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June 5th, 2002 John Graham | Movie Reviews & Stories
 

Excessive Force

The real Star Wars myth is that the films were ever respectable cinema.

     
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So there's this Star Wars review, y'see. The key actors, it complains, "are practically the only practicing humans in a sea of robots and alien life forms, but even the humans seem to be made of Play-Doh, or some other substance capable of revealing only the grossest individual features."

Another review winces similarly, sniping that "the dispirited cast...performs with a detachment so aggressive that it borders--in a few transcendent instances--on insurrection."

Harsh criticism for Hayden Christensen's crybaby portrayal of Anakin Skywalker? More indictments of Natalie Portman's continuing struggle to find anything resembling a live soul in her Amidala character?

Wrong on both counts. Those dismissive snippets are actually from reviews of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. The film critics in question are Ken and Roger Margolis, writing for Willamette Week in 1980 and 1983, respectively.

Which brings us to what should be--if we are honest enough to admit it--a clear realization: Star Wars films, judged individually and as a whole, employing any credibly informed cinematic yardstick, have always been tripe. Flashy and fantastic fun, no doubt. But inarguably stupid and superficial tripe nonetheless.

And yet review after hindsight-blinded review of Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones gripes that these new installments have lost the originals' so-called "magic" or "sense of wonder."

Uh...what magic, exactly?

Invent as many pop-mythology rationalizations as you like. It wasn't the Taoism Lite quasi-religion of The ForceŞ that excited us the first time around--it was the starships, aliens and lasers, and the pioneering special-effects wizardry that blasted them across the screen like fireworks. The story themes themselves are trite clichés, mere launching pads for the pyrotechnics; as WW critic Stephanie Oliver wrote way back in 1977, "Star Wars is a put-down of fairy tales and a send-up of science fiction. Plot and dialogue are the product of painstakingly scissoring and pasting together comic books, war films and Saturday morning cartoons."

The primary delight we experience in Star Wars films is the thrill of watching neon lightsabers cleave off limbs and laserbeams lance the starfield in epic cosmic battles. If the new films lack anything, it's the unceasing whizbang wah-hoo action of their predecessors. Maybe Lucas listened to critics who lambasted him for lack of character development. Or maybe he actually bought into all that Joseph Campbell mytho-babble and came to mistake Star Wars for literature, because Menace and Clones are too much backstory and too little bang. All other elements of the Star Wars franchise--astonishing design sense, soft-focus mythology, and, yes, acting so wooden it would make Pinocchio groan--remain the same. Complaints to the contrary show a willful ignorance of history, and if today's critics whine about missing the megawatt spectacle and flash of yore, they have only their forebears to blame.

Why the critical myopia? Simply put: age. Entire generations have grown up on Star Wars. Thanks to Lucasfilm's Empire-worthy market-dominating tyranny, multiple generations have literally eaten and slept Star Wars. The same children who once tittered over X-Wing Fighters and Ewok toys are now adults who expect films to provide credible human drama--just as critics did during the original movies' theatrical run--and Star Wars has never done anything but disappoint in that regard.

Those children-become-critics need to step back and recognize that fact. The more they demand George Lucas give us character development, the more he'll give us cheap drama and cheat us on what Star Wars is really about--the simple delight of watching worlds explode. In 1980, Ken Margolis described the series as "like going into a fun palace full of slot machines, shooting galleries and pinball wizards: the flashing lights, ringing bells and rattling machine guns take over your senses and keep you from thinking--which is, of course, their purpose." As it has been, so shall it always be.

 
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