Star Wars is entertainment for eight-year-old boys. Its creator, George Lucas, had his first major success with a movie for teenagers, American Graffiti (1973), which was one of the most profitable pictures ever made: it cost $775,000 to produce and sold $111 million worth of tickets. Star Wars was his next project, and he set out to make a movie for an audience he noticed was being neglected, temporarily, by Disney. He was able to hire young and almost unknown actors for the lead roles—Harrison Ford, who was working as a carpenter when he was cast; Mark Hamill, who had appeared only on television, notably in the soap opera General Hospital; and Carrie Fisher, whose film career consisted of a bit part in Shampoo—because he knew that children do not care about movie stars.
Lucas’s principal source of inspiration for the movie, besides the old Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials, was adventure comics; when he was writing the screenplay, he used to bring them home by the armful. During the shooting, he dressed Carrie Fisher like a vestal virgin and had her breasts bound with tape so they wouldn’t be seen to jiggle on screen. (Her character, Princess Leia, is one of only two women in the movie; the other, Luke Skywalker’s middle-aged aunt, dies in the first reel.) He had to beg his actors not to roll their eyes or make faces when they delivered their extremely hokey lines, and he had to restrain his editor from cutting to produce a campy effect. When the picture was released, he predicted it would make $16 million, because, he told a reporter: “This is a Disney movie. All Disney movies make $16 million.”
It did a little better than that. Star Wars cost $9.5 million to produce. It opened in May 1977 and was an immediate sensation; by November, it had taken in $193.5 million and was the highest-grossing movie of all time, topping the reigning champ, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, which had come out just three years before. In the end, Star Wars sold $524 million worth of tickets worldwide and nearly sextupled the stock price of Twentieth Century Fox, the company that distributed the movie after United Artists and Universal had turned it down. The only film with a higher gross is Titanic, which is a movie (so far have we come) for ten-year-old girls.
Two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983), which Lucas wrote and produced but did not direct, were also huge box office hits. In 1997 all three movies were re-released, one at a time, in a “special edition”—that is, with a small number of cut scenes digitally restored—and took in $250 million at the box office. The “special edition” Star Wars, a movie available on videotape for decades, did $36.2 million worth of business in the first weekend. The entire series has grossed $1.2 billion.
The movies, though, are the cottage part of the industry. The serious money is in the merchandising: videos, toys, soundtracks, novelizations, computer games, posters, T-shirts, coloring books, collectibles, and so on. Total income from these products, whose licensing Lucas controls, is said to exceed $4 billion—even be-fore the release, on May 19, of the fourth movie, the first of three “prequels,” called Star Wars: Episode I—The Phantom Menace. These prequels have so many commercial tie-ins that before The Phantom Menace came out a large proportion of the news stories about the movie ran in the business section. It gives some idea of the sums involved to note that Pepsico has paid $2 billion to use Star Wars images on its products through 2005, the year the last of the prequels is scheduled to appear, and that Hasbro, the toy company, has an employee whose title is Vice President for Star Wars. Lucas reportedly owns the rights to some fifteen million shares of Hasbro stock, which was selling at around thirty dollars a share when the movie opened. It has been calculated that The Phantom Menace would have turned a profit even if no one had gone to see it. As it turned out, the movie took in $162.7 million in its first five days—a record amount.
The new movie sticks resolutely to the formula. The hero, Anakin Skywalker (Luke’s future father), is supposed to be nine, and looks six; the heroine, Queen Amidala (scheduled to marry Anakin in a later episode), is supposed to be fourteen, and looks about eleven. The leading grownup parts are played by Liam Neeson, as a sixty-year-old Jedi knight (a well-preserved sixty, but still), and Pernilla August, a Swedish actress, as Anakin’s mother (and the only female charac-ter besides Amidala with measurable screen time). They are handsome people, but you can no more easily imagine sexual relations between them in this story than you can imagine sexual relations between, well, your parents, which is exactly the idea.
There are many battles, duels, high-speed races, and scary monsters, but the violence is cartoon violence, and no one is seen to suffer. The dialogue is as lame as ever (“George,” Harrison Ford is reported to have complained to Lucas during the filming of the first Star Wars, “you can type this shit, but you sure can’t say it”); but neither this, nor the fact that much of the story is impossible to make sense of (Queen Amidala is the absolute ruler of a planet that is proud to call itself a democracy?), gets in the way of the entertainment, which is provided mostly by the fantastically detailed special effects. Production values (as they ought to be for $115 million, which is what the movie cost to make) are outstanding. As he did for the first three Star Wars movies, Lucas has ripped off images and ideas from the entire canon of pop mythology, from Idylls of the King to Jurassic Park—his theory seems to be that if it worked once, it will work again. But nothing in the movie depends on an allusion that only an adult could understand. The Phantom Menace runs two hours and eleven minutes, and definitely has its longueurs; on the other hand, one always needs time to go out for popcorn (or, possibly, a delicious Pepsi-Cola). There is very little for an eight-year-old not to like.
It is true that The Phantom Menace does not really work as a movie. The chief problem, which ought to have been obvious to Lucas when he started out, is that everyone who has seen the other three Star Wars movies—that is, practically everyone in the theater—already knows how the story comes out. Specifically, they know that good little Anakin Skywalker will someday become big bad Darth Vader. The question all along has been How?but there is nothing in The Phantom Menace to answer it. From the point of view of the series as a whole, the new movie is pure backstory. And in spite of all the zipping and zapping, its own plot barely advances an inch. We meet Anakin Skywalker, period. Instead of embarking on this expensive, lengthy, and, for fans, entirely predictable set of prequels, it might have been more sensible just to have spun off additional Star Wars adventures, keeping the universe and some of the characters but losing the epic, after the pattern of the Indiana Jones movies (which Lucas co-writes and co-produces, and which Spielberg directs).
There are also miscalculations of a kind that suggest that Lucas, a filmmaker obsessed with what he calls, in interviews, “control” over both the content and the marketing of his movies, is not an easy man to approach with anything that might be construed as criticism. Otherwise someone would surely have pointed out to him that the character he has invented for comic relief—a human torso with a lizard (or is it a camel?) head and Uncle Wiggly ears, called Jar Jar Binks—in his role as a hapless valet to the Liam Neeson character not only embarrassingly recalls Stepin Fetchit (there is, in fact, a black actor, Ahmed Best, underneath the rubber mask) but, somewhat crucially, is impossible to understand, since he speaks with a Jamaican accent in what appears to be a compound of Middle English and Rugrat. (“Ooooh, maxibig…’da Force’… Wellen, dat smells stinkowiff.”) Children sit silent through his scenes.
It is also a little bathetic that, as we now learn, the whole saga turns out to have been triggered by some kind of tax problem. “Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic,” reads the opening crawl. “The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute.” It’s all an allegory about the IRS? Only a multimillionaire, one feels, would regard this as an inspiring pretext for a cosmic war between good and evil. And finally (not that it probably matters): What is “the phantom menace,” anyway?
Still, every Hollywood costume epic has its inanities, and this one’s are no more preposterous than most. But many people who are no longer eight years old—and who are not stark raving mad Star Wars cultists who actually believe that Lucas has created an imaginary universe as encyclopedic and coherent as, say, The Lord of the Rings—have expressed huge disappointment in the new movie. These people seem to fall into two, partially overlapping, camps: people who remember the original Star Wars with pleasure, and journalists. They have different motives for distress.
What people who enjoyed the first Star Wars probably miss—since the “mythic” trappings are no tackier than they were in the original movies, and since the special effects are distinctly superior—is the one tried-and-true movie formula Lucas seems to have left out this time around, which is the formula responsible for the relationship between Harrison Ford, as the wisecracking pilot Han Solo, and Mark Hamill, as the earnest young whiner Luke Skywalker. That relationship made those first three movies essentially what Hollywood calls “buddy pictures.”
Lucas knew exactly what he was doing when he came up with those characters. Midnight Cowboy had won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1969; one of the nominated movies it beat was Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. MAS*H was nominated for Best Picture of 1970; The French Connection won the award for 1971; The Sting won it for 1973. All of these movies are stories about the relations between two men. Hollywood was in love with the genre. Lucas modeled the Solo-Skywalker relationship on two of the characters he had created for American Graffiti (which had been one of the nominated movies beaten by The Sting for Best Picture)—the ones played by Ron Howard, as a high school straight arrow, and Paul Le Mat, as a hot-rodding dropout. (These characters were reprised for many years as Richie, played by Howard, and the Fonz on the television sitcom Happy Days, a spinoff from American Graffiti which was the top-rated show in the country in 1977, the year Star Wars came out.)
Women in buddy pictures usually function as tokens of exchange between the guys: the basic, though often implicit, idea is that one of the men can easily seduce his friend’s girl, and the friend probably wouldn’t mind, but he doesn’t because, in the end, women really aren’t that important. One man shows his love for the other by giving him, in effect, his own girl (though sometimes, as in, for example, Semi-Tough, another movie of 1977, they cheerfully agree to swap). Cindy Williams played this female role in American Graffiti. (She went on to star in another spinoff from that movie, Laverne and Shirley, which was the top-rated show on television the year before Star Wars came out.) Katharine Ross played the part in Butch Cassidy; and it is hard not to think that a resemblance to Katharine Ross was one of the reasons Lucas chose Carrie Fisher for the part of Princess Leia. When, at the very end of the trilogy, in The Return of the Jedi, Han Solo offers to give Princess Leia up to Luke Skywalker, it is explained to him that this is not really necessary, since Leia is, in fact, Luke’s sister. Han can have her after all. It’s the perfect resolution.
Friendship is the element The Phantom Menace most glaringly omits. Neeson’s character is given a side-kick, the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is played by the Scottish actor Ewan McGregor; but the two men were apparently strictly forbidden to engage in byplay of any kind. Their dialogue is all “Be mindful, my young Padawan,” “Very good, Master” sort of stuff, straight out of Prince Valiant via The Karate Kid. The effect on McGregor, an actor celebrated for risqué performances in other movies, is nearly punitive. He has explained in interviews that his job consisted chiefly of standing behind Neeson on a box (Neeson is much taller) and furrowing his brow a lot. This leaves, by way of human interest, the hints of a future romance between Anakin and Queen Amidala. Natalie Portman, who plays the Queen, is very beautiful. But the actor who plays Anakin, Jake Lloyd, was nine years old when the movie was shot, and looks a lot like Dennis the Menace. It will be a while before he’s ready for Natalie Portman, on screen or off.
The journalists’ distress has a different source. Some reviewers have found the movie perfectly acceptable entertainment, but the ones who have not have tended to engage in critical overkill. Why the outrage? How did all these grownups get on the dark side of the Force? The Phantom Menace is not a great movie; but The Return of the Jedi, for the most part, is a terrible movie, and no one reacted as though it represented the death of cinema. Part of the annoyance is probably due to resentment over the way the new movie has been marketed. In 1997 almost every news outlet in the country devoted major coverage to the re-release of the original Star Wars trilogy; only two years later, they were all at it again, even Vogue (a fashion spread on Natalie Portman’s many ridiculous outfits) and Metropolitan Home (a picture of a “luxury box” from a racing sequence; according to The New York Observer, the idea came from Lucas’s company).
So it is not entirely surprising that this time around, the reporters have been noticeably more cynical, producing stories with headlines like “Myth or Marketing?,” and the reviewers have been a lot less forgiving. The purpose of all the pre-release promotion was plainly to move the merchandise, which hit the stores well in advance of the picture. And the idea that Star Wars carries some sort of spiritual message for the contemporary world has finally worn thin. It is like the coverage, several years ago, of Windows 95: there basically is no story, just relentless hype from the manufacturer and lots of people with nothing better to do lined up around the block to get the first shipment. Editors assign these stories because products like Windows 95 and Star Wars sell magazines to the people who will end up consuming them, and the writers know perfectly well that’s the only reason.
Some of the animus is therefore an animus against Lucas, whose company is rigid in controlling information about its products and clearly shameless about promoting them. But some of it is possibly directed at Rupert Murdoch, who now owns Fox (which, thanks to Lucas’s wealth, actually holds only a 10 percent interest in the new movie), and whose expanding position in the American news and entertainment business some people have begun to find a little threatening. This almost certainly explains why the New York Daily News ran two venomous pieces about The Phantom Menace even before it opened. One, headlined “‘Menace’ to Society,” was a review by Time’s art critic, Robert Hughes, who called it “one of the worst movies I have ever seen.” Murdoch, of course, owns the News’s rival, the Post.
It also may be that The Phantom Menace drove home a little too pointedly the fact that the big Hollywood movies today are mostly pitched at an audience of preteens. Movie critics who got into the business in the days of Godard and Altman and the early Scorsese now find themselves chained to a life of appraising the cinematic qualities of pictures designed for kids, and promoted in advance of their release in ways that make reviewers, when they finally do get to cast their votes, almost irrelevant. If critics hold Lucas responsible for this state of affairs, they are not wrong. For whatever else its cultural meaning may be, Star Wars did change the movie business.
When he made Star Wars, Lucas established a few new economic truths, a couple of which had already been suggested, a few years earlier, by his friend Steven Spielberg’s success with Jaws. One is that, unlike most adults, kids will gladly pay to see a movie in the theater more than once. Another is that since this audience is not interested in stars, you can make a commercially successful movie without paying the salary of a single box office draw. Jaws featured three very good actors—Roy Scheider, Richard Dreyfuss, and Robert Shaw (no major parts for women)—but none of those names sold tickets. Lucas did want an established actor in the part of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and he ended up having to give Alec Guinness 2.25 percent of the gross to get him. (It was the best deal Sir Alec ever made.) But the rest of his cast were virtual unknowns.
Finally, Lucas turned down a higher director’s fee from Twentieth Century Fox in return for control over merchandising and sequels. Fox thought he was crazy: everyone in Hollywood knew that licensing rights were worthless, since it took too long to get the toys into the stores, and that sequels never made money. Now they know different. Lucas’s next projects, besides the fifth and sixth Star Wars movies (contrary to rumor, a third trilogy is not planned), include a fourth Indiana Jones movie and Jurassic Park 3. Spielberg (who is also scheduled to produce a television spinoff from Saving Private Ryan) will direct both.
The first Star Wars was in many respects a reactionary film. It was a self-conscious turn away from the kind of movies many of Lucas’s close friends—directors like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma—were making in the 1970s, and back to what Lucas saw as an era of morally uncomplicated entertainment, good guys and bad guys, fantasy and fun. This is why, like a true reactionary, he didn’t try to invent more than he absolutely had to. He just raided the past. The space battle that ends the movie was created by splicing together scenes of dogfights from old war pictures and reproducing the sequences of shots—just as the scene in which the android C-3PO is dismembered by Sand People plagiarizes the scene in The Wizard of Oz in which the Scarecrow is dismembered by flying monkeys, the burning down of the Skywalker ranch is copied from John Ford’s The Searchers, and so on.
What was new about Star Wars, though, was the attitude it took toward technology. In almost every science fiction movie of the Fifties and Sixties, computers and high-tech generally were associated with brave-new-world technocracy, soullessness, dehumanization. Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) was the consummation of this tradition—a portentous examination of the techno future. Lucas admired 2001, but he also saw where he could do Kubrick one better by making his story playful and upbeat instead of mysterious and dystopian. Star Wars was the Beatles to 2001’s Elvis. And it coincided almost exactly with a remake of the high-tech image in American culture—with the emergence of the video game and with IBM advertisements for the personal computer that featured an actor dressed as Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. Computers started to be figured not as inhuman and needlessly expensive machines for balancing your checkbook but as gadgets for your kids to play games on, the toys that would keep us human. Lucas’s movie about cowboys riding around in spaceships shooting up bad guys was the perfect entertainment analogue.
Star Wars helped make the dawning digital age seem fun. But it also helped make fun merely digital. Part of the appeal of the old Star Wars was that there was still something obviously homemade about the futuristic creatures and sets. A little of the imperfect human world leaked in around the edges of the frame. In The Phantom Menace, this leak of mutability is entirely gone. Everything has been programmed down to the twitch of an actor’s eyebrow. Lucas already possesses the technology needed to combine an actor’s facial expression from one take with his or her body from a different take, and he gave up the plan to do most of the secondary characters in the new movie entirely digitally only because it became too expensive, and had to use digitally manipulated images of actors wearing masks (a technique known as “animatronics”) instead. But he has said he intends to make the next Star Wars installment entirely on a computer. If he makes enough money on this one.
June 24, 1999