Nobody thought Star Wars would work, least of all George Lucas himself. Lucas began as an idealistic experimental filmmaker — the Luke Skywalker of USC, if you will, the youth who rejected his father’s business and cast his lot with the dreamers and rebels. That he appears, in the intervening quarter-century, to have grown into an Emperor — seduced by the Dark Side of merchandising and popcorn cinema — is not an irony one would expect Lucas to acknowledge, much less appreciate. Still, at the time Lucas made Star Wars, he was still far more bright-eyed Luke than troubled Anakin; he was young, and he didn’t know, or care, that no sane person could goof around out in the Tunisian desert — armed only with a gee-whiz throwback screenplay and effects-to-be-added-later that nobody was sure would work — and come back with a film anyone would want to see.
I give the original Star Wars this much: it’s mindless fun while it lasts. It scoots along as impatiently and recklessly as Luke himself. It is also, as David Denby pointed out in his review of the 1997 Special Edition, reassuringly clunky. Those are real guys in real Stormtrooper suits marching down real hallways built out of real materials. The added CGI Lucas tosses in — especially the bad-idea Jabba scene (which, aside from looking cheesy, is completely extraneous as the dialogue simply recaps the earlier Greedo scene), but also the slapsticky bits of business in Mos Eisley — have a chill of unreality. I’ll take a Stormtrooper inhabited by a human over a battle droid forged in a computer, and the difference isn’t only aesthetic. A computer simply cannot duplicate the way even an armored real human body rests and moves, the subtleties of inertia and hints of fatigue (it was hot in those damn suits).
Watching Star Wars again with adult eyes, I was struck by how baldly it is a parable of a young man’s sexual awakening. Luke fumbles about with his lightsaber, beginning to master it, and then his parental figures die. Once they’re out of the way, Luke is free to penetrate the waiting Death Star, a giant ovum accepting the sperm that is the Millennium Falcon. Before long, Luke meets Princess Leia (the sexual tension between them is always amusing in retrospect — there were happy shouts of “Incest!” during screenings of the Special Edition of The Empire Strikes Back), and they quickly find themselves inside — yes — the filth and contracting walls of the garbage compactor, wherein lies a tentacled beast. Han Solo tries to halt the walls with a long piece of metal; that won’t do — size won’t matter here, and it takes the ambiguously gay C-3P0 and R2-D2 (immune to feminine horrors, one assumes) to stop the advancing walls. This was the first of many vagina dentata fear-of-sex setpieces in the Lucas ouevre, but never fear: Luke asserts his potency at the end, squeezing off two perfect shots into the Death Star’s weak spot, and the look of orgasmic release on his face is unmistakable.
You could have a pretty jolly time reading Star Wars that way, or other ways: The more infantile a work of pop entertainment seems, the more fun it is to deconstruct (and what else are you going to do with it? Assess the acting and dialogue?). I don’t speak as a Star Wars fan; I think the changes Lucas made in the Special Edition (including but not limited to the roundly condemned Greedo-shoots-first fudging) are pointless, and I don’t think the saga as a whole is anything much more than a sparkly repackaging of well-tested mythology (without Tolkien, Kurosawa, and Joseph Campbell, there would be no Skywalker Ranch or Jar Jar fruit rollups). But there is a happy, naive sincerity in Star Wars, as there is also in the Lucas/Spielberg first date Raiders of the Lost Ark. The itchy-foot spirit of Luke governs the film, much more than do the cynical smirk of Han Solo (whom Lucas supposedly patterned on Francis Coppola) or the wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi or the asthmatic menace of Darth Vader. In some ways, this plastic piece of summer entertainment that changed the face of movies is as strongly personal a vision as anything Coppola or Scorsese knocked out. To follow Luke’s arc through the original trilogy is to see Lucas writ large in metaphor; to follow Anakin through the second trilogy is to see the same, sadly.
Someone said that Lucas was the first of the blockbuster directors to express undeniable solidarity with the inhuman. It’s not just that C-3PO and R2-D2 have more personality than most of the human characters (only Harrison Ford’s snarky panache saves Han Solo from playing as the cardboard ruffian he’s written as); it’s that Lucas feels comfortable with the droids and aliens — look at the celebrated cantina scene, the casual, unawed way the camera moves among the hammerheads and snaggletooths. What happens in the bar is nothing more remarkable than a couple of Western-movie dust-ups and a deal arranged over drinks; it’s the tone of the scene — unshocked, taking the weirdness for granted, but glad to be here — that gives us the image of Lucas as a lonely kid losing himself in private playtime with his toys.
When you pick up vibes like that — and it’s there, too, in the Vader scenes and the vrooming dogfight scenes — Star Wars is fully alive, and though I have serious misgivings about the “saga” as a whole, I cannot deny the basic appeal of this younger, unspoiled Lucas at play in the fields of ILM. Technology would eventually allow Lucas to leave humans behind almost entirely; the saga’s true, depressing destiny would be as fodder for plastic figures and electronic games. In Star Wars, though, we sense Lucas relaxing into the world he’s created, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, before the elation wore off and he became a jaded Emperor presiding over the mass production of Return of the Jedi pillowcases.