I saw Star Wars at the Duncan Odeon shortly after it premiered in 1977. I was 12 years old, pretty much the ideal age.
I also saw it in the theater here in Vancouver when the special edition came out in 1997. I was 32 years old.
I watched it again last week.
What follows is the answer to the question: Can a magical film of my youth withstand the critical, nay, cynical eye of adulthood?
The short answer is: mostly yes. The longer answer follows.
I saw Star Wars before it became the most successful movie ever (for the time) and at the age of 12 I was old enough to understand everything but still young enough to be dazzled in the way only a child can. While the 70s are fondly looked back on by film purists, I think it’s important to remember that film has always been a combination of craft and commerce. When the serials of the 30s and 40s were being cranked out, no one was aspiring to high art. Likewise the exploitation flicks of the 60s and 70s were just mindless entertainment designed to titillate and little more.
Star Wars, though, was one of those films that tried both. In the context of the era, it was unheard of — a big budget science fiction movie complete with veteran actors like Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing to lend it credibility. It’s been well-documented how George Lucas drew from many sources for inspiration for the movie and somehow he made it all work. But how does it fare now?
I have the special edition on DVD. This was essentially a test-run of the CGI effects that would drive the Episode I-III prequels, adding extra bits of shiny and re-inserting a few cut scenes. The quality of the transfer is a bit strange — some parts of the film are very vivid while others still appear muddy and with “noise” in the film. While a few effects shots have been cleaned up, others still have the telltale transparent rectangles outlining TIE fighters that shows how they were overlaid on the backgrounds.
As to the additions and extras in the special edition, most don’t hold up and some even detract from the film. The best ones are a few quick shots that make Mos Eisley look like more than just “four overturned cans of paint” (as one critic dubbed the original). The scene with Biggs and Luke chatting before heading out to the Death Star is also a thoughtful inclusion.
However, the background bits with exotic beasts fussing and farting and noisy little drones flying about are distractions that pull your eye away from the focus of the scene. The infamous “Greedo now shoots first” scene undercuts the character arc of Han Solo going from a mercenary out for himself to someone who actually joins the cause. The worst bit, though, is the re-insertion of the scene where Han is confronted by Jabba the Hutt. Not only was most of the scene reworked for the Greedo/Han confrontation, making its insertion gratuitous, Jabba looks like CGI and Han addresses him as if he was a person and not a giant slug. He even ends with, “Jabba, you’re a wonderful human.” This made sense when the scene was shot because Jabba was just some guy in a bad fur coat. Putting the scene back in was the first sign that Lucas’s ear had gone tin on what worked in the world he created.
But what about the rest of the movie, the parts unchanged from 1977?
For the most part, it still works. There is the sense that you are watching events unfold in a universe that is truly unlike ours, one where technology has advanced but is still grimy and gritty and prone to breaking down. The characters are all broadly and clearly delineated. Luke is the farmboy hero who fulfills his destiny, Han is the rogue, Kenobi the wise mentor, Vader the despicable villain and the droids the comic relief. The only real misstep among the cast is Carrie Fisher’s mysteriously appearing and disappearing British accent that seems to activate whenever she’s in a scene with Peter Cushing. Monkey see, monkey do, I guess. Of all the actors, Cushing seems to delight most in his role, coldly putting the leash on Vader (who else would do such a thing in any of the other movies?) or shrugging off the rebels’ chances of actually destroying the Death Star.
Lucas keeps the stakes high throughout — Luke’s guardians aren’t just killed by the stormtroopers, they’re reduced to charred skeletons, the Death Star destroys an entire planet to demonstrate its power — but deftly keeps things moving with lots of action and banter between the main trio as they battle their way through to the final showdown at the Death Star. Yeah, it’s not entirely believable that dozens of stormtroopers could all miss when firing at them but it’s part of the pulp serial fun of the movie. The heroes face impossible odds but somehow overcome them, anyway.
The original effects are a mixed bag. The Death Star trench runs hold up decently but there’s a certain wobbleyness to a lot of the others where they still work but just barely. Here, you do need to keep the film in context. Effects-wise, I’d say it holds up worse than, say, The Wizard of Oz. Even the special edition spiffing up only goes so far.
There is also throughout the film an earnest corniness than many today might find off-putting but again, it works in the context of the story. These aren’t just characters, they’re archetypes. Han isn’t just speaking for himself but for every guy who just wants what’s his and to keep his nose out of everything else.
One of the things I most notice now as an adult is how Lucas really isn’t very good with his actors. Those that know their stuff, like Harrison Ford and Cushing, manage just fine but the younger and less experienced actors like Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher offer uneven performances than a firmer directorial hand would have made more consistent. In this regard I think Lucas actually got worse in the prequels. Still, the lapses aren’t enough to detract from the film as a whole.
Overall, Star Wars still holds up fine. Its flaws are more apparent now and the special edition adds little of value to the film, but it’s well worth seeing. It’s amazing that over 30 years later so few other films have captured the science fantasy feel that makes Star Wars so appealing, even to where it largely eluded Lucas himself.