Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Movie Appraisal: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

Star Wars... the original, the one that kicked off an entire franchise that nerds and normals equally love. It is a near-perfect space opera, a fantasy done in a science fiction universe with an epic story and beautifully done characters.

I was originally going to start my Star Wars movie reviews off with The Phantom Menace, but I thought that the name of that movie was so stupid that I'm going to save that when I'm feeling particularly vicious and angry at everything.

Star Wars, the original, also subtitled these days as A New Hope, and which I will abbreviate as ANH throughout this review for ease of typing since this is going to be a particularly long review, is simply a sublime movie from beginning to end. Some may say that Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is the best of Star Wars, but I tend to believe that they are objectively equal in status and quality. ANH starts off the story, it begins everything. It is a self-contained story full of great characters and situations, humor, seriousness, and many other beautiful and colorful elements. Despite the alien environments, we connect with the characters. We understand their plight.
Luke Skywalker (played by Mark Hamill), the protagonist, is a young man working on his uncle's farm (It's a moisture farm for those of you who want to know.) who dreams of one day doing great things, going to the Imperial Academy to be trained and then defecting to the Rebellion against the Empire. He hates the Empire and everything it stands for, and our impressions of the Empire are already not good. The Empire has stormtroopers, and a big guy in a black suit and helmet named Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones), who really does not really seem like a good guy. The Empire also employs only British actors, so therefore they must be evil! Seriously though, the Empire comes off as a bunch of regular bureaucrats and such working for a corrupt and often evil higher management. It almost, and I'm certain this was meant to be the case, is indicative of the Nazis. This extends to not only how they act, but the way they are dressed as well. Stormtroopers bring to mind the German Storm Troops of World Wars I and II, and Darth Vader is very reminiscent, especially in the way he acts, as being an SS officer controlling the shock troops.
This whole idea makes the entirety of ANH a fight between good and evil, and we see it as such. We are reminded of the Nazis and just how bad they are and we are made to feel a certain way about the Empire and feel pity and even hope for the small band of rebels struggling to change their galaxy. We see heroic archetypes all over the place, from Luke Skywalker being the classic hero, without a tragic flaw, ready to stand up and fight against nearly insurmountable odds, to Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the anti-heroic archetype, the rogue with a heart of gold in the end. We see that Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is the damsel in distress as well, just like in many classic myths and stories, but the twist is that she's a strong woman, ready and very able to take care of herself in a hostile environment. This shows so much about the story and I have not even touched upon the story yet. 
The characters define the plot. Each and every character is memorable. When you think about Star Wars you generally are going to think about something in this movie, whether it be the Death Star, any of the characters or situations, or a quotation or two. That's one of the reasons this movie is so good. It is so memorable. It sticks in our heads and makes us want to fly our own Millennium Falcon, shoot down a Death Star ourselves, or join a band of freedom fighters looking to save the galaxy from oppression. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) represents an old mentor, dying before his time and giving the hero a reason to fight, a real reason, and not simply a philosophical one. He becomes the most interesting character in some ways because of his relevance and because of how he is portrayed within the film itself. I will get back to that point.

ANH takes ideas from so many other places that it is ridiculously derivative in some ways. The obvious ones are from World War II, but other ideas come from Frank Herbert's Dune in terms of Tatooine, the desert planet to "spice" and its connotation in the film, to Akira Kurosawa Samurai films, especially The Hidden Fortress (1958) where much of the ideas of the droids, the princess, and much of the main plot comes from. The droids, R2-D2, and C-3PO, are used as comic relief in some ways, but they are never unrealistic despite something like a droid not actually existing in our own world. They do things that are not impossible for a droid to be designed to do. They help make the universe of Star Wars have meaning, and it becomes defined forever as a science-fiction fantasy epic, as full of humor and social commentary as it is with heroic ideals and wonderful visuals.

You come to fall in love with each and every one of the characters in turn. Every single one means something to the story. Obi-Wan Kenobi, for example, despite being an old man full of regret, still deems it necessary to fight in any way he can. He is an old Jedi, basically a warrior-monk with a lightsaber, a sword that can cut through anything, and the Force. The Force is everything in the galaxy. It is a religion, a way of life, and source of energy and motion of the mind. Jedi can control the Force and direct it outward, either to see into the future, feel what's going on in the present, and speak with other peoples' minds across a great distance, or to use it to perform extraordinary acts, like moving something with their mind, tricking people into thinking or doing things they would not have otherwise, or simply doing something that requires an intense trust in oneself.

Getting back to Obi-Wan Kenobi as a character though, he becomes devious in the movie, moving the plot along and manipulating circumstances to get exactly what he wants. And he's a hero! You may not see it all at first, but watching it as many times as I have, I have come to see which characters are much more than they appear and which are single-minded, and none in this movie are single-minded... at least not in the bad character kind of way.
You can balance Obi-Wan Kenobi against the true villain of ANH. No, it is not Darth Vader, despite every single fanboy thinking that is the case. The real villain is Grand Moff Wilhelm Tarkin (Peter Cushing), the man who destroyed an entire planet, who had no mercy whatsoever, and who nearly destroyed another. He wanted to wipe out the Rebellion, and succeeded in wiping out a planet sympathetic to the Rebellion and what they wanted, but this also succeeded in rallying people against the Empire and what they stood for. Their show of force was countered by an equally brutal show of force when Luke blew up the Death Star moments before it would have blown up the fourth moon of Yavin where the Rebels were based.

The whole story has a very early cinema feel to it, taking things from Metropolis (1927), like C-3PO for example, and a movie like Casablanca (1942). Han Solo especially gives off the vibe of a Humphrey Bogart-like character, and the dialogue seems so natural and banter-ish, that it is easy to see where the fast-talking World War II movies had their influence here.  

The plot is so intricate and fascinating. Everything flows together, from beginning to end, shaping our perceptions and our sympathies. We have fallen in love with this film because we have had no choice. It is an objectively good film, derivative in all the right ways, new in even better ways. What is does right it does so well that it blows most other films right out of the water, and what it does wrong is very little.

I have mentioned the characters so much because those are the iconic elements from this film. Sure, there are many great plot pieces, from the Millennium Falcon and our heroes getting stuck on the Death Star, the Empire's fortress, to Obi-Wan Kenobi letting himself be struck down so that he can assist Luke in the future by being even stronger than he had been. The first shot of the movie, the VERY FIRST SHOT, tells us everything we would ever need to know about the very nearly simplistic plot of the film. The Rebels are in their blockade runner, the Tantive IV, racing away from the Empire, represented by a gigantic Star Destroyer. The Rebels have stolen the plans to the Empire's fortress and evil space station, the Death Star, that has power enough to destroy an entire planet in a single blast.
The Rebel ship is boarded and we come to see and fear the Stormtroopers and their apparent leader, Darth Vader. They make short work of the poorly equipped freedom fighters. At the same time, seamlessly integrated into these scenes are the first two major characters introduced, the droids. We sympathize with them. R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) is cocky and rebellious himself, hotheaded and ready to help in anyway he can, whereas C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is timid, and would rather not get involved in anything too sketchy, and yet he is every bit the hero that R2-D2 is, but in a different way. He focuses more on the moment and communication, but helps in his own way throughout the film, even if its nothing more than reprimanded R2-D2. And because these droids receive our good graces, everyone associated with them gradually does too. Princess Leia, a strong female archetype from beginning to end, interacts with R2-D2 all but a moment and her status as a hero in her own right is established early on.
Then as the movie advances we meet Luke Skywalker, the new owner of the droids. We see his life, see him whine about not getting the chance to do what he wants. We get the feeling that he is being held back for some reason, but we never see why, not until the next movie at least. His Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru seem to think he would be safer away from the war and the Jedi, and yet Luke is picked up and dragged into the fray as if he were destined to be a hero from the very beginning. His uncle and aunt are ruthlessly murdered and set ablaze by the Stormtroopers looking for the information on the Death Star placed in R2-D2 by Princess Leia. With nothing left, Luke decides to fight and the plot kicks off and never stops. Obi-Wan and Luke meet a rogue with a heart of gold and his hairy co-pilot, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), and they set off on an adventure to find Alderaan, and help out Bail Organa, Princess Leia's father and a leader of the Rebellion against the Empire.

Unbeknownst to them, Alderaan is destroyed by Grand Moff Tarkin and the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo's ship, is taken into custody by the Imperials while our heroes go off to save the Princess and themselves. The Death Star scenes are some of my favorites, a comedy of errors and misfortunes, eventually resulting in almost all of our heroes getting away, with Obi-Wan sacrificing himself in front of Luke, I think, for the purpose of showing Luke the true evil of the Empire, and how he needs to fight them and not run away. Remember that Han Solo, before he leaves right before the assault on the Death Star, asks Luke to come with him. Maybe the outcome would have been different if Obi-Wan had not died. Maybe everything would have changed. Maybe he needed to die to cement Luke as the hero of this story rather than a simple side character. And that's the brilliance of Star Wars. The rogue comes back to save the hero and the hero succeeds and gets awarded for his bravery in the end.

The perfect ending to such a wonderful and engaging story. I could spend hours going over every aspect of this film, from the beautiful scenery, to the special effects which were amazing for their time, and, in my opinion, are still gorgeous today, even by modern standards. The aliens seen in the movie are diverse and different, giving a feel of a place so far away, but with the same problems we face. And that's the brilliance. That's the art of Star Wars. It is not about the special effects. It is not about what could not be done. Instead this movie seems to be a triumph in the idea of winning in the face of every adversity. If you go and watch a making of feature about this film, you will see just how many things the filmmakers had going against them. They were doing something completely new in some ways, the special effects were ahead of their time, the costumes, and George Lucas, the creator and director of Star Wars wanted things to go his way despite really not getting his way over many things. Some editors he worked with only wanted to do their cut of the movie rather than what he wanted. He had constant fights with the cameraman over angles and the kinds of shots he wanted. The actors more than likely improvised large portions of dialogue, and the filming off of any set was difficult. Filming in Tunisia for the Tatooine scenes were particularly trying. And maybe that's all part of it. Maybe the artistic vision needed to have setbacks, needed to have troubles. It made everybody more invested, more in love with the product they were making. It was not about being in front of a green screen on a sound stage, or inserting CGI all over the place without giving us a reason to care about the characters. No, it was a character study from beginning to end, giving us the feeling of real relationships happening between characters, real friendships either forming or being there all along. EVERY character feels real. Every plot is engaging. You can feel the budding friendship between Han and Luke, the stable friendships between Han and Chewbacca and between the droids.You can see how Luke truly respects R2-D2 and C-3PO, but also uses them as the tools they are meant to be, something we do not understand because to us the droids are every bit as much characters as Luke or Han, but in the Star Wars universe, they are machines used for doing certain things, and that is what this movie gets right. It gets the details right, the feeling right. Sure, there may be mistakes that anybody can point out, but on a whole this is one of the best movies to ever be made, both in terms of scope and in terms of quality. This is the movie that made me into a Star Wars fan to begin with, and I will always look fondly on this film, even though I have seen what Star Wars has become. To go from such amazing beginnings and to end on such a low note, to have the drivel that is coming out of the collective excrement hole of all the writers and such of Star Wars today is a sad thing to see, but I will, no, we will, always have the classic... Star Wars.


  1. I didn't even watch it. Looked like a stupid movie really. I mean, come on, a really hairy alien named Chewbacca, now I've heard everything... His name sounds like some kind of chewing tobacco portmanteau. I hate his hairy face.

    I just read the Wikipedia article, I figured that was all this weird, very obviously unknown and unwatchable movie deserved.

  2. Totally off-topic but related; have you see THX 1138 or American Graffiti? If so, what were your thoughts?