by Kieran Healy on May 22, 2005

So I picked up the original Star Wars trilogy — or, at least, the re-masticated DVD version, “Greedo shoots first”: and all that — mostly out of curiosity. I hadn’t watched the first two in years and I’d never seen _Return of the Jedi_. I watched most of _The Empire Strikes Back_, which was pretty good, and ended up fast-forwarding through most of ROTJ. My God. Whole chunks of it were simply unwatchable. Just appalling. It’s notable that the first three films share almost all of the faults of the second three, right down to dubiously ethnic alien sidekicks. (Who the hell came up with Lando’s co-pilot, for instance?) This lends credence to the generational-imprint theory of their popularity. These negatives are offset by the freshness of _Star Wars_, the decent dramatic pacing of _Empire_, and the humor of both. But it’s hard not to think that what’s holding the whole edifice together are a couple of good characters (Vader, Yoda, maybe Solo) and some of the design elements: the fighters and ships, the lightsabers, the droids and a few other things. It certainly ain’t the leads, the dialogue, the direction, or the plots.

_Update_: On the other hand, were it not for Lucas we wouldn’t have things “like this”:

_Update 2_: OK, that last clip goes on a bit too long and there’s no real punchline. Try “this one”: instead. Teh funny.



John Quiggin 05.22.05 at 1:59 am

I just went to Revenge of the Sith which was, to be fair, a lot better than the previous two. But I would have thought the whole point of the 50s sci-fi serial hommage was that episode 3 should end where episode 4 began, with Leia escaping from Vader.

As regards popularity, I think the attendance figures are misleading. There’s a sort of cultural literacy/cultural capital thing going here. You know you have to be able to recognise allusions to Jar Jar Binks and so on, and there’s an absolute promise of only six episodes, so you go along to see them all whether you really want or not. Anyway, it’s over with now.


agm 05.22.05 at 4:35 am

ROTJ is simply swashbuckling good fun (good refering to the quality of the fun, not necessarily the quality of the movie). Personally, I quite enjoyed all of the original trilogy, was so-so about Ep I, really pissed off that I didn’t get to see the IMAX version of Ep II (which was apparently vastly improved by chopping most of the romance to make the two-hour time limit imposed on IMAX films (something about the size of the film reels (canisters?) on an IMAX projector)). I need to see Ep III again before really evaluating, but I really liked the political intrigue, the treatment of a quasi-governmental organization that wants to play hardball politics while denying to themselves that they’re playing politics at all. In the end what drove Anakin into Palpatine’s arms was the Jedi Council’s refusal to deal honestly with him, allowing Anaking to maintain his relationship with the Chancellor but not build/maintain a similar atmosphere of trust with the Council.


neruda boy 05.22.05 at 4:47 am

The structure of the original trilogy was consciously based on Joseph Campbell’s ‘The Hero With A Thousand Faces,’ which argues that a common structure underlies all the hero myths of every culture- in Jungian terms there is a ‘hero archetype.’

The idea seems to have been that by following that structure he could give the story the power of a myth. Whether or not Joe was right, it seems to have worked in this case…

4 05.22.05 at 7:29 am

We can only live in hope John, touch wood. But with US$50m in ticket sales for the first day in North America alone, and product endorsements that covered production costs well before then (though I’d imagine those two are somewhat related) I wouldn’t expect the most profitable film franchise/empire/country to roll over yet.


James Wimberley 05.22.05 at 7:58 am

May I try to get going a thread on failed epics? For her Oxford degree in French, my wife had to read the Norman-French court poet Wace’s enormously long “Roman de Rou” (sequel: “Roman de Brou”) and describes it as without redeeming merit. Literary sample: “Jo vo dirai que jo suy / Wace de l’Ile de Jersui.” Has anybody on this blog actually read Orlando Furioso?


Matthew Mullins 05.22.05 at 10:30 am

Salon had a good article debunking the Lucas/Campbell link in 2002. “…the roots of George Lucas’ empire lie not in “The Odyssey” but in classic and pulp 20th century sci-fi.” Also Slate has an interesting piece on racial sterotypes in Lucas’s galaxy.


Michael Turner 05.22.05 at 10:55 am

I always felt that Star Wars (the first film) owed a lot more to The Wizard of Oz than Joseph Campbell. Not that I liked it as much. Emerging from the theater, I thought, “I have a bad feeling about this.” And I think I was right. Staggering dreck with staggering special effects made a lot of money, starting around then. And some of that dreck was from G. Lucas.


Matt McIrvin 05.22.05 at 11:20 am

When I saw the original trilogy in theaters as a kid, Return of the Jedi was my favorite: it was just like Star Wars only bigger! And the happy ending was happier! Wow!

Many years later I went to see the “Special Edition” re-releases, and discovered that, seen as an adult, Return of the Jedi is mostly kind of weak, certainly worse than the other two. The revelation that Leia is Luke’s sister doesn’t really work emotionally with the rest of the trilogy the way that Luke’s parentage does. The pivotal scenes with Luke, Vader and the Emperor still work for me, though.

Also, The Empire Strikes Back is overrated except for the last reel, which is good. Star Wars is still the best of the lot, just for maintaining such a consistent tone of breezy excitement. I get the sense that the movie is winking at us; it knows it’s silly. The others aren’t like that.


KCinDC 05.22.05 at 11:32 am

Just wanted to warn people that the Yoda video packs 10 seconds of amusement into 3 minutes — 3 minutes of your life you’ll never get back. If you’re not rolling on the floor after the music starts, you’re not going to be later. Despite the text’s assurance that it’s “worth watching to the end”, nothing new happens.


Cranky Observer 05.22.05 at 11:41 am

The problem, as alluded to by M.Turner, is that it is very difficult to discuss _Star Wars_ (now known as Ep.IV) in any objective sense, because it wrought massive changes in moviemaking and to a large extent in worldwide culture itself.

My boys have been big SW fans since the age of 8. I was trying to explain to them what the impact of the release of the original movie was like, and found that I could not: so much of their culutural perspective is shaped by SW existing that it is almost impossible to talk about it. (Luckily when we went to see the re-released master version of _The Seven Samauri_ things clicked for them, and we were then able to have a good discussion about storylines and the two-way influence of entertainment culture).



Angie 05.22.05 at 12:04 pm

I hadn’t watched the first two in years and I’d never seen Return of the Jedi.

Being the huge Star Wars fan that I am, I don’t get this. How does one not see all three?

And yes I do realize the original (as with the latest) trilogy has it’s imperfections, but overall they truly great shows.

(sci fi geek here, don’t really think I could ever be convinced that they are not)


robbo 05.22.05 at 12:10 pm

thanks, kcindc, but too late…

…but I’ve decided not to make the same mistake on a larger scale, and won’t be seeing this episode of Star Wars. I regretted seeing Episode I and avoided II, so now I feel totally removed from the whole phenomenon. It’s but one of innumerable pop culture items that held my interest 20 years ago but no longer.


Carlos 05.22.05 at 12:40 pm

Is George Lucas the Ewok Wagner of our times? Discuss.


abb1 05.22.05 at 12:47 pm

It’s just crap, IMHO. The whole thing.


epist 05.22.05 at 2:06 pm

What killed me about Star Wars (and I saw it as it should have been seen, with the gaping eyes of an 8-year-old, as my first movie in a theatre, no less) was the denoument scence. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out quite what was going on, since it seemed to me that the scene was set in an empire station. Row upon row of soldiers, elborate military pagentry, I just assumed it was the empire. So I couldn’t quite parse what Luke et. al. were doing there.

I eventually figured it out, but the impression stayed with me.

Meet the new boss…


W. Kiernan 05.22.05 at 6:20 pm

Despite the tempting beauty and charm of Natalie Portman, I’ve never seen any of the Star Wars series except the first one. I saw that in a theatre right after it came out. The plot kind of left me cold – I was a fan of SF books, and after reading guys like J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick and Jack Vance and Samuel Delany, the plot of Star Wars was really kid stuff. Seriously, by the standards of late ’60s / early ’70s SF watching Star Wars and hearing it extolled as “great SF” was kind of like – I don’t know, maybe seeing Barry Manilow performing gangsta rap…

However I thought the special effects were a fantastic piece of technical work. But even as I was sitting there with my eyes popping out at the rockin’ FX, I remember thinking that the X-Wing scenes, while well-done, were clearly inspired by the wing cameras on World War II fighter planes; how likely was it that interstellar warcraft would do battle at closing speeds of five hundred miles an hour, like the Spitfire or the P-51 used to do?


neruda boy 05.22.05 at 6:45 pm

Thanks for the Salon link, matthew, though TBH if I have the guy’s number he’s the archetypal (ha) bright sophomore convinced he’s seen through all illusions to discover that humans are motivated by pleasure, and the rest is male bovine excretions. So a film-maker trying to make his work, you know, relevant, is necessarily a pompous prick, and someone trying to explain meaningful things is patently a falsehood-peddling charlatan whose mystical Third Eye is focussed squarely on his bank account. Must admit his curtain-drawing insistence that talk of Jesus’ crucifixion, arguably the most symbolism-laden event in Western culture is “in fact … a very concrete reference to a particularly atrocious form of execution, rooted in a very specific period” raised a smile.

I’ve my doubts as to whether he’s read the book, rather than the exhibition programme notes: in the book the whole ‘belly of the beast’ thing isn’t necessarily when transformations occur, but does involve the realisation that ‘out is through,’ and he can’t turn back. It’s after *this* he goes through the transforming ordeals.

And oh, the way he sneers that if Campbell’s formula was so right then Lucas’ career should have had more hits, then complains at the number of successful films based on Campbell’s formula is just priceless!

I’m not begrudging the guy his obvious passion, but the article is about the standard I’ve come to expect from Salon- although I can’t find the link I’m certain I did not hallunicate that a month or so ago their top story concerned penis extension.


Matt McIrvin 05.22.05 at 8:52 pm

“Meet the new boss…”

A friend of mine pointed out that, even though through most of the movie the Empire has the Nazi fashions, that last scene owed a lot to Triumph of the Will.


KCinDC 05.22.05 at 10:18 pm

You didn’t hallucinate it, Neruda Boy. I was rather surprised to find the story downloaded onto my Palm for my Metro reading several weeks ago.


Michael Turner 05.23.05 at 12:41 am

“I was a fan of SF books, and after reading guys like J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick and Jack Vance and Samuel Delany …”

Same here. Don’t forget Thomas Disch. But remember — that group was something like a literary movement, not at all representative of what you got off the racks at American airports. (I was introduced to many of these authors by British publishers like Pan.)

My SF Lit (as if!) teacher in high school asked me who I thought were the best SF writers of the day. She didn’t recognize any of the names in my answer. I dropped the course.

Dune (the movie) is a good example of the damage wreaked by Star Wars. Ridley Scott attempted it — I remember the rumors when Salvador Dali quit the set. Then Scott got a chance to do Blade Runner (even as he was couchsurfing in LA, penniless from his great North African adventure) and the rest is history — the *other* history of SF film in this generation.

When Dune became a David Lynch/de Laurentiis project, I worried. Wwhen it came out, my fears were confirmed. Lynch claimed that he’d had to make compromises, because the book was so long. Yeah, David, but if so, why did you spend all that money on that weird sequence of a Spacing Guild navigator (mutated all out of proportion to how they appeared in the books, which could have been portrayed with a left-over suit from “Creature from the Black Lagoon” and a fog machine for his tank). Why were we treated to *minutes* of a Navigator vomiting cosmic ectoplasm? It’s not even in the book, and if you didn’t know the book, you couldn’t make sense of it anyway. Why? Because, after Star Wars, you had to spend lots of money on special effects.

Dune could have been the best SF movie ever. It could also have been one of the best desert-romance political movies since Lawrence of Arabia (there is significant story resemblance, after all.) Instead it became Lynch’s Big Stumble. He learned his lesson and went back to Ectoplasmic Mutants in Smalltown America.

The place to film Dune now would be Iraq, of course, not least because of all the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in that country, and the thematic resonance from political context. Anyway, people there need jobs! And the way to make it would be on a budget that might be considered pathetically small for epic SF films these days.


Gareth Wilson 05.23.05 at 1:30 am

“The plot kind of left me cold – I was a fan of SF books, and after reading guys like J. G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick and Jack Vance and Samuel Delany, the plot of Star Wars was really kid stuff. ”

That’s the main problem with the prequels – too much literal kids stuff. There was less of it in the original trilogy. I’m now imagining an entirely R-rated Star Wars, and I’m convinced it’d be far superior.


Nicholas Gruen 05.23.05 at 3:36 am

I never figured out what was so good about these movies. From what I’ve seen on tele some are OK. That’s it.


Russell Arben Fox 05.23.05 at 6:41 am

I saw ROTJ on opening day, back in 1983, in my hometown of Spokane, WA. I was fifteen years old. I’d seen and, like practically every other middle-class white American boy, gone nuts over Star Wars years before, and TESB had kept me fascinated. But Jedi? I can distinctly remember sitting there and thinking, “Man, this is really lousy movie.” I think that was the first time in my life that I applied critical standards to film.

Within the past year, we’ve rented the original series for our girls, because they’ve wanted to have some part of the Star Wars craze. We managed to find an old VHS of the original Star Wars at Blockbuster, and enjoyed all its Han-shoots-first glory. Yes, the screen-wipes drive me insane, and so many of the special effects are weak, but it holds together brilliantly nonetheless, delivering fun and thrills unemcumbered by a pointless, subsequently grafted-on mythology. For years, carried along by geek opinion, I’d assumed Empire was the best of the original series, but watching it again changed my mind–crummy acting, worse dialogue, and contextless humor all weaken it. If it wasn’t for Harrison Ford’s clearly improvised additions, and Frank Oz’s fascinating creation of Yoda, the movie would sink as quickly as ROTJ. Which, in all fairness, my daughters loved: they couldn’t get enough of the Ewoks. They’re five and eight…and I suppose, by 1983, Lucas had figured out that that’s where the merchandising money was, anyway.


Anderson 05.23.05 at 11:17 am

If I may digress back to the Joseph Campbell bit:

Salon had a good article debunking the Lucas/Campbell link in 2002. “…the roots of George Lucas’ empire lie not in “The Odyssey” but in classic and pulp 20th century sci-fi.”

That may debunk any conscious imitation, but since Campbell’s claim is to be uncovering an archetype latent in our culture, the fact that Lucas didn’t base his story on Campbell only strengthens C’s claims.

(N.b. that I hold no brief for Campbell, let alone his master, Darth Jung.)


JRoth 05.23.05 at 11:31 am

>The place to film Dune now would be Iraq, of course, not least because of all the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings in that country, and the thematic resonance from political context.

Alas! Wright’s desert fantasia went unbuilt, due to that very political context – the king (?) who commissioned it was desposed before a single stone was laid.

As a freshman architecture student in 1991, I had only just learned of those plans, and was relieved, in an odd, alternate-universe way, that at least those architectural wonders wouldn’t be bombed to oblivion.


Dan Nexon 05.23.05 at 1:01 pm

“Yes, the screen-wipes drive me insane…”

I suppose you didn’t like The Hidden Fortress either? The screen wipes, IMHO, are on the nice “quotes” in the film.


HP 05.23.05 at 3:59 pm

Speaking of screen wipes: While you’re all debating Kurosawa vs. Joseph Campbell, you should go out and get the budget 2-DVD set of the original 1935 serial, “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe,” with Buster Crabbe. You should be able to get all seven hours for about 5 bucks.

I’ve heard so many theories about how this or that book or movie influenced Lucas, but when I sat down and watched F.G. Conquers the Universe, it was the first time I sat, open-mouthed, and said, “It’s Star Wars. Holy shit, it’s Star Wars.”


Ross Smith 05.23.05 at 4:43 pm

You might also want to check out Arthur C. Clarke’s short story “Arms Race” (in Tales From The White Hart). Written in the 1950s, it describes the troubled production of a movie that bears an amazing resemblance to Star Wars.


Tom T. 05.23.05 at 8:07 pm

It’s interesting to see Dune mentioned in this context, because it’s relatively simple to see Dune as something quite similar to Star Wars. Melange is the Force, House Atreides is the light side, and House Harkonnen the dark. Paul, like Luke, is the chosen one who emerges from the desert to overthrow the Empire. Mentats, like droids, are unreliable, vulnerable computers.

There are certainly some differences. Dune openly embraced the “same as the old boss” notion, with the chosen one assuming the throne of the emperor and leading a galactic army of conquest. Also, whereas Lucas’ attitude toward women seems to be a childlike idea that girls are icky except when they’re tomboys, Dune embodies a more adult-style misogyny (women scheme to hide deadly secrets, but they’ll throw the sisterhood over for the love of a good man and motherhood of a strong boy).

David Lynch’s excesses were indeed unfortunate, but his was a unique vision. A different director could have easily followed the Star Wars template and made just another adventure story.

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