"There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism," the New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael wrote in her famous negative review of Star Wars, in 1977. "The only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset."
Some reviews don't age so well. But what about other reviews of the first Star Wars? As the largely positive first reviews for The Force Awakens pour in, I looked back at contemporary reviews of Star Wars when it was initially released.
Here's what renowned film critics like Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, and Vincent Canby had to say about Star Wars.
Roger Ebert loved the film, writing that he had an out-of-body experience and lost his "analytical nerve" before describing the film as "entertainment so direct and simple that all of the complications of the modern movie seem to vaporize." Sounds pretty good!
I won't spoil it any further. It's one of those classic Ebert reviews where it's impossible to not be swept up in his enthusiasm.
New York Times
Vinent Canby called Star Wars "the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made."
It's both an apotheosis of "Flash Gordon" serials and a witty critique that makes associations with a variety of literature that is nothing if not eclectic: "Quo Vadis?", "Buck Rogers," "Ivanhoe," "Superman," "The Wizard of Oz," "The Gospel According to St. Matthew," the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table.
One of Mr. Lucas's particular achievements is the manner in which he is able to recall the tackiness of the old comic strips and serials he loves without making a movie that is, itself, tacky. "Star Wars" is good enough to convince the most skeptical 8-year-old sci-fi buff, who is the toughest critic.
Now that is effusive praise.
The New Yorker
An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts—it has no emotional grip. “Star Wars” may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring…. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood.
Reviewer Gene Siskel gave the movie three-and-a-half stars, calling it "a fun picture that will appeal to those who enjoy Buck Rodgers-style adventures." He also praised the special effects, naturally.
That half-star deduction? Acting. "Save for Alec Guiness, the cast is unmemorable. Lucas apparently blew his entire $9.5 million budget on visuals."
Wall Street Journal
Reviewer Joy Gould Boyum was not impressed.
"There's something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skills lavished on such puerile materials. Perhaps more important is what this seems to accomplish: the canonization of comic book culture which in turn becomes the triumph of the standardized, the simplistic, mass-produced commercial artifacts of our time."
The New Republic
Reviewer Stanley Kauffman absolutely ethered Star Wars (subhead: "'Star Wars is a corny, unexceptional film for men who miss adolescence"—yikes).
About the dialogue there’s nothing to be said. In fact the dialogue itself can hardly be said: it sticks in the actors’ mouths like peanut butter. The acting is the School of Buster Crabbe, except for Alec Guinness who mumbles through on the way to his salary check.
This picture was made for those (particularly males) who carry a portable shrine within them of their adolescence, a chalice of a Self that was Better Then, before the world’s affairs or—in any complex way—sex intruded.
Detroit Free Press
'Star Wars' is a great time at the movies," wrote Susan Stark in the May 29, 1977, edition, "not for any one particular kind of moviegoer, but for everyone."
Noting that the space Western appealed to a wide demographic that included young moms and guys with ponytails, she shared this vignette from a screening: " 'Hey, man, this is like a concert,' says one of the ponytails as he sprints down the aisle, beaming at the beaming faces all around him."
The British paper liked the movie well enough, but called out it's referential nature before concluding:
It's an incredibly knowing movie. But the filching is so affectionate that you can't resent it. Whatever else you think about Star Wars, you can't call it the height of originality. The entirely mindless could go and see it with pleasure. But it plays enough games to satisfy the most sophisticated. It opens on Boxing Day, by the way, so don't all rush at once.
San Francisco Chronicle
"Star Wars," set "a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away," is the most exciting picture to be released this year - exciting as theater and exciting as cinema. It is the most visually awesome such work to appear since "2001: A Space Odyssey," yet is intriguingly human in its scope and boundaries.
Every dollar and every hour is on the screen, and if "Star Wars" doesn't get at least half a dozen Oscar nominations, I will eat my Wookiee.
In addition to being a superbly crafted film, "Star Wars" is that rarest of creatures: The work of art with universal (excuse the pun) appeal.
Los Angeles Times
Reviewer Charles Champlin was a fan (headline: ‘Star Wars’ Hails the Once and Future Space Western) calling it "a slam-bang, rip-roaring gallop through a distantly future world full of exotic vocabularies, creatures and customs."
He was also probably the reviewer who praised George Lucas the most, saying he "proves again that there is no corporate substitute for the creative passion of the individual film-maker."
Dallas Morning News
Reviewer Phillip Wuntch basically did the 20th Century Fox marketing department's job, calling the film "enchanting…it engulfs the audience…a stunning visual symphony."
The entire film is a monument of behind-the-scenes wizardry.
John Simon's pan of the film in NYMag is famous enough to get mentioned in books.
Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a "future" cast to them…it is all as exciting as last year's weather reports.
Here it is all trite characterization and paltry verbiage… The one exception is Alec Guinness as the grand old man Ben Kenobi (Ben for the Hebrew ben, to make him sound Biblical and good; Kenobi probably from cannibis, i.e., hashish, for reasons you can probably guess.)…
Still, Star Wars will do very nicely for those lucky enough to be children or unlucky enough never to have grown up.
David Matthews operates the Wayback Machine on Fusion.net—hop on. Got a tip? Email him: firstname.lastname@example.org