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Sorry, George: Critics used to love ‘Star Wars’

Lucas claims that no critic ever loved his intergalactic serial. By John Hartl

In a “60 Minutes” interview last month, George Lucas told Lesley Stahl that he didn’t care what critics had to say about “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,” the sixth and final installment in the series.

“I’m not worried at all,” he told her. “They haven’t liked any of them really, and they especially haven’t like the last two, so hey, it can’t get any worse.”

Yet in 1977, while the major Academy Awards were handed out to Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall,” the Los Angeles Film Critics’ Association named Lucas’ first “Star Wars” as best picture of the year. Indeed, “Star Wars” and its 1980 follow-up, “The Empire Strikes Back,” received mostly rave reviews wherever they played.

“A great work of popular art,” gushed Time magazine about the first installment. Newsweek called it “pure sweet fun all the way.” The Hollywood Reporter claimed that “it will undoubtedly emerge as one of the true classics in the genre of science fiction/fantasy films.” The New York Times’ Vincent Canby called it “the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made.”

Even the late New Yorker critic, Pauline Kael, who felt manipulated by the first “Star Wars,” praised “Empire” as “a vibrant, fairy-tale cliffhanger” in which “the characters showed more depth of feeling than they had in the first film.” To many critics and more than a few fans, “Empire” remains the class act of the series.

Why Ewoks?The trouble started with the Ewoks-plagued third film, “Return of the Jedi” (1983). It continued with the misbegotten movies Lucas produced (1986’s “Howard the Duck,” 1994’s “Radioland Murders”) and with the return of “Star Wars” with “The Phantom Menace” (1999) and “Attack of the Clones” (2002). Kael’s review of “Jedi” hinted at the problems the series would face.

“Every time there’s a possibility of a dramatic climax, a chance to engage the audience emotionally with something awesome, [the director] trashes it,” she wrote. She called “Jedi” “an impersonal and rather junky piece of moviemaking.”

Lucas is correct that many critics didn’t care for the last two episodes in the series. Both Time and Newsweek suggested that “The Phantom Menace” should be retitled “The Phantom Movie”; Variety’s critic, Todd McCarthy, felt that “it is neither captivating nor transporting, for it lacks any emotional pull.” As for “Attack of the Clones,” The Chicago Sun-Times’ Roger Ebert spoke for many when he claimed that “it is a technological exercise that lacks juice and delight.”

Critics were hardly alone in disliking “Menace” and “Clones.” While both did well at the box office at first, audiences dropped off quickly, and toy sales were disappointing. Lucas never recaptured the devotion inspired by the first “Star Wars,” which many people saw over and over again.

During its initial release, “Jedi” was more popular than “Empire,” but when the first three films were reissued in 1997, those positions were reversed. “Empire” has clearly gained in stature, while “Jedi” has lost admirers. When grosses are adjusted for inflation, the first “Star Wars” still comes out as the top ticket-seller of the series.

According to Box Office Mojo, it’s the No. 2 all-time moneymaker, bested only by “Gone With the Wind.” No. 12 on that all-time list is “Empire,” followed by “Jedi” (No. 14), “Phantom Menace” (No. 19) and “Attack of the Clones” (No. 80)

At the 2000 Oscars, “The Phantom Menace” became the first “Star Wars” movie to win nothing, not even for special effects. The voters gave all the technical awards to the new kid on the block, “The Matrix.” The pattern was repeated three years later with “Attack of the Clones,” which lost the visual-effects prize to “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.”

Were the first two films really that much better?Fans of “Menace” and “Clones” sometimes insist that critics are being overly nostalgic about  “Star Wars” and “Empire,” that the scripts weren’t that much better, or that the series was all about action and special effects anyway.

Yet the early films had plenty of room for humor, romantic yearning, dramatic engagement. Nothing in the recent installments matches the rowdy comedy of the Cantina sequence in “Star Wars,” or the soaring emotion of that film’s twin-sunset scene, as Luke Skywalker senses his destiny (and John Williams’ score lets us know it).

“Empire” is similarly filled with moments that transcend the Saturday-matinee “Buck Rogers” serials that inspired Lucas: the edgy love spats between Princess Leia and Han Solo; the revelation of Darth Vader’s identity; Luke’s eerie fall through space; the rather chilling transformation of Yoda from comic muppet to sage.

Dialogue from the early movies is certainly less than Shakespearean, but many phrases have entered the language. Ben Obi-wan Kenobi’s magically disorienting announcement, “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” has become shorthand for bluffing your way through a difficult situation. Grand Moff Tarkin’s over-confident advice, “I think you overestimate their chances,” has replaced “famous last words” in some circles.

Other one-liners, like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s “I’ll be back” from “The Terminator,” fall into the you-had-to-be-there category: “Leave that to me,” “I have a very bad feeling about this,” “You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”  Still, nearly everyone WAS there, so these can’t really be dismissed as in-jokes.

The only one of the “Star Wars” movies to receive an Academy Award nomination for its screenplay, the original 1977 film remains a model of streamlined storytelling. “Empire” daringly carried on the franchise by flirting with Greek tragedy — and getting away with it.

Now that the series is coming to an end, there are reasons to believe that Lucas will forget about Jar-Jar and the Ewoks and find his way back to that level. “Revenge of the Sith,” which focuses on the transformation of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader, will necessarily be a darker “Star Wars” movie than any previous episode. Here’s hoping it’s more than just a downer.