Christopher Miller watches films so that you don't have to.
I've always tried to avoid Star Wars. There are three reasons for this. One is that I distrust all films that encourage the production of figurines. The second is that I know that, about half-way through, one of my friends would tell me to "just enjoy it". (That "just" is very telling, I think.) Mainly, though, I have been influenced by Peter Biskind. His Easy Riders Raging Bulls is a spectacularly mean-spirited book but he has some interesting things to say. For him, as for me, the true golden age of American cinema sits uneasily between the release of Bonnie and Clyde in 1967 and that of Heaven's Gate in 1980. I say uneasily because what this period is most famous for is a series of highly talented individuals like Coppola, Altman, Scorsese and Michael Cimino attempting to buck the Hollywood system. The huge financial disaster that was Heaven's Gate was the cause of a lot of hand-wringing but it also enabled Hollywood to demand a return to the bottom line. And, in essence, isn't that what dictates our response to Star Wars? It's a success, we feel (how could it not be?), because of the excessive scale of its success. It pre-dated Heaven's Gate by three years but, still, it signalled the end of that golden age. Its logic continues to pervade the industry. It's a time-honoured business maxim: you cannot out-dumb the public. Star Wars goes further, though. It returns you to childhood and, by doing so, it managed to infantilise American cinema.
There are times when this seems to be a film that's been written not so much for children as by them. Let's look, for example, at the relationship between the three main protagonists. Luke has a crush on Princess Leia, who looks admiringly at Han and says: "He has courage". Meanwhile, she kisses Luke twice on the cheek. There are hints, here, of the beginnings of an awkward triangle but any suggestions of desire are kept as far away from us as possible. You could argue, I suppose, that this is true of the comic book aesthetic that Lucas is showing such fidelity to. But it goes further than that, I think, as well as further than Pauline Kael's contention that "it's a film that's totally uninterested in anything that doesn't connect with the mass audience". Here is more Hollywood logic: no-one likes ambiguity. No-one likes grey areas. But this philosophy (if you can call it that) is so deeply engrained in the film that I ended up wondering if Lucas has some kind of problem. The dialogue does everything it can to avoid real, nuanced feeling. This may, of course, simply be clumsiness. We can't all be Eugene O'Neill. But time and again someone gestures so clumsily towards an emotion that it's like a child mimicking an adult. I ended up wondering if this was deliberate. Or almost deliberate: a way of wilfully playing in the sandbox. Kael argues that the film is camp: a way of turning "old-movie ineptness into conscious Pop Art". But I disagree. I think that there's something about it that's fundamentally stunted. It's no wonder that Michael Jackson was so fond of it; it refuses to so much as countenance the possibility of growing up.
To be fair to it, it does have pace. And light sabres. (Light sabres are sexy. It's the noise.) But I'm tempted to say that it doesn't have real pace and you have to imagine me, now, pondering what it is I think I mean by that. It isn't that the plot doesn't develop, exactly. It's more that we seem only to have the bare bones of a story and that that, too, can feel childlike. It's all climax and no build up; an idea of a story or else a half-arsed re-enactment of an old one. The attack on the Death Star is skilfully managed and, yes, the reappearance of Han gives you a small jolt of satisfaction but it's also ridiculously sudden. Jaba the Hut is way ridiculous; he (it) is just an effect, with no bearing whatsoever on what happens later. And Obi Wan Kenobe's voice? The way it reappears after his death? It just does. This is where I think you have to imagine our response if it had flopped. People would be talking about it in the same tone of delighted irony that they now discuss Vampira or Plan 9 From Outer Space.
Or maybe not. In all fairness, what might have saved it from that irony is the deftness of some of the scenes in space. But the surface of the Death Star looks exactly like what it is: a model. And I don't think that, even forty years ago, there was any excuse for some of the "creatures" in the cantina. A green head here; a proboscis there. This is supposed to be enough. Lucas films them as though he's displaying them for you to purchase later. And this, ladies and gentleman, is what I am really accusing Lucas of: a lack of imagination. I'll grant you that that seems like a paradox. That cantina; those battle cruisers. The Force! But The Force is just a phrase; a gimmick to get people out of trouble and a vague not-quite-religious phenomenon that is there to account for any stray emotions that Lucas hasn't got the intelligence or the desire to think through or exhibit seriously. ("Follow your feelings" intones poor Alec Guinness. But what feelings, exactly?) It seems, sometimes, as though he's asked himself the question: what would people want me to imagine? Star Wars is more of a template than a film: what's gone before writ large. It contains no lyricism, no real emotion nor even a proper love for adventure. (Lucas doesn't seem to relish anything the way that Spielberg does.) Is it cynical? No. It's too dumb for that. Should we be ashamed of ourselves for loving it? No. It exhibits all of the eternal verities: courage; fidelity; honour; love. But listen. Seriously: listen. When it comes to our collective dreams, is this really the best that we can do?
Christopher Miller is a teacher of film studies and a movie bore.