Moviegoers in line at a California theater in June, 1977
Moviegoers in line at a California theater in June, 1977
Associated Press

When 'Star Wars' Hit Theaters for the First Time

From "likable heroes on noble missions" to "one is reminded of Mies va der Rohe's architectural axiom, that 'Less is more.'"

There was a time when Star Wars was new. It was before character names became familiar and critical opinion hardened into a narrative about which of the six films were any good. 

In May 1977, when The Hollywood Reporter first described the sci-fi film to its readers, Darth Vader was just "a Jedi Knight who sold out to evil," the Force was "a mystical energy field composed of all living matter," R2-D2 a "self-propelled computer" and Chewbacca a creature "right out of Planet of the Apes."

Three years later, The Empire Strikes Back — a film whose merits are now considered unimpeachable — was greeted as if the some of the shine had worn off from the series. The "plethora of space operas that has been jamming the screens ever since Star Wars has somewhat lessened the novelty of city-sized ships sailing the stratosphere," THR's otherwise positive review read.

(Humorously, the critic made the mistake of confusing key characters, noting "most of Luke Skywalker's good advice comes from a fascinating green-hued character named Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) — and I'm still not certain whether he's a skillfully animated puppet or a real live human being." Again, Yoda and Boba Fett weren't household names at the time.) 

But by the time Return of the Jedi hit theaters in 1983, back when the title was still thought to be a part of a nine film series, a now familiar refrain greeted the screening of the title. THR's critic implored: "One is reminded of Mies va der Rohe's architectural axiom, that 'Less is more.'" Below are excerpts of the THR's original reviews of the space series from all six chapters so far.

STAR WARS EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE

May 25, 1977Star Wars, a Lucasfilm Ltd. production for 20th Century-Fox, will undoubtedly emerge as one of the true classics in the genre of science fiction/fantasy films. In any event, it will be thrilling audiences of all ages for a long time to come. 

The film, written and directed by George Lucas and produced by Gary Kurtz, is magnificent in scope, but the script and the engaging performances also add an effective human element to the totally believable technological aspects. Lucas combines excellent comedy and drama and progresses it with exciting action on tremendously effective space battles. Likable heroes on noble missions and despicable villains capable of the most dastardly deeds are all wrapped up in some of the most spectacular special effects ever to illuminate a motion picture screen. The result is spellbinding and totally captivating on all levels. 

The story is set "a long, long time ago in a galaxy not too far from here" where Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) rules the Galactic Empire from his Death Star, an enormous artificial planet managed by Imperial Storm Troopers. Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), one of the leaders of the rebel forces, gets hold of the plans for the Death Star, which reveal its one weak point. When she is captured, she sends these charts on to Ben "Obi-Wan" Kenobi (Alec Guinness), the last of the Jedi Knights, who were once the guardians of peace and justice and who drew their power from the "force," a mystical energy field composed of all living matter. Kenobi enlists Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) whose father had also been a Jedi Knight and who has inherited the "force," and together with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), a smug and cynical space smuggler whose ship and services they entice with promises of great riches, they go off to save the Princess and the world. 

STAR WARS EPISODE V: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK

 

May 12, 1980 - It's almost too much to expect that a sequel can ever top the success of the original, and I suspect that this will prove the case with The Empire Strikes Back, the continuation of George Lucas' enormously popular Star Wars. Lucas has promised — and drafted — no less than nine episodes to complete his project. Empire is labeled "Part V" — the second part of the second series (of three) that will accommodate his overall vision. And let's put all doubts to rest right now. While Empire doesn't quite measure up to Star Wars in the freshness and originality of its script, and the plethora of space operas that has been jamming the screens ever since Star Wars has somewhat lessened the novelty of city-sized ships sailing the stratosphere, nevertheless this 20th Century-Fox release remains a rattling good entertainment, a worthy successor to the original — and far and away the best of its kind since Star Wars itself. 

Although Lucas wrote the story (with a screenplay by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan) and served as executive producer, he has turned the directorial reins over to Irvin Kershner, thus freeing himself to supervise the film's spectacular special effects, produced by his own Industrial Light and Magic company. It's a switch that works strongly in the film's behalf. Not only are the models, matte shots and other technical trickeries virtually flawless, but under Kershner's able handling, the already familiar characters become more human, less like animated figures from the comic strips. 

On the story side as well, Lucas has strengthened his hand by providing a plot motivation for Darth Vader (that I don't think I should reveal here since it comes as part of the film's surprise finale). Suffice it to say that it's a twist straight out of Greek mythology, and should serve Lucas well in the episodes that lie ahead. 

As to the present episode, despite a couple of phoned in messages from Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness) which, collected, must last all of 40 seconds, most of Luke Skywalker's good advice comes from a fascinating green-hued character named Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch) — and I'm still not certain whether he's a skillfully animated puppet or a real live human being. Whichever, he's one of Lucas' strongest assets in this Star Wars incarnation.

[...] The Empire may not top Star Wars, but it certainly makes one look forward to whatever new surprises George Lucas and his band of cinematic wizzards can conjure up for us.

STAR WARS EPISODE VI: RETURN OF THE JEDI

 

May 1983 - Although Return of the Jedi is officially Part VI of George Lucas's projected Star Wars nonogy, it's actually, of course, the third to have been filmed, completing the central triad of his ambitious undertaking. Unfortunately, it conveys the sense that the machinery has already started to wear down, and the inventiveness to wear thin. To be sure, the film abounds in action. Some new peril besets Luke Skywalker, Han Solo or the Princess Leia almost too regularly every 10 minutes. But there's a kind of desperation about it, a feeling that Lucas and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan are simply trying to figure out what they can do next to amuse the kiddies. The stuff of legend that inspired and elevated the earlier episodes has here been replaced largely by the stuff of comic books. It still makes for an eye-filling two hours-plus of entertainment but, despite its huge cast of new intergalactic grotesques, Jedi seems woefully familiar. It's as if the animations aren't the only thing that has been computerized. 

Right from the start, when Luke frees Han from his carbonite sarcophagus, we are back in the world of Saturday afternoon serials. The new episodes always began that way, freeing someone all too easily from the seemingly hopeless predicament in which we had left him the week before. Only here it's accomplished with an array of special effects from Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic company that would bedazzle a pyromaniac. And such wonders never cease. Quite the contrary, they become an end unto themselves, the very raison d'etre for the entire enterprise. In Star Wars, one waited breathlessly to see if Han Solo's Millennium Falcon could muster that extra burst of energy that would enable it to break free of the Death Star's gravitational pull; and when it did, whizzing off into outer space in a dizzying light show, the effect was sheer exhilaration. In Jedi, there are so many light shows, so many pyrotechnical displays that the eye quickly becomes jaded. One is reminded of Mies va der Rohe's architectural axiom, that "Less is more." 

STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE

 

May 10, 1999 - By this point, there are few people left on the planet who won’t experience a shiver of excitement upon seeing movie screens light up with the phrase “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” followed by the opening fanfare of John Williams’ thrilling theme music. The promise of a new chapter in George Lucas’ groundbreaking sci-fi saga has been greeted, by fans and the industry, with a rapturous fervor of near-religious proportions.

Sixteen years after Return of the Jedi comes the first installment of the new trilogy, for which expectation are nothing less than cosmic. Lucas, directing his first effort since the original Star Wars, has delivered a brilliant technical achievement, light years ahead of its forerunners in its computer-generated special effects, but a less emotionally resonant exercise likely to appeal most to younger viewers.

Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace seems designed more as a promotion for Lucasfilm’s billion-dollar merchandising concerns than a meaningful chapter in the Star Wars canon. Hardcore fans are likely to be the most disappointed, but that won’t stop them from lining up to see it again and again. While the film will do mega-blockbuster business — Lucas could perform the saga with shadow puppets and gross a few hundred million — it may not match its predecessors’ long-term commercial appeal.

 

STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES

 

May 5, 2002The good news about George Lucas’ new Star Wars movie is that the universally loathed Jar Jar Binks is little more than a dress extra, action scenes are pumped with lightning-quick effects and choreography, R2-D2 and C-3PO are together again for the first time, and the whole thing feels more adult than The Phantom Menace, which launched his second space-opera trilogy. The not-so-good news is that Lucas still struggles to replicate the spirit of fun and adventure of the original Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. Those films were pure adrenaline rush. That feeling returns only near the end of Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones, during a rescue operation and climactic battle that occupies the last quarter of the film.

The Lucas legions will be out in force opening day, of course, and will return for further study of the political turmoil, nefarious plots and character misalliances that cloud that galaxy far, far away. Predicting a long, hot summer for Clones is the easiest possible forecast to make.

Other than a CG-enhanced chase through the airwaves of an urban metropolis near the beginning, the film gets off to a slow start with much exposition and characters getting reacquainted 10 years after the events of Phantom Menace. Surprisingly flat-footed dialogue scenes that feature wooden acting, dreary art direction and old fashioned optical wipes are either intended as an homage to the sci-fi of the ‘50s or reflect the director’s impatience with exposition.

STAR WARS EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH

 

May 6, 2005 - The final episode of George Lucas’ cinematic epic Star Wars ends the six-movie series on such a high note that one feels like yelling out, “Rewind!” Yes, rewind through more than 13 hours of bravery, treachery, new worlds, odd creatures and human frailty. The first two episodes of Lucas’ second trilogy — The Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002) — caused more than a few fans of the original trilogy to wonder whether this prequel was worth it. The answer is a qualified yes. It did take a lot of weighty expositions, stiffly played scenes and less-than-magical creatures to get to Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith. But what a ride Lucas and company have in store!

Needless to say, international box office will register in the hundreds of millions. The real question is how much money the entire series, now ready for packaging and repackaging for all sorts of formats and media, will eventually take in. Let’s just say a lot.

What seems like the biggest drawback to Episode III turns out to be its strongest element. Even casual moviegoers know what is in store for the characters, who will wind up at the point where the original Star Wars — now dubbed Episode IV — A New Hope — began the whole saga nearly 30 years ago. We know how Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker will turn to the dark side of the Force, how his twin children will be separated at birth and how his former master Obi-Wan Kenobi and the tiny Jedi Master Yoda will turn into his mortal enemies. Yet watching these fates unfold with such tragic inevitability, watching each piece fall into place, is genuinely thrilling. In fact, knowing that these strong characters cannot and will not escape their fate is what moves us.

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