3, 2, 1, Rip Off!

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'3, 2, 1, Rip Off!' is a review of the first Star Wars film written by Michael Moorcock for the New Statesman magazine in 1977. Moorcock takes an almost wholly negative view of the film, noting the many influences on Star Wars, which he argues George Lucas has mostly failed to properly credit.

Publishing History

  • New Statesman, 94:857. December 16, 1977
  • Into the Media Web, Michael Moorcock, Savoy, 2010, ISBN: 978-0-86130-120-1

Text

Ever since I had heard about it I had looked forward to Star Wars. It was going to be the first unselfconsciously sophisticated ‘space opera’ on film, a mixture of Michael Curtiz’s Errol Flynn pictures and Doctor Who: romance and super-science set in a remote galaxy, when space pirates and evil semi-human forces fought against the background of a luxuriously decadent interstellar empire. The US critics welcomed the film, it seemed, with one voice…

It’s my theory that the success of many films is based squarely on their structural incompetence. The same audience returns again and again only because it is desperate for the promised catharsis it never actually experiences. Certainly Disney films have this quality. Star Wars is very much in the same tradition – part of a tightly controlled marketing operation producing spin-off toys, games, records, calendars, books, comics, clothing, and of course sequels – except that it lacks any of the early Disney’s originality of imagination. Though technically glossy it is fundamentally dull and misconceived.

If 2001 was a dramatized display system given a patina of irony and a mysteriously metaphysical ending out of desperation (I was at the studio when, two years behind schedule, they were still wondering how to end it), then Star Wars is a ramshackle collage of undigested influences which ran out of the director’s control at an early stage. Good directors are reluctant to work on ‘effects’ pictures. Star Wars is not so much a story as a naïve compendium of other people’s images used haphazardly, without grace or wit. It rips off a sub-culture and gives nothing back to it. It is an empty thing.

George Lucas is credited as the film’s sole creator, and the only source he admits is Flash Gordon; but the real sources are much closer to modern Hollywood – the semi-underground West Coast SF comics of the ‘60s and ‘70s, SF magazine illustrations of the same period, and other people’s movies. The work of uncredited artist after uncredited artist is faithfully brought to life on the screen. I recognised Vaughn Bodé (who died recently in his twenties) for his highly personal robots, aliens, backgrounds, compositions and sound effect ‘dialogue’; Howard Chaykin, whose Cody Starbuck is the original – lock, stock and pirate ship – of the hero’s main sidekick, Han Solo; and John Schoenherr for his space-stations and space armour. Other artists whose ideas are used include Emshwiller and Freas – names that mean virtually nothing to the public at large although their work is familiar to anyone who studies those compilations of SF magazine covers appearing everywhere these days.

None of that would matter much if the script and conception (both by Lucas) had an ounce of original flair. The script has one or two good jokes but is otherwise feeble. The film depends entirely on its ‘visuals’ and to me those are breathtaking only because they are so completely second-hand. Lucas isn’t the first to battle effects departments and lose but he is the first to claim so much credit for so little work. He is no Curtiz. He had no suitable actors. The main human characters are mediocre TV smoothies who would look happier in aftershave ads. Guinness and Cushing are wasted. The wide appeal of the film is in its whimsical robots and humanoids, but they are traditional Oz quasi-children, Disney animals. Also notable is the homage to 633 Squadron which takes up so much of the final sequence. Star Wars must be one of the biggest acts of homage to the largest number of unnamed, unpaid people in the history of film-making.

Genre films are bound to contain many similarities of character and plot: Star Wars is the first fully-fledged widescreen space opera so it is not to its discredit that it has echoes of Frank Herbert or Isaac Asimov. What is remarkable, however, is the quality of specific copying and the fact that it is lousy when it doesn’t copy. In all interviews Lucas is cautious about crediting his influences. Indeed, he has denied those that are most obvious. Ironically, Ed Emshwiller is perhaps the best ‘underground’ film-maker as well as being an outstanding SF illustrator. Emshwiller used his SF work to help finance his excellent films (Relativity, Fusion, etc.) which never made him any money. Chaykin could be the unluckiest of all. He took on Star Wars comics to make a living, drawing a debased version of his own original character (from Star*Reach, 1974, and the short-lived Iron Wolf, 1973). Would 20th Century Fox, who are making so much money from the film, hand out a few thousand dollars to the original artists if they knew how much Star Wars owed to their ideas? Probably not. People are always making unjustified claims on successful pictures. One of the few of those artists I know refused to carp for just that reason.

The best villain in the film, Darth Vader, is such an obvious lift from the Ice Warrior in Doctor Who (down to his noisy respirator, unseen face, voice and superhuman strength) that I thought for a moment, when he first appeared, that we were in for a prolonged episode of the Doctor’s adventures. No such luck: Star Wars lacks the humour, the script, the invention, the plot dynamics and the genuine creativity displayed in the best Doctor Who stories. Star Wars loots a form: it is the biggest exploitation movie of them all.