Star Wars, Annie Hall, Wizards
• Behold, I bring you tidings of great joy, which shall be unto all science fiction fans. Yea, the millennium hath arrived, and we can only pay humble thanks to George Lucas for making it so.
But even if you're not a "fan," STAR WARS is for you. It's for everybody. It's one of the best damned adventure movies of all time, quite aside from being a breakthrough for a genre that has long suffered from shallow or unsympathetic treatment on the screen.
Star Wars is full of action and adventure—but not the mindless sort done to death on Space: 1999. It has all the spectacular special effects of 2001, but none of the Kubrickian philosophy which turned that space odyssey into antiscience fiction. It has inhuman aliens and otherworldly beasts, but as part of the natural background—not as monster movie menaces.
Above all, Star Wars is a movie that believes in itself. Extravagant space opera it may be, but the stars all play their roles straight, from Alec Guinness as the old warrior and David Prowse as his evil nemesis to the lesser known Mark Hamill as the young hero, Carrie Fisher as the kidnapped princess and Harrison Ford as a cynical freighter captain. Humor there is, but not a trace of camp or cynicism.
Lucas, who wrote the screenplay as well as directing it, is reported to be an old-time sf fan himself—and the design of the film shows his familiarity with both the genre and classic cinema. The impersonal white armor of the Galactic Empire troops, for example—how science fictional, yet how reminiscent of the Teutonic Knights in Eisenstein's Alexander Nevsky.
Star Wars makes the best of special effects—and even of their limitations. Mechanical monsters are hard to make convincing, for example, but the huge, slow-moving banthas are just the thing—you expect animals that big to be sluggish. The Death Star, a huge space station capable of destroying entire planets, looks all too real. But, to Lucas' credit, so do the less overtly spectacular scenes—such as Hamill as Luke Skywalker, gazing wistfully into the double sunset of his desert homeworld.
Lucas' space opera breathes the essential spirit of science fiction, not only in conveying a sense of the vastness of space and time, but in its respect for intelligence—in whatever form. Skywalker's allies in his quest to save the Galaxy from the Death Star and the tyrants who wield it include the alien Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and robots C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). Vicious aliens and mad robots we have had aplenty in films, but here even the nonhuman villains are defined by behavior, not appearance.
One can raise minor quibbles—Lucas' planets and spaceships don't explode the way things really explode in a vacuum, and his space fighters and their tactics too much resemble those of Earthly jets. And you hear a lot that can be justified only by dramatic license.
But Star Wars is such an accomplishment in its total impact that such quibbles seem pointless. You've seen dozens of movies pretending to be classic science fiction—now go out and see the real thing.
—John J. Pierce
• Toward the end of Chaplin's City Lights, there is a moment in which the blind girl Chaplin loves has her sight finally restored; the little tramp has dreaded this moment, because he feels that he is so inferior that if she could ever see his face she would shun him forever, and that the only thing that saved him was her blindness. So when her sight is restored he tries to avoid her; but she seeks him out and sees him before he knows she is there. When he becomes aware of her presence, and that she is seeing him but still smiling radiantly, he first tries to hide, thinking there must be some mistake; then he is dumbfounded and unbelieving; and then his disbelief turns into delight followed by pure ecstasy as he realizes that she has seen him with all his weaknesses and still cares for him. It is one of the unforgettable moments in the history of film; and it illustrates the point that humor, as opposed to comedy, is always trembling on the edge of tragedy.
Woody Allen's previous films have been (or should one say, attempted to be) comic rather than humorous by the above distinction. In my opinion none of them succeeded very well; unlike Chaplin or Keaton or Laurel and Hardy, where the laughter was always spontaneous, Allen seems always to be straining for effect. One laughs, if at all, because one is expected to at this juncture—it is always more contrived than spontaneous. But in the promotional material for ANNIE HALL we were promised "a new Woody Allen," with genuine humor and high seriousness rather than just clever comic effects.
Although this film is better than Allen's previous ones, the promise is not fulfilled. Almost all of the comedy is verbal: some of the lines (puns, double entendre) are clever, but the comic effect passes instantly and never builds. There is almost none of the humor of visual action that one finds in Chaplin and Keaton. There even seems to be some conscious imitation of Chaplin (the insecure little man flanked by two large simians), but this only reminds one of how infinitely more subtle and multi-textured Chaplin's situations are. In Allen it is the dialogue that is funny, seldom the actions or actors themselves. There may be a comic element in the situation of the wacky little man meeting an equally wacky girl, each with a different screw loose, but even that doesn't succeed in being very funny. (He: Do you care to ride with me? She: Oh, do you have a car? He: No, I was going to take a taxi. She: Do you want to ride with me then? He: Oh, do you have a car? She: Of course. He: Well why did you ask me for a ride then? She: I don't know.…)
There is an odd mixture of (attempted) comic lines with passing remarks about death, God, psychoanalysis, and the human condition—the stereotypical "New York liberal" syndrome which seems to (but does not) lend the film an air of profundity and seriousness. Nowhere do the ingredients combine to form anything like the tragi-comedy that emerges in Chaplin. There is a somewhat moving moment when Allen is out with a new girl friend pulling the same silly lines on her as he did on the girl he's trying to forget, and the new one doesn't get the point—she takes him literally and he realizes how much he has lost in his earlier wacky partner; and another at the end when we get a montage of scenes bringing home (not very subtly) the emotional impact of an extended close relationship that has ended badly. But there is no coherent mood to this film, and no build-up to anything in particular. One would do better to see again Chaplin's The Great Dictator or Keaton's The General, or perhaps Limelight which features them both, and then wonder all over again whether anything worthwhile in the field of cinematic humor has emerged since that time.
• Feature-length cartoons have occasionally been successful when done by Walt Disney, especially in imaginative fantasies in which individual characterizations are interestingly and sharply etched, as in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. But it takes considerable skill and tenacity to sustain the interest in animated characters throughout a full- length film; much more satisfying on the whole are shorter cartoons, such as (perhaps the best one Disney ever did) the translation into film-cartoon of the Hans Christian Andersen story The Ugly Duckling.
Cartoons that try for political significance and succeed are few and far between. Gulliver's Travels became tolerable children's entertainment by following Swift's story line and forsaking the deeper political and social significance it had in Swift's book. A powerful full-length political cartoon was George Orwell's Animal Farm—and only a cartoon could have succeeded in this case. By comparison with that achievement, however, the new attempt, WIZARDS, is a dismal failure. It is yet another attempt to depict the "war is hell" theme, set in a world many millennia in the future, after an atomic holocaust has decimated the human race. Once again there are contending parties ravishing the earth through war.
There are occasional attempts at psychological subtleties, but since no ability is displayed in getting us to identify with any of the characters, these attempts will elude children entirely and confuse the adults who made the mistake of accompanying the children to see this film. The plot becomes so confused, or at least confusing, that after a while one no longer cares who is doing what to whom or why, and at last one settles down and absorbs the only aspect of the film that rewards the effort, the visual effects. Some of the colors and shapes would be pleasing to the eyes if one could contemplate them as still pictures.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".