Reviewing films on company time has its compensations, to be sure. On occasion it is pleasurable, almost but not quite to the point of guilt to rush out past editors fitting columns on pages or researching tax law and international economics, in order to attend a private showing of some soon-to-be released film in a posh executive screening room. On other occasions, however, combat pay would be more appropriate. Attending the midafternoon screening, when most respectable people are at work, in a midtown Manhattan theatre, where few respectable people would go, often brings battle fatigue. Aside from an occasional reviewer or assistant professor of contemporary film, the afternoon audience can be divided into three neat parts: noisy truants smoking pot, the muscatel-in-a-brown-paper-bag set and senior citizens, resting their feet after shopping all morning at Bloomingdales, who invariably sit directly behind me to discuss their symptoms.
Star Wars had me psyched up to expect the worst in hand-to-hand combat. It is playing in a huge theatre in the middle of Times Square. However, from the moment I stepped in to the ticket line, a rarity in midafternoon, I felt that I was about to enjoy a remarkable film-going experience. The rave reviews had brought out a huge audience (for the afternoon) of all kinds of people, determined to enjoy the film as much as the papers said they would. They were captivated by the action and occasionally burst into applause when the forces of good overcame evil or at a spectacular bit of special effects. The early reviews were, in fact, so enthusiastic that I was equally determined to find fault, in the style of most second-wave reviewers, who write for weeklies and monthlies and take distinct pleasure in pointing out the superficialities of films and books that have been naively praised in the dailies. The audience and film worked their magic together and my resistances melted. Going to the movies can be wild, crazy fun again!
Good fun is the secret of success. George Lucas, the writer and director, created "Star Wars" solely to entertain, but in the manner of the new directors coming out of graduate film departments, he has mined the films of the past for the raw material of entertainment. The plot of "Star Wars" is straight from the "Flash Gordon" serials. The ruler of the universe is tightening his tyrannical rule and has captured a rebel princess to quash all remaining opposition. A young farmer on a remote planet buys a used robot, from shady hot-robot salesmen, and discovers that it is programmed with a message from the kidnapped princess. Rescuing her, and saving the universe, provides the frame for a series of adventures in outer space. The special effects are a modest reconstruction of Kubrick's "2001 :· A Space Odyssey" (1969) and the futuristic settings are reminiscent of his "A Clockwork Orange" (1971 ). The aerial combat is a space-age version of the dogfights between fighter planes so common in World War II movies. A saloon fight and an escape across the desert are patterned after the American westerns.
Even with all its allusions to earlier films, "Star Wars" is original and surprising. It is witty, not only in its comic dialogue, but in its ability to spoof itself and the science-fiction genre without going for the cheap laugh. The escape rocket ship turns out to be an atomic-powered junk heap, but it works, more or less. The rescued princess is far removed from her counterpart, Dale, in the "Flash Gordon" series. No frail creature she but a tough cookie who refuses to crumble even when her home planet is vaporized before her eyes. She gives orders like a field marshal, much to chauvinistic chagrin of her rescuers. In the middle of a battle of laser rifles, the hero and heroine swing to safety on a rope, in silent tribute to Tarzan and Douglas Fairbanks.
Pointing out the “message” of such an avowedly entertaining film is to risk the humorless pomposity that plagues film journals. But even the most entertaining film can propose a message and, in fact, the message may even heighten the entertainment, as it does in “Star Wars.”
Basically, the film is an expression of mid-20th-century romanticism, an act of faith and hope in the eventual triumph of old-fashioned humanity over the technology that surrounds it. The young actors are all rather dull characters, dehumanized by the society in which they live. They are extensions of their machines. As a parody of the humans, the robots are far more interesting people. R2D2 is a blinking vacuum cleaner on a tricycle, and his friend C3PO is a gilded version of the Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz." They argue, sulk, express affection, sacrifice themselves, have accidents and remain single-mindedly loyal to one another. C3PO, with his Jeeves English, and R2D2, with his buzzes and blips of computer talk, may be the best new comedy team since Rowan and Martin. In contrast to these sensitive marvels that man can create, man himself is pretty dull.
Alec Guiness is the only real human of the lot. As the aging and last representative of the knighthood, he initiates the young hero into belief in "The Force," fights the incarnation of evil with a sword of light and finally sacrifices himself to allow the others to live. Those in the audience who have sat through a dozen screenings of “La Strada” in search of all the Christ symbols during the brief, happy days of film-and-theology courses will be warmed with nostalgia. When the young hero accepts the mission of “the Force,” rejects technology and places his full trust in the power of “The Force,” he is able to rescue – or should we say redeem? – the universe.
But don’t get involved with the message. Buy a big box of popcorn and settle in for a rip-roaring good movie.