Blog Directory CineVerse: Fan favorite, critics' darling

Fan favorite, critics' darling

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Why Star Wars will endure as a movie classic

by Erik J. Martin
(Note: This is part 2 of a 4-part series)

Audiences certainly never cared much for what reviewers thought, and they made their votes of confidence count at the box office. What Star Wars may lack, according to the critics, in warmth, character depth and cerebral dialogue, it makes up for tenfold in visually spectacular, feel-good entertainment value, fans believed. Moviegoers lined up around the block to see the film the first time around, and came out in droves when the Special Edition was released in 1997. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find one nuclear family home that lacks a video copy of Episode 4 in the Star Wars saga.

According to a poll of 20,000 readers, Sci-Fi Entertainment Magazine reported in the late 1990s that fans think Star Wars: A New Hope is the number one science-fiction film of all time. Internet Movie Database ( users have voted the movie as the 16th best ever, giving it an average grade of 8.8 out of 10 on the quality scale.

Star Wars also scored a major critical coup in 1997 when it was ranked no. 15 on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 Greatest Movies, selected by AFI's blue-ribbon panel of more than1,500 leaders of the American movie community. It placed as both the highest ranked science-fiction film and action/adventure film (unless you count Bridge On the River Kwai, no. 13) on the widely exposed list.

“The best movies are, by and large, movies that are rooted in the populist tradition that, at the same time, aspire in unpretentious ways to transcend those roots,” said Richard Schickel, film critic for Time Magazine, whom I interviewed back in 1999. Schickel voted for Star Wars to be named one of the AFI’s top 100 films. “Star Wars is a great example of that -- one of those films that belongs up there with classics like Casablanca and Citizen Kane.”

Back in 1999 when I interviewed film historian Vivian Sobchack, professor of film and television at the University of California at Los Angeles and author of “The Screening Space: The American Science Fiction Film” (Rutgers University Press), she begged to differ.

"Star Wars is not way up there in my top 100 movies, by any means,” said Sobchack, also a voter for the AFI Top 100 list. “I think it’s an extremely important film, however, and certainly one of the best science-fiction movies. It changed the genre forever, along with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Star Wars was a return to narrative and very full-bodied, archetypal characters – a movie that borrowed upon all sorts of genres like the western and the war film that, in the 1970s, had lost their kick.”

Star Wars “is one of those rare, vastly popular films that has a very serious subtext with real connections to powerfully mythic material,” said Schickel. “It works on all those basic movie levels. It’s a wonderful adventure story with terrific wit and spirit. It has a great villain and a strong feminist character in Leia. I’ll argue that the acting is actually splendid–it perfectly suits the mood of that movie.”

Aesthetically, Schickel continued, “Star Wars broke remarkable new ground, especially considering that previous sci-fi films never really did. But Star Wars had such epic scale, that I don’t even think of it as a science-fiction film. It’s more of a grand, mythic, heroic journey.”

Former Chicago Tribune film critic Mark Caro referred to Star Wars as one of the greatest “popcorn films” ever, he told me 12 years ago. “A lot of popcorn movies have special effects and explosions that don’t hold your interest as much. With Star Wars, though, you’re completely wrapped up in the story, like a mesmerizing video game experience.”

Next week: The sum of its parts, or the parts of its sum?

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