At a 20-year remove, Star Wars comes off less as the work of a wizard than as the weird obsessive outgrowth of an eccentric American primitive. George Lucas is a tycoon version of those self-taught craftsmen who fill back yards, storage rooms, and cramped city apartments with paintings or gewgaws or wire-hanger sculptures. Fine-arts critics have a name for what these characters produce: Their quirky private mythology is called "outsider art." Lucas at his most likable has a strain of the outsider artist in him; when he made Star Wars he was following his own impulses and bucking the studio heads who thought space fantasy and heroic legendry were dead. What's unsettling about Lucas is that his stubborn idiosyncrasies are devoid of anything controversial or outre. He's an outsider with inside intuitions -- he created the new mainstream, and it swamped Hollywood.
If you're not a Star Wars fanatic, and you re-see this movie varnished to a sheen in its self-consciously spiffy new edition, yet stripped of the novelty it had in 1977, you may be amazed that it became a phenomenon. The dialogue is unspeakable (and the befuddled cast can't figure out how to speak it), and there are long chunks of exposition, a white-bread view of the cosmos, desexed schoolboy airs, and monotonous rhythms. The Star Wars of the title have as complicated a back story as the Wars of the Roses, a presumptuous burden considering that all audiences have to know is that Darth Vader (the voice of James Earl Jones) is bad and that Luke Skywalker and friends -- feisty rebel Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), lovable mercenary Han Solo (Harrison Ford), guru Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) -- are good. And though comic-book art usually bursts with adolescent sexuality, even the most striking costume designs seem neutered. (Have a codpiece and metallic pecs ever seemed less suggestive than they are on the Imperial Stormtroopers? And why does Princess Leia dress like a vestal virgin?)
The movie isn't a breakneck adventure either. It's often blamed for the action-blockbuster mentality that's corrupted American moviemaking for two decades, but no studio executive today would green-light such a gassy script. The first hour in particular is heavy lifting, as Darth Vader bullies a horde of forgettable subordinate baddies and Obi-Wan convinces Luke to be all that he can be. The movie's hold relies on Lucas' pulp notions of virtue connecting with America's hunger for an all-purpose, ready-to-wear philosophy. What could be easier to swallow than the beliefs of the Jedi Knights (compacted from cartoons, sci-fi serials, westerns, and swashbucklers, spiked with '60s consciousness-expansion and anthropology)? In spite of the scripture that's grown up around them, their pursuit of positive feeling isn't any more challenging than Green Lantern's faith in willpower. (Lucas and mythologist Joseph Campbell are now intertwined in the public mind; in 1985, Lucas told the National Arts Club that Campbell "has become my Yoda." But Campbell appears only in a footnote in Dale Pollock's 1983 Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, written with Lucas' cooperation. Pollock cites Carlos Castaneda and his Tales of Power as the main source of the movie's mysticism.)
"I am Oz, the Great and Powerful," declared one of Lucas' major influences, the Wizard of Oz. Star Wars alternates between the Not-So-Great and Powerful, but it is intriguing: uninteresting in an interesting way, filled with notions that don't quite crawl to the level of ideas, and moods that rarely acquire the weight of emotion. There is still something enjoyably jolting about seeing "sand people" with eyes that resemble the air jets over airplane seats, or "Jawas" who look like incongruously jolly leprous monks, or a junk heap filled with mutated gadgets, all rolled out with serene matter-of-factness, as if each had an ordained place in the cosmos. And if you're surrounded by hundreds of rapt viewers -- people who've attended the film so many times that they don't clap for the cliffhanger climaxes or laugh at the obvious jokes, but do clap fervently at the end -- you have to grant that Star Wars is a genuine Yankee-tinker oddity. It's a cult movie for a mass viewership. And unlike cults for small-scale movies, the Star Wars cult, like Star Trek's Trekkers, take their preoccupation seriously, as a pop route to transcendence. They turn stick figures into icons and worship the notion of "The Force" -- Lucas' variation on the Eastern concept of a vital energy coursing through the universe, here capable of fueling good or evil depending on how it's shaped by humanity.
As moviemaking, Star Wars is telling evidence of why, after this feature (and his two earlier films, THX 1138 and American Graffiti), Lucas gave up directing. He's far better with concepts -- an android running up against a mammoth animal corpse in a wasteland, a freak summation of a Darwinian environment -- than with flesh-and-blood characters like Luke sitting around the dinner table with his farmer aunt and uncle. And Lucas' fantastic compositional sense is divorced from human drama: He's able to position props (and the characters who might as well be props) as if they were vectors, signifying movement when there isn't any. Yet he can't get a narrative point across without a ton of dead-weight dialogue. Nonetheless, as entrepreneurial invention, the film is flabbergasting. Several times in his career, Lucas has done something most filmmakers do only once -- revive or open up genres or areas of subject matter that other filmmakers go on to mine or vary, perfect or deepen. He did it with pre-'62 growing up in American Graffiti, with globe-trotting adventure in the Indiana Jones series, and with space opera in Star Wars. For my money, no other part of the Star Wars trilogy approaches the second film, The Empire Strikes Back, which was directed by Irvin Kershner. (Empire, and the third entry, the mechanical Return of the Jedi, are also scheduled for deluxe revivals before winter's out.)