The Reader‘s archive is vast and varied, going back to 1971. Every day in Archive Dive, we’ll dig through and bring up some finds.
Social media and meme generators have designated May 4 as the unofficial Star Wars Day; the words “May the fourth be with you!” echo in Facebook feeds and articles such as this one.
The franchise, launched in 1977 with Star Wars: A New Hope (later deemed “Episode IV”), is an inter-galactic sensation. Episode VII: The Force Awakens, released in 2015, currently holds the title as the highest-grossing film of all time, clocking in at roughly $967 million, adjusted for inflation. The vwoom, vwoom of lightsabers and guttural cries of Chewbacca echo across the globe and galaxies far, far away.
Yet the Reader‘s film critics have not historically lauded Star Wars films, as a superfan or otherwise. While the Reader‘s Dave Kehr praised the original as “an exhilarating update of Flash Gordon,” he was less generous with The Empire Strikes Back—largely considered by fans to be the best of the nine films so far:
More hardware and less whimsy, with a cliff-hanging climax every 10 or 20 minutes and not much relief. If Star Wars was the exposition, this 1980 sequel (the original edition) should be the development, but mainly it’s marking time: the characters take a definite backseat to the special effects, and much of the action seems gratuitous, leading nowhere. Irvin Kershner directed the actors this time around, and without the benefit of [George] Lucas’s personal affection they seem stiffer, more clenched.
On the subject of Return of the Jedi, he writes, “Interestingly, the advent of sexuality in the Star Wars universe (with the revelation of Carrie Fisher’s navel) is coupled with a resurgence of infantile imagery (with the swarms of teddy-bear Ewoks).” Perhaps naked Chewie finally broke him.
And now the prequels, the three films that launched the meteoric career of Jar Jar Binks. Just to be upfront: They suck. Episode I: The Phantom Menace, in particular, provides backstory we didn’t know we didn’t want. The film features a young Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth Vader, pre-transformation. Other appearances include a young Obi-Wan Kenobi and a young(er) Yoda—all available as action figures. The Reader‘s Jonathan Rosenbaum begins his negative review thusly: “Not bad for a toy commercial.”
Episode II: Attack of the Clones fared little better in Rosenbaum’s eyes. “The whiff of amateur theatricals in The Phantom Menace, imparting a personalized clunkiness to the proceedings, is back in force in this aptly titled fifth installment, but this time the exposition is so thick that everyone except acolytes may tune out,” he writes.
J.R. Jones, who currently serves as the Reader film editor, stepped in to review Episode III: Revenge of the Sith—the one in which a newly-christened Darth Vader steps out of his man-sized healing pod and shouts “Nooooooooooooo!” to the heavens as Emperor Palpatine looks on in fiendish delight.
Jones praised the film as a satisfying conclusion to the convoluted trilogy:
After the sluggish and superfluous Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, writer-director George Lucas finds his lightsaber once again for this dramatically cogent and highly satisfying finale to the Star Wars saga. As the intergalactic republic crumbles and the dictatorial Sith prepare to take command, Jedi knight Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is sorely tempted by a malevolent conspirator who promises him unlimited power if he’ll yield to the dark side of the Force. Lucas’s understanding of democracy and fascism isn’t exactly subtle, nor is his characterization of Anakin, but the two are so perfectly fused as part of an action plot that the movie plugs into the same mythological wall socket that powered the original Star Wars.
His take on the blockbuster behemoth Episode VII: The Force Awakens is far more reductive. To be fair, the film hits the same beats as A New Hope to ostensibly inundate a new generation into the series: A young adult with a mysterious past is whisked off a desert plane to assist a rebel force in decimating a floating sphere capable of decimating a planet. However, as Jones writes, “As with other installments, this is less a movie than an exercise in massaging a juvenile-minded audience that wants the experience to be new and familiar at the same time.”
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, released in 2016, is a tight prequel to A New Hope, intended to tide fans over until last year’s Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. The Reader‘s Leah Pickett was not amused. “The movie is a dour affair,” she writes.
No, she was holding out for the main event, and championed The Last Jedi amid mixed, hyperbolic reactions. The film, directed by Rian Johnson, trashes all that Star Wars fans hold sacred. The unflappable Luke Skywalker, formerly a shimmering, golden Jedi, has become an aged, crotchety beard-o who drinks green sludge from the teat of a space aardvark. Pickett, despite witnessing the horror, feels as if Luke really ties the whole ennead together:
Johnson nods to episode five, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), in which the wizened Yoda (Frank Oz) agrees to train Luke. In The Last Jedi, Luke asks Rey what she knows about the Force, and she describes it as a power Jedis use to control people and make things float, like rocks. Luke explains that the Force is really the energy that connects all living things in the galaxy. Borrowing lines from Yoda and Obi-Wan, he teaches Rey how to feel the Force within and around her.
Luke lacks his mentors’ patience and inner peace; he abandons the lesson when he decides that Rey is too quickly drawn to the darkness brewing beneath the island. But when Luke confronts Kylo later, he announces that he is not, in fact, the last Jedi. (“There is another,” Yoda whispered to the spirit of Obi-Wan in The Empire Strikes Back.) Luke may not have mentored Rey as well as Obi-Wan and Yoda mentored him, but perhaps, as The Last Jedi suggests, Rey already has everything she needs.
Without Luke, there would be no Star Wars—for better or for worse.