Roger Ebert Review:
Every once in a while I have what I think of as an out-of-the-body experience at a movie. When the ESP people use a phrase like that, they're referring to the sensation of the mind actually leaving the body and spiriting itself off to China or Peoria or a galaxy far, far away. When I use the phrase, I simply mean that my imagination has forgotten it is actually present in a movie theater and thinks it's up there on the screen. In a curious sense, the events in the movie seem real, and I seem to be a part of them. STAR WARS works like that. My list of other out-of-the-body films is a short and odd one, ranging from the artistry of BONNIE AND CLYDE or CRIES AND WHISPERS to the slick commercialism of JAWS and the brutal strength of TAXI DRIVER. On whatever level (sometimes I'm not at all sure) they engage me so immediately and powerfully that I lose my detachment, my analytical reserve. The movie's happening, and it's happening to me.
What makes the STAR WARS experience unique, though, is that it happens on such an innocent and often funny level. It's usually violence that draws me so deeply into a movie--violence ranging from the psychological torment of a Bergman character to the mindless crunch of a shark's jaws. Maybe movies that scare us find the most direct route to our imaginations. But there's hardly any violence at all in STAR WARS (and even then it's presented as essentially bloodless swashbuckling). Instead, there's entertainment so direct and simple that all of the complications of the modern movie seem to vaporize.
STAR WARS is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in THE WIZARD OF OZ. The journey from one end of the galaxy to another is out of countless thousands of space operas. The hardware is from Flash Gordon out of 2001, the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. STAR WARS taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it's done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we'd abandoned when we read our last copy of Amazing Stories.
The movie works so well for several reasons, and they don't all have to do with the spectacular special effects. The effects are good, yes, but great effects have been used in such movies as SILENT RUNNING and LOGAN'S RUN without setting all-time box-office records. No, I think the key to STAR WARS is more basic than that.
The movie relies on the strength of pure narrative, in the most basic storytelling form known to man, the Journey. All of the best tales we remember from our childhoods had to do with heroes setting out to travel down roads filled with danger, and hoping to find treasure or heroism at the journey's end. In STAR WARS, George Lucas takes this simple and powerful framework into outer space, and that is an inspired thing to do, because we no longer have maps on Earth that warn, "Here there be dragons." We can't fall off the edge of the map, as Columbus could, and we can't hope to find new continents of prehistoric monsters or lost tribes ruled by immortal goddesses. Not on Earth, anyway, but anything is possible in space, and Lucas goes right ahead and shows us very nearly everything. We get involved quickly, because the characters in STAR WARS are so strongly and simply drawn and have so many small foibles and large, futile hopes for us to identify with. And then Lucas does an interesting thing. As he sends his heroes off to cross the universe and do battle with the Forces of Darth Vader, the evil Empire, and the awesome Death Star, he gives us lots of special effects, yes--ships passing into hyperspace, alien planets, an infinity of stars--but we also get a wealth of strange living creatures, and Lucas correctly guesses that they'll be more interesting for us than all the intergalactic hardware.
The most fascinating single scene, for me, was the one set in the bizarre saloon on the planet Tatooine. As that incredible collection of extraterrestrial alcoholics and bug-eyed martini drinkers lined up at the bar, and as Lucas so slyly let them exhibit characteristics that were universally human, I found myself feeling a combination of admiration and delight. STAR WARS had placed me in the presence of really magical movie invention: Here, all mixed together, were whimsy and fantasy, simple wonderment and quietly sophisticated storytelling.
When Stanley Kubrick was making 2001 in the late 1960s, he threw everything he had into the special effects depicting outer space, but he finally decided not to show any aliens at all--because they were impossible to visualize, he thought. But they weren't at all, as STAR WARS demonstrates, and the movie's delight in the possibilities of alien life forms is at least as much fun as its conflicts between the space cruisers of the Empire and the Rebels.
And perhaps that helps to explain the movie's one weakness, which is that the final assault on the Death Star is allowed to go on too long. Maybe, having invested so much money and sweat in his special effects, Lucas couldn't bear to see them trimmed. But the magic of STAR WARS is only dramatized by the special effects; the movie's heart is in its endearingly human (and non-human) people.
Star Wars: Special Edition
To see STAR WARS again after 20 years is to revisit a place in the mind. George Lucas's space epic has colonized our imaginations, and it is hard to stand back and see it simply as a motion picture, because it has so completely become part of our memories. It's as goofy as a children's tale, as shallow as an old Saturday afternoon serial, as corny as Kansas in August—and a masterpiece. Those who analyze its philosophy do so, I imagine, with a smile in their minds. May the Force be with them. Like BIRTH OF A NATION and CITIZEN KANE, STAR WARS was a technical watershed that influenced many of the movies that came after. These films have little in common, except for the way they came along at a crucial moment in cinema history, when new methods were ripe for synthesis. BIRTH OF A NATION brought together the developing language of shots and editing. CITIZEN KANE married special effects, advanced sound, a new photographic style, and a freedom from linear storytelling. STAR WARS combined a new generation of special effects with the high-energy action picture; it linked space opera and soap opera, fairy tales and legend, and packaged them as a wild visual ride.
STAR WARS effectively brought to an end the golden era of early-1970s personal filmmaking, and focused the industry on big-budget special effects blockbusters, blasting off a trend we are still living through. But you can't blame it for what it did, you can only observe how well it did it. In one way or another all the big studios have been trying to make another STAR WARS ever since (pictures like RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, JURASSIC PARK, and INDEPENDENCE DAY are its heirs). It located Hollywood's center of gravity at the intellectual and emotional level of a bright teenager.
It's possible, however, that as we grow older we retain the tastes of our earlier selves. How else to explain how much fun STAR WARS is, even for those who think they don't care for science fiction? It's a good-hearted film in every single frame, and shining through is the gift of a man who knew how to link state-of-the-art technology with a deceptively simple, really very powerful, story. It was not by accident that George Lucas worked with Joseph Campbell, an expert on the world's basic myths, in fashioning a screenplay that owes much to man's oldest stories.
By now the ritual of classic film revival is well established: An older classic is brought out from the studio vaults, restored frame by frame, re-released in the best theaters, and then re-launched on home video. With this "special edition" of the STAR WARS trilogy (which includes new versions of RETURN OF THE JEDI and THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK), Lucas has gone one step beyond. His special effects were so advanced in 1977 that they spun off an industry, including his own Industrial Light and Magic, the computer wizards who do many of today's best special effects.
Now Lucas has put ILM to work touching up the effects, including some that his limited 1977 budget left him unsatisfied with. Most of the changes are subtle; you'd need a side-by-side comparison to see that a new shot is a little better. There's about five minutes of new material, including a meeting between Han Solo and Jabba the Hut that was shot for the first version but not used. (We learn that Jabba is not immobile, but sloshes along in a kind of spongy undulation.) There's also an improved look to the city of Mos Eisley ("a wretched hive of scum and villainy," says Obi-Wan Kenobi). And the climactic battle scene against the Death Star has been rehabbed.
The improvements are well done, but they point up how well the effects were done to begin with: If the changes are not obvious, that's because STAR WARS got the look of the film so right in the first place. The obvious comparison is with Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, made in 1968, which also holds up perfectly well today. (One difference is that Kubrick went for realism, trying to imagine how his future world would really look, while Lucas cheerfully plundered the past; Han Solo's Millennium Falcon has a gun turret with a hand-operated weapon that would be at home on a World War Two bomber, but too slow to hit anything at space velocities.)
Two Lucas inspirations started the story with a tease: He set the action not in the future but "long ago," and jumped into the middle of it with "Chapter 4: A New Hope." These seemingly innocent touches were actually rather powerful; they gave the saga the aura of an ancient tale, and an ongoing one.
As if those two shocks were not enough for the movie's first moments, I learn from a review by Mark R. Leeper that this was the first film to pan the camera across a star field: "Space scenes had always been done with a fixed camera, and for a very good reason. It was more economical not to create a background of stars large enough to pan through." As the camera tilts up, a vast spaceship appears from the top of the screen and moves overhead, an effect reinforced by the surround sound. It is such a dramatic opening that it's no wonder Lucas paid a fine and resigned from the Director's Guild rather than obey its demand that he begin with conventional opening credits. The film has simple, well defined characters, beginning with the robots R2D2 (childlike, easily hurt) and C3PO (fastidious, a little effete). The evil Empire has all but triumphed in the galaxy, but rebel forces are preparing an assault on the Death Star. Princess Leia (pert, sassy Carrie Fisher) has information pinpointing the Star's vulnerable point, and feeds it into R2D2's computer; when her ship is captured, the robots escape from it and find themselves on Luke Skywalker's planet, where soon Luke (Mark Hamill as an idealistic youngster) meets the wise, old, mysterious Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and they hire the freelance space jockey, Han Solo (Harrison Ford, already laconic), to carry them to Leia's rescue.
The story is advanced with spectacularly effective art design, set decoration, and effects. Although the scene in the intergalactic bar is famous for its menagerie of alien drunks, there is another scene, when the two robots are thrown into a hold with other used droids, which equally fills the screen with fascinating throwaway details. And a scene in the Death Star's garbage bin (inhabited by a snake with a head curiously shaped like E.T.'s) is also well done.
Many of the planetscapes are startlingly beautiful, and owe something to Chesley Bonestell's imaginary drawings of other worlds. The final assault on the Death Star, when the fighter ships speed between parallel walls, is a nod in the direction of 2001, with its light trip into another dimension: Kubrick showed, and Lucas learned, how to make the audience feel it is hurtling headlong through space.
Lucas fills his screen with loving touches. There are little alien rats hopping around the desert, and a chess-like game played with holographic creatures. Luke's weather-worn "Speeder" vehicle, which hovers over the sand, reminds me uncannily of a 1965 Mustang. And consider the details creating the presence, look, and sound of Darth Vader, whose fanged face mask, black cape, and hollow breathing are the setting for James Earl Jones' cold voice of doom.
Seeing the film the first time, I was swept away, and have remained swept ever since. Seeing this restored version, I tried to be more objective, and noted that the gun battles on board the space ships go on a bit too long; it is remarkable that the Empire marksmen never hit anyone important; and the fighter raid on the enemy ship now plays like the computer games it predicted. I wonder, too, if Lucas could have come up with a more challenging philosophy behind the Force. As Kenobi explains it, it's basically just going with the flow. What if Lucas had pushed a little further, to include elements of nonviolence or ideas about intergalactic conservation? (It's a great waste of resources to blow up star systems.)
The films that will live forever are the simplest-seeming ones. They have profound depths, but their surfaces are as clear to an audience as a beloved old story. The way I know this is because the stories that seem immortal—the Odyssey, The Tale of Genji, Don Quixote, David Copperfield, Huckleberry Finn—are all the same: A brave but flawed hero, a quest, colorful people and places, sidekicks, the discovery of life's underlying truths. If I were asked to say with certainty which movies will still be widely known a century or two from now, I would list 2001, and THE WIZARD OF OZ, and Keaton and Chaplin, and Astaire and Rogers, and probably CASABLANCA … and STAR WARS, for sure.
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