A Disturbance In The Force Review: The Star Wars Holiday Special Gets The Documentary Treatment [SXSW 2023]

"A Disturbance in the Force" is an insightful documentary about a lesser-known part of the success story of George Lucas' "Star Wars." Rather than focusing on its production woes, or how it became the biggest movie ever at that point, it focuses on what happens later. This is the story of a time when having the biggest movie of all time didn't guarantee lasting cultural impact. It's also the story of how the desperation to keep the franchise in the mind of the fans resulted in the first (but certainly not the last) big failure of the franchise far, far away — the "Star Wars Holiday Special."

As popular as "Star Wars" is, this is a franchise with lows as infamous as its highs. For every "Empire Strikes Back," there is a "Rise of Skywalker," but before the prequels, there was another black sheep of the franchise, the one title that Lucasfilm has desperately kept buried for decades, the first "Star Wars" TV show. Directed by Jeremy Coon and Steve Kozak, "A Disturbance in the Force" is a look back at the creation of the CBS two-hour-long "Star Wars Holiday Special" from 1978. By now. everyone likely knows the special is considered a disaster. But what " A Disturbance in the Force" suggests is that all '70s TV variety specials were terrible to begin with. 

Indeed, at its best, the documentary explores the context of the special, starting from the rather groundbreaking marketing campaign that made "Star Wars" an unprecedented success. Using archival footage and talking head interviews, "A Disturbance in the Force" chronicles the unique way the first "Star Wars" was sold not to general audiences, but to genre fans, decades before the rise of Hall H panels and all-night queues.

Not so special

Maybe it's because the marketing for the first "Star Wars" is a relatively lesser-known part of the history of the franchise, or maybe it's because the subjects related to the special remain so embarrassed they don't like talking about it, but this first section is engrossing and thrilling where the rest is not. But once the documentary gets away from that and starts covering the making of the "Holiday Special," breaking down every sketch, and every aspect of production from the side of Lucasfilm and also CBS, momentum slows down. 

While informative, "A Disturbance in the Force" relies too much on a cast of famous people talking about how infamous the special was in the '70s and '80s and how cool they are for having seen it — or for being close enough to Lucas to talk to him about it. This gives the film a rather detached tone, like your older brother telling you about a cool party he went to while reminding you that you couldn't go, and will never get to go. 

Yet some of the talking heads are rather informative and entertaining, particularly the ones actually related to the making of the special, or the few times George Lucas shows up through archival footage talking about his intentions for the special and his disavowing it. 

There is a fascinating throughline between the way archival Lucas talks about actually wanting to use the TV special to expand the world of "Star Wars" and tell stories he couldn't fit into the film, the way his ideas were mostly ignored by the CBS team of variety specials comedy writers, and how Lucas would go on to take absolute control over his franchise two decades later when the prequels started rolling — plus his future treatment of "Star Wars" parodies like the "Detours" show.

A plea to just release the thing

"A Disturbance in the Force" succeeds at telling the full story of how the infamous "Star Wars Holiday Special" was made. And yet, it doesn't really make the special look that bad in context. The documentary spends so much time showing you how normal bad TV specials were at the time, and how often popular things got cash-grab TV spin-offs with little resemblance to the source material, that it ends up downplaying the "disaster." 

The point of the documentary is not just that the "Holiday Special" is bad, but that even if it is embarrassing to the legacy of "Star Wars," it shouldn't be locked in a vault. Everyone has flops, even giant franchises like this one (maybe one too many flops) so what's the harm in letting the world experience the first appearance of Boba Fett or our introduction to Chewbacca's family?

/Film Rating: 6 out of 10