Star Wars sucks. There, we said it.

‘Star Wars’ was once lambasted. Now, criticizing it mildly draws vitriol. How did a flawed sci-fi flick become an unassailable cultural force?

Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon and Richard Redditt

Photo illustration by Sarah MacKinnon and Richard Redditt

One day in the 1970s, George Lucas screened a rough cut of his new movie, Star Wars, for his influential Hollywood friends. And almost none of them liked it. The plot seemed incomprehensible, the made-up fantasy names absurd. Director Brian De Palma, who had just had a big hit with Carrie, made fun of everything about the film, including Princess Leia’s hairstyle: “Hey, George, what were those Danish rolls doing in the princess’s ears?”

Almost 40 years later, De Palma is mostly making low-budget movies, and the most-anticipated film of the year is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the first Star Wars movie since Lucas sold the franchise to Disney. In June, Empire magazine published its “500 greatest films of all time” list, chosen by a poll of 250,000 readers; Last year, Empire magazine polled 250,000 readers on the greatest films of all time; the winner was the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, with the original also making the Top 10. You won’t hear people today making fun of Leia’s hair or Luke Skywalker’s disco haircut.

Instead, we have The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams, who quit the Star Trek movies to defect to the franchise he’s always loved more. “Star Wars is probably the most influential film of my generation,” he said in 2006. “Everything that any of us does is somehow directly or indirectly affected by the experience of seeing those first three films.” This would have surprised Alec Guinness, who wrote to a friend from the set of the first movie: “New rubbish dialogue reaches me every day, and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable.”

It would also have surprised earlier generations of critics, who were raising doubts about George Lucas’s talent even before his second trilogy of Star Wars films proved them right. While the first Star Wars got mostly respectful reviews and even an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, the bloom was mostly off the rose by the time The Empire Strikes Back came out. With its heavy tone and the implausible plot twist that the bad guy is the hero’s father, the movie was widely dismissed as a money-making machine that had lost the first film’s charm: “The Force is with us, indeed, and a lot of it is hot air,” wrote the New York Times’ powerful critic, Vincent Canby. “The Empire Strikes Back is about as personal as a Christmas card from a bank.”

By the time Lucas re-released the first Star Wars in 1997, many critics were willing to point out that even the original film didn’t hold up. “What’s stunning is simply how bad it is,” wrote Salon film critic Charles Taylor, while The New Yorker writer John Seabrook suggested it was “a film with comic-book characters, an unbelievable story, no political or social commentary, lousy acting, preposterous dialogue, and a ridiculously simplistic morality. In other words, a bad movie.”

Even if you liked the movies, you might not have liked what they were doing to moviemaking around the world. Alex Leadbeater, editor of the film site What Culture, wrote an article earlier this year on how Star Wars negatively affected cinema. He says it was one of the films, along with  Jaws, that “led to the introduction of the blockbuster model and the weakening of the auteur model,” making studios less willing to take chances on Lucas’s edgier director friends such as De Palma and Martin Scorsese. That’s become such an unpopular sentiment to express, one forgets that mainstream film books used to say the same thing, but more meanly; film critic Glenn Kenny points to Peter Biskind’s book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls as a proponent of what he calls “the ‘Star Wars ruined everything’ line”; the book never misses a chance to portray Lucas as a sellout and Star Wars as a silly children’s film.

Paul Slade/Paris Match/Getty Images.

Paul Slade/Paris Match/Getty Images.

But today, you can barely criticize Star Wars at all. Actor and writer Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) made a mild attempt this year when he argued that Star Wars might have killed off “gritty, amoral art films” and resulted in us “consuming very childish things.” The Internet attacked immediately, with Gawker’s pop-culture site i09 asking, “Is he trolling, or has he really gotten so little out of years of science fiction?”

And don’t even think about an artistic criticism: when Joss Whedon (The Avengers) criticized The Empire Strikes Back for not having a clear ending, his remarks stirred up the kind of Internet outrage usually reserved for people who make racist jokes. There was a time when even fans could be critical; today, the debate is not over whether those first two films are great, but just how great they are.

There has even been a shift in the way fictional characters react to Star Wars. In popular culture, being a fan of the trilogy used to mark a character as being nerdy, even behind the times. On the 1990s sitcom NewsRadio, the lead character (The Kids in the Hall’s Dave Foley) was mocked by the other characters for loving Star Wars. His ability to identify Boba Fett, the intergalactic bounty hunter from The Empire Strikes Back, marked him as having very different interests from everyone around him. Today, Star Wars is used in pop culture in the exact opposite way, as a cultural touchstone almost every sympathetic character loves. Liz Lemon on 30 Rock was a Star Wars fan; so were the characters on How I Met Your Mother (a woman who jilted the hero at the altar was a Star Wars hater). If a character likes Star Wars, you know he or she has good taste.

So what happened to change the way we looked at these movies? Leadbeater, who critizes the franchise’s influence, but admits the first two movies are among his favourites of all time—“I love Star Wars,” he says—thinks the changing reputation of the franchise is partly about generational change: “That shift came when those who grew up with the series came of age. They became a more vocal voice in the media, which shapes perceptions in many ways.” For filmmakers and critics of Lucas’s own generation, the movies were recognizably bigger, more expensive versions of things they had outgrown, like old serials; even the cliffhanger ending of The Empire Strikes Back, now seen as daring, just seemed like a ploy out of a Flash Gordon serial.

Younger critics and filmmakers not only grew up with Star Wars; they are less likely to view this kind of movie as inherently immature. The New Yorker’s Pauline Kael dismissed Lucas as “hooked on the crap of his childhood,” but people used to say the same thing about filmmakers who made Westerns, or samurai movies. An earlier generation of critics—including Vincent Canby—wound up giving more serious consideration to those genres. Today, we’ve done the same for the kid-friendly fantasy of Star Wars or superhero comics.

Lisa Tomasetti/Kobal Collection

Lisa Tomasetti/Kobal Collection

Star Wars is also benefiting from a new trend in pop culture criticism: an increased willingness to like popular things, and hope they’ll turn out well. Entertainment Weekly declared a wave of  “pro-franchise optimism,” and, with Star Wars, in particular, it’s uncool to be too cynical; David Sims of The Atlantic wrote that people who complain about the prequels sound like “bitter Gen X-ers upset that their childhoods are receding further into the distance.” In an era when it’s almost obligatory to praise Beyoncé and other pop entertainers, bashing Star Wars doesn’t make you look refined, as it did in the 1980s.

Besides, there are many other things for critics to bash. Hollywood blockbuster movies have become so big that Lucas’s films seem charming by comparison. “As tent-pole movies have gotten ever more frenetic,” Kenny says, “the near-classical styling of [Star Wars:] A New Hope and the sobriety of Empire look more and more old-school and respectable.” One of the ways Abrams has encouraged fan optimism is to promise that the new film will use less computer-generated imagery than is the norm for modern movies, and more practical effects, miniatures and puppets. Star Wars films were once criticized for their overreliance on special effects; now, they’re from a more artistic and craftsmanlike time.

Could there be another Star Wars backlash? Maybe not. Kenny, who thinks Biskind’s criticisms were overblown, admits: “If you’re a fan of things like non-franchise, non-superhero movies, it’s kind of difficult now not to see Star Wars as a culturally corrosive influence.” But all the things people used to dislike about Lucas’s filmmaking—the New Age faux-religiosity, the overdependence on technology—are now inescapably part of every movie being made for mass audiences. Which means that, even if Star Wars: The Force Awakens disappoints, the original movies will just keep looking better. After all, as Kenny and others point out, Lucas’s visual language and storytelling in Star Wars were inspired by Akira Kurosawa. Today’s blockbusters have the disadvantage of being inspired by George Lucas.

The original version of this article said that The Empire Strikes Back topped Empire‘s “500 greatest films of all time list.” That list was published in 2008 and The Godfather was number one. Thanks to Paul McLeod for pointing out the mistake.


Star Wars sucks. There, we said it.

  1. Wow so you wrote a bad controversial article to boost your views.

    • Hack writers usually do that.

      The story is timeless. It’s resonates with people both young and old. It examines the human condition. And most importantly, it’ll be remembered for hundreds of years with countless new generations discovering it. On the other hand, this guy’s name will be forgotten.

    • What makes it bad, exactly? Seems fairly well written and makes a lot of sense to me.

  2. Canadian Journalists are like buttholes, every planet in the Galactic Empire has em!

  3. Films like Bonnie and Clyde with Warren Beatty and the Godfather are still being made. Films like Pitt in FURY push the genre of war films forward (at least I think so).

    It’s widely understood by academics that Lucas borrowed heavily from Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. The problem is that intellectually, that race has been run. The faux-mysticism and the Hero’s Adventure and other yarns borne from Flash Gordon era really don’t play to modern audiences. My guess as to what Abrams is up to is to frame the defeat of the Empire in the original trilogy as a metaphor for the defeat of Germany in WW1.

    We will get shown in prologue a kind of Space Weimar Germany, with rabid deflation and poverty and the emergence of a charismatic leader who will return the military to a new ascendance. Maybe they will even make the bad guy a failed artist, who wants to exterminate a given race (I vote Gungan) and reforms the military into a conquest vehicle.

    Except here’s the twist: It’s popular. People LIKE the Empire. The intergalactic stock market BOOMS under this regime. Only the old timers (Luke, Leia, Han) see the reformed Empire for what it is: not a restoration of economic growth and prosperity, but as exploitative and ultimately imperialistic. In this way it can kind of be a reflection of the US military industrial complex and Middle America vs. The Hollywood Left. That would be where I would take it.

    Either that or maybe the will throw in a planet that has Spice.

    • That’s not much of a twist. The Third Reich was fairly popular amongst the general public in Germany at the time, the German economy was recovering, etc.

  4. At the heart of it are the insights of Joseph Campbell. Star Wars (the original) was custom-built to mythic structure by Lucas, who had devoured Campbell’s studies of mythology. Whatever other failings the movie, and especially the subsequent movies had, the story was unforgettable. The rest is marketing and nostalgia.

  5. I think this overstates matters. Yes, many critics didn’t like Star Wars when it came out. But what American seventies film had unanimous critical approval? Just to take the example of the most admired American film from that period, critics such as Stanley Kauffmann, John Simon, Dave Kehr and Jonathan Rosenbaum thought little (and still think little) of “The Godfather.” “Taxi Driver” got only two stars (or worse) from Leonard Maltin, the leading movie reference guide. Less obvious choices such as “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” or “Barry Lyndon” hardly got more appreciation. And Macleans will have to live the eternal shame that it thought “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was a better movie than “Days of Heaven.” Looking at theyshootpictures.com top 1000 movies of all time, a list based on the opinions of thousands of critics, and definitely not a simple popularity poll, one finds it at a respectable #111, just behind “Annie Hall” as #2 in movies from “Annie Hall.” It would be hard to argue that the other three Best Picture nominees from that year, “The Goodbye Girl,” “Julia” or “The Turning Point” have held up any better. And arguably the most respected mass motion picture release from that year after those “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” is also not really an improvement. And to think of those 1977 movies that have stood the test of time better, it’s not as if either then or now Macleans or the mainstream media has really appreciated the worth of “Killer of Sheep,” “Eraserhead,” “Providence,” “The Devil Probably,” or “The Ascent.”

  6. It’s interesting that this article mentions Star Wars haters, and how Star Wars haters are sometimes portrayed as nasty people in pop culture. This may in fact be something that pop culture has actually got correct. I cannot speak for everyone else, of course, but in my own personal experience, every single person I have ever met in my life who has hated Star Wars has been a thoroughly nasty, unpleasant person – or at least very, very grim to some significant degree in their likes and interests, and often quite narcissistic and mean. They appear to have remarkably little joy in their lives – if any – and appear closed to so many happy, carefree and imaginative things that children (and adults who are young at heart) effortlessly enjoy.

    And I suppose this makes sense, after a fashion. The original Star Wars trilogy (unaltered) is by far one of the happiest, most imaginatively-intricate, joyous shows I have ever encountered. It literally radiates happiness, innocence and creativity – all things that children possess in great quantities. I suspect that if a person hates Star Wars, they very likely hate joy, as well – they likely hate fun, and innocence, and childhood, and imagination to a very great degree. They also likely hate life. And they likely hate themselves, too.

    Again, I don’t know if all Star Wars haters fall into this catagory. Perhaps not. But probably. All the ones I have ever met certainly do.

    Also I don’t know if Vincent Canby is a fair example of a critic who has impartially reviewed the merits of Star Wars. As noted in the article above, Canby reviewed The Empire Strikes Back negatively – but then Canby has also reviewed a remarkable number of other fun, rather imaginative shows negatively, too – shows that are generally well-liked by both other critics and audiences alike; shows such as Rocky, Return of the Jedi, Patton, Night of the Living Dead, Once Upon a Time in America, A Christmas Story, Witness, The Natural, Rain Man, The Exorcist, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Deliverance, The Godfather Part II and Alien. Had Canby not decided to turn to critiquing theatre productions rather than films, I suspect he would probably have given Lord Of The Rings a bad review, too – it just seems to be his style. So I don’t know about him.

    As far as Star Wars being art goes, I can say beyond question that it is indeed art of a quite extraordinary nature. Star Wars inspired me to become a horror writer. I bet that’s a sentiment people don’t hear everyday. The very best of horror-writing is astonishing creative, inventive and original – such as in the works of author Clive Barker, in his extraordinary Books of Blood, and in his movie Hellraiser – and these are all qualities and interests I formed as a child while watching Star Wars. If something hits just the right notes of being intricate, imaginative, bizarre and beautiful, it exerts a powerful fascination over me. This is a quality I received entirely from Star Wars.

    Star Wars also inspired me to become a philosopher of logic, as well; another no doubt surprising thing. At first glance, philosophy/logic and Star Wars appear to have little in common, but they do; both are astoundingly intricate, imaginative, weird and beautiful; and although philosophy is often dry and very difficult to read and to think about (philosophy books containing some of the dullest, driest academic writing on Earth), the ideas contained therein are often the purest magic, containing untold treasures of beauty, deep intellect, and wonder. There is nothing more twisted and bent than pure human logic, nothing more bizarre and glorious, and Star Wars equipped me with the necessary mental resources in order to see it.

    Indeed, based on the fact that Star Wars has been able to provoke such diverging and wide-ranging responses to it in my life alone, I can unquestionably say that it is art of the very highest quality – for only the greatest of art can produce such multifarious and varied responses to it, within those who observe it.

    And as for those who do not care for Star Wars, well…all I can say is what philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said, about people who are not interested in why the world exists.

    Schopenhauer once wrote that “The lower a man is in an intellectual respect, the less puzzling and mysterious existence itself is to him.” In other words, the less intelligent a person is, the less interested they will be in why there is something instead of nothing at all. Such people tend not to be very interested in questions such as “What actually IS existence?” and “Why does nature somehow prefer the existence of ANYTHING to sheer nothingness?”

    Schopenhauer though that to be uninterested in why there is Something rather than Nothing was a sign of mental deficiency, or of a mental disorder. And while it is questionable as to whether he was right, I’ve found that this generally seems to be the case.

    And a similar thing in the case of Star Wars; those who cannot enjoy imaginative, happy flights of fancy like this very likely suffer from some kind of mental disorder; something that stops them from being able to enjoy happy things in life; there are numerous mental disorders of this nature. Quite a few people I have met who do not care for Star Wars also seem to be remarkably boring individuals, without much interest in much of anything that generally intrigues other people – symptoms of a condition called Anhedonia, where a person literally cannot feel much joy or passion for most things, at least not very deeply. I expect such a person might have a very difficult time enjoying Star Wars, since it is such a passionate, exuberant show. This is not meant as a criticism, merely as an observation.

    • Angelle, now that’s a stretch wrapping up one’s opinion of a movie in Schopenhauer analysis is a bit much. One doesn’t have to hate a movie to hold a negative opinion. That’s the problem with Star Wars stuff – there is entirely too much read into it. I studied the Golden Bough before many on this thread had ever heard of it and it is going way to far to infer that somehow such a view of mythology inspired Lucas to make this movie. Probably he wanted something way out – ‘way outer’ than Star Trek or the movie 2001 where the mystery of the slab invoked much of the same kind of mysticism. But then came 2010 where the writer blew the mysticism thing.

    • Look, I’m often in the same boat as you. I really like a movie/TV show/book, someone else says they don’t, and for some reason it really gets to me. I know how it feels. But you have to put your grown-up pants on and not say that everyone who doesn’t like the thing you like is a joyless drone with a mental disorder.

    • I disagree. I use to be a star wars fan, I liked the geeky things. But I find now I no longer get the enjoyment out of them. So you call me or consider me a nasty person that gets no joy out of life. Uh yeah, a guy with an anime avatar that can’t get enough of Japanese cartoons. So my question is what’s really changed? What happened that sucked the fun out of these simple pleasures that I seek my simple pleasures elsewhere?

  7. first off, let me commend you for writing an article that compelled me to create an account just to post a comment. i also want to commend you on writing an article that undoubtedly brought in more hits than you’re accustomed to (albeit, all the hits are coming from annoyed star wars fans).
    now, (as you probably are already aware of) this article is terribly one sided, and obviously biased. star wars no doubt has flaws, but to say it sucks comes off as more childish than you try to make star wars out to be.
    i am now realizing i am taking this far too seriously and don’t have it in me to continue responding to this in such a formal manner.
    so star wars are some of my all time favorite films. i am certainly not alone in this. considering a film to be either good or bad is not a matter of universal truth, as most persons have unique tastes in film. star wars may not be regarded as the best film(s) but it is nearly (if not actually) the most loved.
    i dont know. i lost interest in writing this fairly early on… but, to sum it all up, you suck as a person for writing this click-bait nonsense, there i said it.

    • Look, I’m just an old peasant and am neither an art, movie or any other kind of critic. Like art, I know what I like and if I like it I’ll buy it if I can afford it and maybe hang it until it bores me to tears. Some I really like and it is still hanging. Same with movies. I am still buying old DVDs of films that are virtually out of print and most of the actors dead. I’d never buy Star Wars!. As for literature, if it isn’t available on Kindle (preferably free), forget about it.

      And after the first Star wars flick, I thought, “either I am nuts or they are.” As a matter of curiosity I saw the following ones as well. Perhaps the later generations hunger for some sort of hidden truth but I find all of these films rather stupid, unreal technologically, unrelated to human experience as universals but appealing to upcoming generations because it is theirs, not ours.

      So my own summary is that the plots are infantile, the technology unbelievable, and the fantasy hopeless. Some the aerial fighting is really like WWI or II “pursuit” planes but the physics doesn’t compute. Someone mentioned about finding “life experiences”. Well, I don’t know what world they live in but it’s not one I know. One good thing about them, the actors are good. If they understood what they are supposed to be representing then it would be better. Alex Guinness said it all in that respect. And at the article suggests, Star Wars Sucks. If I’m going to be infantile, give me Star Trek any day!

  8. I have read many times that Lucas made these movies for children. If I remember right, he said he wanted to show children the fight between good and evil that is in the world. I think he did a wonderful job at that and also made it entertaining for adults. Why do I love the Star Wars movies so much? I’m not sure, it had a lot to do with admiring heroism, love and good triumphing over evil.

    The most surprising moment for me in all the films was when Darth Vader first showed signs of his character changing. When he slumped down a bit after Luke tried to talk to him about what was right to do, I was shocked. It never occurred to me Lucas would show the redemption of the big, bad guy. I thought that was fantastic. I know a lot of the dialog was corny; it’s the story itself that is moving. The Empire is so vast and evil, what can a small number of people do to vanquish it?

  9. I felt compelled to comment on this article when I saw it through MSN.

    I laughed out loud. BUT, not as loud as those who are laughing all the way to the bank, I imagine.

    Not a bad title though, all the same. It is right up there with all of that irresistible-to-click “You wouldn’t believe what happened when….” or “I almost cried when I saw this…..” clutter.

    Also, when I visited Macleans .ca (Good job in getting me here! I have never visited since I could no longer bring myself to read the hard copy magazine), I typed the exact name of the article into your search engine. It came up with NOTHING close. I had to find it using the list of authors. To be honest, that did not make me laugh. Or anything else for that matter. I’d advise your techs about it though.

    By the way, while the article did the intended trick and got me to take a quick scan for something else to keep me here for your advertising customers……I left.

  10. New York Times’ critic Vincent Canby sucks, much like most “progressive” minded film critics and journalists.

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  12. Well what went wrong? I used to be a fan, yeah I got the junk. And now I hate it, I hate star wars, star trek and superhero movies. Why? what’s changed? Don’t tell me I’ve out grown franchise things, you can see my av. Frankly, I’ve grown to hate nearly everything hollywood dumps out.

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