Cinema / Journey to the heart of Darthness

The quintessence of cheerful trash, George Lucas's epoch-making space fantasy re-emerges from a far-off decade

Kevin Jackson
Sunday 23 March 1997 00:02 GMT

Worried that your spouse, parent, lover, child or best friend may be a latent anorak? Try the following simple test: during conversation, affect an air of nonchalance and ask "By the way, have you ever seen A New Hope?" If the answer is "No", "Come again?" or "I think not", your fears may be groundless. If, on the other hand, you provoke a smug, slightly glazed look and a response along the lines of "Of course I have, because if you look carefully at the opening credits you'll see that A New Hope is the subtitle or, actually, the real title of the first Star Wars film, which is really Episode IV of a nine-part series that George Lucas originally planned, and he's working right now on another three episodes which ...", then it's time to consider divorce, separation or emigration.

Or you could give in, embrace your own inner anorak and go to see the blasted thing again, like the umpteen million Americans who have been sending all three of the original trilogy into the top 10 lists and the box office records. For, as you must have heard, Star Wars (U) has returned to the big screen - The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi will be with us in the next few weeks - visually buffed with a digital technology that didn't exist 20 years ago, audio-augmented with all the resources of Lucas's THX company ("Did you know that the letters THX appear in all of the films he directed? It's a numberplate in American Graffiti, and his first film was called THX 1138 ... ") and boasting a few minor scenes that were left out the first time around. It's hardly what you'd call a Director's Cut, just as Lucas is hardly what you'd call a born Director - since finishing Star Wars, he doesn't seem to have helmed so much as a foot of film, preferring to build himself into a major force, or Force, as producer and techno-mogul.

The most prominent restoration in this first film is a droll, subtitled encounter between Han Solo (how wonderfully Harrison Ford has matured from the chubby-faced man-boy he was when the scene was shot in 1976) and his sometime boss Jabba the Hutt: then played by a bloke in a suit, now pumped up with computer generated imagery into the giant Sydney Greenstreet slug we first met in Empire. The nicest moment in the whole restoration comes when Ford, passing behind Jabba, appears to step cheekily over his tail. Other notable additions include an encounter between Luke Skywalker and a former school pal prior to the rebel assault on the Death Star (surely you don't need a plot synopsis after all these years?); more, and more detailed, shots of the city of Mos Eisley, "hive of scum and villainy"; and some rejiggings of the spatial dogfights. Otherwise, the funds have mostly gone on making the special effects come up to the standards Industrial Light and Magic has taught audiences to demand over the last two decades - the giant critters called Dewbacks look like Jurassic Park inmates rather than puppets, and Luke's hot-rod no longer appears to zoom across the deserts on a bed of luminous gelatine.

In all other respects, this is very much the Star Wars that, on video, has continued to captivate children for whom the Seventies are as remote as that epoch summoned up by the words "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away ... " In accordance with the principle that all science fiction films soon start to look as if they are set in the exact year they are made, the male heroes sport conspicuously Disco haircuts. Princess Leia still wears her Two-Danish-Pastries-To-Go coiffure and shimmering lip- gloss; Mark Hamill, as Luke Skywalker, still has the bland, pasty face of a suburban underachiever; Han still makes his technical gaffe about accomplishing a run in "less than 12 parsecs" (a parsec being a unit of space, not time, as any fule kno); the imperial Stormtroopers still wear embarrassingly naff polystyrene armour, and the corridors of the Death Star still look as if they were bought wholesale from the producers of Dr Who.

It needs a child's uncritical excitement or the indulgent nostalgia of middle age not to see its gaping flaws. Apart from the hopeless acting and comic-book dialogue (how Sir Alec must have had to steel his nerves and think of England or his bank manager when reeling off solemn gibberish about Jedi history), Lucas tells the story in an oddly manic-depressive style, marked by jerky bursts of hyperactivity alternating with long sequences that are sluggish to the point of coma, such as the rather tiresome business of C3P0 - whose camp Jeeves act has not worn well - and R2D2 being kidnapped by the cowled merchants.

And yet it would be churlish to deny the fun (weasel word) or the potency of this cheap fantasy, from the gloriously corny pomp of John Williams's score to the asthmatic menace of James Earl Jones's voice for Darth Vader - the only truly memorable character in the whole trilogy, even if Freudians, Grimm's Law buffs and other forms of over-educated anorak found it all too easy to winkle out his exact relationship to Master Luke. There are rumours about Lucas being tickled to bits when it was pointed out to him how neatly the storyline of Star Wars meshes with the archetypes sketched out in Joseph Campbell's study The Hero With a Thousand Faces (which is why Lucas went on to sponsor a series of interviews with America's favourite mythology guru for PBS): a revelation which hinted that the commercial success of his brainchild was as much due to its mythic profundity as to its gee-whizzeries.

Possibly so, though when Lucas then set out to spin a self-consciously Campbellian yarn in Willow, he laid an egg worthy of Mrs Howard the Duck. The true myth-pool in which Star Wars is dipped is fed by streams which flow from Hollywood, not Sumeria: apart from the Saturday-morning serials like Flash Gordon which are the movie's avowed inspiration, it scoops up scenes and themes from the Western - John Ford's The Searchers is a crucial part of the mix, as it was for so many Movie Brat films of the Seventies - from The Wizard of Oz (Chewbacca as the Cowardly Lion, C3PO as the Tin Man, Leia as Dorothy) and from Second World War aviation epics. (Cynical observers have also noted a dash of Triumph of the Will in the final scene where our heroes take a curtain call, though the tone is too genial for the allusion to be troubling.) On one level, the appeal of Star Wars is its ability to fire young minds with heroism on a cosmic scale; Wagner for the under-eights, and not such bad fodder at that, though one might wish for a little more for girl viewers than Leia's tomboy banter. On another, it suckers young and not so young viewers alike by its shrewd anthologising of narrative ploys which the masses huddled in the dark have loved since the days of the Nickelodeon. It is the quintessence of cheerful trash.

Star Wars changed cinema history in a number of ways, and turned the B- or Z-movie genre of science fiction into the A-movie stream. Its bastard spin-offs have been legion; the latest is Space Jam (U), directed by Joe Pytka. This unites the talents of Michael Jordan, basketball star, with those of Bugs Bunny and friends, via the flimsy excuse of alien nasties who come to earth and, oh well, it all has to end in a basketball play-off. Space Jam is so obviously a work of the marketing/demographic-hunting mentality that it's rather surprising to find that the brazen creature gathers a certain charm as it rolls along. Michael Jordan is slightly less good at acting than Sir John Gielgud is at hurling a pill through a hoop, but he has a diffident warmth which makes him an acceptable screen presence; and though some of the Looney Tunes regulars are terribly underused (that exceptional talent Daffy Duck, one of the finest comedians ever to grace the Warner Brothers roster, stays pretty much on the sidelines), they do manage a few genuinely funny moments. Bugs is also given some new love interest, in the shapely form of Lola Bunny; at least one viewer found her rather provocative.

After the verve, humour and invention of last year's Small Faces, Gillies Mackinnon's new film Trojan Eddie (15) seems almost wilfully glum. One of its more brutal episodes shows a poor sap being beaten up in a vast expanse of shiny mud, and there aren't many scenes which don't wallow in the emotional mire. Its title character (called "Trojan" because he talks himself hoarse?), played with dismaying authenticity by Stephen Rea, is the sort of depressive small- time con-man for whom the adjective "hangdog" and the noun "loser" were coined. Eddie is a minor auctioneer in rural Ireland, who works for the leader of the local travellers' community (Richard Harris) - a nasty, albeit slightly pathetic piece of work who has recently taken it into his head to marry a much younger woman (Aislin McGuckin), herself a traveller. The lady promptly runs off with the dowry money before the wedding stout has gone flat, and Trojan Eddie's life rapidly grows less enviable than ever. Based on a script by the playwright Billy Roche, the film often feels more distinguished than involving; sombrely shot, passionately acted, but too much like a digressive anecdote which arrives at the wrong punchline.

Cinema details: Going Out, page 14.

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