I just reread the review I wrote of “Star Wars” in 1977 for The Real Paper in Boston, and I was somewhat surprised at how much I seemed to like it. “Star Wars is a marvel, a Marvel Comics come to life, a marvelous movie” is how I began my review. “It’s five decades of boys’ adventure heroics rolled into one, and it’s made for 12-year-olds of all ages.”
What I didn’t say in that review was that I was stoned out of my mind when I saw the movie, making it nearly impossible to follow what was not exactly a convoluted plot. I’d broken my rule of never indulging in synapse-altering substances while on the job, but only a few tokes of a friend’s unusually potent joint meant I had to shamelessly rely on the studio’s production notes to coherently describe the story.
I was 32 when I wrote that review, and I already knew deep down that I was too old for “Star Wars.” I could appreciate the roller-coaster ride of George Lucas’ retro sci-fi movie, but once I’d written about it, the movie vanished from my mind. Of course, I had no idea of what lay ahead: four decades of “Star Wars” movies, each one accompanied by ever-increasing cultural hysteria.
And the bigger it got, the more alienated I felt. I don’t hate the “Star Wars” movies: A few of them actually are pretty good. Though the original, on re-viewing, has lost much of its magic for me, Irvin Kershner’s “The Empire Strikes Back” remains formidable; the second half of “Revenge of the Sith” has genuine excitement; 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” though overly calculated to pluck every nostalgic chord in the SW playbook, plucks them with crisp efficiency; and the most recent major installment, Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” admirably pushes the envelope in inclusive new directions. (Spinoffs like “Rogue One” or the recently released “Solo” are the franchise stepchildren).
Whether it was a lame, middling or strong episode, I never felt there was much at stake. A lot has been written about how Lucas, inspired by Joseph Campbell, tapped into primal myths that speak to us all: the hero’s journey. The battle between Good and Evil. The struggle to resist the Dark Side within us and embrace The Force.
I get it, but I seemed to be immune to its mythic power. There was not a single character who got under my skin. (Recently, I cared about the fate of “The Black Panther’s” T’Challa with an urgency I never felt for Luke or Han or their descendants.) These boys’ fantasies could wow me in the moment with their “gee whiz” spirit, their colorfully grotesque creatures, the often-spectacular production design, but they never touched my heart or haunted my dreams.
I don’t say this with pride, but with a sense of loss: The whole “Star Wars” phenomenon can make me feel like a 12-year-old who doesn’t know how to swim, sitting alone on the shore while his friends frolic in the water.
But sometimes those frolicking friends could turn into bullies. Beware the wrath of an irate “Star Wars” fan! In May 1999, 16 years after the first trilogy came to its limp conclusion with “Return of the Jedi,” the so-called Episode 1, “The Phantom Menace,” appeared. It’s no exaggeration to say it was the most eagerly awaited film of the decade, if not the century. There were audience members who’d lined up a month in advance.
On a Friday night, just after the first press screening, my editors at Newsweek decided to put it on the cover, under the rubric “The Hyping of Star Wars.” When my review came out on Monday, it was the first to appear. I cut to the chase: “‘The Phantom Menace’ is a disappointment. A big one.” I went on to bemoan the lame storytelling, Lucas’ rusty, rhythmless filmmaking, the wooden dialogue, the lackluster performances and, of course, the now infamous Jar Jar Binks, whom I dubbed “an extraterrestrial Stepin Fetchit.”
This was not what the fans wanted to hear. The hate mail that ensued was impressive and heartfelt. This was still the early days of the internet; lucky for me Twitter and Facebook had yet to be invented. But Roger Ebert had told me about a site where you could type in your name and see what people were saying about you. He warned me. Not long after my “Phantom Menace” takedown appeared, I took a peek. The topic sentence of the bulletin board: “David Ansen is a moron!” And it got worse, and increasingly personal, as I descended into the untrammeled id of the internet.
That history has validated my opinion of “Phantom Menace” isn’t the point. The fact that few Star Warriors loved the movie only confirmed that the franchise was bulletproof, its success fait accompli. The Star Wars movies have achieved a status akin to national and religious holidays: Everyone observes them, whether they believe in them or not. When the time comes (in 20 years, 30?) when the public finally turns its back on the Skywalker saga, you’ll know the culture has undergone a seismic shift (and that the Disney Empire is in trouble).
I am the wrong generation for Lucas’ epic. But I suspect that even if I’d been born at the right time, I could never have become obsessed in the same way. I still have the list I made at age 13 (in 1958) of my favorite movies, and it reveals how eager this serious young fellow was to escape childhood. “Giant” topped the list, followed by “Picnic,” “Carmen Jones,” “War of the Worlds,” “High Noon,” “Witness for the Prosecution,” “The Night of the Hunter” and “The Harder They Fall,” a Humphrey Bogart movie about fight fixing in heavyweight boxing.
None of these movies were made for kids. Hollywood was still decades away from its total capitulation to the Youth Market, merchandising and franchises. What stirred my soul was that cafe-wrecking fistfight in “Giant” between Rock Hudson and the racist who wouldn’t serve Hudson’s Mexican daughter-in-law. What aroused my prepubescent loins was that sultry “Moonglow” dance in “Picnic” between William Holden and Kim Novak. What haunted my nightmares was the image of drowned Shelley Winters trapped in her jalopy in the bottom of a river, her hair flowing wildly above her, in “The Night of the Hunter.”
I liked space adventures as a boy: One of the first stories I ever wrote, in third grade, depicted a rocket ship mission to Mars. But my hero never made it — he ran out of oxygen and died. That’s the sort of kid I was. And I’m the kind of adult who, now that I’m no longer professionally obliged to go, stays far away from most superhero movies.
I’m glad that “Star Wars” has brought unadulterated pleasure to millions of people. Only a real Grinch would begrudge them. But a world where Good and Evil are spelled out with crayon certitude isn’t one that interests me, and a culture that prefers to spend its time in outer space is not one that includes me. I’m far from alone in feeling this way. There are a lot of us these days sitting on the shore, watching everyone else splashing about. We could swim, but would rather not.
David Ansen, Newsweek’s movie critic for 32 years, is currently lead programmer of the Palm Springs International Film Festival.
RECOMMENDATIONS: Three great sci-fi movies
- “The Road Warrior,” George Miller (1981): Mel Gibson kicks post-apocalyptic ass in this virtuoso action movie, an exhilarating demonstration of visceral, kinetic filmmaking.
- “A.I.,” Steven Spielberg (2001): This haunting fable about an artificially constructed boy asserting his humanity is more relevant than ever as the line between man and machine gets thinner. A fascinating fusion of Stanley Kubrick and Spielberg’s sensibilities.
- “The Host,” Bong Joon-ho (2007): A scary, funny and fresh Korean reinvention of the monster movie, the fun never obscuring its urgent environmental message.