As we wait for the first reviews of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” to roll in, here’s a look back a The Kansas City Star’s reviews for the original trilogy:
“Star Wars” features some fascinating oddities
The dire questions in everybody’s hearts are: Will our heroes rescue Princess Leia from the wicked galactic imperialists? Will they manage to get hold of the secret plans for the doomsday device called the Death Star? Will they prevail over the evil ones in mighty, outer-space battle?
On the Way to resolving these momentous matters, “Star Wars, ” a new film written and directed by George Lucas, turns out to offer as much fun as it does good, old-fashioned corniness — and that’s plenty. Along with the comic book dialogue arid pulp novel derring-do, the picture also reveals an immense amount of imagination and technical virtuosity. “Star Wars” certainly won’t win an Oscar for acting, but when it comes to art direction and special effects, it seems a certain victor.
Just take a look at some of the fascinating oddities Lucas puts on screen:
There are the two robot pals, the fussy, humanoid See-Threepio, who speaks with a British accent, and the squatty little Artoo-Detoo, who talks in bird-like bleeps and twitters.
There is the giant Death Star, a man-made space station that dispatches immense space cruisers into battle and is ruled by the sinister Grand Moff Tarkin and Lord Darth Vader, who look like dream-costumed members of the Nazi general staff.
There is Chewbacca the Wookiee, a towering anthropoid with the face of a bad-tempered monkey but a soft heart within.
And, of course, there are various dwarf people who sound like Donald Duck, sand people who resemble nightmare Bedouins, and galactic toughs and mutants who look like man- sized serpents, birds, insects and gargoyles.
Not since you curled up with a sci-fi magazine at the age of 12 has so much wondrous hokum been pumped into your skull. You see, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is held prisoner in the Death Star, where her kidnapers (Peter Cushing and David Prowse) are threatening to dispatch her unless she reveals the whereabouts of some stolen military plans being transmitted to the heroic galactic rebels. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has sworn to save her, at the urging of Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness), a sort of elder wizard-knight. Then there is Luke’s comrade, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), a space smuggler who becomes a hero as well, in spite of his cynicism about such things.
There are lots of problems faced by the good guys, not least their imprisonment for a time inside a huge garbage compactor, and their encounter with a motley band of space hoodlums who hang out in a tough saloon somewhere on the interplanetary frontier. Finally, there is the great showdown conflict, with ray cannons blaring away and the heroes careening all over the screen in fighter rockets.
Lucas, who also made the excellent “American Graffiti” is more interested this time in imaginative action than performances (none of the portrayals is any better than utilitarian). He gets what he wants, however, with a lavishness and freshness of imagery unequaled in any sci-fi picture since “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
“Star Wars” of course is no “2001, ” having much more in common with those Saturday matinee serials you used to enjoy as a kid. That’s not to knock it. The film was made with obvious relish by everyone involved, and it guarantees a mindlessly happy two hours to all who take the time to see it.
By Giles M. Fowler, The Kansas City Star. Originally published May 27, 1977
‘Empire Strikes Back’ soars to fantastic heights
To answer the big question first: Yes, “The Empire Strikes Back” is just as enjoyable as “Star Wars.” In fact, this is one sequel that defies tradition by being better than the original on several counts-most of them technical, but a few dramatic.
The first shock delivered by “The Empire Strikes Back” is in the opening credits, when it is announced that this is Part V of the “Star Wars” saga. George Lucas, who directed the first film and was executive producer of this one, has conceived three separate trilogies. The first and third have yet to be made; “Star Wars” was the first episode of the middle trilogy (Part IV in the grand scheme, and retroactively renamed “A New Hope”), and “The Empire Strikes Back” stands at the very center of the whole project.
The dazzling special effects of “Star Wars” have been upgraded. There’s a giddy spaceship chase through a field of tumbling asteroids that seems to be taking place on an infinite number of planes. So accurate is each shot’s sense of perspective and depth that one is never aware that these are merely toys being painstakingly manipulated one frame at a time. There is a marvelous new character, a green-skinned dwarf named Yoda who for centuries has been training young men in The Force and who is actually a highly sophisticated hand puppet operated by Muppet man Frank Oz (also known as Miss Piggy).
However, “The Empire Strikes Back” is impressive even when it isn’t trying to pull ooohs and aaahs out of its audience. Just about every frame of film is crammed with details that you may not notice but that make Lucas’ fantasy world seem more complete and credible. For instance, when the controls of his ship refuse to respond, a pilot pounds them into action by slugging the wall. Well, it works for our TV at home-why not for machinery in outer space?
Dramatically, “The Empire Strikes Back” goes beyond the one-dimensional storytelling of “Star Wars.” The new film is not in any way profound, but we do get a closer look at the workings of The Force, which seems uncommonly like a galactic version of Zen. “Empire” is still very much a comic book, but director Irvin Kershner and writers Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan give the characters a bit more personality. A love affair develops between space outlaw Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and, in his quest for inner knowledge, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) does a lot of growing up. The prissy C-3P0 and squatty R2-D2 continue their careers as the Laurel and Hardy of machine intelligence.
Perhaps the single best thing about this sequel is the way in which Kershner has kept the swashbuckling blend of comedy and high adventure within a story that grows increasingly more grim. The tide is turning against the forces of good, and we do not leave “The Empire” with a glow of well-being. One of our heroes has been frozen, another nastily maimed and the future is any thing but secure.
The episodic plot begins on the ice planet of Hoth, where rebel forces are attacked and defeated by Imperial raiders, led by the vengeful Darth Vader (David Prowse), who is consumed with a hatred of Luke Skywalker. Solo, Princess Leia and the gold-plated robot, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), make their escape; Luke and R2 D2, under the command of the spirit of Obi-wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness, in a brief appearance), go to a swampy planet to be trained in The Force by Yoda. When his friends are captured by Vader, Luke takes off to the rescue, finally discovering that he and his archenemy have an uncomfortable lot in common. There’s also a new character, an old smuggling buddy of Solo’s named Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).
Like its predecessor, this is a dandy piece of escapism — and couldn’t we all use a little escape right now?
By Robert W. Butler, The Kansas City Star. Originally published May 21, 1980
‘Jedi’ has the full force of a true galactic spectacle
“Return of the Jedi” is a whopper — a hugely expensive, thoroughly spectacular and generally diverting film that puts the finishing touches on a sci-fi fairy tale that has captured the world’s imagination and no small part of its gross global product.
The film has special effects so incredible that it will become the standard by which future efforts are measured, and it leaves the audience cheering and happy.
Given all this, it’s probably heresy to acknowledge that all through “Return of the Jedi” I kept thinking of the original “Star Wars.”
George Lucas didn’t have unlimited funds for that first film, and he employed special effects that are primitive compared to those displayed in this last episode of the trilogy. (“Star Wars” cost $10 million, “The Empire Strikes Back” cost $22 million and “Jedi” $32.4 million; a total of $64.4 million.) Nonetheless, he gave us something essential to any kind of good drama: characters we delighted in discovering and an overall feeling of heroic adventure filtered through a unique comic sensibility.
That’s the major drawback of “Return of the Jedi.” With the notable exception of Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker, the saga’s characters have ceased to grow. Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) has been reduced to a stick figure shouting messages into a microphone; Han Solo (Harrison Ford) isn’t nearly as much fun now that his sardonic opportunism has given way to selfless heroics; Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) most revelatory moment concerns not her personality but her body — she spends a few scenes dressed in a slave’s skimpy harem outfit.
Neither of the two directors who replaced Mr. Lucas after the first film (Richard Marquand in “Jedi”) have been able to duplicate his delightful melding of corn and camp.
We probably have no business asking for depth from a comic-book effort like this; the Force knows there are plenty of other diversions here to keep the senses reeling.
Everywhere you look there’s a new and imaginative creature strolling across the screen or a bit of tour-de-force filmmaking such as a hair-raising high-speed chase through a towering redwood forest on speeder bikes. A climactic dogfight is four times longer and 50 times more complex than the one that capped “Star Wars, ” and a free-for-all between laser-toting storm troopers and a primitive tribe of aboriginal koalas is as funny as it is exciting
The story? It’s OK, but don’t expect to learn any of the major plot twists.
“Return of the Jedi” is roughly divided into three parts. Part I concerns the efforts of Leia, Lando, Chewbacca, R2D2, C3PO and Luke (now a Jedi knight) to rescue Han Solo (still frozen in carbon) from the lair of the intergalactic gangster Jabba the Hutt (who looks like a mating of Orson Welles and a giant garden slug).
Part II follows Luke to the swamp planet of Dagobah, where he learns from the dying Yoda and the spirit of Obi Wan Kenobi the truth about his origins.
Part III jumps around among three story lines. Lando leads a rebel armada in an assault on a new, improved Death Star. Meanwhile, on a nearby forest planet, Han, Leia and Chewbacca try to destroy an installation that generates a force field protecting the Death Star from attack. On the Death Star, Luke comes face to face for the last time with Darth Vader and the Emperor, who makes old Darth seem like a pussycat by comparison.
The lingering image of “Return of the Jedi” is not one of special effects but of Mark Hamill’s face as Luke desperately struggles to control his anger and hatred for the Emperor, lest those negative emotions drive him to the Dark Side of the Force. Mr. Hamill may never free himself from the Curse of the Eternal Juvenile, but he shows a maturity and dominating presence that give “Jedi” a badly needed emotional core. His Luke has moved beyond innocence and idealism to a kind of noble fatalism. He’s a man without illusions, beyond happiness and anguish. That’s the price of knowledge.
“Return of the Jedi” ends with a victorious reunion of the principal characters — including the spirits of those who have been killed — that comes perilously close to the maudlin before the final credits send the audience whistling out into the street.
Great drama it isn’t, but the “Star Wars” trilogy-like folk stories-has a mythological timelessness and universal appeal that doesn’t leave much room for aesthetic objections.
(Note to parents: “Return of the Jedi” contains a few monstrous creations and scenes that may prove disturbing to grade school-age children.)
By Robert W. Butler, The Kansas City Star. Originally published May 24, 1983.