Spellbinding or dull? How critics reviewed 'Star Wars' in 1977

What did movie critics make of the first Star Wars? As the sci-fi franchise turns 40, we revisit the reviews.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Richard Trenholm
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Luke Skywalker feels the force of 1977's movie critics.

Lucasfilm/Andrew Hoyle

Wanna go see a movie? There's this new flick called " Star Wars "...

George Lucas's space opera exploded into movie theatres 40 years ago, on 25 May 1977. It was an instant smash with fans queueing around the block to see it -- before coming back to line up again. Today, we recognise the film's groundbreaking special effects, the foundations of a vast mythical story universe, and the launch of a multimedia empire that transformed moviemaking. But what did the critics of the day think?

Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert gave it the thumbs-up, while famously acerbic critic Pauline Kael was less impressed. Many reviewers noted similarities with the classic tales that inspired writer and director George Lucas, from westerns and samurai tales to "2001: A Space Odyssey". And several noted that the resonant, thought-provoking cinema of the 1970s was about to be swept away by something rather more escapist...

Time Magazine

"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 bloodshed here and there. It's aimed at kids -- the kid in everybody."

Watch this: Watch the Original 1977 'Star Wars' Trailer

The New Yorker

Pauline Kael: "'Star Wars' is like getting a box of Cracker Jacks which is all prizes... 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.

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."


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The Chicago Sun-Times

Roger Ebert: "'Star Wars' is a fairy tale, a fantasy, a legend, finding its roots in some of our most popular fictions... [It] 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.

The most fascinating single scene, for me, was the one set in the bizarre saloon on the planet Tatooine. As that incredible collection of extraterrestrial alcoholics and bug-eyed martini drinkers lined up at the bar, and as Lucas so slyly let them exhibit characteristics that were universally human, I found myself feeling a combination of admiration and delight. 'Star Wars' had placed me in the presence of really magical movie invention."

Chicago Tribune

Gene Siskel: "Following a recent preview of 'Star Wars', the audience applauded the names of its special effects artists. The applause is deserved. Whenever the inanity of the entire enterprise begins to surface, director George Lucas pulls out a striking visual trick.

'Star Wars' is expected to be a big hit. If that turns out to be the case, then coupled with the success of 'Rocky,' a message will have been sent by filmgoers to Hollywood: Give us old-fashioned escapist movies with upbeat endings."

The Guardian

Derek Malcolm: "It isn't the best film of the year, it isn't the best science fiction ever to be translated to the screen... 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. Which, I firmly believe, with the extra benefit of hindsight, is more or less exactly what the vast majority of the cinema-going public want just now."

Star Wars in photos: 40 years of the Force

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LA Times

Charles Champlin: "'Star Wars' is Buck Rogers with a doctoral degree but not a trace of neuroticism or cynicism, a slam-bang, rip-roaring gallop through a distantly future world... What happens and how it all ends hardly matters. The narrative space is jet-propelled or rocket-thrust and the invention is continuous, the crafts and sets and space complexes genuinely amazing in their minute detailing and believability."

The Wall Street Journal

Joy Gould Boyum: "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."

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"Star Wars" in 1977: "a slam-bang, rip-roaring gallop through a distantly future world..."


The Washington Post

Gary Arnold: "Han Solo is the film's most flamboyant human role, and Harrison Ford has a splendid time capitalizing on its irresistible style of cynical heroism. It would be professionally criminal to flub such an ingratiating, star-making assignment, and although Ford plays in a relaxed, drawing style, reminiscent of Jack Nicholson at his foxiest, he maintains a firm grip on this golden opportunity.

Parents who suffered dutifully through 'Logan's Run' in guest of a decent attraction for juveniles may now claim their reward. George Lucas has made the kind of sci-fi adventure movie you dream about finding, for your own pleasure as well as your kids' pleasure."

The Telegraph

Adrian Berry: "The scriptwriter (George Lucas) wrote five separate drafts before he was satisfied (imagine one of those B-feature fellows doing that!), and the effect is to persuade us that there is little in this film which may not one day happen in real life.

Those who have not booked their seats already will find it about as easy to see 'Star Wars' early in the New Year as to fly through hyperspace. People aged between seven and 70 will be jamming the box office."

See the stellar visuals that brought Star Wars to life

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New York Magazine

John Simon: "I don't read science fiction, of which this may, for all I know, be a prime example... But is equalling sci-fi and comic strips worthy of the talented director of 'American Graffiti', and worth spending all that time and money on? 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... O dull new world!

Kudos are due, no doubt, to each member of the production staff... But what you ultimately have is a set of giant baubles manipulated by an infant mind."

The Hollywood Reporter

Ron Pennington: "Lucas combines excellent comedy and drama and progresses it with exciting action on tremendously effective space battles... The result is spellbinding and totally captivating on all levels.

John Williams has composed a rich, luxuriant score that engulfs the ear as performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. The Dolby Sound is also a major asset in that it is sparkling clear and, in the battle sequences, achieves an enveloping, thunderous pitch with any hint of distortion."


"Like a breath or fresh air, 'Star Wars' sweeps away the cynicism that has in recent years obscured the concepts of valor, dedication and honor. Make no mistake -- this is by no means a "children's film," with all the derogatory overtones that go with that description. This is instead a superior example of what only the screen can achieve, and closer to home, it is another affirmation of what only Hollywood can put on a screen."

San Francisco Chronicle

"Every dollar is on the screen, and if 'Star Wars' doesn't get at least half a dozen Oscar nominations, I will eat my Wookiee."

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Star Wars at 40: Join us in celebrating the many ways the Force-filled sci-fi saga has impacted our lives.