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Friday, 27 July 2018

Unimpressed: The negative 1977 reviews of Star Wars

Not everybody was excited by Star Wars

The majority of contemporary critics liked Star Wars. When I first began researching the subject, I was struck by the fact that reviewers generally felt the same way as audiences.

But there were a few dissenters. Today, we consider the critics who didn't like Star Wars, and why.

The negative US reviews of Star Wars

The binary sunset in Star Wars: one
of the few parts Pauline Kael liked

Almost all the US newspaper reviews of Star Wars were positive, as far as I've seen. To find the dissenters, you have to look at some of the magazines.

Pauline Kael in the New Yorker could not deny that the movie was spectacular, but she was one of several critics to find there was no substance under the excitement.

She wrote:

Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts  it has no emotional grip.
She goes on to say: 
It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood.
Kael would not be the last critic to suggest that if you liked Star Wars, you must be either a child or childish.

John Simon in New York Magazine was, if anything, even more critical. "Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a 'future' cast to them," he wrote.

The film was, he said, "all as exciting as last year's weather reports", full of "trite characterization and paltry verbiage", and he concluded: "Still, Star Wars will do very nicely for those lucky enough to be children or unlucky enough never to have grown up."

There's that charge of being childish again.

Almost all critics had to admit the film's visual effects were remarkable, but Stanley Kauffmann in the New Republic was not prepared to go even that far:

The only way that Star Wars could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional... This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before he world's affairs or  in any complex way  sex intruded.
There is the criticism that would continue to be aimed at fans for at least the next forty years: We are all immature males who can't get a girlfriend.

The UK's negative reviews of Star Wars

Star Wars playing at London's Leicester Square

Plenty of British critics wrote in fulsome praise of Star Wars, but it seems to me that the film ran into a higher percentage of negative reviews in the UK.

Why were British reviews less enthusiastic?

For one thing, I think British critics have traditionally been snooty about hugely popular American films, especially when those films emphasise excitement over intellect.

What's more, we have to consider that by the time Star Wars reached London in December 1977, the hype had been going on for months. There was none of the surprise that marked the film's US opening in May.

Many British reviewers had been shown the film in the summer, but had held their reviews until the release. So they'd had around five months to rein in any initial over-enthusiasm.

Derek Malcolm in the Guardian acknowledged the level of hype when he wrote: "Viewed dispassionately 
 and of course that's desperately difficult at this point in time – Star Wars is not an improvement on Mr Lucas' previous work, except in box office terms."

Malcolm's review does not belong among the purely negative reactions, but he has a foot in both camps. The film is "enormous and exhilarating fun for those who are prepared to settle down in their seats and let it all wash over them". Yet he concludes: 
The entirely mindless could go and see it with pleasure. But it plays enough games to satisfy the most sophisticated.

Russell Davies, reviewing the film for the Sunday Observer, knew he was spoiling a party:

The man who doesn't like Star Wars puts himself instantly at the centre of an H.M. Bateman cartoon. All around him are raised hands, shocked faces and cries of 'Shame!' So I had better keep, as they say, a low profile at this moment in time. 
Not that I dislike Star Wars all that much. My complaint about it is that there is not much to have an opinion about."

Davies is one of the few contemporary critics to see Luke's assault on the Death Star as "amusingly sexual in origin", which he notes before concluding:
But otherwise I think I'd better leave the subject to the millions of children who will shortly be experts on it. This is a pre-sold success, but also, for my taste, a pre-digested one.

In the British Film Institute's Monthly Film Bulletin, Richard Combs also acknowledges the difficulty of separating the film from its publicity:

Having elevated itself to the top of the all-time box-office poll, Star Wars has pulled of a feat of spiritual ledgerdemain more impressive than all the religious connotations of 'the Force' within the film. It has transformed itself from a mere movie into a phenomenon -- which is both a gain and a loss, since it becomes almost impossible to react to the film with anything but awed approval or brusque dismissal.

The film is, he says, "interesting primarily as an exercise in programming". Like Jaws, he says, it is a film made by a movie buff. But unlike Jaws, "Star Wars is monumentally empty, based on not a single idea but a wealth of conceits".

Star Wars, Combs says, "may be the first movie to appeal to film buffs who would never dream of calling themselves that, drawing as it does on a host of popular movie types".

He concludes: 
Without the simple spiritual convictions of his predecessors, or the philosophical speculations of his contemporaries, Lucas has rather left his audience out in the cold, with only regularly administered shots of special effects to keep them warm.

The British Film Institute also published the quarterly Sight and Sound, where it gave the American critic Jonathan Rosenbaum two pages to critique the film. The nicest thing Rosenbaum says about the film is that it is a "well-crafted, dehumanised update of Flash Gordon with better production values, no ironic overtones and a battery of special effects".

Rosenbaum decries the film at length, but perhaps his key passage is in the middle of the piece: 
Like the remote-control TV channel selectors that children love to play with, and the mechanical shooting games found in arcades, Star Wars offers solitary, narcissistic pleasures more than communal or romantic myths to keep its audience cheering.
Rosenbaum would still be complaining about Star Wars 20 years later, long after it had conquered the world.

Did the critics who didn't like Star Wars have a point?

People disagree about films. That's part of the fun of film-going.  So I don't question anybody's right to dislike Star Wars or any other movie.

I actually quite like the guilty tone of Russell Davies' review, in which he confesses to being out of step with everybody else. I'm sure most film lovers have had that feeling at some point.

What is dispiriting is the high-handed tone of some of the reviews, and the suggestion that people who liked the movie must be irredeemably infantile. Jonathan Rosenbaum places himself so far above the mass audience that we must be ant-like specs, and some of the others aren't much better.

A lot of people who liked Star Wars were adults – sophisticated adults who loved movies. Some of them enjoyed spotting the debts to other films. Some would intellectualise about the way the film synthesised other narratives. Others would just enjoy its unashamed innocence and excitement at a time when those qualities were in short supply. 

Being called childish for liking the film would have been deeply annoying. But over the next four decades, fans would get used to it.

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