For the Rebellion!
Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope
Here we go, back into the original trilogy for the movies people actually like. When I meet someone that hasn't seen Star WarsThe modern blockbuster: it's a concept so commonplace now we don't even think about the fact that before the end of the 1970s, this kind of movie -- huge spectacles, big action, massive budgets -- wasn't really made. That all changed, though, with Star Wars, a series of films that were big on spectacle (and even bigger on profits). A hero's journey set against a sci-fi backdrop, nothing like this series had ever really been done before, and then Hollywood was never the same. and they say they're about to watch the Saga, I tell them to start with the original trilogy. Even now, having watched through everything leading up to this point in chronological order, and having seen a few things that I enjoyed more for the build up of continuity over time, I still wouldn't recommend starting in the prequel era -- Episode I: the Phantom Menace is a slog to get through and the sequels (even with the benefit of The Clone Wars) just aren't that great. But here, in the original trilogy, we finally get movies worth watching without any apologizing or back-handed compliments.
The original film (first called just "Star Wars" before Lucas came along and started tinkering with things, like saying this was the fourth episode in a series, promising three prequels and, at one point, six additional sequels past the original trilogy) came out at a time when the Summer Blockbuster was still a nascent concept. Along with Jaws, Star Wars helped to launch the idea that the big movies, the event films everyone had to see, came out in the summer months. It fundamentally changed the way people thought of going to the theater, making it into a wide-spread event everyone had to be a part of. And it's easy to see why as Star Wars is unlike any sci-fi film to come out before.
That does sound like hyperbole, to be sure, but think of the Sci-Fi films we had before this (many of which have been mocked and ridiculed since on Mystery Science Theater 3000First aired on the independent TV network KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew in popularity when it moved to Comedy Central. Spoofing bad movies, the gang on the show watch the flicks and make jokes about them, entertaining its audience with the same kind of shtick many movies watchers provided on their own (just usually not as funny as the MST3K guys could provide). It became an indelible part of the entertainment landscape from there, and lives on today on Netflix.). Say what you will about the writing and director capabilities of George Lucas (and I have and no doubt will again), but the man had a vision for a Sci-Fi epic that blew previous efforts like Flash Gordon and Logan's Run out of the water (and both of those films are considered classics of the genre, mind you). Before Star Wars there was always a hokey quality to Sci-Fi, filtering the sights and sounds through the decade they were in.
Just look at Futureworld, sequel to the fabulous (if still cheesy) Westworld '73 -- that film feels just about as 1970s as 1970s could feel despite supposedly being set in the distant future. Then compare it to Star Wars, a film that goes all in on being set in a distant place at a distant time. Despite being made at the tail end of the 1970s, Star Wars doesn't feel like it takes place in the '70s, or even that it takes place on Earth at all. Every part of the movie is crafted to make you feel like you're watching something from a different world. It buys in to its reality and sucks you in for the ride.
That's the first trick the movie makes, and then it gives us a solid, easy to digest Hero's Journey to follow. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), our hero, takes up the majority of the A-plot of the movie as he goes from simple moisture farmer to joining up with a mysterious space monk, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), taking a ride with a couple of ruffians, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (played in a fur suit by Peter Mayhew) on a mission to save the galaxy. Along the way their A-plot intersects with that of the B-plot involving Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), the evil Jedi Darth Vader (James Earl Jones), and stolen blueprints for the Death Star (the space station of the Evil Galactic Empire). It all leads for a big finale where Luke, along with a battalion of other fighters, flies a ship into a trench along the moon-sized Death Star to fire to torpedoes into a two kilometer-wide hole, the one weak spot in the Death Star, blowing it up and saving the Galaxy.
From lowly farmer to hero of the Rebellion, that's the story given to us, and it's a story Lucas was quite good at writing. Don't get me wrong, it's simple and kind of cheesy. The opening scroll of the film, which sets in place the story of this Galaxy Far Far Away, spells everything out in simple terms. The Rebels are god, the Empire is evil, and the Princess must be saved at all costs. And yet, having watched the prequels with their awful politics and story threads that seemingly go nowhere, plunging us deeper and deeper into tedium, I could appreciate the simple, effective storytelling of Star Wars. It pure, its fun, and it gives us sights and thrills that few movies have been able to beat since. This movie, made on just $11 Mil (when, now, nothing, not even a simple romantic comedy, can be made for that little money) went on to become one of the highest grossing films of all time (currently at $775 Mil) and launched a saga that probably will never die.
Much of that credit is owed to Lucas and is staff of designers and builders who put this whole film together. But the movie is also illustrative of the one fact why this original trilogy works when the prequels failed so hard: the acting here is great. The weakest of the cast is Hamill, although I don't blame him for that. His character is basically written as a gosh-golly plucky kind of guy and Hamill plays that well. In later movies the actor is given more to do and Luke feels richer for it. Thankfully the other cast is given more to do (or, at least the very lest to do more with what they have). Truly it's the other two leads that help elevate the film as Harrison Ford imbues Solo with a "don't give a fuck" charisma that made the character iconic, while Fisher plays Leia as pure sarcasm and sass (which, really, was just the actress's default state in life). These two are a joy to watch and, when he's able to bounce off them, Hamill is able to elevate Luke as well.
Of course, if we're going to discuss performances, nothing in the film is more iconic that James Earl Jones's Darth Vader. Although Jones didn't act the live performance, his voice-over works is so much a part of the character that I'd say it's more essential to the role than whoever was filling the suit at the time. Jones imbues Vader's voice with such menace, using his deep, sonorous tones to sell Vader as the biggest, nastiest guy in the room. No one actor is more essential to this movie that Jones (proven by the fact that while other actors have played younger versions of these characters over time, Jones is always called back in to voice Vader for the various movies).
I've watched every edition of the original trilogy that's been released and, despite a few cheesy moments where the special effects aren't quite as god as they should be, I'd say the original version of the film is perfect; if Disney ever wanted to release Blu-Rays of the original versions of the films, I would buy them in a heartbeat (and since Disney now owns Fox, that does seem like a possibility). Of course, as fans well know, Lucas didn't feel like his movies were perfect, so he had to go in and tinker with them. The first change, of course, was to change the title of this movie from just "Star Wars" to "Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope". The VHS copies I watched in the mid 1990s featured cleaned up digital effects, removing some of the matting errors and other issues of the films. But then Lucas really went overboard from there.
The Special Edition of Episode IV (which I watched for this review since this is the version new fans are going to see) features a lot of "improvements" that Lucas added in. A number of sequences feature updated graphics, sometimes with new creatures edited into scenes or, other times, with who shots remade to highlight the ships and action of the movie. The one glaring scene added into the film is an originally cut sequence featuring Han and Jabba the Hutt. The version of Jabba originally filmed was basically a Scottish dude in a furry outfit although after Return of the Jedi we knew that Jabba was really a giant slug creature so, when this film was updated for the Special Edition, a CGI version of Jabba was inserted over the original actor and this scene was "restored". And, let me tell you, Jabba here looks awful, exactly like a CGI creature made in the mid-1990s would look. It's bad.
And yet, for the most part I didn't hate the Special Edition inclusions. At worst they're mild distractions in this film and, often, they did make the film look better. Purists, I know, only care about the original versions and I, too, want to own those, but I don't feel like these "improved" editions really sacrifice much and, more the point, I don't think people new to the series would notice or care one way or the other.
And really, at this point the only people who care one way or the other about a review of A New Hope are the people on the fence about watching the series at all. Fans already know how good this movie is and haters that never want to see the movies at all won't bother one way or the other with a glowing review. For anyone else, though, just know that this film really does hold up. There's a lot of history to this film, a lot of fans hopes and dreams devoted to this movie and the series it spawned. Going back and watching it with fresh eyes, I can understand why people love it so. I may not be the Star Wars fan I once way but this fun bit of popcorn entertainment certainly shows me, time and again, why there's so much love for the Galaxy Far Far Away.
Continuity and Issues:
Leia's guard says that, at the beginning, the ship chased by the Empire was a counselor's ship. Darth Vader then asks where the ambassador is. But, considering the events we just watched in Rogue One, Vader should clearly know this is a Rebellion ship. We literally just saw it in a war zone. No pussy-footing around that.
Luke has the hots for Leia but, as we well know (or should easily be able to piece together) Leia is Luke's sister. Of course, that fact wasn't revealed to original viewers back in the day until the next film. Still, if you've watched all these films up to now, Luke's interest in Leia is a bit... creepy.
I like how Uncle Owen is dismissive of Old Ben out in the canyon. Even here he knows something of who Old Ben really is, but it's colored even more by the knowledge we have of the character from the prequel movies. That's a nice touch. Also, Aunt Beru is too wistful of Luke's father, considering what we know of him. Uncle Owen's grumpiness towards the memory of Anakin seems much more appropriate.
Obi-Wan says Darth Vader betrayed and murdered Luke's father, which isn't really true. Oh, Obi-Wan eventually explains it (in a couple of movies) as Anakin became Vader, effectively killing the man he was, but that's fudging the details. Really, Lucas didn't realize Vader was going to be Luke's father when this film was written (or that Leia would end up being his sister), so this plot thread meant something very different when this film first came out. Note, Splinter of a Mind's Eye was a Star Wars sequel novel that explored a very different timeline, one where Luke and Leia and Vader weren't related, among other details, but that novel was ejected from canon the second Episode V came out.
Why would Vader order the deaths of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, especially now? If he wanted to sever ties with his old life, shouldn't he have killed these two years ago? And if that wasn't the point, then what was? Surely his family would be protected even if they did unknowingly buy droids with secret plans in them. Again, a detail that doesn't make sense if you view the movies in the context of the whole chronology.
"I want to become a Jedi like my father." Well... you know... there's something you should probably know...
Han shooting first is a big point of contention in the fan community. In the original version, Han shoots Greedo in the cantina before Greedo can do anything, just because Han doesn't want to go to see Jabba and doesn't want to die. It's a point towards showing what a ruffian he is. Of course, in later versions Greedo shoots at Han slightly before Han shoots back, tempering Han's dark ways. The latest edition of this scene (included in the most recent Blu-Ray collection) at least makes this scene look realistic (instead of Han awkwardly moving his head out of the way), but it still lessens the impact of the scene. Worth noting, after the scene cuts away and then cuts back, the place where Greedo's shot should have landed, which should be a smoking pock mark, is notably missing. Oops.
Gotta say, watching this after taking a second look at Solo: A Star Wars Story, Alden Ehrenreich wasn't a bad match for Harrison Ford, all things considered. He had the performance down. While he was a god match, though, the Millennium Falcon has seen some shit. It's a total shithole now in comparison to how pristine it looked in the other movie.