It's just a movie, right?

Film critics and educators weigh in on 'Star Wars' as a cultural

A hollowed-out '2001'

The "star Wars" cycle has gratified the inchoate yen for a meaningful master narrative, as well as the obscure spiritual longings of a culture awash in skepticism, bereft of heroes, unhitched from a sense of its own history.

Once upon a time in a galaxy far away turns out to be the locale of a standard-issue Hollywood World War II flick, futuristically reinvented. Gestapo Darth-invaders condemn planets to extinction in snooty George Sanders Brit-Nazi-speak, while Resistance good guys, sporting artfully ragtag commando duds, shoot straight and crack wise (including a classic Howard Hawks Princess who must prove herself a reliable buddy before she can gain admittance into the charmed male circle).

The dumbed-down, feel-good spirituality of "Star Wars" urges that we become as little children, "let go" - of our brains and $10, the better to savor the Force of the series' ever more mind-numbing special effects.

But despite creator George Lucas's pretensions toward redemptive mythic grandeur, his enterprise has become what it beheld - and was supposed to redress - in corporate postmodernity's vast wasteland.

Ultimately, "Star Wars" is merely a hollowed-out "2001" clone, filled with Jungian sound and fury, signifying very little indeed.

- Harvey Roy Greenberg, MD, professor at Albert Einstein College and author of 'Movies on My Mind'

Innocence and pleasure

I saw the first "Star Wars: A New Hope" relatively early (say, the first weekend), mainly because I had been a great fan of "American Graffiti." I liked it well enough, but was put off by the increasing frenzy that grew up around the film.

"Empire" actually seemed somewhat better - "more adult" is how I think I described it at the time - but by "Return" I thought the whole operation had descended into an advertisement for collectibles.

After its initial release the trilogy didn't really reenter my purview until my son, a generally reluctant movie-watcher, suddenly developed a passionate interest in Luke Skywalker and company.

Watching the trilogy then became a family endeavor, and I must say it held up astonishingly well. Even if I still think "Empire" is the best of the three, "Hope" is really pretty terrific, a vision of the future assembled from movie tropes of the past.

Its lasting power is that it somehow allows you to let yourself go: You're watching a movie-movie, a film that foregrounds the sheer pleasure of watching movies. "Star Wars" offers innocence to an America sorely lacking in that quality.

- Richard Pea, director of programming, Film Society of Lincoln Center

An ersatz mild diversion

There's an important distinction to be made between light and lite entertainment, and the release of "Star Wars" marked a watershed in defining where it lies. The series is grounded in the short-term rewards of TV watching, where every moment tends to be equal in emotional importance to every other and where the only serious continuity is in a consistency of mild diversion rather than in a persistence of personality.

This form of entertainment can only be called lite - constructed out of ersatz familiar materials meant to be admired for their momentary cuteness or for details of their design. Now we await 20 more years of "Star Wars" movies, toys, comic books, weapons programs, video games, trailers, promos - and tons of New-Age jive to link it all up with Homer, the Old Testament, Virgil, the Koran, Arthurian legend, Joseph Campbell, and even Walt Disney. What was once an OK diversion for 10-year-old boys has become a cornerstone of Western civilization.

- Jonathan Rosenbaum, film critic of the Chicago Reader and author of 'Placing Movies'

Inspiration to film students

I am all too aware of the impact "Star Wars" has had: In reading applications to Columbia University's MFA Program in Film every year, I see this title mentioned as one of the main inspirations that led students to a filmmaking career.

Then again, gushing over "Star Wars" usually relegates the student to "reject" status in my book, especially when other aspirants are invoking Kubrick, Cassavetes, or Kieslowski. Frankly, I remember falling asleep during this cinematic milestone. While younger viewers sat mesmerized around me, the special effects and loud audio created the kind of sensorial overload that makes me tune out.

"The Empire Strikes Back," on the other hand, engaged me more: I recall less of a space western, more of a political subtext. I missed "Return of the Jedi"; Part 3 of the saga hardly needed me to become a success. I'm very eager to see the upcoming installment, but only because the casting is far more intriguing than that of its predecessors. Anything that costars Liam Neeson and Samuel L. Jackson will probably keep me awake.

- Annette Insdorf, director of undergraduate film studies, Columbia University

Insidious Hollywood hype

Is there truth in advertising? Every time I encounter a media bite about "The Phantom Menace" I wonder: Is George Lucas actually confessing the truth about the insidious nature of Hollywood hype? The extent to which his trilogy and its coming sequel have surpassed entertainment trivia and become "news" makes me think Hollywood has finally succeeded in trumping independent journalism and individual choice.

Promoting and expecting this movie has reached a level of consensus and inevitability that is tantamount to patriotism. What's good for the film industry may or may not be good for the country, but in the case of this movie the two have become inseparable.

In the 22 years since "Star Wars" changed movie culture, audiences no longer look for content; they're satisfied with product marketing. That's the dread significance of viewers lining up and paying admission last fall just to see the film's trailer.

Lucas doesn't have to supply a story, characters, or theme - a longer trailer will satisfy sheep globally. "The Phantom Menace" doesn't even have to be good; it just has to be purchasable, and that imperious kind of market-think is, indeed, the phantom menace.

- Armond White, author of 'The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture that Shook the World'

A 'group think' experience

There are films that are like going to church, and films that are like going to a football game. In one you are alone, communing with your spirit; in the other, you're in a group, cheering and booing. Is it any surprise that our group-identity culture favors group-think experiences? That our soul-denying, soul-fearing society imagines life as a public event?

The insides of experience disappear. It becomes skin deep. We become the newspapers' accounts of us. The shyness, secrecy, and mystery of identity are erased. These films are America, where sociology has become the new ontology.

The capitalist drama of doing shoves aside the spiritual drama of being. I fight and compete, therefore I am. Allegorical abstractions, generic identities, and flat-minded performances steamroll the butterfly flutterings of personal feeling. The bray of bigness, violence, and obviousness drowns out the still, small voice of the soul. Its vital demisemiquavers are slurred. We run away from ourselves. We get what we are.

- Ray Carney, Professor of Film and American Studies at Boston University, author of 'The Films of John Cassavetes'

Lucas is today's Disney

The significance of the "Star Wars" trilogy was, above all else, as a piece of visionary capitalism. Lucas is the Walt Disney of his generation.

He may have started out by making a genial boys-book sci-fi adventure in space, but it quickly took on the dimensions of a myth. Maybe he had myth in mind all along, or maybe he just increasingly played up to the young audiences who saw in Luke Skywalker and The Force and Obi-Wan Kenobi the defining saga of their lives.

I don't think it's fair to blame all the bad that has come into movies since 1977 on "Star Wars"; actually, I think "The Empire Strikes Back," which was directed by Irvin Kerschner, is a masterpiece of its kind. But the "Star Wars" movies alerted the studios that much moolah could be made mainlining the pop imaginations of adolescents, of all ages, and much mischief has come from that.

- Peter Rainer, chairman, National Society of Film Critics

Fantasy's potential

More "Star Wars"? How it cranks on, even though the freshness of the mythic mix of animal, machine, human, and superhuman in the first film dissipated a long time ago.

It's hard to remember - let alone imagine anyone resurrecting - the charm of the Lucas-ology of eternal friendships and universal quests that drowned in the first tidal wave of promotional items.

Okay, "The Empire Strikes Back" retained some of the original elan, but "Return of the Jedi" was a yawn, spiraling the series downhill into an infomercial for toys and lunch boxes. Yet ironically, perhaps George Lucas's pursuit of prequels may give the "Star Wars" phenomenon legitimate power; that is, for those who can see it through the haze of hype as a cautionary nightmare.

Dark dreams tell us much, and this one ought to be a warning about the spiritual starvation of America's relationship to fantasy. Fantasy has the rejuvenating potential to nourish our invisible wellsprings of creativity and love, but under the control of the "Star Wars" promoters, it keeps dwindling into this year's thing, and soon last year's garbage.

- Martha P. Nochimson, Author of 'The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood'

An updated creation myth

"Star Wars" is "Star Trek" without the challenging adult content. The '70s sci-fi adventure is a boy's fantasy-movie junkyard, with spare parts rifled from "Flash Gordon," World War II aerial combat footage, "The Hidden Fortress," and "Triumph of the Will."

Take "The Hobbit" and grind away all the rough edges, the cautionary moral core, and you've got Ewoks. "Star Wars" offered mainstream audiences cut off from the Bible or a common set of written texts (the Nordic sagas, "The Iliad," or "The Mahabharata") an updated creation myth. This myth melded new-age theology culled from Joseph Campbell and Carlos Casteneda - call it Yodaism - and a Saturday-matinee delivery vehicle.

The result was an accessible battlefield for good and evil in an era when morality had become relative. "Star Wars" made hard choices feel easy again after a decade of messy, ambiguous adult movies from "Easy Rider" to "Taxi Driver." And Hollywood hasn't looked back since.

- Thelma Adams, film critic, The New York Post

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