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.

To the extent that the narrative works, it works because it mirrors this notion of a grubby future made up of the past. As many have pointed out, Lucas' films are stitched together from old tropes and serials and homages: Luke’s family’s farm is burned in a raid out of The Searchers; Leia is chained up in an Orientalist fever dream; the primitive Ewoks inevitably mistake their visitors for gods. The fantasy future is soldered together indifferently from fantasies past, with the inner bits as exposed as C3PO's stomach. No wonder Star Wars toys were so successful; the world of the films is practically built of toys already—the Death Star floats half-constructed in the third film, all but begging to be rendered in Legos.

The B-movie shoddiness of actors and aesthetics in Star Wars is often what critics don't like. But even setting aside the fact that the effects charm precisely because they’re marvelously fake, there's something original and profound in the films' vision of time not as progress, but as a continued borrowing from the past.

Certainly that vision resonates with our current moment, in which the new technology of the Internet devotes so much bandwidth to the perpetuation of nostalgia for, among other things, Star Wars itself.  Even the endless sequels (I'll confess that out of self-preservation I stopped watching after Jar Jar Binks) seem, however unnecessary in themselves, like a natural extension: If the future is past and the past future, then we're always building a new Star Wars out of our old tomorrows. In a genre, and for that matter a nation, that believes so fervently in progress and advancement, it's refreshing to have a dream of a future going nowhere, in which even our most ingenious innovations shall be plunged into mud.

* This post initially stated Jim Henson was responsible for the films' FX. We regret the error.