Why Star Wars (ie “Episode IV”) sucks!
Why does Star Wars suck? Let me count the reasons:
1. Star Wars is a story about a boy who wants to go to war and does. In fact, he becomes the greatest war hero ever. It’s a pro-war story. It’s pro-war because it shows war as fun, the equivalent of a theme park ride. War does not get more glamorous than this. Extremely violent, but bloodless and clean. The victims of the violence might as well be robots. In fact, a good percentage of the film is devoted to shots of bloodless robots, and these robots seem to have stolen the personality genes from the film’s official human characters. (Some will say this is also true of 2001, ie HAL is more “human” than the astronauts. But that’s the point of that film. Is Lucas really saying that his robots are more “human” than the humans everyone in the film is fighting to save? I’m more inclined to go with something like, “Blowing things up is cool!”)
2. The scene in which he learns his uncle and aunt were killed is a cheap plot device. How much does he really care about his relatives when they never appear again in the story? Compare this scene to the source, The Searchers, the film that Lucas pilfered for the “homage.” In that film, John Wayne and Jeffrey Hunter really do care about the people who were killed. And they care about the children who were kidnapped because that’s what the film is about. In Star Wars, the attack on the farm is a cheap plot trick designed to get Luke off the farm without making him seem like an asshole.
3. Because no one ever questions the rightness of the rebels’ cause nor the wrongness of the empire’s cause. Because no one questions much of anything. It’s classic Manichaeism. The forces of the empire are faceless, robot-like. Nothing they do shows any indication of being motivated by anything other than evil. In other words, motivations are boring.
4. Star Wars vs Star Trek. The difference in the titles are telling. Star Wars is about going to war. While there’s plenty of fighting in Star Trek, at least there are those who question it. I can’t imagine an episode such as the one in Star Trek in which humans and Klingons are forced to stop fighting by an apparently helpless population of aliens. There’s no character like Spock in Star Wars. Certainly not Obi Wan Kinobi. Everyone wants to fight. Weapons of all kinds, whether fighting ships, swords, or bombs, are meant to impress. Where’s the wonder in life, the wonder in encountering new, mysterious things which happens all the time in Star Trek?
5. Star Wars is designed the way commercials are designed. While not explicitly a toy ad, it’s made like one. So it’s no surprise that Lucas made the most money from toys. Images, sounds, dialogue: it’s all presented to us like a fetish. A thing to be bought. Easily identified, understood, quickly.
Star Wars was manufactured. When a competent corporation prepares a new product, it does market research. George Lucas did precisely that. When he says that the film was written for toys (“I love them, I’m really into that”), he also means he had merchandising in mind, all the sideshow goods that go with a really successful film. He thought of T-shirts and transfers, records, models, kits, and dolls. His enthusiasm for the comic strips was real and unforced; he had a gallery selling comic-book art in New York.
From the start, Lucas was determined to control the selling of the film, and of its by-products. “Normally you just sign a standard contract with a studio,” he says, “but we wanted merchandising, sequels, all those things. I didn’t ask for another $1 million-just the merchandising rights. And Fox thought that was a fair trade.” Lucasfilm Ltd.,. the production company George Lucas set up in July 1971, “already had a merchandising department as big as Twentieth Century-Fox has. And it was better. When I was doing the film deal, I had already hired the guy to handle that stuff.”
Lucas could argue, with reason, that he was protecting his own investment of two years’ research and writing as well as his share of the $300,000 from Graffiti which he and Kurtz used as seed money for developing Star Wars. “We found Fox were giving away merchandising rights, just for the publicity,” he says. “They gave away tie-in promotions with a big fast-food chain. They were actually paying these people to do this big campaign for them. We told them that was insane. We pushed and we pushed and we got a lot of good deals made.” When the film appeared, the numbers became otherworldly: $100,000 worth of Tshirts sold in a month; $260,000 worth of intergalactic bubble gum; a $3 million advertising budget for presweetened Star Wars breakfast cereals. That was before the sales of black digital watches and citizens’ band radio sets and personal jet sets. (Source.)
6. Star Wars vs The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. The connection between these two films is the character of Han Solo who, of all the characters in Star Wars, would be most at ease alongside the good, bad and ugly characters of Leone’s film. He’s a mercenary with mercenary attitudes, just like Eastwood and the gang. That is, until he miraculously sees the light. There’s plenty of war to go around in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but those characters are under no illusions about its being a good war.
7. Star Wars feeds off of and reinforces the myth of the Good War. It doesn’t do so intelligently, that is, it doesn’t present arguments for such a view. It merely assumes it. Despite the Sixties and early Seventies being seen as a cynical age, the fact is that the main American myths were never in danger of being pushed aside. The majority never doubted that World War II was won by angels against devils. A simple case of black vs white. And Star Wars does nothing to question those beliefs. In fact, it plays on those beliefs as if they are a religion.
8. Darth Vader is nothing but a hired gun. If he’s such a badass, why does he have to work for someone else?
9. Star Wars is bathroom break-friendly. No matter what point of the film you leave to take a pee, when you return to the film the answer to your question, What’s going on now?, will be the same: They’re trying to blow up the Death Star? What are they up to now? Still trying to blow it up. Have they blown up that Death Star, yet? Not yet. So they finally blow it up, and that’s it, until the Empire builds another, and they have to blow that one up, too. Who’s the destructive ones here anyway? It’s funny how weak the sequence is in which the unfortunate planet that plays the role of demonstrating the awesomeness of the Death Star is blown up, compared with the destruction of the Death Star, that is, the awesomeness of blowing something up without any moral qualms at all.
10. Death triumphs, no matter which side “wins.” The film concludes with smiles all around. What great satisfaction it is to kill. As Chaplin says at the end of Monsieur Verdoux, kill one, and you’re a villain; but kill a million and you are a hero.
11. Much of it plays like a video game. But it’s actually worse than that. It plays like a video game that is being played by someone else and all you get to do is watch him play. Despite being released before the heydey of the video game, even before 1977 there had already been several video games with space themes. One of them was Spacewar!, which was written way back in 1961. It was a two player game in which spaceships battle each other while avoiding the gravity pull of a nearby star. It even had a hyperspace feature which could be used as a last ditch attempt to avoid enemy missiles. There were several arcade versions of Spacewar! released in the Seventies including one called Space Wars which was released the same year as Star Wars. How much do you want to bet that Lucas was an early fan of these games?
12. Today Star Wars is considered the ideal template for Hollywood movie scripts. If you write a script that’s even remotely similar to an adventure or science fiction or fantasy genre film, you will be judged against Star Wars by your script’s readers. This wasn’t always the case, as this passage by Michael Pye and Lynda Miles from 1999 demonstrates:
But he does not tell a story. This is the basic failing of the film. It lacks true narrative drive and force. It is a void, into which any mystic idea can be projected; entertainment, brilliantly confected, which is quite hollow. Its only idea is individualism-that a man must take responsibility for others, even at great personal cost and peril. Its idea is, in classic form, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
The iconography is bizarre. Darth Vader, the dastardly villain, is black. That is commón in science fiction. In the supposedly liberal Planet of the Apes series, the wicked and stupid gorillas are the military, and they are black. The honey-colored chimpanzees are the wise, good scientists. The closer to the color of a California WASP, the better the character: it is a fair rule of thumb. But Darth Vader’s forces are storm troopers armored in white. The wicked Grand Moff Tarkin lives in a gray-green world, with gray-green uniforms; he is clearly a wicked Nazi. Yet when our heroes take their just reward at the very end, there are images which parallel the finest documentary of Nazism, Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. “I can see,” Kurtz says, “why people think that. I suppose it is like the moment when Hitler crosses the podium to lay the wreath.” Critical confusion is not surprising when there are allusions to Nazism as both good and bad. French leftist critics thought the film was fascist; Italian rightists thought it was clearly communistic.
Nor is the vague, pantheistic deism of the film coherent. Star Wars talks much of The Force, a field of energy that permeates the universe and can be used for both good and evil. It is passed on with a sword, just as the sword Excalibur is passed on in the Arthurian romance; the influence of chivalric stories is strong. But when The Force is used by Luke Skywalker to help him destroy the monstrous Death Star, he is urged only to relax, to obey his instincts, to close his eyes and fight by feeling. The Force amounts to building a theology out of staying cool.
Star Wars has been taken with ominous seriousness. It should not be. The single strongest impression it leaves is of another great American tradition which involves lights, bells, obstacles, menace, action, technology, and thrills. It is pinball-on a cosmic scale.
13. Even Lucas agreed Star Wars sucks:
Ned Tannen says, “The fact that Star Wars is the biggest hit ever made and that he doesn’t think it is very good—that’s what fascinates me about George.” (Source.)
Now I should do (and definitely could do) a list of reasons why Star Wars doesn’t suck, but I’m tired and I’m sure you can do that list better than me.
(This post was written in November 2012, but not published until February 2017.)