Star Wars is so much a part of popular culture that even many people who have never seen a Star Wars movie can quote the films or name the characters. The original trilogy, especially, is a beloved trio of films that have earned the love of fans and critics alike.
This pre-existing Star Wars fan fervor helped to fuel the excitement around Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which broke a number of box office records, including becoming the highest grossing film of all time in the United States. Reviews of The Force Awakens were generally positive, and complaints or criticism generally centered on the film's borrowing from the original Star Wars trilogy. Some critics argued that The Force Awakens was a good movie, but would not necessarily make film history.
Interestingly, after examining the original reviews of Star Wars (which would later be given the subtitle A New Hope), critics had many of the same concerns in 1977 that they did in 2015. Generally, critics had positive things to say about George Lucas's first installment of his legendary franchise, and Star Wars became a massive box office hit that paved the way for many other blockbusters. However, some critics felt that the film was all special effects and no substance, borrowing heavily from various sources and dealing in well-worn tropes and archetypes. In 1977, these critics seemed to think that Star Wars was fun, but wouldn't make history.
It's easy to see how perceptions of A New Hope have changed over time - a number of journalists in 1977 misspell the names of now-beloved characters, planets, and species. At the time, however, no one knew these words from a galaxy far, far away. Other odd and somewhat jarring differences in understanding occur - for instance, Vincent Canby of the New York Times refers to Darth Vader as Grand Moff Tarkin's "executive assistant".
While we cannot know if The Force Awakens will pass the test of time, looking back allows us to temper our understanding of film criticism in any specific moment with a larger historical perspective.
Taking a walk down memory lane, here are the 10 Most Scathing Things Critics Said About Star Wars: A New Hope:
John Simon of New York Magazine made his feelings about Star Wars very clear. His highly negative review belittled the characters and story, saying:
Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a 'future' cast to them. Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like that, in downtown Los Angeles today. Certainly the mentality and values of the movie can be duplicated in third-rate non-science fiction of any place or period. O dull new world!
Pauline Kael reviewed Star Wars in The New Yorker, emphasizing the movie's appeal for children while questioning the film's emotional and mental maturity:
It's enjoyable on its own terms, but it's exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they're ready to see it again; that's because it's an assemblage of spare parts -- it has no emotional grip. Star Wars may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring.... It's an epic without a dream.
In The New Republic, Stanley Kauffman's interpretation of Star Wars differed from many critics in few ways. First, he was unimpressed with the visual effects, which were usually praised, even in negative reviews. Second, his interpretation of the story seems to be heavily influenced by Freud:
The only way that 'Star Wars' could have been interesting was through its visual imagination and special effects. Both are unexceptional. ... I kept looking for an 'edge,' to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes; he was facing them frontally and full. This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world's affairs or -- in any complex way -- sex intruded.
In The Spectator, Clancy Sigal writes a cautionary tale, emphasizing George Lucas's focus on young people coupled with his ambitions to capitalize on merchandise:
If it weren't for the hoopla, and my growing after-the-fact suspicions of its inherent cynicism, I'd probably recommend Star Wars and let it go at that.
Strangely, the review also touches on the human characters' negative attitudes towards the droids and Chewbacca:
Instead of using 'future shock' to cast light on our present as all good sciencefiction [sic] films do, Star Wars throws away its best possibilities. It also reinforces some of the worst of what we have, including — I know, this sounds absurd — a peculiar form of prejudice aimed at the non-human characters. Although Artoo, See-Threepio and the monkey-man Chewbacca are demonstrably 'wittier and more charming than Luke and his fellow humans (shown as almost uniformly villainous, cloddish or cynical), and are instrumental in saving the non-robot world from destruction, they are treated like helots and at the end utterly ignored when the Good Princess bestows her medals for bravery. Perhaps to racist, sexist and agist we should now add a new derogatory term, human-ist.
Derek Malcolm of The Guardian felt that he could not discount Star Wars's success at the box office, but he also felt that it was necessary to negate other positive reviews which praised Star Wars as something exceptional:
Viewed dispassionately... Star Wars is not an improvement on Mr Lucas' previous work, except in box-office terms. It isn't the best film of the year, it isn't the best science fiction ever to be translated to the screen, it isn't a number of other things either that sweating critics have tried to turn it into when faced with finding some plausible explanation for its huge and slightly sinister success considering a contracting market.
In his Washington Post review, Gary Arnold decided to include his interpretation of A New Hope. Arnold seems to have pretty negative feelings about Leia, but that doesn't stop him from dreaming up a threesome:
Lucas creates a romantic triangle between Luke, Han Solo and the haughty, bossy, indomitable Princess that seems perfectly resolved by not being resolved at all. If the Princess ever chooses to share her favors, poetic justice seems to demand that she favor the heroes equally. Could this mischievous hint of a menage-a-trois in-the-making... have been as responsible for the PG rating as the fighting, which is abundant but scarcely realistic?
Tom Shales of NPR felt that Star Wars had no deeper meaning:
It's a complete science fiction fantasy with absolutely no redeeming moral values or moralistic values either.
This sentiment was repeated in a number of Star Wars reviews, from the most positive to the most negative reviews. Some found the lack of deeper meaning refreshing, including The Telegraph:
The story is unpretentious and pleasantly devoid of any "message."
John Wasserman of the San Francisco Chronicle felt that Star Wars was nothing more than a special effects blockbuster, saying:
The actors, while being generally upstaged by Wookies and Jawas, are fine... but, inevitably, the star of "Star Wars" is special effects.
Perhaps if he had been more invested in the story, he would have known that he spelled "Wookiee" incorrectly.
In the Wall Street Journal, Joy Gould Boyum writes that the special effects of Star Wars are wasted on a comic book plot that is suited for children. For this reviewer, Star Wars marks the beginning of a decline in movies:
There's something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skills lavished on such puerile materials. Perhaps more important is what this seems to accomplish: the canonization of comic book culture which in turn becomes the triumph of the standardized, the simplistic, mass-produced commercial artifacts of our time.
Kathleen Carroll wrote in the New York Daily News that both the script and the actors of Star Wars left something to be desired. While she was impressed with the special effects, she criticized the lead actors, saying:
"Star Wars" is somewhat grounded by a malfunctioning script and hopelessly infantile dialogue... Surrounded by these fascinating creatures, the actors barely hold their own. To be sure, Mark Hamill has a bland-faced innocence as Skywalker, and Carrie Fisher is comically plucky as the distressed Princess Leia, but Harrison Ford hams it up terribly as Han Solo, a cynical space pirate who has "flown from one side of this galaxy to another and seen a lot of stuff."
Do you think that these reviews are justified, or has time proven Star Wars is more than special effects? Let us know in the comments!