May 30, 1977
You know the wife who nudges her husband into refusing a second peche melba at a dinner party. It’s only to prevent the overweight mate from popping a button or having a heart attack, but suddenly she’s the heavy: Everyone leaps on her as a “nag” while showering him with sympathy. Or the 14-year-old girl who scolds her kid brother for his childishness: Again, she becomes the obnoxious one while the world winks indulgently at the carnage of the bratty brother. By this standard of injustice, I don’t see how I can come out ahead panning Star Wars, George Lucas’s science-fiction film that has been acclaimed by children of all ages as the Fun Movie of the year. How do you catch a falling star, or prick a helium-filled cartoon? Well, the reviewer’s lot is not an easy one and, at the risk of sounding like myself as a prissy 14-year-old, dammit, Star Wars is childish, even for a cartoon. And I don’t mean charmingly childlike, though occasionally — very occasionally — it is that, too.
Lucas, who both wrote and directed Star Wars, is the young man who hit the jackpot with American Graffiti, a genuinely charming slice of teenage Americana. Though apparently unrelated to the science-fiction films that preceded and followed it, that midsummer night’s dream of lust and locomotion, coupling and uncoupling, now appears to have been transitional in its fusion of technology (the car culture) and humanity (the youth culture), culminating in the curiously tame toy-store fantasies of Star Wars.
I should admit at the outset that I am anything but a science-fiction aficionado, particularly in its extraterrestrial varieties. The instant little men in white diving suits appear on the horizon, I don’t much care where they’re from or what they’re doing or whose team they’re on. I can’t seem to finish a paragraph explaining the blue-screen principle of special-effects cinematography, and I find the “revolutionary art” of holography even more boring than its “revolutionary” predecessor, 3-D.
Since reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I have made a serious effort to understand the classic and romantic aspects of my typewriter (no more infuriated pounding on its impervious metal frame), but that is as far as my truce with technology goes. Nor have cartoon amazons and supermen ever stirred my imagination. I have never seen Star Trek nor followed the cartoon careers of supernatural adventurers. My power fantasies have entirely to do with earthly activities that can be satisfied on or within such relatively orthodox playing areas as tennis courts, telephones, cars, hallways, and auditoriums filled with clapping hands.
Consequently, I am not the person most sensitive to the newest wrinkles in either the technology or the mythology of the science-fiction film, but it strikes me that Star Wars works a rather odd double twist, becoming paradoxically the most ultra-modern and utterly old-fashioned film of its kind.
THX 1138, the science-fiction short that Lucas made while still in film school and later expanded into a feature, was a classy, high-gloss yet austere bit of futurism, a fantasy obsessed with hardware and “look,” very much in the style of the new sci-fi film. With it, Lucas became one of the directors responsible for the upward mobility of the genre, once among the lowest of the B-films, and its successful bid for A-film accreditation. Although THX’s vision of alienation, expressed in a white-on-white set of endless corridors and interchangeable cubicles, was in many ways extreme and mesmerizingly seductive, it retained the traditional ideal of freedom, in other words, the very same conflict between the individual and technology (or totalitarianism) that animated the science-fiction films of the ’50s.
Similarly with Kubrick’s 2001. Like THX 1138, it was more than half in love with the machinery, with the perfect, inhuman environment it ostensibly abhors, but there is in both films a sense of awe, alienation, fear — if no longer of technology itself then of the spaces between men it has created.
But somewhere between then and now, the hardware that was the subject and villain of the sci-fi film, the “monster” of outer (i.e., scientific) space, has become the architect and artisan of the film, and, through the back door, its subject once again. The computerized special-effects wizardry is what Star Wars is all about and the reason armchair mechanics are enthralled. Technology is no longer humanity’s nemesis but its newest toy; the message has become the medium. (For me, though apparently not for others, the feeling of relativity, of entering another dimension of time is less overpowering in Star Wars than in earlier films where the effect was wrought less “realistically” — as with the hologram, more realism is less. But then there is the “artificiality” of our spatial environment to consider — an extension, perhaps, of the avant-garde film.)
The technology in Star Wars, that is the computers that both run and populate the planets along with human and mechanical primates, is no longer eerie or chilling but familiar, lived in, downright cuddly. The inventory of this F.A.O. Schwarz of a movie includes chubby little tripod computers tooling around, buzzing and bleeping like house pets; intergalactic aircraft that are no longer dazzling models of mechanical perfection but showing signs of wear and tear; white-suited men, the soldiers/maintenance men of the space station, who trot around its circular corridors with the monotonously purposeful air of Central Park joggers.
The war itself, a feud between two rival space clans, does not produce any real sense of danger. The combatants are the Imperialists, who bear a resemblance to the governors of the Holy Roman Empire in its last divided days, and the Rebels, followers of the Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and rightful heirs to the mystical “Force.” This is an “energy field created by all living things,” according to a Force-full relic of an earlier age (Alec Guinness), and seems to be a sort of hybrid of bio-feedback and Zen as it has been merchandized into a technique for winning at sports by not wanting to win. Between these two factions, the ideological differences are hardly more striking than those that separate the Greens and the Golds in prep-school athletics. What little tension there is is superficial, the work of sharp cutting between adversaries, a squared-off approach to plot, character, pacing that is the cinematic equivalent of a cartoon. The culminating battle scenes are modeled on World War II bomber movies. In fact, old movies are everywhere, providing a kind of instant camp mythology that enables Lucas to refer to old plots, situations, character types, without developing them. “I have seen the future,” says Lucas, “and it is a mishmash of old M-G-M and Warner Bros. movies.” But old movies extrapolated into clichés, into self-parody for the grown-ups, and for the kids, into the bland recognizable faces on drugstore paperback covers.
Do Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his cohorts, the Princess and the Soldier of Fortune, played by Harrison Ford, in a space-age rendering of the Arthurian triangle minus the conflicts that make it timeless, really have to be quite so charmless? There are cartoons and cartoons, and in Logan’s Run Michael York and Jenny Agutter performed a similar function much more gracefully. As for plucky cartoon princesses, I’ll take Farrah Fawcett-Majors any time. Carrie Fisher, who made such an auspicious debut as the miserably precocious daughter in Shampoo, is merely supercilious as she reads the self-mocking lines of Star Wars.
What I find mildly depressing about Star Wars is that it seems to address itself, like more and more television programming, to a “family market” defined by its pre-pubescent age level, somewhere between 10 and 14. Lucas bridges the generation gap simply by providing a one-way ticket back to adolescence. Adults who have been complaining these many months that there are no movies to which they can take their children now are having their prayers answered. Why movies should be required to perform this cultural babysitting service I don’t know, but far be it from me to ban the magical formula that can keep the American family together and young forever! ■
STAR WARS. Directed and written by George Lucas. Produced by Gary Kurtz. A Lucasfilm Limited production, released by 20th Century-Fox. At Loews Astor Plaza and Loews Orpheum.