That’s right, I’m gonna call this movie Star Wars, not A New Hope or Episode IV, titles that were added after the fact and make it seem like Star Wars is some middle chapter of a complicated and very uneven drama. I like that the original title is as simple as the movie itself: Star Wars. Wars in the stars.
That said, the title isn’t perfect.* Star Wars isn’t really about wars…not in the complicated, expanded way that the prequels are, where we know more the dynamics of the Trade Federation than we do about our main characters. Star Wars also really isn’t about stars or space. Rather, it’s an old-fashioned mythological quest, a legend about fulfilling your destiny and becoming a hero.
Consider the story, which I’ll recount using a minimum of the space-isms that sometimes confuse people into thinking Star Wars is science fiction. A sharp-tongued Princess, fighting for freedom and justice, gets kidnapped by an Evil Lord of the Empire, who controls a Powerful Weapon. Two good servants, one mute but sensible, the other prattling and incompetent, escape to a nearby farm, where they come across a Young Man, a farmhand who dreams of bigger things. Though it is the servants who give the farmhand the Princess’ message, it is the neighborhood Wise Old Wizard who tells him of his (the farmhand’s) birthright–his father was a great warrior–and destiny–he can tap into his unseen mystical powers and fight the Evil Empire.
The Empire kills the Young Man’s adopted family and the mission becomes Personal. The Young Man, Wise Wizard, and the two clownish servants go to a sleazy tavern and hire a Sardonic Mercenary and his sidekick to accompany them on their quest. On the way, the Wise Wizard starts to teach the Young Man how to use magic, though the Sardonic Mercenary sneers at everything that isn’t money or weapons. Together, the group rescues the princess, though (spoilers ahead for this 35-year old movie) the Wise Wizard is killed by the Evil Lord in a duel. The Young Man is now on his own.
The group takes the Princess back to her group of freedom fighters, but the Evil Lord follows them there with his army and Powerful Weapon and a battle begins. Though he is untested, the Young Man fights valiantly, using the strength and magic his mentor passed on to him. The Sardonic Mercenary at first flees the battle, but has a change of heart and returns to help the Young Man. Together, they banish the Evil Lord, and the Young Man destroys the Powerful Weapon, symbol of the Evil Lord and his Empire.
Ah. That’s the stuff of Greek myth, of Samurai legend, of folktales and the fantasy genre they inspired. It’s why, years before I saw the movie, the plot synopsis was one of my favorite bedtime stories.** It’s not important that it’s set in space…but I’m sure glad it is, because space is awesome. It means that all these archetypes get to play out on a truly epic scale. The Wizard and Evil Lord fight with LASER SWORDS. The Sardonic Mercenary has a souped-up SPACESHIP. The Powerful Weapon is the size of a friggin’ moon and, no big deal, DESTROYS ENTIRE PLANETS IN A SINGLE SHOT.
It’s not just a generic space environment, either. The team that made Star Wars created a universe with captivating artwork (yay for art designer Ralph McQuarrie), and unique, iconic sounds (yay for sound designer Ben Burtt). And it’s all tied together with one of the most fantastic soundtracks even written, a masterpiece that showcases John Williams (yay!) at his most dramatic and Romantic.
Of course, none of this would matter much if we don’t care about the characters. And care we do. Luke Skywalker gets off to a bit of a rough start since his first ten lines of dialogue are all whining, but I’ll defend him and Mark Hamill, the actor, against all the haters. Mark Hamill, who looks about 19 years old, really emphasizes Luke naivete and earnestness, and whether we admit it or not, we see the universe through his wondering eyes. Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness) adds dignity and seriousness to this otherwise pretty silly movie. Darth Vader is a lumbering, malevolent presence.
And Han Solo. I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any movie character I love more than Han Solo. Harrison Ford is charisma incarnate as the arrogant, sarcastic, materialistic, charming, cynical smuggler who Nonetheless has the archetypal Heart of Gold. He’s unsentimental and calculating, yet fiercely loyal to his best friend. He’s really funny. He’s a flirt, a jerk, and, yes, a scoundrel. He’s the essence of cool.
With characters like these, the audience is engaged in their adventures, even when their adventures don’t quite make sense. And let’s be fair…that happens fairly frequently. Why did it take so long for the storm troopers to realize that the escaped prisoners had gone down the garbage chute? Why was it so easy for the heroes to all escape the Death Star…or considering that the Empire wanted them to escape so they could be tracked, why was it so hard? Why are none of the Stormtroopers suspicious when they see sand-covered robots right next to the mysterious ship from the SAND planet, the place where the Rebels recently sent two hugely important droids? Why doesn’t the Death Star have basic password protection against everyday R2 units?
The answer to all these questions: It doesn’t matter. Take the final battle. Many have commented that the Battle of Yavin is, from a logical and scientific standpoint, kind of stupid. But the plot-holes don’t affect the emotional narrative in the movie at all. Why is there one spot on the Death Star that will blow the whole thing up? So Luke can use his skills as a pilot and save the day. Why doesn’t the Death Star blow up the big planet that’s blocking their shot of the little planet where the Rebel Base is? Because Han needs the time to realize that he maybe believes in something after all (alternate reading: Han realizes Leia is hot). Character is key here; logical plot points are secondary.
No, Star Wars isn’t a perfect movie. Like all the Star Wars movies except maybe Empire, it could use some editing and dialogue revision. The camera-work tends to be a little dull on moments that aren’t action-based. There are no minorities in the whole galaxy and only two women. And, ok, there are a few moments where Luke needs to be kicked in the nuts (and 3PO in the bolts (rim shot)).
But dang if it isn’t a great movie, (and since I’ve been hard on him in past reviews, here’s where I’ll give a big yay for poor George Lucas) an exciting, emotional epic that holds up to multiple rewatching. When I first saw it at age ten in the theaters with my Uncle Stan, I thought it was the best movie I had ever seen. Considering what movies I had seen up to that point in my life, I was probably right.
Best Scene: Man, even by my jaded 2012 sensibilities, the final space battle against the Death Star (original theatrical release) is just phenomenal. I think it’s a matter of contrast. Up till this point, the movie has actually been relatively special-effects-free (the characters have hung out in a desert, then in what looks like the world’s most sterile office). When the visuals suddenly become amazing and spaceships start juking around and blowing up, you know you’ve reached the finale, and the adrenaline starts pumping.
Best Line of Dialogue: “The Force will be with you. Always.” Ben Kenobi, in his reassuring but sad sort of way. Also, I love Peter Cushing’s performance as the evil Governor Tarkin so let’s include his best line as well: “I grow tired of asking this, so it shall be the last time…WHERE is the Rebel Base?”
Oh! And I love this exchange: HAN: I dunno…do you think a princess and a guy like me? LUKE: (quickly) No. HAN: (grins)
Worst Scene: Well, if you’re watching the Special Edition (try not to, I beg you), it’s the scene with CGI Jabba the Hutt unnecessarily recapping plot points. Otherwise, it’s where 3PO loses an arm and moans that he’s done for. It slows down the movie just for yet another moment of 3PO whining. Also the music is really sad there, despite the fact that 3PO is fine by the next scene.
Worst Line of Dialogue: “Hold your fire. There’s no life forms onboard.” You’re looking for the Rebel plans, you stupid Imperial gunner! Have you lived your whole life without ever seeing a droid?
*Space Quest would be a more accurate name, though that is a video game, and also sort of a stupid name for a movie.
**Though my dad had a tendency to mix the movies together, he remembered the overall plot pretty well. I’m trying to imagine telling the prequels as a bedtime story (“So kids, there’s this group called the Separatists, led by Count Dooku, who is secretly controlled by the Chancellor of the Republic, and the Separatists declare war on the Republic, because the Chancellor wants to create a political climate in which he…you know what, let me back up.”)