Star Wars' Original, Scum-Caked Brilliance

Haters have a point: Lucas's movies are shoddily made. But that's part of why they're great.

Updated, May 6

The announcement of the cast of the new Star Wars sequel has unleashed some pent-up backlash. Much of this backlash has been focused on the fact that the cast appears to include only one new female role, which has, in turn, reminded folks of how rotten the original series' gender representation was (see here, here, or my own take here.)

But Star Wars hate hasn't just been limited to the role of women in the series. Lewis Beale, for example, took the cast announcement as an opportunity to declare the franchise to be "the worst thing ever for the science fiction genre." He adds, "Star Wars has corrupted people's notion of a literary genre full of ideas, turning it into a Saturday afternoon serial." Beale's horror echoes Jonathan Rosenbaum's semi-infamous loathing of what Star Wars had done to film: "The success of this movie convinced studio heads that movies should be made to sell merchandise … that antisocial ten-year-old boys are the viewers to target, and that anyone who thinks otherwise about movies can take a hike." Rosenbaum concluded by wishing that every print of the film could be destroyed.

Having just rewatched the original trilogy, I can sympathize with Beale, Rosenbaum, and any and all of the series' other critics. The leads just can’t act: Mark Hamill has to be the whiniest hero ever to stand in front of a camera, while Harrison Ford manages to come off as the most charming performer in the small-town high school drama club. The script’s New Age balderdash is laughable, and the plot holes barely leave room for the plot (you can blow the Death Star apart with a single shot? Really?). This amateurish, stumbling piece of brain-dead mediocrity launched a cross-platform media juggernaut? How did that happen?

And yet, while its flaws are glaring, the series is still a work of genius. That genius being, mostly, the puppeteers'.* George Lucas has tried to muck even that up by retroactively adding CGI, but still, from the variegated slimy, bulbous critters of the bar on Tatooine to Yoda's expressive ears to the gleefully repulsive bulk of Jabba the Hutt, Star Wars' alternate world is delightfully tactile—a fact that elevates the films' message. 

The visual scruffiness reflects the movies' unique status as an advanced technological space opera set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away." Lucas's famous opening line positions the series as a kind of fairy tale, but it also scrambles past and future in a way that serves as a blueprint for the visual style. The Millennium Falcon is the iconic example of Star Wars' notion of the future as a cobbled-together hunk of old crud. But the films' obsession with dirty robots may be even more telling. C-3PO and R2-D2 are constantly being covered in dust and filth; just about the first thing that happens to them is that they get dumped onto Tatooine, where they trudge through sand until they're captured by the Jawas and trapped in their roving junk heap. It’s almost as if Yoda lives in a swamp just so we can have the pleasure of watching R2-D2 and Luke's X-wing get coated in bog water.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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