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Star Escape

FILM

By Joe Contreras

AN UNSEEN BEAD of perspiration trickled its way down through the small of my back to the sashed waistline of my trousers, though I had been standing motionless since walking into the theater lobby. Perhaps I felt the little rivulet of sweat trailing down my spine precisely because I had not moved since finding a suitable spot where I could await the opening of the doors. In any case, my eyes flitted about the stuffy lobby, packed to the gills with presumably affluent moviegoers who could say two hours later that yes, they had attended the Boston premiere of the prospective Box Office Smash of 1977, Star Wars. So this is how a big commercial film presents itself to the public these days, I mused. No sky-scanning spotlights, no jewel-bedecked starlets traipsing out of glossy limos, no obligatory horde of autograph hounds hanging out their tongues in anticipation of the next celebrity to step out of a chauffered car onto the theater sidewalk. Just a lot of regular folks ready and willing to sweat out the wait and shell out the four bills to screen another Jaws-type blockbuster.

Director George Lucas has come out with a film that has "Billion Dollar Baby" stamped all over it. Star Wars is a rousing crowdpleaser, a reaffirmation that the good guys still win some of the time, and an affectionate needle at the legendary Flash Gordon movies of yesteryear all wrapped into one very slick package. And while devotees of the sci-fi movie genre may not take too kindly to the implicit parody of their chosen cult contained in Lucas' film, the dazzling special effects of Star Wars by themselves should prove sufficient to eclipse any lingering qualms they might experience about this decidedly good-natured spoof of motion pictures that journey into the great unknown of space.

The publicity mill of Twentieth-Century Fox makes abundantly clear--in the course of leafing through some 39 handouts--that Lucas has maintained an ongoing infatuation for many years with the sci-fi heroes who thrilled a generation, and then some, of American youths from the 1930s onwards. Lucas worked hard on Star Wars; his first film since the 1973 hit American Graffiti, the 33-year-old director spent the better part of three years writing the script (during which time he drew up four different versions) before he commenced shooting in March 1976. A lot of care and effort went into the movie, and the viewer must keep a grain of salt handy as he takes in Lucas' very deliberate use of tried-and-true cliches--phrases as well as general motifs--that suffuses every bit of celluloid in Star Wars.

The hackneyed dialogue and other familiar staples in Star Wars will impress itself on the moviegoer from the very beginning. Much of the national media has played up the Flash Gordon comic book angle in the last two weeks, at the expense of toning down some of the other classic themes and frameworks that Lucas weaves into the film's texture. In many ways, Star Wars can be approached as a competent Western set sometime in the quite distant future. Go down the checklist of a classic Western's ingredients, and few items will be missing in the Lucas recipe: bounty hunters with no morals; sleazy smugglers who will handle any contraband--including political rebels--and who don't pronounce the final letter of an -ing verbal; a barroom brawl with laser guns instead of fisticuffs; even a posse chase with spacecraft in the place of swift stallions.

This color film about a black-and-white future does have a plot sandwiched between all the technical wizardry and intentional banality. Star Wars recounts the story of the fall of the evil Galactic Empire, a futuristic Reign of Terror that seeks to subjugate the entire universe under its tyrannical rule. The heroes of the film appear in the form of rebels who wish to restore democratic government to the domains of the Empire, and it is through their eyes that the audience witnesses the sequence of events that predictably culminates in the destruction of the imperial regime.

Certainly the contours and resolution of the plot proved to be one of the most irresistible appeals of the film. No ambivalent finale lies in store for the moviegoer in search of escapism; aside from the necessary sacrifice of a leading hero (Alec Guinnes' venerable elder, Ben Kenobi), the spacemen in white hats (or helmets) prevail in the end. A thoroughly unnpretentious narrative, the story succeeds in asassuring its audience that all modern movie need not be full of existentialist greys to attract reasonably discerning cineastes.

Half the fun of Star Wars comes from taking in all those special effects. Although the technology never approaches the rarefied levels of visual fireworks achieved in 2001: A Space Odyssey, special photographic effects supervisor John Dykstra has pieced together an impressive collection of robots, futuristic weaponry and space age interior sets that will keep the eye titillated while the intellectual faculties take five. The spellbinding dogfight and final assault on the Empire's central nervous system that wind up Star Wars are particularly noteworthy for the way that Lucas so easily integrates the gimmickry into the climax.

The acting in Star Wars will never make the movie stick in anybody's memory. Aside from the usual polish with which Guinness coats his role of the elder Kenobi, both the performances of the cast and the cast itself add up to a forgettable sum. Many of the actors' names appear in a film's credits for the first time or one of the first times as the Star Wars cast is ticked off: Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill. Admittedly, the quality of many of the characters imposes severe restrictions on the range of dramatic possibilities available to the actors; there are only so many ways that an actress can play the role of a Joan of Arc figure that is an unabashed stereotype, as Fisher probably learned as she approached her Princess Leia character, the leader of the insurrectionists. And Lucas undoubtedly never intended Star Wars to be a showcase full of stars, perhaps bearing in mind that some recent releases with similar box office potential did not have to assemble a blinding array of celebrities to turn over a very large buck (Jaws, Billy Jack).

Lucas' craftsmanship shines with particular brilliance in the final half hour of the film. Besides the stunning special effects that the director calls upon to underscore the urgency of this concluding sequence, Lucas masterfully builds up the suspense to a shattering pitch as one rebel craft after another falls prey to the marauding pilots of the imperial forces. The toll of casualties among the rebels keeps adding up until one lone plane remains; naturally, it is manned by Luke Skywalker (Hamill), the naive twenty-year-old enraptured by Princess Leia's beauty who seeks to avenge the death of his father during the space age totalitarians overthrow of the republic. Luke is an irresistible figure, the country bumpkin with just the right touch of idealism and star-struck awe to endear him to any audience. He saves the day of course, hitting the heavily protected weak link in the planet-fortress of the Empire that reduces the forces of evil to a pyrotechnic starburst signalling the end of the dark days in the universe. While the dogfight that leads into the last-ditch attack is a mite drawn out, the denouement amply compensates for any peccadillos of self-indulgence that Lucas commins as he films the dueling spacecraft.

The profusion of all too recognizable cliches may elicit a grimace or two during a screening of Star Wars, but there's no denying that the film ultimately wins you over. Lucas clearly does not suffer from the kind of overweening ambition in artistic vision that has proven the downfall of so many of his young contemporaries in American cinema. His mission is to entertain, and if such an end involves resorting to a few old standards of dialogue and theme, then so be it. Star Wars will neither pose nor answer any metaphysical questions that will keep the moviegoer scratching his head well after he has returned to his abode. Quite frankly, it's been so long since a film like Star Wars came along--an uplifting slice of escapist fare that isn't a disaster movie--that Lucas merits a nod of the cap for a refreshing change of pace, so long as Star Wars remains just that, and not a sign of things to come in the future from the camera of George Lucas.

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