Tim de Lisle on the Star Wars franchise

As the world braces itself for a new bout of Star Wars fever with Revenge of the Sith, Tim de Lisle offers 40 reasons why the franchise hails from the dark side

1) The sheer length

A long time ago, in a Hollywood far, far away, sequels were not taken seriously. After striking gold with Jaws, George Lucas's friend Steven Spielberg didn't bother making Jaws 2 - he moved on to Close Encounters. Star Wars is the only major motion picture ever to have generated two sequels and three prequels (Star Trek IV doesn't count). Lucas, who swore for years that he would not add to the original trilogy, can't even stop now: last month he announced plans to extend Clone Wars, the television cartoon version of the saga. In space, no one can hear you screaming for less.

2) The sheer size

Star Wars movies can be a critical flop, as the last two instalments have shown. What they cannot be is a non-event. Revenge of the Sith may be rubbish, but it will still be big. Its success is a self-fulfilling prophecy - it has already been massively marketed, merchandised, cross-promoted and pre-publicised. The first film was a surprise hit; the rest have been sledgehammers. Over the past generation, the media's coverage of pop culture has swung from detachment to hype, from appraisal to cheerleading. The media have fragmented into a thousand little bits, and most of those bits want a piece of something as big as Star Wars. There are still many excellent critics, but their voices don't ring out in the same way. They can make a small film, like Sideways, but they can't break a blockbuster. There has been a kind of climate change, and the role of Esso, not the only culprit but a major one, has gone to Star Wars.

3) The woodenness

In the first film, Lucas imagined, and shakily realised, a galaxy made of rock, sand, plastic and metal. Nothing was wooden - except the dialogue. The characters in the first film don't so much hold conversations as stand there like cavemen, lobbing chunks of monologue at each other. As Harrison Ford said to Lucas in a moment of majestic exasperation: "You can type this shit, George, but you sure can't say it."

The first plausible exchange in the sequence comes some way into The Empire Strikes Back, when the superfluous verbiage melts in the face of the steam rising between Ford and Carrie Fisher, or perhaps Lucas's sheer ignorance of human relationships. At moments like this, Ford turned into an unofficial script doctor, notably when Leia tells him she loves him (as you do, seeing someone you've got the hots for about to be frozen in carbonite). In the script, Han replied "I love you too," which was both predictable and implausible - he's supposed to be a bastard, albeit one slowly disclosing a heart of gold. Ford changed it to "I know," which is smug and shallow, but at least in character and free from monosodium glutamate.

The irony is that a really gifted writer was right there on set. Carrie Fisher went on to write several memoirs that showed a sharp wit, an ear for language and an eye for the absurd. Only one of these qualities can have been learnt from her time on Star Wars.

4) The ramifications

As the director Paul Schrader said to the film historian Peter Biskind: "Star Wars was the film that ate the heart and soul of Hollywood. It created the big-budget comic-book mentality."

5) The view from there

In his memoirs, Alec Guinness describes going to church one Sunday after becoming a god-like figure to a generation of children as Obi-Wan Kenobi. He is tapped on the shoulder by a woman who has her son with her, asking for an autograph. With the dignity of a double knight, he makes them wait until after the service. The mother proudly tells him that her son has seen Star Wars many times. Guinness gives the autograph on one condition: "That you never watch that awful film again."

6) The chromosomes

The heroes are male, apart from Leia and Padme, who are royal and arguably token. The villains are male. The droids are transparently male. The teachers are male. The fans are nearly all male. The crew is nearly all male. The whole milieu - speed, war, guns, DIY - is male. Attack of the clones? It's just a bad case of the blokes.

7) The meals

The meals are one of the blokiest things about the original trilogy. From the moment Luke's home is blown up, there aren't any. In space, no one can hear your tummy rumble.

8) The hollow centre

Star Wars was "a conscious attempt at creating new myths," Lucas said. So how do his stories and characters stand up against, say, those of Homer? It would be harsh, and hard, to pit five movies against 24 books of epic poetry, but there's a realistic yardstick available in the shape of last year's attempt to do Troy the blockbuster. Troy was widely regarded as a thin and patchy version of The Iliad, but it is more involving than any of the Star Wars films. When Achilles kills Hector, you can feel it hitting the audience hard. The first wince on that scale in Star Wars comes (look away now if you haven't seen The Empire Strikes Back) when Darth Vader slices off Luke Skywalker's hand. And the hand is duly mended. If Achilles had been dreamt up by George Lucas, he could have taken his injured heel to C-3PO, who would have fixed it in no time. Star Wars has assumed a myth-like place in contemporary American culture, but it lacks the edge, the depth and the resonance of the real thing. Its most mythical moment is when Darth Vader says to Luke Skywalker, "I am your father" - which is borrowed from Sophocles. Bland and calculating, Star Wars is a McMyth.

9) The arsenal

Lucas did well with the lightsabers, which are electronic epees, both retro and futuristic. But the guns are feeble. A popgun with a red light coming out of it is still a popgun.

10) The thing Yoda does

The font of all wisdom, the teachers' teacher, is Yoda, a big eared, green skinned, 900-year-old elf. A problem with the English language has he. Plonking platitudes he generally utters. Spot this in case we, an amusing quirk he has been given. Sentences he chops in half! Then back together puts! The way round wrong! "The Force I sense in you," says he. "Teach you more, I can." Later, himself he excels: "Hard to see the Dark Side is." It was impossible to imagine a more irritating character - but Lucas managed it (see 27).

11) The imperialism

Chichester, last Sunday: a very English town centre. At Tesco, Sainsbury's, Waitrose and Iceland, Darth Vader is on the Corn Flakes ("FREE INSIDE: lightsaber maze") and the Frosties bars ("FREE INSIDE: sticker dispenser"). At WH Smith, there are books, sticker albums, and three film magazines: Empire has Vader on "the world's first breathing cover", Total Film has a special supplement, and Premiere promises a "Star Wars blowout!". At Clintons' cards, there are four giant posters for £3.99 each, one "exclusive to Clintons".

At Woolworths, there's one Star Wars section by the door, and another in the toy department, with lightsabers from Basic (£7.99) to Electronic (£19.99), stacks of Star Wars Lego, Darth Vader pyjamas (£9.99, possibly not the most restful bedwear for a small boy) and Revenge of the Sith Y-fronts (five for £5.99) and boxers (two for £4.99). Hearteningly, nobody is buying any of them, although the Lego looks perfectly wholesome.

Lucas was canny about merchandising from the start. He retained the rights where normally they would have gone to the studio, 20th Century Fox. So far, the merchandising has turned over an estimated $9bn, although Lucas protests that only "2-3% goes back to the film-makers". It's about infiltration as much as cash. All along, Lucas has wanted more than just to be at your local cinema and in the window of the video store. He wants to be part of the fabric of your day, from breakfast to bed. And we have allowed him to be.

12) The marketing drivel

The biggest plug of all in the high street is at Orange, the phone company. Darth Vader looms out of the window. Inside is loads of guff. "Enjoy exclusive access to Star Wars Episode III with Orange ... personalise your Orange phone with our hyper-galactic range of exclusive Star Wars mobile content and features." This isn't personalising your phone: it's commercialising your life.

13) The acceptable face

One piece of this year's merchandising has the wit and charm that the rest lacks. It's Darth Tater - Mr Potato Head meets Darth Vader. At Woolies, it's sold out. If only Lucas could have found him a role in the films.

14) The control-freakery

George Lucas didn't get where he is today without certain controlling tendencies. The latest example comes in the novelisation of the new film. The first surprise is that it's in hardback. The second is that the author, a sci-fi novelist named Matthew Stover, dedicates the book not to his wife, his parents or his kids, but to George Lucas. Turn back a page or two and you find the copyright line: © Lucasfilm. The dedicatee is the owner. Somehow it spoils the effect.

15) The target market

When Lucas started work on the script, in 1972, he was aiming at 10- to 12-year-olds, but by the time he finished, two-and-a-half years later, he referred to it being for eight-to-nines. So the process of writing had infantilised it, something it in turn would inflict on entire generations. The adult viewer, coming to it late, wants to go up to Lucas and yell at him like Woody yelling at Buzz in Toy Story: "You. Are. A. Children's Entertainer!"

16) The collateral damage

In 1999, as The Phantom Menace loomed, a deal was done with the British publisher Dorling Kindersley to produce spin-off books with subtitles like A Visual Dictionary. Dorling Kindersley ordered 13m books. They sold 3m. Their profits turned to £25m losses, the chief executive resigned, the share price collapsed, the board admitted to a "seriously misjudged over-investment", and the company was taken over by Penguin. The billion-dollar turkey had managed to bring down the Platonic ideal of the children's publisher.

17) The snobbery

At first the Force is open to all: Luke is told he just has it. Then it turns out to be hereditary. Darth Vader is increasingly addressed as "Lord Vader". In the prequels, the air is as thick with honorifics as it is with CGI creatures. Lucas delved deep into his imagination and came out with ... Debrett's in space.

18) The prudishness

As Carrie Fisher trotted along the corridors of spaceships in her Snow White outfit, her breasts bounced. It was too much for the crew, who insisted that she restrain them with gaffer tape. This was 1977, the year of Studio 54 and Saturday Night Fever. Hollywood had spent the past decade breaking free from the straitjacket of American puritanism. Lucas, pottering away in his shed with his tool kit, was putting it back together.

19) The leaden Tin Man

Lucas could have done anything he liked when he dreamt up the android C-3PO. In a classic example of how people faced with unlimited choice tend to make bad ones, he opted for a garrulous, stagey, servile prig, who may be encased in shiny metal but still manages to come over as the person he is underneath - an English actor.

20) The pitch for the Sith

At the ShoWest convention in Las Vegas in March, Lucas accepted the galactic achievement award and gave cinema owners a glimpse of the new film. "It's not like the first one," he told them. "It's more emotional. I describe it as a Titanic in space. It's a real tearjerker, and it will be received in a way that none of us can expect." So the old Lucas logic is still in good order: we can expect something none of us can expect. And he just happens to liken his new baby to the most lucrative movie ever made.

21) The Oscars

The original Star Wars won six - technical, but still, six - Oscars. This year The Incredibles, another children's blockbuster but sharper, wittier, more human and more original, won only two.

22) The lost plot

In 1999, after a 16 year break, Star Wars returned with The Phantom Menace. And the first thing viewers saw was this, at the top of the scroll: "Turmoil has engulfed the Galactic Republic. The taxation of trade routes to outlying star systems is in dispute." An argument about tax: it was just the kind of thing people go to the cinema to escape. As inciting incidents go, this has to be the dullest ever.

23) The crawling

Among the thousands of Star Wars websites twinkling away in cyberspace is a new one: thankyougeorge.com, launched to let the fans "thank the maker" for his efforts. Anyone can send a message "free of charge", although the Thank You George! T-shirts are $12. First in line was old Luke Skywalker himself, Mark Hamill, now 54: "I would like to thank George Lucas," he wrote, "for rekindling the childhood imaginations of those of all ages, and for showing us that artistry and integrity are not mutually exclusive." Hmmm. The obvious riposte would be a rival site called darnyougeorge.com. The name is still available.

24) The lack of humanity

Lucas says Revenge of the Sith will be "more emotional" than its predecessors. That won't be hard. Even Tom Shone, who mounts a case for the defence in his book, Blockbuster, conceded: "People were always a weak point." Anthony Lane nailed it in a memorable New Yorker review: "A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, people made movies with people in them, and some of those movies made sense. Then something happened, and the people started to vanish from the movies, along with most of the sense. For a while, the spectacle was fun to observe, but slowly the pictures tipped into insanity, or at any rate into the hypnotically bad. The joke was that the number of viewers willing to submit to such hypnosis went not down but through the roof. Historians . . . are now agreed that the change became irrevocable shortly before the end of the second millennium, with a George Lucas film entitled Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace."

25) The elegant variation

Elegant variation, a phrase loaded with irony, is that thing sports reporters do when they've just mentioned someone by name and don't want to do it again, so Wayne Rooney turns into "the Manchester United striker", "the temperamental wonder-boy", etc. At StarWars.com, they find themselves mentioning George Lucas rather a lot, so at second mention he is liable to become "the man whose ideas would change film-making forever".

26) The cyber-reach

Lucas has never made the mistake of saying that he is bigger than Jesus, but the internet has come along to say it for him. If you Google "The Bible", you get 11.5m links. "Jesus Christ" gets 8.1m. Star Wars beats them both put together, with 25.2m. It isn't as big as God (72.2m), but then He's been around for a lot longer.

27) The black sheep

With Leia and Luke, R2 and "Threepio", Lucas showed that he could devise characters millions of people would like. Twenty years later, with Jar Jar Binks, he came up with one that those same millions couldn't stand. Cloying, shrieky, barely audible, a gangling exhibitionist goat with an attention-deficit disorder, Jar Jar is a bigger bore than the tax dispute. "But children like him," Lucas protested. Maybe some did, but the trick is to come up with characters for children that don't make adults feel sick, and even give them laughs on a level that goes over the kids' heads. Jar Jar's humour is beneath the kids.

28) The inflated reputation

Phantom Menace isn't just bad, it's epically, laughably, staggeringly bad. But it received quite a few good reviews ("Captivating" - New York Post, "An astonishing achievement in imaginative film-making" - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times). Star Wars itself is similarly over-rated. In 1999, 162,000 British film fans voted in a poll to name the best picture of all time. The winner, with more than a third of the vote, was Star Wars. Second was Titanic. You can argue that Star Wars is very good at what it does (just), but you can't, with a straight face, make out that it is better than all the serious films ever made. As Lord Attenborough said when asked for comment: "The emphasis on that somewhat bedraggled word entertainment is enormous."

29) The fans

Revenge of the Sith opens on May 19. The queue outside Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood began on April 2. By April 7, the queuers had been told the film won't be shown there. They refused to believe this and carried on queuing.

30) The arrogance

Some of the acting is so stagey, today's audience takes it as camp. In 1999, an interviewer made this point to Lucas. He didn't like it all. "It's not deliberately camp. The film is based on a Saturday-matinee serial from the 1930s, so the acting style is very 1930s, very theatrical, very old-fashioned. People take it different ways, depending on their sophistication ... Cinema has only been around for 100 years or so - not long enough for people to really understand it." Up to a point, Lord Vader.

31) The ramifications II: Noise

Much of Star Wars' impact lay in its soundtrack. Lucas insisted that it should use Dolby Stereo throughout, which set a trend. Cinema sound became sharper, brighter, and much, much louder.

32) The politics

It all starts as The Rebellion v the Evil Empire, the little guy taking on the big machine - although, if you listen closely, it's stated that the Jedi had ruled for generations, so it's a restoration they're after, not a revolution. Still, clear enough. And in the age of the cold war, Americans could comfortably be anti-imperial. Ronald Reagan took the cue, built a defence system called Star Wars, and labelled the Soviet Union "the Evil Empire". But then that empire fell, and the only one left was ... So the Jedi changed sides. Darth Vader became not so bad. And the politics of the galaxy turned into a UN-style soup.

33) The character development

When Han Solo swaggers into the story, he is a mercenary. Within two hours, he has become a star pupil, meekly accepting a medal from Princess Leia at an intergalactic version of a prep-school prizegiving. The mercenary has turned into a boy scout.

34) The ramifications III: Blockbusting

Star Wars wasn't the first blockbuster - that was Jaws. But it was the definitive one. Tom Shone quotes one studio head on the success of the much-derided Pearl Harbor: "We seem to be able to sell almost anything, regardless of quality." Phantom Menace proved the point, becoming the first billion-dollar turkey. A third of its audience hit back by avoiding Attack of the Clones - but two-thirds didn't.

35) The kid

For 20 years, the one thing you could say for Lucas's oeuvre over his friend Spielberg's was that he didn't have any of those obnoxious kids. He blew this in The Phantom Menace. Anakin Skywalker is the worst kind of precocious brat.

36) The ramifications IV: The rebirth of corn

"When all was said and done," Peter Biskind wrote in Easy Riders, Raging Bulls (1998), "Lucas and Spielberg returned the 1970s audience, grown sophisticated on a diet of European and New Hollywood films, to the simplicities of the pre-1960s Golden Age of movies ... They marched backward through the looking-glass." And life followed art. First Reagan, then George W Bush returned American politics to a set of simplicities, corny, infantile, reassuring and often fictitious.

37) The dying Scotsman

Ewan McGregor can do many things, but playing the young Alec Guinness isn't one of them. Half the point of McGregor is that he isn't plummy and stilted like some British actors. So Lucas gets him to be ... plummy and stilted. His Guinness impression ends up closer to Ralph Fiennes - without the brilliance.

38) The talent problem

Lucas had ambition, drive, stamina (two and a half years writing the script) and vision (he founded Pixar before selling it). But he wasn't good at writing, or even directing. On the set of Star Wars itself, he was reported to have two instructions for the cast and crew: "OK, same thing, only better," or "Faster, more intense". He didn't direct again for 22 years. When he handed over to Irwin Kershner for The Empire Strikes Back, several things improved straightaway: the camera moved, there was texture and atmosphere. Lucas's career is like a controlled experiment from the makers of Trading Places: what would happen if you gave a film-maker everything except a talent for making films? The answer is: great success, but no great films.

39) The repetition

When George Lucas Sr asked his son to join him in the art-supply business, George Jr said, "Dad, today you're going to do exactly what you did yesterday, and tomorrow the same. This is your life and you love it. But I only want to do something once." Discuss.

40) The titles

Star Wars is a good name for a movie - simple, concise, lapidary. But Lucas has never matched it. The Empire Strikes Back is rhythmic and conversational but obvious. Return of the Jedi is flat: it was going to be Revenge of the Jedi, until someone pointed out that the Jedi are too good to pursue anything so base as vengeance. The Phantom Menace is a dusty old cliche. Attack of the Clones is fresher but still nothing special. Revenge of the Sith inadvertently captures the exhaustion of the long-distance film-maker. It's as if Lucas raided the posters on his own office wall, reusing the content of the third film and the rhythm of the fifth. Still, the word Sith has possibilities. You wonder if it will turn out, in a sudden twist, to be the story of Anagram Skywalker. And Harrison Ford, if he turns up at the premiere, must surely go up to Lucas, give him a bear-hug and murmur in his ear: "You can type this Sith, George, but you sure can't say it."

· Revenge of the Sith opens on May 19.

The GuardianTramp

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