If you haven’t already, follow Mike Klimo (@MikeKlimo), author of “Star Wars: The Ring Theory,” on Twitter. One of the things he’s been doing lately is posting excerpts of not-so-fawning reviews and essays about ANH, TESB, and ROTJ.
A lot of what he has posted is familiar to me. As a little kid, I didn’t read movie reviews and when TESB came out, I’d only read the local paper’s review (The Miami Herald) which was basically a three-star review. When ROTJ was released, I was exposed to more reviews and it was only then that I was aware of a critical/media backlash. I remember sitting there plowing through breakfast before school and booing the t.v. as Gene Shalit ripped on the film on the “Today” show. I remember reading that summer in South Florida magazine or some such a really nasty essay that took no prisoners. My suspicions at the time were that these people were cranks, they were jealous and resented the saga’s success, and they were quite possibly a bunch of no-good Commies.
When I was in college, I would hang around the huge library between classes where it was more convenient to wait than to hike all of the way back to the dorm and then having to hike all of the way back to the main part of campus an hour later. So I would do stuff like look up old articles and reviews of the saga in various publication collections and even on microfilm. Hey, I was just maintaining my research skills! I was shocked to discover it wasn’t just a small group of cranks who had decided to gang up on ROTJ because Star Wars had become too popular. There were people who never liked ANY of the films. Even the positive reviews rarely if ever had anything good to say about performances beyond that of Sir Alec Guinness. A lot of them went along the lines of, “In spite of the corny dialogue and stiff acting, (insert title) was a fun time at the matinee!” The visual effects easily got far more praise than any of the acting, direction, or dialogue.
It was the beginning of the realization that Star Wars had always been regarded very differently from other “serious cinema” with the rare exception of populist movie critics like Roger Ebert and whatever value many critics found in ANH it seemed to have worn thin with TESB and ROTJ. I’d even go as far to say many critics didn’t get into Star Wars the way many audiences did. It was rare to find genuine affection for the characters or appreciation for the films’ mythic cycle. I remember one guy writing that he was glad to finally be rid of that “whiny Luke, smarmy Han, and bitchy Leia.” Ouch! I also do not recall a single critic considering TESB the best of the series.
When someone comes along with something new, different, refreshing, unique, etc., it seems to me the critics and the media just love it. Then it becomes phenomenally successful and every follow up is either unfairly measured against the effect of its predecessor or viewed as cynical cash grab. Then they start to question why it was ever a phenomenon in the first place, taking the position it never deserved that kind of success. It seems to me Star Wars has long since fallen victim to that way of thinking, years before the prequels ever came out. What happened was in the ‘90s with Gen X-ers becoming more prominent in the media, the advent of the internet, and the growth of “geek culture,” Eps IV-VI finally got put on the critical pedestal. Especially TESB. People who had loved the movies almost unconditionally as kids took them much more seriously and there was finally an appreciation for what they had accomplished. Maybe it wasn’t universal, not even by the time the Special Editions came out, but the turnaround in critical opinion was thrilling to me at the time.
Unfortunately that pedestal was a little too high and that definitely contributed to the inflated expectations heaped upon the prequels, which couldn’t live up to the legend these guys had built up around the first set of films. Strangely enough, virtually every criticism ever leveled at ANH, TESB, and ROTJ was again leveled at TPM, AOTC, and ROTS. It’s as though this new generation of fans, geeks, and critics turned into the ones of old without their realizing it, only they were far less literate than their predecessors.