Today I watched George Lucas’ Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
There is something special about Star Wars, something about this storied franchise seems to speak directly to the north American subconscious. With the pending release of the seventh film, there is an air of excitement that I have not experienced since the last numbered Star Wars film was released in 2005. Even with the broad displeasure raised by the prequel trilogy, people still want Star Wars films to be legendary, and whether good or bad, they are all certainly legendary.
The first entry into the franchise, now known as episode four, does not bely the humble origins of the series. It still looks absolutely incredible and feels like a huge and epic tale. The story follows the young and idealistic Luke Skywalker on his journey from disgruntled space-farmer to messianic warrior-monk and hero of the galaxy. This first film centers around the Galactic Empire’s new super-weapon, the Death Star, a planet destroying space station. Luke, in his humdrum life finds himself suddenly in possession of a pair of robots (or droids) who possess plans for the aforementioned battle station that need to be delivered to the rebel alliance.
In this first chapter, I found Luke to be a rather bland protagonist, especially when one considers the incredible cast of characters he interacts with. Mark Hamill is a fine young actor but to me the character didn’t have enough attitude. In comparison Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is all attitude, all the time and he gets some of the best lines and best scenes in the film. Really the entire cast are great in their roles and it is pretty much impossible to imagine anyone else filling these roles at this time.
It has unfortunately become impossible to discus this film without a discussion of all the re-edits it has undergone. Whatever one thinks of the quality of the prequels, I think the way that Lucas has tried to re create these films is the true cinematic crime. While most of the film still looks stunning in it’s practical effects and set design there is now this layer of anachronism applied to the film. I don’t think the effect is to terribly drastic, the film is still incredibly enjoyable, but it insults the original material to think it cannot stand alone without these superfluous additions.
Star Wars is a true legend of cinema, it is original and daring yet it subtly references much of cinema past in both its pulp science fantasy stylings and its intelligent use of narrative devices. John Williams’ score might as well be the score for all of film as it’s emotive and operatic style is immediately identifiable to most anyone in North America or anyone with a love of cinema. While the score follows the styling os a Wagnerian epic so too does the narrative follow the classic “Hero’s Journey.” It follows this formula with academic precision and focuses on the inherent themes of self mastery and personal growth while also delivering a basic parable of doing the right thing.
Many film’s struggle with the balance between being universal and having a personality; many strange movies alienate the audience because they are so alien to the common viewer, while there are also plenty of films which try so hard for mass appeal that they have the excitement of a glass of warm milk. Star Wars is a very good demonstration of how this balance can be found, the setting and universe it takes place in is wild, imaginative and unique, but the narrative is very by the numbers in structure. The audience can understand the basic archetypes in the plot and characters and are thus willing to explore this alien setting with their imaginations. People like you or I exist in this place, however different it may be than our reality, and thus we can feel a connection to the plot.
Star War is, of course, a great film. While Luke’s plot is only just starting to ramp up by the end of the film, this first episode really belongs to Han Solo who goes through a complete and satisfying arc through the film. The film works on multiple levels, as a simple, adventurous romp through space, as an operatic epic that tells a massive tale of galactic politics and war as told by those on the front lines, and as a catalog of cinematic ideas that all get rolled into one huge classic. 5/5