Star Wars (1977)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #88

A long time ago
in a galaxy far, far away…

Also Known As: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 121 minutes | 125 minutes (special edition)
BBFC: U
MPAA: PG

Original Release: 25th May 1977 (USA)
UK Release: 27th December 1977
First Seen: VHS, c.1990

Stars
Mark Hamill (Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, Star Wars: Episode VIII)
Harrison Ford (American Graffiti, The Fugitive)
Carrie Fisher (When Harry Met Sally…, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
Alec Guinness (Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Bridge on the River Kwai)
James Earl Jones (Field of Dreams, The Lion King)

Director
George Lucas (THX 1138, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace)

Screenwriter
George Lucas (American Graffiti, Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones)

The Story
When he discovers a distress call from a beautiful princess, a young farmhand joins forces with an old warrior, a roguish pilot, his bear-like first mate, and a pair of bickering robots to rescue her — which involves taking on the evil galactic Empire, and in particular their chief enforcer: Darth Vader.

Our Heroes
Farm boy Luke Skywalker just wants to go off and join the rebellion, but little does he realise how much that path leads to his destiny. Helping him get there is smuggler Han Solo, who may come from a wretched hive of scum and villainy and is happy to shoot first at the same time as his opponent, but has a heart of gold really. The object of their mission, and both their affections, is the strong-willed Princess Leia.

Our Villains
A man in a black suit with breathing problems might not sound like one of the most effective screen villains of all time, but that’s what you get when you come up with pithy descriptions like that. In fact, Darth Vader is so badass, he’s not above choking members of his own side, the evil Empire — and they’re evil.

Best Supporting Character
R2-D2 is the best supporting character in every Star Wars film, but in this one we are also introduced to Obi-Wan Kenobi. A mysterious old man who inducts Luke into the ways of the Force, Obi-Wan is played by veteran character actor Alec Guinness, meaning he is bestowed with instant awesomeness. Not as handy with a lightsaber as he used to be, mind.

Memorable Quote
Darth Vader: “Your powers are weak, old man.”
Obi-Wan Kenobi: “You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.”

Quote Most Likely To Be Used in Everyday Conversation
“I have a very bad feeling about this.” — Luke Skywalker

Memorable Scene
It’s fair to say Star Wars is loaded with memorable scenes, but for pure effectiveness you’d have to go a long way to beat the opening sequence: giant spaceships flying overhead, blasting laser beams at each other; walking, talking robots bickering; a gunfight between men and armoured soldiers; and then Darth Vader, stalking into the movie like a sci-fi vision of Death himself.

Memorable Music
George Lucas wanted a score reminiscent of classic Hollywood movies to help inform audiences about what they were watching — that although it was set on alien worlds with giant spaceships and laser swords, it was a familiar kind of heroic adventure tale. Composer John Williams delivered exactly that, drawing on influences including classical composers, like Stravinsky and Holst, and film composers, like Erich Wolfgang Korngold (King’s Row) and Alfred Newman (How the West Was Won). He produced not only a great soundtrack all round, but arguably the most famous movie theme of all time.

Truly Special Effect
Star Wars did so much to break new ground in special effects, it’s difficult to know where to start. Some of it’s a little skwiffy (the lightsaber effects are notoriously problematic, their colours varying even in recent remastered versions), but the model work — the spaceships and their battles — is fantastic.

Letting the Side Down
Han shot first! *ahem* Yes, A New Hope is definitely the movie where Lucas’ unpopular Special Edition fiddling is it at its least liked, primarily for that bit where Han no longer shoots Greedo in cold blood. What do you have to do to get a merciless good guy these days, eh? Other changes have varying degrees of effectiveness: having extra X-Wings in the Death Star battle looks pretty neat, but the CGI Jabba the Hutt — complete with Han stepping jerkily over his tail — is terrible.

Making of
George Lucas screened an early cut of the film for a group of his director friends, most of whom agreed with him: it was going to be a flop. Brian De Palma even called it “the worst movie ever”. There was one dissenting voice: Steven Spielberg, who predicted it would be a huge hit. As if that man’s entire career wasn’t proof enough that he knows what he’s talking about…

Previously on…
Star Wars’ influences can be clearly traced back to the sci-fi cinema serials of the ’30s and ’40s, like Flash Gordon. In-universe, the saga begins with the Prequel Trilogy, and there’s shedloads of other spin-off media. Most pertinently, this December’s first live-action non-saga Star Wars film, Rogue One, should lead more-or-less directly into the start of A New Hope.

Next time…
Star Wars essentially inspired the next 39 years (and counting) of effects-driven summer blockbusters. It also started a mini-industry all of its own — well, quite a large industry, actually: films, TV series, novels, comic books, computer games, board games, role playing games, toys, clothes, lunch boxes… anything you can imagine, I’d wager. Primarily, the story is directly continued in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and resumed in The Force Awakens, with more to come in 2017 and 2019.

Awards
7 Oscars (Editing, Score, Sound, Art Direction-Set Decoration, Costume Design, Visual Effects, Special Achievement Award for Sound Effects)
4 Oscar nominations (Picture, Supporting Actor, Director, Original Screenplay)
2 BAFTAs (Music, Sound)
4 BAFTA nominations (Film, Editing, Costume Design, Production Design/Art Direction)
13 Saturn Awards (Science Fiction Film, Supporting Actor (Alec Guinness), Director (tied with Spielberg for Close Encounters), Writing, Music (John Williams tied with himself for Close Encounters), Costumes, Make-Up, Special Effects, Editing, Sound, Art Direction, Set Decoration, Special Award for Outstanding Cinematographer)
4 Saturn nominations (Actor (both Harrison Ford and Mark Hamill), Actress (Carrie Fisher), Supporting Actor (Peter Cushing))
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“The battles, the duels, the special effects — and what special effects! Swords made of light, blasters shooting laser beams, exploding planets — it goes on and on. All the aging acid-heads who tripped out to Stanley Kubrick’s overrated 2001: A Space Odyssey, will go bananas over Star Wars. Not to mention comic-book freaks, science fiction and fantasy fans, lovers of old westerns, romances, mysteries and movies about the Crusades. In addition to being a slickly produced and highly entertaining adventure suitable for the whole family, Star Wars is richly evocative of a whole range of old film forms and I predict that entire books will be written on the sources, the religious symbolism, the mythological and historical allusions, and so on and so forth that Lucas has incorporated” — Robert Martin, The Globe and Mail (This review from the original release, before it was called Episode IV, also notes that it “opens like Episode 6 of a serial”. Good call, sir.)

Score: 93%

What the Public Say
“To this day, A New Hope is used as a primary example of storytelling. It perfectly establishes a world and introduces audiences to a protagonist that goes on his hero’s journey. There’s a reason that so much pop culture parodies and pays tribute to this film and it’s because of how near perfect it is. You have the Princess in peril still holding her own against what will always be one of the greatest movie villains of all time in Darth Vader. That is also one thing the prequels do that take away from this movie and the two that come after: They soften Vader. Vader is cold, ruthless, robotic, and menacing. Not someone who cries about his girlfriend. […] A New Hope just does everything the right way. When it wants you to be excited, you are. When it wants you to be sad, you are. John Williams contributed to this a great deal with his score; and Lucas’ use of practical effects to tell his story make it a masterpiece.” — Reed, We’re Not Sorry

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I’ve written about the original Star Wars trilogy twice before, both times back in 2007. Of A New Hope’s modified DVD version, I said that “there are a few extremely minor changes from the ’97 version… sadly, though, not to the CGI: Jabba still looks dire, not even as good as the Episode I version — CGI that was five years old by the time of this release.” Then, treating the film as the fourth part of the saga, I wrote that “the biggest change [from the prequel trilogy] is in tone: I to III present an epic fantasy story, full of wizard-like Jedi, intricate galactic politics, and ancient prophecies; by contrast, A New Hope is straight-up action/adventure, far more concerned with gunfights, tricky situations, exciting dogfights, and amusing banter than with whether the President has been granted too much executive power.”

Verdict

In my post on The Empire Strikes Back, I said it wasn’t actually my favourite Star Wars film. For all the popularity the series has as a whole, there’s only really one other possible contender for that crown: the first one. By which I mean this one, not Phantom Menace. Here, Lucas almost instantly conjures up a universe that feels wholly-imagined and genuinely lived-in (which is part of the reason people ended up so disappointed by the made-up-as-they-went-along, fill-in-the-blanks prequel trilogy). Throw in an array of likeable and entertaining characters, plus groundbreaking special effects, and you’re on to a winner. The plot may just be a classical hero narrative, but it’s in space and has laser swords — that counts for a lot.

Next: #89 ! Fuck yeah!

Star Wars Begins (2011)

A Filmumentary

2015 #63
Jamie Benning | 139 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English

This year, I finally got round to watching the Star Wars Blu-rays I bought back whenever they came out, so I thought what better time to also finally watch Jamie Benning’s trilogy of “filmumentaries”. What’s a filmumentary, you ask? Well, here’s the opening text of the film itself:

Star Wars Begins is an unofficial commentary on Star Wars. It contains video clips, audio from the cast and crew, alternate angles, bloopers, text facts and insights into the development and creation of the film.

For those familiar with (Warner) Blu-rays, it’s essentially a fan-made Maximum Movie Mode, though drawing on a wealth of archive resources rather than newly-recorded material. In practice, it plays less like a cohesive “making of” and more like a trivia track on steroids. Only rarely do we learn something fundamental; mostly it’s interesting titbits. But then, this is a documentary made by a fan for fans, and fans love minutiae. Consequently, it sometimes comes from a place of deep fan-ish-ness. For example, it refers to and uses clips from the “Lost Cut”, but never bothers to define or explain what that is (or if it did, I blinked and missed it). Conversely, it occasionally transcends “Star Wars trivia” to unveil general “moviemaking trivia” — how different on-set audio sounds to the final mix; demonstrations of how editing can affect the flow and pace of a scene; and so on.

Perhaps the highlight are some early deleted scenes. Featuring Luke, Biggs and their friends on Tatooine, and placed to intercut with the droids’ progress and Vader’s search for them (i.e. before we even meet Luke in the finished film), the sequences were removed en masse due to execs’ fears they made the movie feel like “American Graffiti in space”. And for once, an exec was right! They give the movie a completely different tone; more grounded and less mythic. Thank goodness they were done away with, to be honest.

Another personal highlight was a snippet from a 1978 interview with Harrison Ford, in which the Han Solo actor says Star Wars is not science fiction, it’s science fantasy. He’s bang on the money — it’s a distinction I subscribe to wholeheartedly. I’d always thought it was a more recent argument, but there he is expressing it right after the film came out, not as some decades-later revisionism.

This is actually the third of Benning’s filmumentaries — he started with Empire and followed it with Jedi, only then going back to where it all began. Maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe a greater behind-the-scenes scrutiny on the sequels gave him more to work with, producing more in-depth making-ofs, and when he went back to the first he just had to work with what he could find. Or maybe the disjointed trivia grab bag is his style, and here it reaches its apogee. I guess I’ll find out soon enough.

Star Wars Begins may not be the first port of call for anyone looking for an overview of the making of Star Wars, but it’s a goldmine of behind-the-scenes titbits and occasional candid revelations for anyone with a strong enough interest.

4 out of 5

Star Wars Begins can be watched on Vimeo here.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released in the UK this Thursday, and in the US on Friday.

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2015. Read more here.

The Star Wars Series

Introduction

While my main quest this year has been to see 100 films I’ve never seen before by the end of 2007, I’ve obviously seen other films around this. One of these has been to watch all six Star Wars films in their narrative order, over a three-day weekend. This turned out to be the weekend just passed, from Friday 10th to Sunday 12th. This special entry documents my thoughts on the films when viewed back to back in such a way.


Star Wars

Of course, everyone knows that these films were made ‘back to front’, in that 4 to 6 were made from 1977 to 1983 and 1 to 3 were made from 1999 to 2005. One might argue that there are reasons for viewing a story in such an order (for example, Memento works because it’s back to front), but the fact that the films are numbered so suggests they should be watched that way. I’ve tried to view them with this in mind — not as two trilogies from 4 to 6 and 1 to 3, but as one continuous story across six films, 1 to 6. Hopefully my comments reflect this. To help bolster this illusion, I watched the first two on Friday, the next two on Saturday, and the final two on Sunday.

For the sake of clarification, the versions of 4 to 6 watched were the most recently remastered DVD releases, complete with all sorts of controversial changes. Details of them can be found on sites such as IMDb.


A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....


Episode I
The Phantom Menace
1999 | George Lucas | DVD

The Phantom MenaceEverything you remember about Episode I is still true: the plot is too mired in political machinations, the dialogue is truly dire, the acting frequently wooden, the direction flat, and Jar Jar Binks is as annoying as ever. There are some good bits — the pod race is exciting and the four-way climax works, especially the excellent lightsaber battle. A lot of the CGI holds up remarkably well, but equally a lot of it wouldn’t pass muster for a computer game now.

If you’re a 10-year-old it all might be fine: you’ve grown up with CGI everywhere, you won’t notice the dialogue, most plots wash over you anyway, the action is cool, and you’re the same age as Anakin so you might not find him as whingeingly irritating. The Star Wars series would never have taken off (probably at all, let alone to the degree it has) if this had been the first entry we all saw.

2 out of 5


Episode II
Attack of the Clones
2002 | George Lucas | DVD

Attack of the ClonesTen years on from Episode I and Anakin’s a fully fledged Jedi (almost), Padme’s a senator, and Obi-Wan has a beard. Episode II benefits from improved dialogue and performances. Unfortunately it’s still far from ideal — the overuse of CGI leaves much of it looking fake (this is, almost, an animated film with a few real actors in) and the first hour is blighted by a slow pace, too much plot, and the allegedly all-important love story in which Anakin and Padme fall in love because, well, the plot says they do.

There’s also a building sense of the connectedness of all the films… well, obviously, because the Clone Wars kick off here; but it also more subtly lays the groundwork for other plot and character developments. It’s a film still filled with flaws, but it still feels a lot better than the previous one in spite of them.

3 out of 5


Episode III
Revenge of the Sith
2005 | George Lucas | DVD

Revenge of the SithThe sextet reaches its darkest point: Anakin turns to the Dark Side and slaughters the Jedi younglings before burning in the fires of Mustafar. It’s all very depressing. To the film’s credit, it doesn’t conclude; that’s to say, as the last film to be released you might’ve expected Lucas to bring things to a definite conclusion, but instead it ends with a sense that there’s more to come — exactly how things should be at the halfway point!

The rest of the film is a mixed bag. The opening and closing 25 minutes are action-filled excellence, all epic space battles and lightsaber duels; Obi-Wan vs. Anakin even manages to pack an emotional punch. But the Anakin-Padme love story still rings false, and the latter is wasted, sitting around in her apartments waiting for updates and then dying of Plot Implausibility. In trying to make Anakin a Complex and Divided character, Lucas instead makes him seem fickle and underwritten. The simpler, action/adventure-orientated characterisation of the later films is actually stronger and deeper.

But I’m getting ahead of myself: Revenge of the Sith is undoubtedly a better film than the two that precede it, but we all really know the best is yet to come.

3 out of 5


Episode IV
A New Hope
1977 / 2004 | George Lucas | DVD

A New HopeHere it is: the big crossover; the moment of truth. How does it fare? Pretty well, actually. A long time has passed since the dark finale of Episode III and there’s undoubtedly a lighter feel (despite the Empire being in control!) C-3PO and R2-D2 are onboard the ship from the end of Episode III, a useful visual link as things almost start over — it’s Luke’s story now, and, with a new actor as Obi-Wan, it’s only the droids and Darth Vader who are recognisable from before.

The events of the previous trilogy add weight to Guinness’ performance, as well as to the mythology that gets thrown about. Obi-Wan’s final duel may not be as visually stunning as the one on Mustafar, but there’s added emotion now we’ve seen the character develop. Real sets, costumes and models largely look better than CGI, though there are a few dodgy effects that you’d think they’d’ve fixed. Sadly, the CGI added in 1997 doesn’t seem to have been improved for the 2004 release, so things like Jabba look pretty dreadful; that said, its presence helps smooth the link between the trilogies, as does the music, a couple of plots (Obi-Wan vs. Vader; the Death Star) and some ship designs.

However, the biggest change is in tone: I to III present an epic fantasy story, full of wizard-like Jedi, intricate galactic politics, and ancient prophecies; by contrast, A New Hope is straight-up action/adventure, far more concerned with gunfights, tricky situations, exciting dogfights, and amusing banter than with whether the President has been granted too much executive power. It’s all the better for it — even without glossy CGI and choreographed lightsaber duels, this is by far the most fun film so far.

If anyone’s only seen the prequels they may be baffled why so many people love Star Wars. This is the answer.

4 out of 5


Episode V
The Empire Strikes Back
1980 / 2004 | Irvin Kershner | DVD

The Empire Strikes BackThere are a variety of elements in the series’ penultimate film that have a very different impact in light of what we’ve experienced in the first trilogy. The most obvious is the revelation that Vader is Luke’s father: it’s no longer a twist, of course, but the emotional impact on Luke still makes it an important moment. Yoda’s line, “There is another”, is less mysterious, as is Luke’s ability to telepathically alert Leia near the end. Thank God their kiss is only a brief moment of humour though!

Speaking of Yoda, he seems to have gone a little loopy after several decades alone on Dagobah; the odd little green puppet is quite far removed from the wise old CGI sage we’ve seen before. His first mention (by a ‘hallucination’ of Obi-Wan) is also far less mysterious considering we know who Yoda is.

The film finds itself lacking in the lightsaber duel department — after the long, complex fights of the prequels, the Luke/Vader duel looks decidedly weak; though, at the end of it, Vader exhibits characteristics which are very reminiscent of Anakin in Revenge of the Sith. Also, Han and Leia’s burgeoning romance is infinitely more believable than Anakin and Padme’s in only a fraction of the screen time.

With Yoda, Boba Fett, the Emperor and Jabba all cropping up, threads planted and grown in all four preceding films are coming together, and things are in place to be wrapped up in the concluding film…

4 out of 5


Episode VI
Return of the Jedi
1983 / 2004 | Richard Marquand | DVD

Return of the JediConsidering it’s the grand finale, it’s perhaps surprising that Episode VI is largely the lightest of all the films, filled with extra humour and all those cute little Ewoks. Personally, I like the Ewoks — they make me laugh, go “aww”, and it’s sad when they die! Yoda’s death is another sad moment, and even more so having seen him in full action in the first three films. The threat posed by the Emperor is also even more apparent, there’s more of a sense that Luke truly could follow in his father’s footsteps, and there’s added poetic irony in Darth Vader’s final decision — it is the same thing that caused him to turn to the Dark Side that saves him from it.

Here is also the biggest failing of the films as a single series, however: the prequel trilogy is endlessly obsessed with the prophecy about Anakin bringing balance to the Force; it isn’t mentioned once here. A dubbed line or added shot with Yoda saying something would’ve been nice. Instead, the major change at the end is adding Hayden Christensen over Sebastian Shaw. It’s a dreadful idea on paper… and so too in practice. He looks out of place and doesn’t at all match with the man we just saw die in Luke’s arms. Seeing celebrations across Bespin, Tatooine, Naboo and Coruscant neatly ties this right back to Episode I and shows the larger impact of the end of the Empire in what is an otherwise surprisingly brief and low-key post-victory epilogue.

Another thing worth a quick mention is the speederbike chase through the forests of Endor — one of the series’ very best action sequences, and all the more effective for being entirely practical instead of CGI. When all’s said and done, I think Jedi is actually the most underrated of all the films.

4 out of 5


Final Thoughts

So, does it work?

As with most things it’s a case of yes and no. As I’m sure you’ve seen, my review of A New Hope covers many of my thoughts on the changeover between the two trilogies, and my comments on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi elaborate on how things progress across the final two episodes. In short, it is, perhaps surprisingly, not the haircuts or quality of effects that really give away the change between the two trilogies, and the 28-year gap between Episodes III and IV; rather, it’s the dramatic shift in tone, away from epic fantasy into thrilling action/adventure. This is not a bad thing, but when viewed in order it leaves you longing for Yoda and Obi-Wan to start wittering away about the fulfillment of prophecies and whatnot at the end of Episode VI.

The other thing potentially bothering is how some of the original trilogy’s plot explanations come off, considering we’ve just seen them spelt out in almost seven hours of detail. Pretty well, as it turns out — most of Obi-Wan’s explanations to Luke are surprisingly brief, coming over more as gentle reminders to the audience, or at worst well-handled instances of those always-awkward cases of “Character X must be told Information Y that audience already knows”. There’s the odd reference that doesn’t quite gel with what we’ve seen (for an example, Leia having some vague memories of her birth mother) and the lightsaber duels aren’t up to the calibre of those in the new trilogy, but that’s hardly bothersome.

If you’re a fan of the films it’s an interesting exercise to watch them in this order, and I’d recommend giving it a go. If you know someone who’s never seen them before, especially if they’re young enough to not be aware that Vader is Luke’s father, I’d say they should still watch the original trilogy first — it may still be effective in numerical order, but nothing beats that as a shocking revelation!

Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope – DVD Edition (1977/2004)

2007 #81a
George Lucas | 120 mins | DVD | U / PG

Star Wars - Episode IV: A New HopeMuch criticism has been made of Lucas deciding to modify the original trilogy for the 1997 re-release, and then further for the 2004 DVD release. It’s not necessarily unjustified, but it is sometimes picky. If Han shooting first bothered you, you may be a little pleased to know they now shoot at the same time.

There are a few other extremely minor changes from the ’97 version… sadly, though, not to the CGI: Jabba still looks dire, not even as good as the Episode I version — CGI that was five years old by the time of this release. The film itself is still a fun sci-fi-fantasy action/adventure, devoid of many problems that plague the new trilogy.

4 out of 5

My thoughts on the Star Wars saga as a whole — including more detail on A New Hope — can be read here.