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Original Trilogy Reception 1977-1983: Interpretation and Analysis

Part I of this study is available here.

In this second part of the study I wish to comment on, interpret and analyze the data I have collected and presented in part one. I also hope to offer a better context to place the data in, and offer explanations as to why the results are what they are. I should mention at the outset: any study such as this is subjective to some degree and limited to an equal degree. I do not hold that these figures be considered absolute. However, I believe my methodology was valid enough and my sampling rate high enough that these can be useful as indicators or rough guidelines--perhaps a 5% margin of error can be reasonably expected (either higher or lower), but overall I would consider these accurate enough to invite broad discussion.

This article is divided into multiple sections

1. Overview and Big Picture--Here I will interpret and analyze the raw data presented in Part I, offering explanations for what the stats can tell us.

2-4. Critical Responses to Individual Movies--Here I will give further detail into what critics said about each film, and how it was received in specific ways, as well as examining the context of their release.

5. Between Releases: 1984-1996--Here I examine reviews from 1985, 1989, 1992 and 1996 to show shifting opinions on the films, and also give a context for the 1997 re-release.

6. 1997 Re-Release and Beyond--I offer a brief analysis of the reviews during the films' 1997 release, as well as further opinions on the films into the 2000s.

7. Original Trilogy vs Prequel Trilogy--Finally, I do a brief comparison of the reviews of the two trilogies in their years of original release.

Overview and the Big Picture

To start, I will re-post the most pertinent data as a refresher.

Here is a useful calculator for the ratings:

1/5=20    1.5/5=30     2/5=40     2.5/5=50     3/5=60      3.5/5=70     4/5=80     4.5/5=90     5/5=100

The raw data:

Star Wars

Empire

Jedi

Boston Globe

3.5/5 my 21

4.5/5 my 25

Calgary Herald

3.5/5 my 23

4/5 my 26

Chicago Sun Times

4.5/5 my 25

4/5 my 25

Chicago Tribune

3.5/4= 4.5/5 my 27

3.5/4=4.5/5 my 21

5/5 my 25

Christian Science Monitor

4.5/5 jn 2

4/5 my 21

4/5 my 19

Cineaste

3/5

Globe and Mail

2.5/5 my 22

3.5/5 my 27

Films and Filming

4/5 dc

2/4?=3/5 july

Films in Review

4/5 ag-sp

4/5 ag-sp

3/5 jun-july

Hartford Courant

4/5 my 23

3/5 my 26

Los Angeles Times

5/5 my 22

4/5 my 18

4/5 my 25

Macleans

4/5 jn 27

3.5/5 my 26

3.5/5 my 30

Miami Herald

3/4=4/5 my 25

Monthly Film Bulletin

4/5 july

Nation

4/5 jn 25

3.5/5 jn 21

2/5 jn 18

National Review

2.5/5 jn 24

New Leader

1/5 my 30

New Republic

2.5/5 jn 18

3/5 my 31

N/A

New Statesman

1/5 jn 3

New York

2/5 jn 20

3/5 my 26

3/5 my 30

New York Daily News

3.5/4 = 4/5

4/4 = 5/5

New York Post

2/5 my 25

New York Times

4/5 my 26

4/5 my 21

2/5 my 25

New Yorker (other)

4/5 jn 13

N/A

N/A

New Yorker (kael)

1.5/5 sp 26

4/5 my 26 kael?

1/5 my 30

Newsday

3/5 my 25

Newsweek

5/5 my 30

4/5 my 19

3/5 my 30

People Weekly

N/A

3/5 my 30

Sarasota Herald-Tribune

5/5 jn 2

Time

5/5 my 25

4.5/5 my 19

5/5 my 23

The Times

5/5 dc 16

2/5 my 23

3.5/5 jn 3

Toronto Star

5/5 jn 11

3.5/5 my 22

4/5 my 25

Vancouver Sun

5/5 jn 25

3.5/5 my 16

3/5 my 25

Variety

5/5 my 25

4/5 my 7

3.5/5 my 25

Washington Post (other)

NA

3/5 my 23

NA

Washington Post (G.Arnold)

4.5/5 my 25

5/5 my 18

3.5/5 my 22

Washington Spokesman-Review

4/5 july 2

Washingtonian

2.5/5 july

2/5 aug

Winnipeg Free Press

2.5/5 jn 24

5/5 jn 18

4/5 my 25

TOTAL AVERAGE

82

73

64

Converted to Rotten Tomatoe's "tomatometer", which is calculated by the number of "fresh" reviews (60% rating or more) divided by total reviews, this results in:

Star Wars: 83%

Empire Strikes Back: 92%

Return of the Jedi: 76%

This is a much different picture than their 79%, 52% and 32% respectively in Rotten Tomatoes' (RT) 2005 study. In fact, there were more reviews that liked Empire than those that didn't, more than even the original, based on my sampling. On average, however, it scored lower ratings overall, which shows why the tomatometer score does not always tell the full picture (as it is a measure of limited popularity in some sense--recommendations, without accounting for strength).

First we should look at Star Wars. Star Wars had a different release pattern than the other films, as it opened in 32 theatres in May, expanded to hundreds more in June and then went overseas towards the end of the year, unlike the sequels which for the most part opened widely all at once. As such, the Star Wars reviews come staggered in three waves, the first in May, the second in June, and then more trickling in throughout the summer and fall. Grouping them by waves tells a very interesting picture. Star Wars, of course was critically hailed, but it is conspicuous to note that amongst the 4/5 and 5/5 reviews are a few 2/5 and 1/5 reviews. Did these people see the same movie? There is a reason why this is. Looking at the ratings by waves, we get this:

Wave One: 94

Wave Two/Three: 72

Out of all the reviews from the first wave, they are unanimously 4/5 and 5/5 in the samples I studied. Negative reviews do not show up until the second and third waves. Why is this? Not to invalidate the opinions of those who wrote them, but they are largely written in response to the wild critical success of the film. Martin Knelman, for instance, in the Winnipeg Free Press on June 24, starts his review by quoting from Time and then Newsweek raving about the film--Newsweek's quote ends with "[Lucas] wants to touch the child in all of us. Only the hardest of hearts won't let George do it." Knelman's review then opens with "Meet the hardest of hearts." The critical success of the film, which had already broken box office records and was on its way to being the most popular film of the decade, becomes part of Knelman's perception of the film. The only major negative review from the sampling I studied was Pauline Kael, who went out of her way all the way in September to attack the film, even though New Yorker had already run a rave review by Penelope Gilliatt in June--Kael's review is tinged with resentment that a film so shallow could be so popular. This is similar to sci-fi author Harlan Ellison, who wrote in August in Los Angeles magazine his infamous article "Luke Skywalker is a Nerd and Darth Vader Sucks Runny Eggs", resentful that people took the film seriously as a representation of science fiction. This is unlike the reviewers in May, who simply took the film on its own merits and found a terrific, charming adventure fable couched in cultural nostalgia.

Some of these later negative critics were attacked by viewers for being so biased just because a film was popular. The Village Voice ran a negative review in June, which unfortunately is not available to me, but then in a July 4th editorial it is noted that the writer received copious amounts of complaints. This also occurred on Empire, to be discussed later.

Nonetheless, even with these negative reviews (Ellison's wasn't included, as it was an editorial), the film ranks an astounding 82 by my calculations, and managed an 83% score by the tomatometer. I adjusted these scores for weight, giving major publications five times the weight of all others. When we do this, the ratings for the film increase by a few percentage across the board.

Star Wars

Empire

Jedi

Weighted Total Average

86

75

68

This shows us that the major publications in North America actually gave the films better write-ups than the overall average. Based on this interpretation, the weighted "tomatometer" scores would be equivalent to:

Star Wars: 89%

Empire Strikes Back: 89%

Return of the Jedi: 79%

Again, the films get more recommendations by the major press, though Empire's dips down a bit. This goes in contrast to what Lucas began to say during the reception of the prequels, that the press always hated the films. It simply isn't true. It is also no surprise that Star Wars was nominated for Academy Awards such as Best Picture, given the incredibly strong critical success evident above. This brings me to a very interesting point to delve into: why did critics like the film, and why did audiences like the film? This may seem like a banal question, but the situation is much more complicated than may be first supposed.

Post-Modernism and the Critical Response to Star Wars

It should be stated that many reviewers stood in awe of the film, for its total package of thrills, sights, sounds and cinematic nostalgia. The Toronto Star devoted its front page of the entertainment section to the film, under the headline "Star Wars is magnificent, you'll pant for more." It opened with, "Star Wars is one of the most enjoyable movies ever made--a funny, exciting and magnificently spectacular two-hour space fantasy that leaves the audience panting for a sequel." The Vancouver Sun had the headline "Star Wars: Simply the best movie of the year", and opened with "The one movie that everyone is talking about is Star Wars--and no wonder. It just happens to be the best film of the year, a superbly-made mind-boggling space adventure that is not only a smash hit but smashing entertainment." And of course, Time magazine made the film into its cover story the week it opened, with the cover headline "the year's best movie."

However, the way viewers study the text of Star Wars is very different today. A large part of this has to do with contextual perception--the films have become a semi-religious cult of sorts, and have had books, documentaries and Smithsonian installations examining the mythological underpinnings of the series, for example. Todays era is also much different, where we have films such as The Dark Knight, Lord of the Rings, Spiderman, The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean in the collective consciousness, and noteably taken with seriousness. Empire Strikes Back, for example, takes itself very seriously and has a self-conscious gravitas about it--which is precisely why many reviewers didn't like it or felt it was much weaker than the first film. This gives a good indication about what people liked about that original film in the first place.

There are two ways to take Star Wars. One is at the surface level, which is that it is a good, entertaining adventure fable with terrific special effects. This is how most audiences, today and in 1977 took the film--an exciting, wholesome, fun time at the movies, pure escapism. But there is another element to the film that often is either unnoticed (mostly by younger viewers) or is considered less important, but which appeals to critics: Star Wars is in many ways a post-modern film.

While the film was seen by critics as a well-made adventure fantasy, they also picked up on Lucas' desire to make a homage piece. The film, critics felt, was less about itself and more about the history of the movies. Stanley Kaufman, for example, complains that there is nothing to the film except the story, no serious social message on display as viewers at the time were used to--which is precisely why the film is post-modern; post-modern films, especially those of the 80s and 90s, are self-consciously ironic and not about anything deeply political or social but more about the very idea of irony, and their imagery comes not from life but from other films. Star Wars references westerns, pirate movies, Errol Flynn films, serials, 1950s sci-fi, samurai films, David Lean films, John Ford films, and Stanley Kubrick, plus comic books and fantasy literature--the ultimate symbol for American cultural nostalgia.

Star Wars is self-reflexive and rewards viewers' cine-literacy by engaging them in its use of pastiche. The film is almost parodistic--critics felt that the film succeeded because it refused to take itself seriously and allowed the viewer to have fun, while also treating the material straight and never delving into camp. In this they are correct--Star Wars is humourous and light-hearted, and it seems to be simultaneously treating its sources with both respect and good-natured mocking, allowing cineastes to appreciate that it knows its subject matter is cheesy and that its okay to have fun in this. In this sense, it is worlds apart from any of the sequels that followed, which simply accepted the world of the film in a more-or-less straightforward manner.

The film was also timely, and had originality and relevance to contemporary politics. It responded to the violence and pessimism of 1970s popular filmmaking, and it also was precisely what audiences were hungry for following the end of the Vietnam war and Watergate scandal. A.D. Murphy wrote in Variety in May: "Like a breath of fresh air, 'Star Wars' sweeps away the cynicism that has in recent years obscured the concepts of valor, dedication and honor." Time magazine praised in its cover story: "It has no message, no sex, and only the merest dallop of blood shed here and there. It's aimed at kids--the kid in everybody."

For these reasons, in addition to its function as a spectacular escapist piece and a serious cultural landmark, the film was honoured at the Academy Awards, and appealed to the same voters that made Annie Hall win best picture that year. Annie Hall is post-modern and self-reflexive as well, with Woody Allen breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience and circumventing the conventions of motion pictures, the character aware he is in a construct, while being filled with references to other films (such as Marshall McLuhan and Bergman)--very much the way Star Wars was. This was a new trend in American films at the time, where movies began de-constructing genre and pop culture, and Star Wars was fun for its cleverness as a meta-commentary on the history of motion pictures and adolescent literature.

This post-modern element to the film has largely been forgotten today, where the film is seen as a straight-forward fantasy epic like Lord of the Rings and presented as a Wagnerian opera of Biblical proportions in six-parts. But Star Wars was the Kill Bill or the Shrek of its day, and critics picked up on this very clever construction. Star Wars is certainly a straightforward epic as well, but Lucas explicitly made the film as a post-modern homage above all else--it is only in the sequels that he decided to take the world he had created on its own merits. "It's the flotsam and jetsam from the period when I was twelve years old," Lucas says in Time's 1977 cover story. "All the books and films and comics I liked when I was a child."

One of the earliest academic articles written about the film, appearing in Journal of Popular Culture in 1977, examined this use of refurbishing past culture, in Robert Collins' article "Star Wars: The Pastiche of Myth and the Yearning for a Past Future."

Here are what some critics said about the film in this regard:

Time: "Star Wars is a combination of Flash Gordon, The Wizard of Oz, the Errol Flynn swashbucklers of the '30s and '40s and just about every western ever screened...The result is a remarkable confection: a subliminal history of the movies, wrapped in a riveting tale of suspense and adventure."

Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times: "The ultimate tribute to the past...Star Wars is Buck Rogers with a doctoral degree but not a trace of cynicism."

Les Wedman, Vancouver Sun: "[It is a] tongue-in-cheek takeoff on the science fiction genre...culled from a memory of make-believe."

Martin Knelman, Winnipeg Free Press: "Star Wars wants to take us back even farther, to the joys of children's comic book adventures like Flash Gordon and Superman...The result is like a compilation of fantasy material...Star Wars is a Saturday afternoon matinee serial produced on a $9 million budget." 

Clyde Gilmour, Toronto Star: "It distills the joys [Lucas] cherished as a youngster watching movies and TV shows and soaking up Flash Gordon. There are touches of Wizard of Oz in it, along with the hardy boys and Arthurian romances and a thousand half-forgotten westerns...As you can see, this is straight comic-book stuff, not intended for a moment to be taken seriously."

David Robinson, The Times: "[The characters] are the very stuff of strip cartoon. But there are much broader references...Wizard of Oz...Merlin...John Williams' score meanwhile runs the gamut from biblical epic to Lawrence of Arabia...It is an anthology not so much of actual scenes as of almost subconsciously recalled sensations and sentiments from the film-goers memory. Maybe it is this more than anything that inspires such fierce loyalty... "It's very silly of course," [people say], and retort "but it's so much fun!"

Pauline Kael, New Yorker: "The only real inspiration involved in Star Wars was to set its sci-fi galaxy in the pop-culture past and to turn old-movie ineptness into conscious Pop Art."

Stanley Kaufman, New Republic: "Star Wars wasn't meant to be ingenious in any way; it was meant to be exactly what it is...I kept looking for an 'edge' to peer around the corny, solemn comic-book strophes; [Lucas] was facing them full and frontally."

Urjo Karada, Macleans: "Star Wars represents Hollywood looking book backwards and forwards at the same time...The narrative itself deliberately harkens back to a naivete, a simplicity, a sweet dumbness recollected from the movies of childhood...[Lucas] pushes these basic, simplistic events past any pretentious boundaries of myth and legend and into the realm of movieland nostalgia."

Vincent Canby, New York Times: "[Star Wars] is 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 legends of King Arthur...Here [Lucas] remembers [them] with such cheerfulness that he avoids facetiousness...[Don't] expect a film of cosmic implications or to footnote it with so many references that one anticipates it as if it were a literary duty. It's fun and funny."

Gary Arnold, Washington Post: "[Lucas] has achieved a witty and exhilarating synthesis of themes and cliches from the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers comics and serials, plus such related but less expected sources as the western, the pirate melodrama, the aerial combat melodrama and the samurai epic...Lucas can draw upon a variety of action-movies sources with unfailing deftness and humor...He has refurbished stock scenes, conventions and spare parts acquired from a variety of action movie heroes, which assume an affectionately parodistic and miraculously fresh configuration...Lucas borrows, embellishes and satirizes."

This makes for a useful entry point to turning to Empire Strikes Back.

Critical Response to Empire

If critics were attracted to Star Wars in part because of its post-modernist leanings, their reaction to Empire should be a bit predictable. Empire stripped away the humour, the parody, and the references that made up a large part of the pleasure of the first film. This was by far the biggest issue critics had with the sequel. Nicholas Wapshott complained in the Times that Star Wars functioned as a tribute to nostalgia and therefore couldn't sustain sequels. David Denby in Newsweek notes that "kids, of course, did not take the movie [Star Wars] as parody; for them, it was simply a grand romantic adventure story. And that was part of Lucas' plan--to appeal on both levels." He complains that Empire "only works on one level", noting that the references to other movies have now been replaced with references to the first film itself.

So, when you take away the post-modernist elements, what do you end up with? The same things people loved about the first film other than its nostalgia: adventure, magnificent special effects, thrills and suspense, visual lyricism, and an imagination unrivaled in the movies. You also had improvements over Star Wars: some critics, such as Nicholas Wapshoff in the Times and Janet Maslin in New York Times, thought the characters in Empire were stiffer than Star Wars (perhaps because the humour was reduced), but some thought the characters were better defined, such as Gene Siskel. Critics across the board also concluded the special effects were much more impressive than in Star Wars (except Gene Siskel, who strangely thought they were less impressive).

However, the deficiencies were almost unanimously noted--even when they liked the film, critics usually acknowledged that Star Wars felt fresher and was more fun; some gave points in that it had now been balanced with maturity and sophistication, such as Winnipeg Free Press. In the three years since Star Wars, Hollywood had changed a lot--Superman, Star Trek The Motion Picture and The Black Hole had come out, as well as a slew of knockoffs, and the novelty of a space adventure had begun to wane, but critics were impressed that Empire demonstrated how to do it right. The film overall scored more general recommendations than Star Wars (the tomatometer), but this is binary (yes/no) and does not account for strength--the film was not as well liked in terms of overall score. Empire took itself very seriously, and while it had some humour and a very thrilling sense of adventure, the joy and energy of Star Wars were sorely missed. Many critics outright disliked the film--Star Wars was mass-audience enough to win over non-genre-fans, but Empire had no intro and no conclusion and depended upon taking the previous film and itself on face value. The massive hype now in place also played a role. Stanley Kauffman, who disliked the original, writes in New Republic a review that is a mere three paragraphs, concluding: "Star Wars has so far grossed $400 million worldwide. Empire will do as well, I suppose. I wish I could care. That's a lie. I don't wish that at all. Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."

Most critics didn't feel this way, of course--while many were unprepared to take a sci-fi film on total face value (as opposed to the fun sense of nostalgia of Star Wars), many viewers and critics were, as they liked Star Wars for this reason as well, and the film had mostly positive notices. Much like Star Wars, viewers wrote in to papers to complain of a poor review--in letters to the editor, A. Munro wrote in the Globe and Mail that the paper's review "was typical of the reviewing done by your entertainment reporters on science fiction movies. It also shows that there are no science fiction fans there as well." Some critics thought it was as good or better than the first film. These included Tom Rogers in Films in Review, Charles Champlin in L.A. Times, Leonard Klady in Winnipeg Free Press and Clyde Gilmour of the Toronto Star. Overall, the film was considered successful and impressive. The most flattering review was from Gary Arnold, writing for the Washington Post. He writes that the film is "a stunning successor, a tense and pictorially dazzling science-fiction chase melodrama that sustains two hours of elaborate adventure while sneaking up on you emotionally."

Almost all reviews make mention of the "saga" element that had now become part of the film: that Empire is actually Episode V, and that Lucas says he intends to make nine films in total. Publicity from the filmmakers had begun to mold public perception.

Critical Response to Jedi

The previous film had ended on a cliffhanger, and this accomplished its goal of building anticipation. The atmosphere in 1983 very closely resembled that of 1999. Media reported on the film constantly, there was tighter security around the film than the White House, and fans started camping out in line days in advance. The Toronto Star reports on May 25 that a Star Wars couple were married in line in front of the theatre on opening day, dressed as characters. The two first films had earned over half a billion dollars in revenue, and the series had a cult following that was unprecedented in film history--with Jedi promising to resolve all the loose ends and finish the trilogy, it had an enormous amount of pressure to live up to.

It is therefore unsurprising that so many reviewers felt disappointed. The first two films were so good that it would be very difficult to sustain such craftsmanship forever. Nonetheless, while Jedi is regarded as the disappointing film, this is not as clear-cut as it may seem. Many critics loved Jedi, and thought it was as good or better than the previous two films. These include David Sterritt, writing in Christian Science Monitor, Gene Siskel in Chicago Tribune, and Roger Ebert in Chicago Sun-Times, who writes, "it's amazing how Lucas and his associates keep topping themselves." Michael Blowen in The Boston Globe writes: "The final act of George Lucas' first Star Wars trilogy is the best yet." A lot of critics appreciated the return to the goofy fun of Star Wars, such as Peter Wilson in the Vancouver Sun who writes, "Jedi is certainly better than the marking-time let-down of The Empire Strikes Back, a cold film...Jedi snaps us back into headlong adventure."

However, some critics also despised the film, feeling it to be more hollow, contrived and tired than any of the previous films. The film had its share of these, from Robert Asahina in New Leader, Pauline Kael in New Yorker, John Coleman in New Statesman (who calls it "one of the biggest cinematic cons of all time"), and Rex Reed in New York Post, who begins his review with "enough is enough." Vincent Canby in New York Times was not kind to the film either. Many critics thought the film was entertaining, but were disappointed it wasn't nearly as good as the others. The film scored 64 overall and 78% on the tomatometer rating--critics overall didn't rate it very highly, but it got a lot of recommendations all the same. Regardless, 64 and 78% make it a critical success, if only a mild one. The difference with Jedi is that these figures are averages, and so slightly misleading--the film was very polarizing, so while there was lots of positive and lukewarm press, there was also lots of negative press. This extended beyond reviews: Washington Post posted an editorial on May 22, titled "Enough! May the Force Call it Quits!", which ranted about how tiring the series was becoming. The sentiment that the series had now run its course was obvious even in many of the positive reviews.

Between Releases: 1984-1996

As the trilogy came to a close, the 1980s arrived in all its glory: 1984 would see Terminator, Flashdance, Ghostbusters, Beverly Hills Cop and The Karate Kid. The films began to disappear from the public radar. When they were re-released in 1997, the trilogy was beheld slightly differently. How can one track these changes through the fourteen-year absence of the films? Their status becomes apparent in various cultural events in that time, but a more quantifiable way is to study reviews of the films written during this time from movie encyclopedias and guidebooks.

While the series disappeared in the mid-80s, the films were not forgotten. Even in 1987, Mel Brooks lampooned the trilogy in Spaceballs--though critics correctly observed that the film was a few years too late to be especially meaningful, it shows the imprint the Star Wars trilogy continued to leave in American society. That year was the tenth anniversary of the franchise, commemorated with a convention in Los Angeles that attracted thousands of people. Two years later, in 1989, the original film was inaugurated into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, preserving films of significant cultural and historical importance.

During this time, home video and cable television was making significant advances, completely re-orienting distribution approaches to movies. Here, the films continued to be popular--Star Wars was the first VHS to sell $1 million in rentals. An entire generation was growing up watching the films on video, while those who had lived through the theatrical releases continued to enjoy and appreciate them in the comfort of their homes. In 1985, CBS aired the trilogy for the fist time on network TV, a broadcast that was hosted by Mark Hamill himself.

We can study how critics viewed the films, now in a retrospective context, by studying reviews from movie encyclopedias and guidebooks from the 1980s and 1990s, as well as other compilations and reviews from select critics. Guidebooks from the 1980s are rare these days, as libraries routinely replace them with updated ones, but I have obtained a number of ones which allow us to trace from 1985 to 1996. All but one of these use star ratings, providing easier mapping.

I will present below a compilation of the ratings, but I must caution paying too much attention to the stars, as what is said is more salient to the changes in reception the films received. It should be noted that Time-Out Film Guide did not contain star ratings, and so the rating is my own.

Film Guides

Star Wars

Empire

Jedi

Motion Picture Guide 1985

5/5

3.5/5

3.5/5

Time Out Film Guide 1989

4/5

4/5

3/5

The Movie Guide 1992

5/5

4/5

3.5/5

Ultimate Movie Thesaurus 1996

3.5/4=4.5/5

3/4=4/5

3/4=4/5

It is much more revealing to examine what is being said. The first is 1985's Motion Picture Guide, an ambitious twelve-volume encyclopedia set edited by Jay Robert Nash and Stanley Ralph Ross. In their reviews of the films, the picture corresponds very closely to the theatrical reviews.

Star Wars has a lengthy and glowing review, and is awarded 5 stars. It emphasizes the mass-audience appeal: "Lest you fear this is a kiddie picture...be aware that it can be enjoyed by anyone of any age...If you like science fiction, you'll love Star Wars. If you hate science fiction, you'll probably love it even more because you'll have nothing to compare it with."

Their review of Empire, while positive overall at 3.5/5 (a common rating in 1980), echoes the sentiment of its original release when they begin: "Second of the Star Wars trilogy failed to engender excitement, sympathy, or anything near the enthusiasm of the ones that preceeded and followed it." They go on to describe the script as "cardboard" and state it is "a great disappointment for all those who found Star Wars so refreshing." I draw attention to the fact that they state Jedi garnered more enthusiasm and excitement than Empire--which goes contrary to contemporary opinion. Indeed, by my study, Jedi had more 4/5 and 5/5 reviews, though Jedi had a much higher sampling rate. Nash and Ross point the way to the shift that is to come in years to follow--they state of Empire: "Many argue that this was the most mythic of the three, filled with underlying philosophy. We felt it was the weakest." In time, Empire and Jedi would shift positions because of these mythic and philosophical qualities that Jedi lacked in comparison. I would explain this in that viewers who were kids at the time of Empire and Jedi grew to appreciate the former and depreciate the latter as they aged, and watching the film on home video Jedi's flashier effects and better action scenes were less important than the fine acting and complex thematic meaning of Empire, which doesn't diminish on the small screen, and so the film was re-evaluated significantly.

Their review of Return of the Jedi is very critical as well, though they still awarded it 3.5/5, which puts it close to the average (especially the weighted average) of 1983. They write that the film "was the most spectacular of the trio" but felt it lacked the humanity of the previous films, "thus giving us a fabulous picture to look at but seldom involving. What is galling is that several new characters seem to have been introduced for what appears to be the sole purpose of selling toys."

By 1989, however, we begin to see a shift. In the Time-Out Film Guide, editor Tom Milne praises the soap-opera-like melodrama and darker mythic quality of Empire, while admitting that Jedi is a disappointing film by the previous standards that is nonetheless very entertaining to youngsters. This begins to fall more in line with modern opinions.

Milne says Star Wars is a bit vapid (he compares it to a pinball game) but nonetheless spectacular entertainment, and is smart enough to recognize that the films made in the pre-blockbuster-era weren't always as good as we believe they were. He writes, "Star Wars itself has distinct limitations, but the current return to a cinema of spectacle and wonder is wholly encouraging. Or would you prefer The Sound of Music?" Writing about Empire, he states, "the events, recognitions and revelations of the sequel have the rhythm of Soap in 70mm--and we love it, it makes us better people. As it appears the plot is now infinitely extendable, a li'l oedipal confidence works in; there's more passion, more pain and more riddles for this family plot." On Jedi he states that "the old gang are there, older, wiser, and tinnier...But try telling that to the kids and the parents who have come, not to riot, but to wonder."

Moving on, by the time of 1992, when The Movie Guide was published there has been a shifting in opinion. The trilogy faded more and more into a distant memory--and was now regarded as classics. Viewers who were teenagers during the time of the original releases were now entering the media as active content producers as well. Moreover, 1991 had kicked off Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, beginning the Star Wars renaissance that still hasn't let up, even if The Movie Guide must not have been readied in time--nonetheless, the films were about to return to the spotlight. By this point, Pauline Kael, who hated Star Wars, included Empire Strikes Back in her book 5001 Nights at the Movies, from 1991 (revision). She wrote that the film was the best of the three and displayed a skill for performance and filmmaking. Thus, it is no surprise that the films are all rated quite highly in The Movie Guide, higher than the previous two compilations in this study. The next compilation studied, from 1996, would rate them highest of all--there is a distinct, steady rise in their critical popularity.

Significantly, 1992's The Movie Guide, while awarding Star Wars 5 stars, gives Empire 4 stars and opens with: "Considered by many to be the best in the series..." and goes on to comment that the film is "darker, richer and more elaborate." The review of Jedi has 4 stars as well, commenting on technical mastery especially.

The three years since then were monumental shifts in the public world concerning the franchise. The renaissance 1991 instigated continued to rise, espeically between 1993 and 1995, with new toys, comic books and novels going into production, some of the books becoming New York Times Bestsellers. An entire generation of viewers that had laid dormant in the late 80s revealed itself, and new viewers were inaugurated because of the buzz. In this time, Lucas announced he was finally making the long-awaited Star Wars prequel trilogy, breaking a decade-long retirement. In 1995, in addition to re-launching the Kenner toyline, Lucasfilm also re-released the trilogy in a VHS and Laserdisk set that saw 9 million units sold in one week. The films were back in the public consciousness, now as serious classics of the medium.

Thus, it is no surprise that 1996's Ultimate Movie Thesaurus rates the films very highly, higher overall than any of the other publications. Star Wars, unusually, doesn't get 5 stars but 4.5/5 (translated from /4), but the sequels get 4/5 each, together accounting for the highest rating of the trilogy in these compilations. The stage was set for the theatrical re-release the next year.

1997 Re-Release and Beyond

As this is to be an examination of the trilogy from 1977-1983 primarily, I will therefore not spend too much time on the 1997 re-release. Many of the reviews are still online to view yourself. Here the contemporary reputation was cemented: Star Wars, a total classic of American cinema and one of the greatest films of all time; Empire, a more sophisticated and mature film with a greater sense of artistry and the best in the series; Jedi, a disappointing finish that is still nonetheless entertaining and a satisfying capper. Below are ratings of the films taken from metacritic.com and Rotten Tomatoes; these include a few vintage reviews but are mainly based off contemporary reviews from the time of 1997. Empire's rating for metacritic has been altered to include only 1997 material, as every review it had below 80 was from 1980, as has Return of the Jedi's. Rotten Tomato ratings are left as is.

Star Wars

Empire

Jedi

Metacritic

91

94

72

RT Tomatometer

94

97

75

RT Top Critics

88

88

69

In these reviews, Empire has slightly higher scores across the board, as with fans it is considered the best of the three. In his 1997 review, Ebert writes, "Empire Strikes Back is the best of the three films, and the most thought provoking." Jedi still has a comparatively weak rating, but averaging in the low 70s it is by far at the best it has been so far. Box office generally corresponded to a mix of the critical ratings during their original theatrical run and the slight shifts from 1985-1996: that is, Star Wars was at the top, Empire below, and Jedi in third.

It may also be noteworthy to track the films subsequently in "top lists" that seem to be popular through the late 90s and 2000s. While Return of the Jedi occasionally garners honourable mentions on these, it is extremely conspicuous that Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back are often at the very top. In 1998, the American Film Institute voted Star Wars as the fifteenth most important American motion picture of all time. In 2007, AFI had moved it up to number thirteen. In 2001, BBC reported that thousands of voters in a poll run by Channel 4 selected both Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back as the two greatest films of all time. Voters in Total Film magazine voted Empire as the greatest film of all time in 2006, and in 2008, 10,000 readers, 150 industry professionals (such as Sam Mendes and Tarantino) and 50 "key film critics" voted Empire Strikes Back at number 3 in their ambitious "500 Greatest Movies of All Time" feature, with Star Wars (strangely) trailing at number 22, and Return of the Jedi at number 91.

Original Trilogy vs Prequel Trilogy

Finally, in light of all of these stats, it may now be useful to compare the original trilogy during original release to the prequel trilogy for an overall picture of how the Star Wars saga was received in its original run. Of course, the prequels were very controversial, and not reviewed very well--Phantom Menace had the complete opposite situation as Star Wars, as this article shows, with its earliest reviews being the worst and then later reviews more tempered. Attack of the Clones received more enthusiastic reviews because it had the elements Phantom Menace was accused of lacking (more mature themes, the cast as adults, etc.), but it still scored poorly. Revenge of the Sith was received very enthusiastically by some papers, but it too had it's share of terrible reviews, the result being much like Return of the Jedi which averages in between the two polarities. I also offer audience ratings by internet users in the study below.

Below I present the comparison. Rotten Tomatoes' scores for the prequels are taken from its Top Critic filter, as the unfiltered results include many web pages and the like, which isn't a fair comparison--since many of these critics are just internet users with websites, they are accounted for in the audience ratings stats, which are taken from IMDB. IMDB offers 186,000 individual registered votes for Phantom Menace and 302,000 for Star Wars, making this an incredibly wide-reaching survey source. The ratings were out of 10, but I converted them to 100 for ease of comparison. The tomatometer and rating for the original trilogy are my own. The rating for the prequels is taken from Metacritic--their ratings and the tomatometer scores are two different sets of measurements in many ways, RT measuring recommendations, and MC measuring actual ratings. To clarify, I include the unweighted original trilogy measurements only.

Tomatometer

Rating

IMDB

Phantom Menace

39

52

64

Attack of the Clones

38

53

68

Revenge of the Sith

69

68

79

Star Wars

83

82

88

Empire Strikes Back

92

73

88

Return of the Jedi

76

64

83

We see here that only Revenge of the Sith managed to beat the lowest-rated original film, and only by a little bit--in tomatometer score, however, it still ranks lower. The context of these films' release also invite further comment: while Jedi was seen as disappointing because the previous two films were so good, Sith was seen as impressive because the previous two films were so bad. This is not to take away from either of them, but it is an interesting inverse relationship. Also interesting is that IMDB users treat the originals as on generally equal ground, even though the first two films are rated higher; users rated the prequels fairly higher than critics as well.

Conclusion

In summation, I hope that this study has given some insight into the critical reception of the original trilogy. As I mentioned in the introduction of this page, while my figures shouldn't be considered set in stone due to issues of subjectivity and limited sampling (by that token--neither should metacritic.com or Rotten Tomatoes, fraught with the same issues), I believe that they are valid enough to nonetheless provide us with a rough guideline to studying the films as they were received by the media, at the very least in broad terms. This issue has been slightly controversial because of Rotten Tomatoes' 2005 study mentioned previously in this study, but I hope this study has provided clarification and detail beyond that more rudimentary one.

02/01/10

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