enough if you choose to ignore the prequels, but I'd still suggest watching the Clone Wars cartoons. Good sit back and enjoy and viewable by most of the family though the show has a dark edge to it, growing over time, and on screen deaths. The current one especially is very much like a radio or movie serial.
    The character designs throw some people but Lucas is paying homage to Gerry and Sylvia Anderson shows like Thunderbirds. As for Ziro the Hutt, it's Truman Capote the Hutt, literally and intentionally. The movie works just fine as a TV pilot on dvd.

    It recently gave the raspberries to a lot of Expanded Universe and fanspec on Mandalorians in a solid trilogy of episodes.

  22. Good call. This movie had to be made with the assumption that it would have no sequels.

    All movies should, I believe.

  23. "Though practically, I expect that surprise has already leaked entirely into the pop culture."

    This is true, sadly. I wouldn't assume that even most small children didn't know that DV was Luke's father, unless I had some specific indication otherwise.

  24. So, I would say: If you're 100% sure that your audience doesn't know about the Vader/Skywalker connection, show the movies in chronological order just like most of us saw them.

    If you're not, numeric order rules, given that the "Original Trilogy"/"Prequel Trilogy" split only exists (yes, even quality-wise) in the minds of those of us with an older perspective.

    Works for me.

  25. I grew-up watching the Star Wars trilogy.

    Before I was born, my mom was a huge Star Wars fanatic! She seen it in theaters over 30 times (when not dressed-up for The Rocky Horror Picture Show), and wrote fan-fiction about it (long before everyone and their dog did for the Harry Potter craze). She became a fan the first movie because of Mark Hamill (a major heartthrob back then), but after The Empire Strike Back, she had a crush on Han Solo. I grew-up in a nerdy environment of fan-gatherings, fan-zines, comic/sic-fi conventions (in costumes - the best part), movie posters, toys and so on.

    I am much too young to have ever enjoyed the original movie at theaters, and growing up watching it on a small B&W TV screen did not do it any justice. I did see it on the big screen in the late 90's, but I would have been more impressed by some simple clean-ups - not the drawn-out extras, or the "Han fires" stuff. There is nothing like watching the action on the big-screen!

    The original movie was quite a phenomenon. It borrowed form so many works of fictions, and yet became something completely original into itself! It was a nice movie by itself. The build-up to the first movie, in the prequels felt rather forced to me.

  26. I discovered Star Wars in the same year I discovered D&D and the film had a huge impact on me and especially on the way I played the game.

    My grandfather was the manager of a movie theatre and I ended up watching the film fives times on opening day. That was in May. It wouldn't be until August until I played my first game of D&D.

    From the very beginning I was coming from a different place than I think many other gamers of the time started. At 8 years old I was a comic book fan, a Star Trek fan (reruns) and a Star Wars fan. The result? We had a story, not to many random encounters and we were heroes. We didn't kill things and take their stuff because that's not what Luke, Spiderman or Mr. Spock would do. We would add a reoccuring villain who often got away, light Vader in ANH or Lex Luthor.

    So profoundly did the first Star Wars film move me that I think without its existance I would never have played D&D or become such a big fan of fantasy, Sci-fi and related culture to this very day. While Empire was in many ways a superior work, it is the original movie that inspired me (not to mention inspiring the continuation of the series).

  27. Try him on the Clone Wars animated series - Kurtzhau (aged 6) us a massive fan.

  28. > A friend of mine once said that Star Wars is the only one of the series that didn't take place within the Star Wars universe. By that he meant that, until a second film had been made, there wasn't really such a thing as "the Star Wars universe,"

    They missed one.
    "Short memory, eh, Thorpe? SHORT MEMORY!" :p
    That was one way /not/ to try to help ingrain the Star Wars universe in people's minds. Giant space hamsters ftw... =^uu^=

    The 1977 film does still stand up well, though, agreed. :)
    Smart move on the name change from Luke Starkiller, too;

    d. ^^

  29. The Star Wars RPG by West End Games was my very first roleplaying game experience. My group played a big ol' campaign, saved the galaxy, and then closed the book on SWRPG. It's pretty telling that I've had no desire—indeed, I've had a full-on *aversion*—to roleplay in the post-prequel SW universe. It holds no magic for me, but it did once.

  30. As a child of the 70s, the cultural impact of Ep IV cannot be understated. It started the movement of sci-fi/fantasy to be at the forefront of movie-going. More than 2001: A Space Odyssey ever did.

    The movie influence me very much so at the tender age of six. Looking back, I can recall thinking how IMMENSE everything seemed and so REAL. And I craved everything STar Wars related after that. Not just the action figures, mind you. But books, comics, and the radio play (when it was on) filled my and my friends imaginations even more.

    When I got wind that there was a second movie in 1980, I WAS FLOORED. I was ecstatic that there was more to see and learn.

    This movie, and the succeeding ones until 1983, were undeniably important influences into making me the geek I am today.

    And I say "geek" with utmost pride!

  31. Did you show him the version where Han shoots first? :D

    I saw Star Wars in the mid to late eighties before the age of 10, and I know for sure that I was more interested in R2-D2 than Luke Skywalker. Of course, I was in the demographic that the character was aimed at, so no great surprise. I also loved the Ewoks.

    In my teenage years I came to recognise and dislike the "childish" elements of Star Wars and became more enamoured of the things that were put into it to appeal to the age group I then belonged.

    That said, the films probably had a greater effect on me in the early to mid 90s when I was more fully able to comprehend them.

  32. > It started the movement of sci-fi/fantasy to be at the forefront of movie-going. More than 2001: A Space Odyssey ever did.

    "To see someone actually do it, to make a visual film, was hugely inspirational to me. He did — I can do it.... When 2001 first came out, I was in film school, where obviously it had a huge impact on me.... I think it was the first time people took science fiction seriously." - George Lucas

    (Each generation reinvents its own departure points, of course ;)

  33. my reply to this

  34. Star Wars was utterly amazing in it's time. Sure it was behind the curve compared to printed sci-fi but it was totally amazing on the big screen, there had been nothing like it and decades later folks are still talking about it.
    I myself saw it a number of times back when getting together the price for a movie ticket took a lot of effort , I even saw it in Greek once (the local theater had Greek language screenings of films at 1/2 the price)

    It was a really good movie.

  35. To me, only ever one Star Wars movie. And it was (and is) a beauty. Good analysis i reckon also about why it works contra its successors (and even the prequels are successors). A fun film.

  36. Thanks for reaffirming my Hope in Star Wars...(pardon the pun). Star Wars has taken a beaten lately. Mainly, because, I did foolishly introduce it to my 5yr. old. So, like all things that 5yr old obsess is truly an obsession. Then came the better acting and scripts of the First Trilogy (ok, maybe the scripts were still bad but the visuals were more impressive)...I found New Hope to be lackluster.

    True, I still had nostalgic feelings but I could not reconcile those feelings with what I felt in reality. And, that reality is in part, because we lived Star Wars. So, yes, Star Wars remains a great film that was so radically different than what came before it and what came after it. And, yes, it throughly colonized our imagination that sometimes it is hard to distinguish start and end of where my imagination took Star Wars (for instance into my RPG games) or where Star Wars dictated certain patterns. I can now appreciate more why GDW and the ilk were so anti-Star Traveller is much more.

    What interests me, if we are defining so many things as references to another...even if it is the anti or can we build a shared experience except among long standing players of a campaign?

  37. I showed my kids SW, ESB, & RotJ at ages 3 & 2. Now they are 5 & 4.

    They both caught the Star Wars bug, hard. SW is their favorite, followed by RotJ. They and their friends all love SW. My boy swings on his rope "Like Luke" and my daughter swings "Like Princess Leia."

    I have no intention of showing them the prequels, as I thought they were generally awful, the last of the prequels doing a little better and managing to be "banal." They can stumble upon the lesser trilogy on thier own.

  38. Hopefully, my comment can answer the question of what Lucas was trying to create when he made Star Wars (Sci-Fi? Fantasy? Western? Original story? Old mythology? Something else?).

    Lucas gave an extensive interview for American Film magazine that was published in their April 1977 issue. This interview gives a fascinating look at the movie before it was released, before the hype and the pop culture phenomenon, and before the "Star Wars Universe," as you say.

    Lucas is quoted as follows (emphasis mine): "As a kid, I read a lot of science fiction, but instead of reading technical, hard-science writers like Isaac Asimov, I was interested in Harry Harrison and a fantastic, surreal approach to the genre. I grew up on it. Star Wars is a sort of compilation of all this stuff, but it's never been put in one story before, never put down on film. There is a lot taken from Westerns, mythology, and samurai movies. It's all the things that are great put together. It's not like one kind of ice cream but rather a very big sundae."

    He continues, "It's very surreal and bizarre and has nothing to do with science. I wanted it to be an adventure in space, like John Carter of Mars. That was before science fiction took over, and everything got very serious and science oriented.

    "Star Wars has more to do with disclaiming science than anything else... It's a totally different galaxy with a totally different way of thinking. It's not based on science, which bogs you down. I don't want the movie to be about anything that would happen or be real. I wanted to tell a fantasy story."

    So there you go, from the mouth of the creator himself. It is all of these types of stories and more, but it is not science fiction.

  39. nothing like this.. awesome, Star Wars is very cool