Despite legions of fans all over the world, countless accolades, billions of dollars in revenues and being the biggest artistic property in the world, it begs to ask the most basic of questions…is Star Wars, the original 1977 film, any good? The real answer is that its complicated for a myriad of reasons, not least of which is most people view film as a subjective medium. I would agree that a film’s enjoyability and emotional response certainly is, but filmmaking and storytelling can be just as technical as artistic and is therefore subject to a type of scoring system and quality test. While attempting to quantify a form of art may seem pedantic, there is some value in looking at how some films stand the test of time while others do not.
We’ve of course have had decades to tear apart the original Star Wars film frame by frame to the point that is safe to say there is no aspect of that film that hasn’t been picked apart, dissected, autopsied and sewn back together. While most agree the film was a remarkable achievement for its time and one of the great moments in Hollywood history, a film that changed so many things about how films are made, not all agree. Through the years many haven’t been particularly kind to its creator George Lucas, mostly being critical of his writing ability.
Star Wars came out at a time when film criticism was a highly respected endeavour and film critics were an esteemed bunch. It was during an age in film when the 3, 4 and 5-star reviews handed out by the critics meant success for some, and failure for others. In fact, they were considered journalists at the time, still are in some circles, and the critics of that era produced some of the greatest film critiques ever. After all, it was a grand time for film and the decade produced some of the greatest films the world has ever seen. As it turns out, a good chunk of these films was all made by a small group of “maverick” filmmakers from Northern California, one of which was George Lucas.
In the middle of this film revolution, which included classics such as The Godfather, Jaws, Chinatown and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Lucas dropped Star Wars on the world. The rest as we say was history but if you’re reading this you’re more than aware of what happened next. No one could argue its affect on the world, but many have debated the quality of the film throughout the years, most going after George Lucas’s writing ability and the hollow story and characters.
But those days are long gone and in this current digital and social media age everyone is quite literally a critic. This has made the classic style of critiquing film obsolete in many ways with many of the old school longing for the days when there was this romantic notion that critics were somehow better at deciding the quality of a film than the general audience. Yes, for many years film critics were king and their opinions, valid or not, could make or break a films success.
And for Star Wars, along with Jaws, which ushered in the “blockbuster” era of filmmaking, many cinephiles turned those noses to it. Famed movie critic Leonard Maltin seems to be one of those critics or at least doesn’t see Star Wars on the same level as “silent films” and “foreign language films” anyways. When discussing the current trend of online movie criticism, he had this so say to World of Reel…
“When people ask me what qualities critics should have, I have a stock answer, it should be equal parts passion and knowledge, and the knowledge comes from experience. If you’ve seen silent films, or foreign language films, if your education with film begins with Star Wars then you’re handicapped.”
Ouch. Not exactly what you want to hear if you’re a fan, but is he right? Does it belong with the greatest, most highly regarded movies of all time? Upon its release in 1977, Star Wars received mostly favorable reviews from critics with a few exceptions of course. Those (Joy Boyum, Wall Street Journal) looking for a representation of the human condition found themselves leaving empty handed while others (Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times) looking to be immersed in imaginative storytelling and ground-breaking visual art were rewarded generously. But that still doesn’t answer the question of whether Star Wars is a good movie or not.
When looking at a film from a pragmatic point of view there are a few questions you can ask yourself to see if the film holds up or not. These questions will help you break down the building blocks of the structure of a film and in turn separate the truly good from the truly bad. How is the pacing of the film? Pacing is the combined result of a screenplay and editing so if one or both of those are failing in some way then the rhythm of the film will feel out of step.
Do the special effects (if there are any) feel out of place or take you out of the film at all? We have many examples of bad special effects derailing a scene or sequence when either rendered poorly or just leisurely conceived plot devices.
From a story standpoint there a few questions that need to be satisfied or the film will likely feel unrelatable or perplexing. This is commonly referred to as “plot holes” and are more common than you think. Some “plot holes” are so small or irrelevant that they don’t ever get noticed while some are large enough to drive a truck through.
Lucas used Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey” as a template for his story so Star Wars does give us answers to probably the most important questions when constructing an adventure story. Who is the hero? Luke. What does the hero want? Wants to be a Jedi, like his father. What is the hero afraid of? Being uncertain after the death of his master (Obi-Wan). Who is the antagonist? Duh…
If your watching this type of genre movie and can’t answer these simple questions, then there’s a problem. It’s not subjective or objective or anything else, it’s a structure problem with the screenplay or script. It doesn’t mean it will heighten or lessen your movie going experience, or that the movie will or will not strike an emotional nerve, but it is a quantifiable way to judge the technical merits of a film.
Our current and most publicized metric for measuring the quality of a film unfortunately is the aggregate review website Rotten Tomatoes which assigns a score based on the collective positive or negative critic reviews a film gets. There was no Rotten Tomatoes in 1977 so the website collected reviews from critics around at that time and assigned a critic score of 93% with the average rating being 8.6 out of a 10. Does this mean the film is good then?
Rotten Tomatoes also assigns an audience score which again, assigns a score based on the collective positive or negative reviews the audience gave the film. Currently, Star Wars has an audience score of 96% with the average score being 4.1 out of a 5. So, does this then mean the film is good? Anyone can create account and score a film on that website, so its authenticity is certainly up for debate. Another current metric is the website MetaCritic which looks at the specific scores film critics give any one film and assigns an overall or average score based on those reviews. This is the most accurate account of how critics feel about a film we have, and Star Wars based again on reviews at the time of its release has a score of 90. That places it in the company of Apocalypse Now, The Godfather, Schindler’s List and Raging Bull, not what I would exactly call bad company.
These various scores are based on the individual’s emotional reaction to the film and on the quality of the film itself but there is no doubting the connection between a film’s likability factor and how “good” the movie is. Some of the most popular films of all time are not coincidentally some of the most highly regarded among film snobs. The films which generally win awards each year score very high with critics and find mass appeal if they receive a generous marketing campaign and wide distribution schedule. And before you say, “awards don’t mean anything”, that just speaks to your taste in film more than your ability to objectively view film. My favorite films of all-time are mix bag of highly regarded masterpieces and studio throwaways, my point being, if a film you loved was winning awards you’d think differently about awards in general. I would ultimately agree personally that rewarding art is a futile effort, but for the purposes of this piece, we must remain objective.
And speaking of awards, the first entry into the Star Wars universe is the only film in the entire franchise to earn a Best Picture nomination at the Academy Awards. In fact, the film received 10 nominations that year winning six awards, all in the technical categories. Lucas himself was nominated for Best Director and Best Screenplay losing in both categories but still a marvelous achievement for a film of this genre.
Popularity doesn’t always equate with excellence as we know, each year the highest earning films at the box office routinely don’t get recognition beyond fan appreciation. This appreciation translates into big dollars for studios which is obviously the driving factor when producing films. Its here Star Wars obviously excels as it ushered in the blockbuster era and smashed every known record at the time of its release. As a franchise it continues to break records when it comes to ticket sales and when adjusted for inflation the 1977 entry is the second largest grossing film of all time, behind only Gone with the Wind. This is the one area where subjectivity can really kick in as some of the biggest box office films of all time are considered less than artistic achievements but still resonate with audiences in different ways.
What about a film’s legacy? I’d argue that no film has changed Hollywood more than Star Wars has and the evidence can be seen in almost any film utilizing special visual and sound effects the last 40 years. The impact Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) and Skywalker Sound/THX has had in shaping the industry and propelling into the new millennium cannot be understated. Due to this, the film’s effect on the industry is the subject of many a curriculum across the country and countless books examining Hollywood. Star Wars is forever preserved in the National Film Registry of the United States and the American Film Institute ranks it the 13th greatest film of all time.
So, Star Wars seems to have it where it counts when it comes to determining whether the film is more than just flash and bang. Not only a visually stunning and ground-breaking piece of art, it seems George Lucas created a hybrid form of storytelling not seen in Hollywood prior to its release. He bravely set it off world and presented us with alien species even Stanley Kubrick was hesitant to put on screen. He set his opus to orchestral music something no other director was doing at the time, to grand results. It ushered in the era of the “blockbuster” forever changing how movie theatres and production companies do business. It has received what many consider to be the highest honors any one film can receive and was nearly unanimously praised by critics at the time of its release.
Knowing all of this, and it just barely scratches the surface, its entirely possible and likely that Leonard Maltin is fool hearty when it comes to his assessment. I would even go as far as to say he doesn’t follow his own simple rules when determining the value of a film to be worthy of one’s “film education”. I’m a cinephile myself and have been for 30+ years and I can think of no better film to start one’s film education than Star Wars: A New Hope. In fact, it might be the perfect film to start with. But don’t take my word for it, no, take the word of the greatest film critic who ever lived…
“Star Wars had placed me in the presence of really magical movie invention: Here, all mixed together, were whimsy and fantasy, simple wonderment and quietly sophisticated storytelling.”
~Roger Ebert, 1977
Till next time…MTFBWY.
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