This is the second entry in a series I'm calling "The Unenthusiastic Critic," in which I convince my highly reluctant girlfriend to join me in watching classic movies that she has somehow managed to avoid seeing. For a fuller explanation of this particular form of relationship suicide, read the introduction to the series here.
(Note: We watched Star Wars. Not Star Wars IV: A New Hope, or Star Wars: The Special Edition, or Star Wars: Yet Another Version Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition, but goddamn Star Wars as it was originally presented in 1977, before George Lucas took to digitally, endlessly raping his own creation for profit. It took me a while, but I finally found a DVD set that included the original, unaltered movie as—I'm not kidding—a "bonus feature.")
Why I Chose It: I admit, it is hard to think of any movie franchise that has suffered such a universal backlash as Star Wars, and it's all earned. By endlessly tinkering with the original films, and by producing three prequels that abandoned all the charm of the original trilogy while underlining all their weaknesses, George Lucas has squandered nearly every ounce of goodwill he ever had. It has become fashionable to denigrate the original trilogy almost as severely as the unwatchable prequels, and certainly there are plenty of fish in this barrel if you choose to shoot them.
But there's no denying the influential place Star Wars holds in movie history—for better or worse—or its status as a timeless cultural touchstone. (The fact that people are still producing successful parodies 30+ years later—from Robot Chicken and The Family Guy to the brilliant web series Troopers—says a lot about how deeply embedded these movies are in our collective consciousness.) And—if you're roughly my age, and honest—there's no denying the power of seeing this film in theaters for the first time. I was eight years old in 1977, and I still remember getting chills from the moment the film began, with the incredible theme by John Williams and the jaw-dropping shot of a massive Star Destroyer moving across the top of the frame. Yes, I'm older and wiser now, and can more easily recognize the deep flaws in Star Wars, but I'm not such a cynical bastard that I can't remember the wonder too.
Besides, N. kept telling me that she didn't need to see Star Wars because she knew everything she needed to know about it from those parody versions, especially the ones done on Family Guy. Sadly, this is probably true, but on principle alone I refuse to allow her to get her knowledge of anything from Family Guy, which is—we can all agree, right?—the worst thing ever produced by human beings.
What My Girlfriend Knew About It Going In: So, prior to our viewing, I quizzed N. on the encyclopedic knowledge of Star Wars she has retained from Family Guy and Robot Chicken:
She: So, I know a lot of stuff that happens, but I don't know what order it happens in. I know there's an ice planet, and they cut open a camel thing, and climb inside it to stay warm.
Me: Uh huh.
She: I know about the teddy bear things. Ewoks, right? I know about the cantina scene. I know Han shot first, but I don't know what that means. I know about Jabba the Hut, chained to the chick in the metal bikini.
(N. then proceeds to do an impression of Jabba the Hut dying, which—since she hasn't seen that either—is actually an impression of Bill Heder's impersonation of Jabba the Hut dying from Knocked Up.)
She: And I know there's one black guy, but I don't think he's in this one.
Me: Actually, almost nothing you've said so far is in this one.
She: Oh, and I know about Yoda! And I can speak Yoda!
Me: You can not speak Yoda.
She: (proceeding to demonstrate her Yoda impersonation) Yoda speak I can!
(To properly appreciate the terribleness of N.'s third-hand Yoda impersonation, we would need to do this as a podcast. When N. does Yoda she sounds like the leader of the Lollipop Guild dying of throat cancer while being punched repeatedly in the balls.)
Me: I'm going to have to find a way to describe your impersonation that does it justice.
She: You can describe it as spot-on. Say, "If you closed your eyes, you'd think Yoda had entered the room and was watching the movie with us."
Me: It sounds like someone strangling a parrot.
She: Parrot strangling someone is!
Me: Anyway, Yoda isn't in this one, either.
She: This is bullshit. It sounds like none of the interesting stuff is in this movie.
Me: That's good; so it should all be new to you.
She: And boring.
Me: So what are you expecting?
She: I'm expecting crappy special effects. I'm expecting not to like what's his name…Luke…because everything I've seen of him, his voice is really annoying. I'm not expecting to really like it. Space movies are not really my thing, and this is a really old-assed space movie. I'm expecting to like it about as much as that Star Trek movie we watched with the whales.
Me: So you're expecting…
She: Whales. I'm expecting whale-level enjoyment.
How It Went: About as you'd expect.
As I pop in the DVD, I try to put N. in the proper frame of mind.
Me: I was eight years old when I first saw this movie. Try to imagine that you're eight. Tap into that childlike sense of wonder.
She: Life was harsh when I was eight. I grew up in the streets.
Me: You grew up in Indiana.
She: We couldn't see the stars where I grew up.
Me: Oh, jesus.
She doesn't pay attention to the opening text-crawl, because she says she already knows all this information from Family Guy. "The Death Star's got a crack in it," she says. "Bit of a flaw in the design." Then comes the thrilling opening scene, as the droids R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) navigate their way through a sea of laser fire as stormtroopers and rebel forces clash aboard Princess Leia's ship. "They can't even hit those slow-ass robots?" N. complains.
Then comes the first confrontation between two of our major characters, Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher).
This is what I'm faced with throughout. She mocks the various screen-wipes (top to bottom, left to right, clockwise sweep); she sings the Oompa Loompa song when the Jawas appear; she yells "Johnny 5 is alive!" at one of the droids in the Jawas' land cruiser.
And then our hero—Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)—appears, and I know we're in trouble. The quintessential hero's journey starts with an unassuming lad from humble beginnings; here, it is a simple farmboy who dreams of distant places. A diamond in the rough, a prince in pauper's clothing, an innocent who does not even suspect the greatness that lies within him.
He is—as N. succinctly puts it—a whiny little bitch. It's hard to tell which is worse—Lucas's dialogue or Hamill's delivery—but even for me his incessant sniveling is a little hard to take. "But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power convertors," Luke whines to his uncle, and N. begins making crybaby noises. I agree with her, but try to keep us on course:
Me: You have to get caught up in the romance of it all.
She: What romance?
Me: It's pure Joseph Campbell. It's a classic hero's journey.
She: But I have to like the hero first. I don't like this hero, so I don't give a fuck about his journey.
Me: You have no soul.
She: His journey is that his balls still need to drop.
Luke and C-3PO go chasing after R2D2 in the desert. ("This movie would move a lot faster if those droids didn't move so damn slowly," N. says.) Soon, they come upon some Sand People:
She: What the fuck is that. That's ridiculous.
Me: What do you mean?
She: That coked-out snuffaluffagus. What the hell is that?
Me: I don't know. I think it's called a bantha.
She: God. So far, Family Guy is winning.
Me: In what sense?
She: In the sense that I am bored out of my mind right now.
Me: Just think how much you'll enjoy the Family Guy parody next time you watch it.
She: No, this will have tainted it.
Me: Star Wars will have tainted the Family Guy parody of Star Wars?
She: Yes. It was pure before. Now I know the ugly roots.
Things pick up a bit with the arrival of Obi Wan Kenobi, played by the incredible Sir Alec Guiness—N. can't complain about his acting—and pick up even more with the arrival of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in the famous cantina scene. ("Probably the most interesting scene in the three hours I've been watching this movie so far," N. says, which is the closest thing to praise we're going to get.)
And then we get to the controversial Greedo scene. Look, I'm not particularly a Star Wars nerd—I didn't even own the movies before I chose to do this blog—but I do believe in directors leaving their movies the hell alone. More importantly—while it has dated somewhat, of course—this was the scene at the time that established Han Solo as the coolest motherfucker in the universe: Greedo is sitting there threatening him, and Han just casually takes his gun out of his holster under the table and shoots him point blank. (It's basically the same iconic moment Ford would reenact a few years later as Indiana Jones, casually shooting the sword-swinging giant rather than getting into a whole thing with him.) In revising his film, George Lucas seems to have completely missed what made his coolest character cool; that's what fires the ire of the "Han Shot First" crowd, and I am sympathetic to their feelings. I explain the controversy to N., since it's pretty much the entire reason we watched this slightly crappy DVD transfer to begin with.
Me: So, see, in the revised version, Greedo shoots at Han and misses him, a split-second before Han blows him away.
She: Uh huh.
Me: It's total bullshit.
She: It is bullshit. I don't know why they would feel the need to revise it. It doesn't make him any less likable that he shot first.
Me: No, in fact it makes him more likable.
She: Yep, that's a pussy out.
N. keeps getting impatient with the pace of the story…and the speed of the droids. I had been prepared for her hatred of Luke, but it had never even occurred to me that anyone could hate the droids. Yet we're not even out of Mos Eisley before she's yelling at them again.
She: The stupid robot isn't even down the stairs yet! It's bullshit. They're slow.
Me: What do you want, some speedy-ass CGI flying robots? It's a midget in a garbage can.
She: No, they don't have to fly, but they don't even have weapons. And they move so slowly. What good are they?
Me: Maybe the sand is slowing them down. They weren't really built for this environment.
She: They're useless.
Me: They're comic relief.
She: I mean, I'm sure it's a beautiful relationship in film history, but I can't even hear half the jokes. Bleep bloop blip bloop bleep! Jesus.
Me: That's part of the joke.
She: Must be the funny half.
It must be said, N's attention—never fully engaged—flags noticeably during the second half of the movie. By the time we've reached the Death Star, she's more or less checked out. She wakes up a little when Luke, Han, Chewbacca, and Leia end up in the trash compactor, and a slimy lizard monster grabs Luke and sucks him underwater. "That's the fastest anything has moved in this whole movie," she says.
Nor is she impressed with the lightsaber duel between Obi Wan and Vader (which, I must admit, is less impressive than I'd remembered). N. proclaims it the "worst rave ever."
Just as impressive as I remembered it, however, is the final attack on the Death Star. I haven't seen the revised versions, but for my money the special effects in these dogfight sequences hold up just fine without any digital enhancement at all, and it makes me angry all over again that Lucas went back and tinkered with them. This is movie history, and it deserves to be seen in this version—yet the edition I have is out of print, and the original theatrical movie is no longer available on DVD at all. (And the moment when the Millennium Falcon flies out of the sun to save Luke's butt so he can blow up the Death Star is still awesome.)
The Verdict: After the movie ends, we discuss N.'s overall impressions.
Me: Still with me?
Me: Still love me?
She: Sort of.
She: I was bored. And I don't know if that's because I couldn't stand the protagonist—he just annoyed me, so I wasn't rooting for him at all—or if it was just boring. I think the score does a lot of work for it, to make it seem like it was exciting and rousing when it wasn't. But I also knew the ending, so maybe I wasn't as wrapped up in it as I should have been. I really don't feel enriched having watched it; I was comfortable with my Family Guy level of knowledge.
Me: How did the special effects look to you?
She: Actually, it wasn't bad. I was expecting early Doctor Who level special effects.
[She references, specifically, one of the few episodes of classic Doctor Who she ever saw, 1975's "Terror of the Zygons," which unfortunately featured a Loch Ness Monster that looked like a child's pull-toy. So it's nice to know Star Wars looks good in comparison to something.]
Me: The special effects in this were breathtaking in 1977. No one had ever seen anything like it.
She: I get that. I guess you can compare it to my experience watching The Matrix, where you just walked out of the theater saying "What the fuck did I just watch?" But the story just didn't do anything at all for me. I just didn't care enough, and with this type of movie you have to be rooting for someone.
Me: Yeah, that's how I feel about The Matrix.
She: You weren't rooting for Neo?
Me: Oh my god, you want to talk about an annoying, whiny bitch of a protagonist, let's talk about Keanu Reeves. I would take Mark Hamill over Keanu Reeves any day.
She: You would take Leif Garrett over Keanu Reeves?
(We then degenerate into an angry conversation about the respective "ranges" of acting talent exhibited by Mark Hamill and Keanu Reeves. It was indeed an argument for the ages, but I'll spare you.)
Me: So, was any of it better than you expected?
She: The special effects were better; I was surprised I didn't laugh out loud at the effects. And Han was okay; he cut the earnestness of it all.
Me: Best part?
She: Probably the cantina scene, just because it was the most layered and interesting, with all the different little characters that were in there. And I can see where the final battle scene would be really cool and exciting…to an eight-year old boy.
Me: Worst part?
She: The rest of it. Any part where Luke was the focus. I mean, seriously, if he'd died, I would have been okay. I'd have been like, "Oh, awesome! Luke is dead."
Me: So if he hadn't come back up from under the water…
She: I would have been like, "Good job, trash compactor monster!"
Me: To be fair, they kind of figure that out in the next two movies; those are much more about Han. Any other observations?
She: The slow-ass droids need a serious system upgrade. If you're going to have a fire extinguisher, why don't you have something that can shoot something as well? That would be helpful. We run into more shooting than fires.
Me: They're not designed…
She: I don't care.
Me: You know, what this all demonstrates to me is that your generation's attention span is short. At the time, anyone would have said this was wall-to-wall action, but you thought it was slow, because you're comparing it to later, fast-cut, A.D.D.-catering shit like The Matrix.
She: I'm sure that's part of it. But it goes back to the story. It just wasn't strong enough. If I were more engaged in the story, and if I were more invested in the protagonist, I wouldn't be sitting there going, "Okay, now I've got to watch you walk for five minutes, you slow-ass fucking piece of shit machine. Get the fucking lead out. Where's the fucking oil can? Let's move this along."
Me: So you want to watch the next two?
She: Nope, I'm good. You can just write that I feel the exact same way about the next two. Screenwipe. Slow-ass screenwipe. I'm done.
I think it's only appropriate to give Yoda the last word:
Up Next for The Unenthusiastic Critic: I had planned to do Alien next, but I'm feeling like a more radical change of pace is required. So, at the moment, I'm debating between Blue Velvet and The Sound of Music. It might even make a nice double-bill. Stay tuned.