Review – Star Wars: A New Hope
This is part four of my review series of each episode of Star Wars, if you’ve missed the start you can go here, or if you missed last week you can go here, and if you don’t care, you can stay right here.
Originally just “Star Wars” this is the movie that started the franchise and launched a billion toys into the world, and it’s easy to see why. I’m often negative in my reviews, but I don’t get the chance often enough to say: Damn, this is a good movie (my highest praise, I suppose).
I don’t know how many times I’ve watched all the Star Wars movies, but let’s just say I know all the dialogue and can sing along with the films. For this review series I’m going back and watching the films, not for entertainment as I have so many times, but for analysis as a critic or editor would. I love watching the film, but from an editing perspective I have to say, Damn, this movie is good.
George Lucas has talked many times about how he wrote this story with the hero’s journey in mind; specifically, the hero’s journey from “hero with a thousand faces” by Joseph Campbell. It’s undeniable that Lucas nailed it. Luke hits all of the necessary scenes and conventions for an action-adventure story in a way that I was literally ticking them off as I watched the movie. For example, at the 36-minute mark one after another:
“You must learn the ways of the force if you’re to come with me to Alderaan,” What a call to adventure.
“I can’t get involved, I’ve got work to do.” The refusal of the call.
And 5 minutes later,
“I want to come with you to Alderaan. There’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the force and become a Jedi like my father.” The acceptance of the call and the shift into the extraordinary world.
The difference between a movie feeling like it hits a checklist, and it carrying you away emotionally is the character and world-building outside of the story framework. Luke is a relatable farm boy from the back of nowhere. Maybe his father was skilled, but he is just a simple boy with simple problems. Leia is decisive and energetic. Han is aloof and charismatic. Obi-Wan is definitely not telling Luke everything he knows. And Darth Vader is a boss.
Luke’s character is consistent from the start. He wants to go off to the academy; he wants more than a backwater farm world can offer, yet when offered adventure, he immediately refuses due to loyalty to his family. Even though Obi-Wan tells him not go, he runs to his family when he thinks they are in danger. While enthralled by Leia’s message, he says: “It sounds like she’s in trouble, I better playback the whole thing.” You could see this as pretence for more base feelings, but why would Luke need to lie to the droids? He could just say, “Jeez, she’s hot I want to see more.” Or something less ocker, but he doesn’t; the actual words are concern for her safety. We see who Luke is long before he becomes the pilot that destroyed the Death Star.
Speaking of, the setups for the climax are fantastic. When Luke and Obi-Wan are at Obi-Wan’s home: “I hear you’ve become quite a good pilot yourself.” When they are hiring Han and Chewy: “I’m not such a bad pilot.” When Luke is at the briefing: “But it’s not impossible, I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home, and they’re not much bigger than two metres.” And when Luke is about to fly out of the hanger in the X-wing: “Luke is the best bush pilot in the outer-rim territories.” Obi-Wan, Luke, and Biggs set up Luke’s piloting ability. Over an hour and forty-five mutes we are told that Luke is a good pilot only four times, sprinkled in just right so that the ending is surprising but inevitable.
The world-building is done similarly. “You fought in the clone wars?” “Yes, I was once a Jedi Knight the same as your father.” “The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us, I have just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council, permanently. The last remnants of the old republic have been swept away.” “It’s the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs.” “Dantooine is too remote to make an effective demonstration.” Not forceful exposition, but single lines that bulge out the imagination. Worldbuilding is best done with a ‘less is more’ policy, and Star Wars hits the sweet spot.
Star Wars feels a lot like a western. Luke could be from small-town Arizona. Leia, a big city girl. Han, a gunslinger. Obi-Wan, an old wise man who's seen his fair share of trouble. And Darth Vader, the Evil Lawman from the East coming for their freedom, hell maybe instead of James Earl Jones’ voice, this Darth Vader is voiced by Jason Isaacs (for some reason in my mind’s eye Darth Vader is still cybernetic in this western). Much like Star Trek had made ‘Wagon Train’ in space, Star Wars is taking the genre that people loved and putting it in a new setting. Action-adventure hardly started with westerns, but it’s easy to see the touchstones to American culture and identity.
Speaking of Darth Vader, what a villain? Visually, all dressed in black, face covered, breathing laboured; he hits our primal fears on several levels. Then at 38.5-minutes in, just as Luke is leaving the ordinary world, this badass shows that he can kill you with a thought. As powerful as Obi-Wan with none of the compassion. Technologically twisted into something other than a man. I expect that more than a few people in 1977 found Darth Vader in their nightmares.
The conversation about women in film is and should be an ongoing one, but Star Wars does come up in that conversation as negative, as it only has one female speaking actor. Firstly, clearly everyone forgets about Aunt Peru, but secondly, they seem to forget that Leia is one of the strongest female characters in cinema. What’s the first thing she does on screen? Straight up murder a dude. She’s recorded the message for R2, then she’s hiding and kills a stormtrooper. When she’s rescued in the prison block, she grabs the gun off Luke and fires at the grate. She’s intelligent, decisive, and capable.
One thing that has to be mentioned is the music. John William’s music is as much a part of Star Wars as Luke Skywalker is. Don’t believe me? Watch the end scene without the music. The music helps tell the story, and it shamelessly plays with our emotions. The whole movie is made grander by the music. Without it the story would be just the same, but I think the telling of the story would lose some of its lustre. I typically focus on story alone in my reviews, but the music enhances the storytelling. The soundtrack album won an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a BAFTA Award, and a Grammy; and it’s not hard to see why.
Ok, finally, how does this stack up in the scheme of the story overall when watched in episode order? Well, it makes the ‘previous’ movies look terrible. If George Lucas can do this, just do this. The droids don’t need to be camp. Jar Jar doesn’t need to exist. Anakin can just have a regular birth, not an immaculate one. Clearly George can write good characters. Just do more of this.
There is a disconnect between characters from the prequel trilogy and the original trilogy, for instance, why doesn’t Obi-Wan recognise R2-D2? I mean it’s clear that Obi-Wan is hiding things from Luke, but why doesn’t Uncle Owen recognise C-3PO? They lived together for like six years. Uncle Owen has no reason to pretend not to know 3PO.
I think there is an inevitable disjointedness as the story movies from having Anakin as the main character and moving to Luke, something I’m going to have to look out for in another couple of movies.