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Star Wars reviews: What critics thought of the 1977 film when it was first released

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LucasFilm Ltd./Courtesy Everett Collection

People outside of Disney have finally seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens; if you’re not holed up in a bunker keeping out all news and plot details until Friday, you can check out our compilation of initial reviews here. At a time like this, it’s also fascinating to go back and see what critics said about the original Star Wars when it was released in 1977. 

Many reviewers were overwhelmed by Star Wars’ charms, lavishing particular praise on C3PO, R2-D2, and the iconic Tatooine cantina scene. Others, though, were more skeptical. Joy Gould Boyum of The Wall Street Journal even described it as “a comic book movie.” Little did they know what was to come. 

RELATED: See Decades of Star Wars Mania, Then and Now

See below for more critics’ takes on the first trip to the Star Wars galaxy.

Pauline Kael, The New Yorker: “Star Wars is like getting a box of Cracker Jack which is all prizes. This is the writer-director George Lucas’s own film, subject to no business interference, yet it’s a film that’s totally uninterested in anything that doesn’t connect with the mass audience. There’s no breather in the picture, no lyricism; the only attempt at beauty is in the double sunset. It’s enjoyable on its own terms, but it’s exhausting, too: like taking a pack of kids to the circus. An hour into it, children say that they’re ready to see it again; that’s because it’s an assemblage of spare parts — it has no emotional grip. Star Wars may be the only movie in which the first time around the surprises are reassuring…. It’s an epic without a dream. But it’s probably the absence of wonder that accounts for the film’s special, huge success. The excitement of those who call it the film of the year goes way past nostalgia to the feeling that now is the time to return to childhood.”

Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times: “Star Wars is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions. The golden robot, lion-faced space pilot, and insecure little computer on wheels must have been suggested by the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, and the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz … The hardware is from Flash Gordon out of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the chivalry is from Robin Hood, the heroes are from Westerns and the villains are a cross between Nazis and sorcerers. Star Wars taps the pulp fantasies buried in our memories, and because it’s done so brilliantly, it reactivates old thrills, fears, and exhilarations we thought we’d abandoned when we read our last copy of Amazing Stories.”

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Vincent Canby, The New York Times: “Star Wars, which opened yesterday at the Astor Plaza, Orpheum and other theaters, is the most elaborate, most expensive, most beautiful movie serial ever made. It’s both an apotheosis of Flash Gordon serials and a witty critique that makes associations with a variety of literature that is nothing if not eclectic: Quo Vadis?, Buck Rogers, Ivanhoe, Superman, The Wizard of Oz, The Gospel According to St. Matthew, the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the Round Table … The way definitely not to approach “Star Wars,” though, is to expect a film of cosmic implications or to footnote it with so many references that one anticipates it as if it were a literary duty. It’s fun and funny.”

John Simon, New York Magazine: “Strip Star Wars of its often striking images and its high-falutin scientific jargon, and you get a story, characters, and dialogue of overwhelming banality, without even a ‘future’ cast to them. Human beings, anthropoids, or robots, you could probably find them all, more or less like that, in downtown Los Angeles today. Certainly the mentality and values of the movie can be duplicated in third-rate non-science fiction of any place or period. O dull new world!” 

STAR WARS, (aka STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE), Chewbacca, Harrison Ford, 1977

LucasFilm Ltd./Courtesy Everett Collection

Time Magazine: “A universe of plenty — as audiences can discover beginning this week in Star Wars, a grand and glorious film that may well be the smash hit of 1977, and certainly is the best movie of the year so far. Star Wars is a combination of Flash Gordon, The Wizard of Oz, the Errol Flynn swashbucklers of the ’30s and ’40s and almost every western ever screened — not to mention the Hardy Boys, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and The Faerie Queene. The result is a remarkable confection: a subliminal history of the movies, wrapped in a riveting tale of suspense and adventure, ornamented with some of the most ingenious special effects ever contrived for film. It has no message, no sex and only the merest dollop of blood shed here and there. It’s aimed at kids — the kid in everybody.”

Gene Siskel, The Chicago Tribune: “Star Wars is not a great movie in that it describes the human condition. It simply is a fun picture that will appeal to those who enjoy Buck Rogers-style adventures. What places it a sizable cut about the routine is its spectacular visual effects, the best since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001Star Wars is a battle between good and evil. The bad guys (led by Peter Cushing and an assistant who looks like a black vinyl-coated frog) control the universe with their dreaded Death Star.”

Derek Malcolm, The Guardian: “Viewed dispassionately — and of course that’s desperately difficult at this point in time — Star Wars is not an improvement on Mr Lucas’ previous work, except in box-office terms. It isn’t the best film of the year, it isn’t the best science fiction ever to be translated to the screen, it isn’t a number of other things either that sweating critics have tried to turn it into when faced with finding some plausible explanation for its huge and slightly sinister success considering a contracting market. But it is, on the other hand, enormous and exhilarating fun for those who are prepared to settle down in their seats and let it all wash over them.”

Charles Champlin, The Los Angeles Times: “George Lucas has been conducting a lifelong double affair, embracing the comic strips on the one hand (or with one arm) and the movies on and with the other. Now he has united his loves in Star Wars, the year’s most razzle-dazzling family movie, an exuberant and technically astonishing space adventure in which the galactic tomorrows of Flash Gordon are the setting for conflicts and events that carry the suspiciously but splendidly familiar ring of yesterday’s westerns, as well as yesterday’s Flash Gordon serials. The sidekicks are salty squatty robots instead of leathery old cowpokes who scratch their whiskers and “Aw, shucks” a lot, and the gunfighters square off with laser swords instead of Colt revolvers. But it is all and gloriously one, the mythic and simple world of the good guys vs. the bad guys (identifiable without a scorecard or footnotes), the rustlers and the land grabbers, the old generation saving the young with a last heroic gesture which drives home the messages of courage and conviction.”

Joy Gould Boyum, The Wall Street Journal: “There’s something depressing about seeing all these impressive cinematic gifts and all this extraordinary technological skills lavished on such puerile materials. Perhaps more important is what this seems to accomplish: the canonization of comic book culture which in turn becomes the triumph of the standardized, the simplistic, mass-produced commercial artifacts of our time. It’s the triumph of camp — that sentiment which takes delight in the awful simply because it’s awful. We enjoyed such stuff as children, but one would think there would come a time when we might put away childish things.”

Gary Arnold, The Washington Post: “The movie’s irresistible stylistic charm derives from the fact that Lucas can draw upon a variety of action-movie sources with unfailing deftness and humor. He is in superlative command of his own movie-nurtured fantasy life. In American Graffiti Lucas created the illusion of compressing a time of life and a period of American social history into a single night. In Star Wars he has refurbished stock scenes, conventions and spare parts acquired from a variety of action movie genres, which assume an affectionately parodistic and miraculously fresh configuration.”

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