[The Star Wars Retrospective is my look back at the Star Wars saga, thanks to the recent blu-ray release. Look for more articles every week from myself and other Flixist editors. Let us hear your opinions on Star Wars in our community blogs!]
First thing’s first: I used to be one of those jerks who acted like a dick when you called the very first Star Wars movie anything other than Star Wars. If you called it A New Hope or, God help you, Episode IV, I’d probably go all nerdrage on you. Further proof that, when you’re thirteen years old, you are almost always a c**t. The movie has been officially titled Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope since 1981, when it was re-released theatrically, so it’s time to stop being pissy about that. Now that that’s out of the way, I spent my Sunday watching A New Hope for the first time in two or three years. I actually had forgotten I had done that until Jenika reminded me while I was writing this article. That should tell you how the experience imprinted itself on my memories, because I thought it had been at least five years. As stated in my introduction, I am basing these articles off of the new Blu-ray releases, so they include the much-maligned changes that have been mounting since the 1996 Special Editions.
One thing became abundantly clear watching A New Hope, though. For the first time in years, I really, truly felt the magic of the film.
Right off the bat, the film just felt different. The opening crawl, that iconic summation of events that have never been put to film, felt new. It wasn’t a change mandated by Lucas or any other filmmaker. It just felt new. That was my first indication that something odd was going on, for me. The opening shot after the crawl, Leia’s blockade runner the Tantive IV being pursued by the awe-inspiring-ly massive Imperial Star Destroyer, remains just absolutely cool. It’s everything you want in a big space opera like this: big, loud, full of explosions, and featuring giant space ships tearing across the sky. Just amazing. Right from that moment, I was hooked again like a six year old.
It’s pretty evident why this movie got its hooks into me as a kid; quite simply, it’s just fun. There is precisely zero ambiguity anywhere in the vicinity of Star Wars. The good guys are young and handsome and clever. The two main bad guys are, to a child’s eye, a giant black robot and a man that looks like someone stretched thin flesh-colored wrapping paper over a human skull. They blow up an entire planet, and they essentially do it because it will make people shit their pants. Everything from the spaceships to the side characters are wildly-designed. As a child, you won’t necessarily notice all the Japanese/Eastern trappings in the way Luke and Obi-Wan dress, or the fact that Jedi are basically magic samurai, but you notice that one alien in the Mos Eisley cantina looks like White Satan.
That brings me to the first thing that the original trilogy does with a level of perfection and detail and scope that you just don’t find in modern science fiction: design. Everything in A New Hope is designed with a stroke of brilliance. Look, for instance, at the scene in the sandcrawler, when R2-D2 and C-3PO are trapped in a dark cargo hold with hundreds of other robots and machine parts. You notice that there might be some SIMILAR droids, but the only time you see two nigh-identical ones is in the very first sequence of the film, when R2 and Threepio are being followed in the Tantive IV by that weird silver version of C-3PO.
The same can be said of the alien design. All you have to look at is the cantina scene. It’s something of a wonder, really. That one sequence is very small in scope (two people go into a shady bar to find illicit transport off-world), but it also blows the world open like a shotgun wound. In the height of my Star Wars knowledge, I couldn’t tell you all the various species that you see inside the cantina. With the exception of the people that are clearly just other humans/Bith(the musicians)/Rodians(the Greedo-looking dudes), every person in that bar is distinctive. And that’s just a shitty bar in a bad part of town, granted a town that is one of the sole major spaceports on Tatooine. The mind boggles at the possibilities you might see in a real population center. We’d get to see that in the prequel trilogy, when we finally glimpse the capital city of Coruscant, but that’s a subject for another film.
The level of design in the film is also evident given how beat the hell up everything looks. The only things in the movie that don’t look like they’ve been used as an ass wipe is the Imperial equipment, likely kept pristine and polished due to military regulations. Everything else looks cobbled together, used, beaten up by poor handling and weather. A lot of that is due to the fact that they were actually shooting a lot of the Tatooine scenes in the deserts of Tunisia, so chances are if there’s grit, it’s 50% design, 50% “we left this outside during a twelve hour shoot and couldn’t cover it up right.”
The film also carries three perfect performances. Mark Hamill skews a bit to whiny to be worth discussing, and the less said about Carrie Fisher’s disappearing-reappearing accent, the better. No, I speak, of course, about Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Sir Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. I think all that I can say about Harrison Ford, and about Han Solo, is that after I first saw this movie, Han Solo basically became my internal standard for every cool character and still is. Think about it. Where would the beloved Malcolm Reynolds be without Han Solo? Hell, where would every single rakish criminal with a heart of gold written after 1977 be without a bit of that Solo DNA? Sir Alec Guinness proves, as Obi-Wan, that he was one of the best actors of his generation. On paper, the character of Obi-Was must have seemed thin, as the Merlin-esque wise old man, giving the hero all the guidance he needs and serves as a sacrifice for the greater good. Pretty base stuff, really. Sir Alec completely owns the role and in so doing creates another iconic performance of modern cinema. Peter Cushing doesn’t get the credit he deserves as the cruel, efficient Tarkin, maybe because he doesn’t create such an iconic presence as the two titans I mentioned earlier, but the fact that Darth Vader, possibly the most iconic figure in all of Star Wars, plays second-fiddle to him the entire movie certainly says something about his performance to me.
God, I haven’t even mentioned the two chief space fights yet: the Millennium Falcon vs. TIE Fighter sequence and the final battle at the Death Star. The Falcon scene after the Death Star escape is action sequence perfection. The editing is tight and clean, the sountrack thunders along at just the right mix of excitement and danger, and the camera work is just frenetic enough to be exciting, without being too hard to follow. It’s the definition of short and sweet. The Death Star sequence is just as amazing as you remember it being. The whole thing plays out like an old World War 2 dog fight, unsurprising considering that Lucas used footage of WW2 dog fights in early test prints of the film. The whole thing has this crazy, desperate pace that just mounts and mounts as the fight goes worse and worse for the Rebellion. Some people call the final space battle over Endor the end-all be-all of Star Wars‘s space fights, but I say it goes right here. For those of you that maintain that Lucas never had any talent, I need only direct you to these two sequences. Visual poetry, indeed.
Jesus, I just spent the last thousand words doing nothing but giving Mr. Lucas a big blowjob. Frankly, he deserves it. The world building alone in A New Hope is nothing short of astounding. It’s not perfect, though. Some, not all, is caused by the Special Edition changes. Let’s talk about the newest changes first. Here is the new Krayt Dragon call Obi-Wan uses to scare off the Tusken Raiders.
It’s kinda goofy, but it’s really not that terrible. I suppose it’s a personal preference kind of thing. I am OK with it, but I totally understand other people hating it. The other major change is in the exact same scene. Digital rocks have been added in front of R2 as he hides from the Tusken Raiders. The change looks ok, but it’s fairly ludicrous. The rocks disappear in wide shots and whenever the camera shoots from behind R2 out of the cave, only to reappear on tight shots of R2 from the front. There’s also no conceivable way the little droid could have fit back there in the first place. Not aesthetically jarring, but a bit maddeningly stupid.
The worst of the Special Edition changes is still is Mos Eisley entrance, where Lucas decided the frame needed to be full to the brim with digital effects. Not only is it a STARK tonal change, with a lot of physical comedy basically coming out of nowhere, but all of the effects work just looks bad. They went back during the 2003 DVD release and cleaned up the Jabba the Hutt scene, making his CGI look a little better (even though it’s still looking bad), but the Mos Eisley scene is still the original, 1996 CG. It’s terrible. As bad as the CG is in the Jabba scene (complete with the AWFUL work making Han step on his Jabba’s tail), I’d watch it a thousand more times before watching the Mos Eisley scene.
Looking over all of this, I’ve come to the stark realization that this is a retrospective HEAVILY influenced by nostalgia. As soon as I put the movie on, or close to, I was swept up again by the magic of the film in a way I haven’t been in a long, long time. This, I suppose, is the first major truth I’m learning about myself in terms of the Star Wars saga: nostalgia has a hand in EVERYTHING. This was THE most important film series to me for at least half my life. That informs my every reaction to the film. I fully admit this, and I refuse to apologize for it. Nostalgia is as important to a film viewer as anything, especially in a case like Star Wars where the films are so ingrained into the national consciousness that it’s close to impossible to find someone that has absolutely no knowledge of the films. I’d imagine my thoughts above would be a lot less glowing if I hadn’t had some larger connection to the film as a youngster. Nostalgia shouldn’t be something derided, in an academic sense. It should be supported and recognized as something that is going to affect anyone with history in a given area.
Next week, I’m taking a bit of a break to move to a new apartment, but we’ll have an article written by Geoff on multi-racial themes within the series. I’ll be back in two weeks with a look at what is generally considered the highest point of the series, The Empire Strikes Back.