Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Or plain old Star Wars, as it used to be, long ago. What’s there left to say about this defining picture? Well, it bears emphasising that, for all the deserved flak George Lucas has received since, and especially considering the stresses and strains afflicting him during its making, it’s an astonishingly complete piece of world building.
All the more so as Lucas isn’t a flashy visualist in the mode of many of his wunderkind peers. His shooting style is classical, and his most notable affectations (such as screen wipes) derive from ’30s serials. Yet through combining a sober method with technological innovation in such an astute manner, Star Wars Episode IV: New Hope (or plain old Star Wars) arrived both entirely familiar and entirely fresh, an instant mass-consciousness-capturing fantasy epic (he would take the same tack thirty years later, and stumble). While Lucas is ably supported by leagues of designers, effects artists, costumiers, model and monster makers, and, perhaps most significantly, actors who can say this shit, the creative vision is entirely his. It may seem that he abdicated responsibility by making such a pig’s ear of the prequels (such that people look to other participants for why the Original Trilogy was so right, when what followed was so wrong), but the wonder, joy, awe, majesty and spectacle of Star Wars is all his in conception.
I didn’t see Star Wars at the cinema during its first run. Despite owning a Luke Skywalker pencil case, and Star Wars felt tip pens, and having explored the countless possibilities of Star Wars transfers that came with boxes of Shreddies, I had to wait to see it until 1982 and its first ITV screening, on account of the vagaries of family cinema attendance. The four intervening years of hearing how amazing it was did not lead to disappointment, however, which is probably its greatest testament. Star Wars was essentially second in line to Jaws in defining the modern blockbuster era (and in terms of merchandising, it was the defining picture), and it lived up to the hype, and then some.
I did see Return of the Jedi at the cinema the following year, such that The Empire Strikes Back was the last of the trilogy I caught, when the trio were shown back to back at the local Gaumont one Saturday in 1984 (slightly undermined by a school friend succumbing to an attack of hysterics when Porkins’ name came up during A New Hope’s Death Star assault, but I was really there to see Number Two, or Five). I’d previously had the chance to watch a pirate copy, but I gave up on realising the snowstorm on Hoth wasn’t supposed to be that snowy.
It’s Lucas’ transportive world (or galaxy) shaping that continues to make the original so impressive, and his incessant refurbishing that has hastened to undermine it. There’s no not discussing the Special Editions in considering the Original Trilogy, since for the best part of twenty years they’ve been the only officially available versions. For a whole generation, Greedo only ever shot first. I’m not a purist to the extent that I want to see the matte lines under Luke’s landspeeder, or care about the things I can’t immediately pick out, like replacing elements of the climactic Death Star battle with CGI; it’s when the revisions are intrusive and glaring that it detracts from the experience. The Empire Strikes Back escaped pretty much untarnished by Lucas’ wanton meddling until the 2012 release, but even that now has some annoyances. Star Wars, though…
Most of it is front-ended, maligning the Tatooine sequences whenever Lucas decides to busy up the frame with CGI that looks like CGI, and therefore has about as much business being there as restoring a Grand Master with a felt-tip pen. There are CGI stormtroopers riding CGI dewbacks. The entrance to that wretched hive of scum and villainy, Mos Eisley space port, is now a CGI-assisted entry to a wretched hive of CGI scum and villainy, with virtual landspeeder and occupants and various pixelated creatures and characters.
The cantina is less sullied, despite a number of new interpositions. We should probably just be grateful that the fantastic space age jazz hasn’t suffered the same fate as the (truly horrendous) overdub of the once masterful Sy Snootles and the Rebo Band in Return of the Jedi. Oh, and there’s the recent random decision to put some rocks between R2-D2 and the exit to his hidey-hole in the Jundland Wastes (which I always heard as the Jungian Wastes, and later assumed Lucas was wearing his influences on his sleeve).
Of course, this is where Greedo now shoots first, or, following more tinkering, shoots fractionally less first than he did in 1997 (George needs to get a hobby, like making movies that aren’t Star Wars, since he’s changed it three times now; it’s lucky for all irate fans that he sold Lucasfilm when he did). Earlier, Ben Kenobi’s holler to frighten off the Sand People hits a higher pitch; it sounds rubbish, or maybe it’s just that I’m used to it being just so (Lucas has only adjusted this one twice).
But Han… Apparently, Lucas’ reasoning was that “Han was going to marry Leia, and you look back and say ‘Should he be a cold-blooded killer?’” Baffling logic, really. Apart from Greedo being poised to kill Han (it isn’t like Solo was shooting unarmed children in the street, or Younglings; follow this through, and a cold-blooded slayer of Jedi tots shouldn’t be allowed redemption), he seems to allow no scope for character development, that the scoundrel Leia likes will change and mature; you know, that the illegal trafficker in who knows what will become an honourable general type (and far less interesting with it, but there you go).
Then comes Han meeting Jabba. This was a scene I was thrilled by before it was reintegrated with the movie, in “making of” footage, back when Jabba was just a fat guy (Declan Mulholland). As it is, it’s awkward and unnecessary, what with Han interacting with a pre-weight gain Hutt (six years and a lot of pies until Return of the Jedi), stepping on his tail (when you need to get around logistics with that kind of “invention”, you should question if it’s worth it all) and Lucas fan-baiting by giving us a glimpse of Boba Fett. Mostly, as I think Lucas admitted, it only repeats what we know already from Greedo, and if anything makes the threat less imminent and more conciliatory; Han has breathing room, so his decision to leave Luke and the Rebellion in their hour of need is less compelling. Mainly, though, Jabba is intrusive CGI crap.
In contrast, I don’t mind the lift-off from Mos Eisley, and from this point the additions are generally less distracting. The CGI Death Star approaching somehow doesn’t quite work for me (perhaps it’s that it’s visibly moving in the same shot as its target, so looks wrong, the same way a couple of planets hanging from wires in ’50s B-movies look wrong), and the ring of destruction is less impressive than glittering stardust.
No, the worst offender in the second half is another Han bit, showing Lucas has no basic grasp of what’s funny and what isn’t (well, we know that now; Mesa Jar Jar Binks). He spent years getting to the point where he decided to reintegrate the “Close the blast doors” line (I was aggrieved that it was excised in whichever official video release I had prior to the Special Edition). Then, having no concept of less being more, he has Han’s moment of foolish heroism, where he pursues a few stormtroopers only to come across a dozen or so of them, turn into hundreds. George probably has something secretly against Han being so colourful and successful a character, an impediment to a black and white universe, hence the dampening down and lack of spontaneity in the prequels.
Then again, this is the guy who adds a bump sound to the fan-favourite gaffe of a stormtrooper hitting his head; he probably had devoted staff scouring the Internet for things they love most, just to tamper with and “improve”. I was more surprised it took so long to finally light up Vader’s lightsabre in the long shots after he kills Obi Wan; there’s been some really arbitrary stuff going on.
The other redundant addition is Biggs, alias Garrick Hagon (a few years earlier he played a hero delivering his people from imperial tyranny through contact with a transformative source of energy in a Jon Pertwee Doctor Who story, The Mutants). The Biggs referenced in the grand finale fight now has some context, but it manages to leave the situation more half-cocked, as we don’t have the introductory scenes on Tatooine.
This messing about, without the opportunity to see the original version (see Apocalypse Now for a contrast) ought to be anathema to the whole idea of cinema preservation, and it can only be a matter of time, now Lucasfilm is owned by Disney, before the originals show up (there’s money to be made, and even Fox will want to do a deal regarding A New Hope to be in on that). It’s impossible to watch the Special Editions without it sullying the experience, to a greater or lesser extent, mainly greater with A New Hope and Return of the Jedi. And yet, older Lucas can only beat down the essential magic of Star Wars his younger self created so much.
Likewise, it’s difficult not to consider A New Hope without on some level referencing what the prequels add (or take away from) to the experience. And the Original Trilogy sequels too, come to that. The gaps in what characters say and what we “know” can often be taken as instructive rather than glaring plot holes (I like Guinness’ considered glance before choosing what to tell Luke about his father/Vader, as it can be seen as hedging a deception that hadn’t yet even occurred to Lucas, or at least hadn’t coalesced in his mind). It’s interesting too that it has taken twenty years, long after all that tumult in Revenge of the Sith, for the Emperor to ensure “the last remnants of the Old Republic have been swept away”. Mostly though, there’s a feeling that there should be at least another intervening decade to account for the aging of characters and general rusting of the universe between Episodes III and IV.
Perversely though, the aesthetic gulf between the CGI unreality of the prequels and the tangible, used-future of A New Hope serves to cement all the references to a mythic past of sorcerers’ ways and ancient religions. Lucas’ dialogue is famously patchy, but what it succeeds at absolutely is conjuring a sense of a cloudy, half-glimpsed murk of history, one no one is sure of any more, where fact and fiction blur and the truth is hazy. Listening to Guinness’ Old Ben, the last thing it brings to mind is Revenge of the Sith.
It’s also a history the materialists (the Empire) have resoundingly dismissed, where the infrastructure of science holds sway and no one “believes” any more (this despite the architect behind the scenes being the ultimate evil magician; one might draw an analogy to the conspiratorial conceits of an occult illuminati controlling the major corporations and political constructs of the world). Lucas’ vision of the development of a foisted, deceptive totalitarian control structure is more acute in the prequels, where here there is simply a hateful Empire, but he still maps out a resonant framework, one where there is in-fighting and disputes, where the actions of the Emperor in wiping out the Jedi have the inadvertent consequence of making Vader a subject of mockery from his fellow Imperials (he never could get on with anyone, that boy).
Grand Moff Tarkin: The Jedi are extinct. Their fire has gone out of the universe. You, my friend, are all that is left of their religion.
The Empire is much more interesting, and more populated, here than anywhere else in the Original Trilogy, as Lucas understandably honed in on the Emperor and Vader as it progressed (the occasional Michael Sheard aside). So we get the late great Peter Cushing, obviously, as Grand Moff Tarkin, rather diffidently established such that we can’t be quite sure of how sure he is of himself. Leia identifies him as “holding Vader’s leash” and notably he is entirely undaunted by the Sith Lord, instructing him to cease strangling an Imperial officer, but she also impugns his (im)moral fibre (“I’m surprised you had the courage to take the responsibility yourself”, of his signing the order to have her executed).
He’s wily and shrewd, opting for psychological manipulation by threatening the fate of Alderaan over Vader’s blunt instrument mind probe, and he is cautious at his right-hand thug’s ideas (of the tracking beacon, he rightly comments, “I’m taking an awful risk Vader. This had better work”). He doesn’t look nearly as confident when Ani boasts that the day has seen the end of Kenobi and will soon see the end of the Rebellion. So it doesn’t feel entirely consistent that he should go down with the sinking Death Star (“Evacuate? In our moment of triumph?”)
Darth Vader: I find your lack of faith disturbing.
Richard LeParmentier as General Motti, on the receiving end of a Force choke, makes the biggest impression of the remaining Imperial officers; the sequence is illustrative of something at which A New Hope excels; concise, engaging exposition, that invariably offers just enough to inform but never too much to get bogged down or confuse. His pride in “the ultimate power in the universe” is misplaced, of course, but it isn’t as if Vader’s demonstration brings anyone on side; it merely breeds further fear and distrust of him. There’s also salty Don Henderson (General Taggi) and Leslie Schofield filling out the ranks.
It’s worth emphasising this element, because as Lucas gained greater and greater resources he needed to rely less on the essence of dramatic interaction (two people in a room would become twenty or thirty creatures on an elaborate or green screen set) and lost sight of the elemental forces in favour of unaffecting spectacle. It’s the path that leads to virtual villains like General Grievous (we can but hope Snoke is more successful).
Princess Leia: Darth Vader. Only you could be so bold.
Vader is very much nascent here; he is literally the black-hat henchman, a feat of design and vocal styling (James Earl Jones’ imperious work is unapproachable) embodied by a West Country Mr Universe (David Prowse). Jones’ skill in lending Vader not only gravitas but interior life is evident (“I sense something, a presence I’ve not felt since…”), but there’s no great complexity or nuance here. He’s matter-of-fact, even when confronting his old mentor, and Obi-Wan is likewise succinct (“Only a master of evil, Darth”, not addressing him as Anakin, since that isn’t who he was, then, although I’m sure it later occurred to Lucas to dub the moment).
Whatever surprise Prowse may have professed that his dulcet West Country tones didn’t end up adorning the Dark Lord of the Sith, Vader undoubtedly needed someone with equal and opposite presence to spar with Guinness. Whatever their reticence concerning the series, or perhaps because of it, Guinness and Harrison Ford make the most memorable fist of Lucas’ dialogue. With Guinness it’s simply adding weight and colour; when Obi-Wan comments “I felt a great disturbance in the force. As if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror, and were suddenly silenced. I fear something terrible has happened” the potential awkwardness of the repetitions (suddenly, terror) melt into the resonance of his delivery.
Han Solo: That wizard’s just a crazy old man.
Casting old hands like Guinness and Cushing adds texture and depth. When Guinness says “That’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time. A long time”, combined with John Williams’ orchestral twinges of memory, it makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand on end; eerie, beautiful, half-remembered (so not likely to evoke the prequels). Likewise, it’s Guinness who must initiate us in the lore of the Force, and the spiritual underpinnings of this universe; when he tells us the Force surrounds us, permeates us, it binds the galaxy together, there can be no doubt that it is so (to give due credit again, Williams is also enormously influential in this respect).
Obi-Wan Kenobi: I don’t seem to remember ever owning a droid. Very interesting.
Han sees Ben as the kids in the audience do, “an old fossil”, and Luke’s profession that he’s a great man (“Yeah, great at getting us into trouble”) finds him imbued with the classic mentor construct, part and parcel of Luke leaving the constriction and safety of home to go on a great adventure. For which, the mentor must fall and the inexperienced pupil stand on his own two feet. Lucas’ inability to let go of his characters (he doesn’t like death, even in fiction, as you can see from the discussions of killing off characters in The Making of Return of the Jedi) means Ben never really dies, coming back as a Force ghost, which in turn leads to the entirely cumbersome back-engineering of Qui-Gon training Obi-Wan to achieve this. You don’t need to explain Obi-Wan whispering encouragement to Luke as he closes in on the Death Star. Leave it to the audience’s imagination; of course Alec Guinness would be whispering in your ear at that point.
The evocative backstory of the death of Anakin Skywalker at the hands of failed apprentice Darth Vader is replete with the kind of deceptively simple exposition absent (bar one exception) from the prequels. It’s no wonder Luke ends up following Ben on a “damn fool idealistic crusade” but most notable is the way Lucas singularly fails to fulfil the promise of Kenobi’s words, that Anakin was not the navigator on a spice freighter, rather he was the best pilot in the galaxy (a pod race and the opening of Revenge of the Sith certainly aren’t enough to sell this) and a cunning warrior (an impetuous one, maybe) “And he was a good friend”; you believe Guinness’ Obi-Wan wholeheartedly, but you never believe Hayden Christensen and Ewan McGregor’s Anakin and Obi Wan are good friends.
The easy balance of archetypes in Star Wars might have been offset if Lucas and De Palma had picked different leads at their casting calls. Who knows? But the star-making turn by Harrison Ford is probably more crucial than Mark Hamill’s or Carrie Fisher’s. Although, credit where it’s due to Fisher, a lesser actress might not have grasped Leia’s ball-busting side the way she does, so diluting a character who is rather side-lined as the traditional girl/princess who needs rescuing when it comes to plot function.
Ford instinctively knows how to fill out this world with naturalist asides and a light touch. It’s there in his first meeting with Luke and Ben, in his bragging and bartering and in his light older sibling mockery of Luke (from his piloting skills to provocative “What do you think, a princess and a guy like me?”), in his acting against various costume and prosthetic arrays, from hairy best bud Chewie to bounty-seeking fish man Greedo (the use of alien language subtitles are another stroke of genius from Lucas) to his long shot look when C-3P0 introduces himself (“Hello, sir”; instant gold).
What’s most appealing, of course, is the element Lucas frets and backtracks over. Han’s the amoral opportunist, a smuggler out for a good deal, indifferent to the rights and wrongs of the Empire and the Rebellion. The only surprise about The Empire Strikes Back is that they manage to keep his character vital and interesting while he moves more markedly into good guy territory; by Return of the Jedi, all hope has been lost. As joyous a moment as it is (doesn’t everyone see the real victory at the end as not Luke’s using the Force, but the sight of the Falcon returning, silhouetted by a star, with Han whooping as he blasts Vader’s squad for six?), Han’s rescue of Luke at the climax is a signal that his inimitability is on the wane.
Han Solo: There’s no mystical energy field that controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.
Throughout A New Hope, though, Ford seizes the chance to be the naysayer and individualist, butting heads be it with regard to the Force (“Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a blaster at your side”; Lucas being Lucas he probably had this in mind when Obi-Wan discards the blaster he uses to kill Grievous in Revenge of the Sith) or who’s in charge (“No reward is worth this” he says of Leia ordering him about; the chemistry between Ford and Fisher is delicious; “Your worshipfulness, I take orders from one person, me”; “It’s a wonder you’re still alive”).
Princess Leia: If money is all that you love, then that’s what you’ll receive.
Certainly, Han’s involved in two of my favourite exchanges in the movie, the first being Ford’s improv when asked to report on the disturbance Han and Luke have caused (“We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?”) before blasting the communications unit (“Boring conversation anyway”), and then his latest bout of sarcasm in response to Leia (“What an incredible smell you’ve discovered!”) I recall being quite disappointed that the Marvel comics adaption included an attempt by Luke to persuade Han to rescue Leia that didn’t end up in the finished film (“She’s beautiful” suggests Luke; “So’s life”, deadpans Han, before Luke adds the crucial “She’s rich”). Like Luke (preferring the cynic to the romanticist), we are most invested that the character who has made the biggest impression on us is apparently buggering off at the eleventh hour (“What are you looking at? I know what I’m doing”).
Mind you, the moments where Han looks uncomfortable about the sincerity displayed around him are probably equal parts character and Ford. You can practically see Ford gritting his teeth when he has to tell Luke “May the Force be with you” and he’s clearly thinking “What is this shit?” at the medal ceremony, particularly since the Leni Riefenstahl-esque spectacular culminates in a bit of whacky humour as R2-D2 gets over excited and wobbles about to all-round mirth and merriment (now that’s the Lucas of the Jar Jar prequel trilogy).
Luke Skywalker: Well, if there’s a bright centre to the universe, you’re on the planet that it’s farthest from.
It’s now something of a cliché that Han is the more interesting of the central trio, Luke relegated to the one-dimensional, heroically earnest cypher. In Star Wars certainly, he hits all the expected notes; naïve, romantic, innocent, noble, pure, damn fool idealistic. Where Hamill succeeds is with a clear progression over the course of his six years in the role (and not just physically, thanks to an unfortunate car accident between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back). Here, where there’s imminent danger of his prevailing sunny blonde virtue on a Campbellian hero’s journey getting tiresome, since nuance only comes in with the sequels, Hamill is still able to impress as an actor able to extract subtlety and humour from a potentially bland lead.
In the opening stages there’s something of the “It’s so unfair” that plagued Hayden Christensen’s Anakin at every turn, and one can lapse into parroting post-A New Hope developments back at his unknowing admissions (“Who is she? She’s beautiful”… Er, she’s your sister). So too, there’s no way he can be expected to make some of the dialogue bounce (“You know of the rebellion against the Empire?”, “I’ve never seen such devotion in a droid before”, and his modesty regarding bulls eyeing womprats in his T-16 back home; they’re very optimistic, the rebels, giving an untested pilot a prize spot in the attack on the Death Star, but I guess they’ll take anyone they can get). But he’s generous and respectful of his fellow cast members who get all the better lines, be it Anthony Daniels, Guinness, Ford or Fisher. Perhaps the best compliment you can pay Hamill is that he makes those farm boy qualities of his character Luke’s qualities, rather than bringing his own baggage as a young actor.
Princess Leia: You came in that thing? You’re braver than I thought.
If Luke is a straight and narrow hero in A New Hope, Fisher ensures Leia puts a spin on your stereotypical fairy tale princess, even if she requires de rigueur rescuing. She isn’t intimidated by her captors, holds out against the mind probe and lies when her beloved home world is threatened. No sooner is she released than she starts bossing her rescuers around, trading sarcasm and insults with Han (including may be the best put down in the movie, of almost meta proportions; “Can someone get this big walking carpet out of my way?”, see also “Aren’t you a little short to be a stormtrooper?”)
She’s also nonplussed by boys’ notions of heroism and bravado, and so recognises that they were allowed to escape the Death Star while Han and Luke are busy celebrating (following the arcade shoot ’em up-preceding TIE Fighter chase). Admittedly, if she’d been a bit wiser still they’d have regrouped and ensured they weren’t being tracked before heading to Yavin, but that would be no fun.
Fisher isn’t your classical movie-gorgeous heroine, and it’s probably a sign of the era, despite the self-consciously traditional qualities of the picture, that she was cast, bringing her accompanying smarts and wit along for the ride (would Leia have been so a decade later, or would the series have got a Kate Capshaw?). It helps immeasurably that she and Ford (as he was then, at any rate) have the dynamic of two naturally alpha personalities clashing. That sort of conversation doesn’t even figure into discussing the blandness of the prequels, where Natalie Portman is progressively shut out of any kind of independent thought as Padmé.
C3P0: We seem to be made to suffer. It’s our lot in life.
Then there are C3P0 and R2-D2, Lucas’ Kurosawa-inspired characters (the squabbling peasants from The Hidden Fortress), second class-citizens who aren’t even allowed in bars. Retconning C3P0 as fashioned by Darth Vader is the sort of nonsense that fails to impact on A New Hope (particularly pointless as, given the number of like models around the place, he’s evidently no more than a kit car) and, having endured the ignominy the character is put through in the prequels, it’s a relief to witness how consistently enhancing his presence and dialogue is here. No slapstick CGI japery in this one.
C3P0: No, I don’t think he likes you at all… No, I don’t like you either.
And the camp nerviness is, as we’ve been informed many a time, all Daniels. C-3P0’s dialogue is possibly the most consistently repeatable of any character here, but it’s not just the delivery (like Prowse it was planned he’d be voiced by another actor), it’s the movement and gestures, the mannered interaction and constant barracking of R2-D2. I love the moment where he bashes R2 on the head as the little droid is feigning ignorance of Leia’s recording (“What message? The one you’ve just been playing!”) As always with the Lucas-verse, and franchises generally, there’s a tendency to over-indulge the hit characters, such that later their involvement becomes the tail wagging the dog at the expense of their appropriate place (it’s okay, it all makes sense, they get their memories wiped!)
Star Wars also initiated a golden age in science fiction and fantasy design that lasted nigh on a decade before the accursed CGI slowly began taking the edge off. While the ability to render effects was sometimes variable (Return of the Jedi especially), the one aspect that didn’t peter out through the trilogy was the creature work; Jabba’s palace really does allow Lucas to go to town with a budget that wasn’t open to him for the cantina, and unlike the prequels he makes it count with some amazing prosthetic creatures. There’s scarcely a design in the prequels that hits the mark the way the Original Trilogy creations do. The same is true of the spaceships, even given the desire to go down a different route was intentional. Almost everything that is memorable in them is a reinforcement of existing work.
And with A New Hope, it’s telling that many iconic designs come from simple budget-saving measures; Sand People wrapped in bandages, Jawas are hoodies with glowing eyes (no prosthetic work required), elephants dressed as Banthas (which Lucas didn’t like, but is absolutely perfect, provided the elephants weren’t fussed of course). The stormtroopers (“I can’t see a thing in this helmet”) are so iconic that both prequels and the new trilogy have had no option but to loot them and update/backdate them.
Until looking them up I didn’t know the cantina jazz band were called Figrin D’an and the Modal Nodes (I’m not sure I’m glad I do now) or that they’re Biths. But it’s the combination of great tune and cool aliens that look like they were designed to play wind instruments. Characters like the Garindan imperial spy get a laugh, but he’s both funny looking and believably odd (the trunk and googles). And for every Walrus Man there’s a pig-faced fellow (“You just better watch yourself”) who’s disturbingly freaky (and Walrus Man’s bloody, severed arm still gets a U certificate, as do the smouldering, rather reddish skeletons of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru).
Lucas fills the corners of his world with interesting details but he doesn’t overstuff it. Yeah, you sometimes get extras looking like extras from any low budget sci-fi movie, or a mind probe that’s a ball with a big syringe stuck on the end, but for the most part the imagination is pervasive and captivating; droids in every corner of a sandcrawler, a Falcon where one can play holographic chess (“Let the Wookie win”) while Luke tests his reflexes against a flying remote (and that’s not even mentioning the lightsabres). These elements we now take for granted arrived fully formed at once.
There’s too much going on to immediately start wondering if Chewie (good friend of Yoda, lest we forget) ought to be wearing underwear, or what a Death star droid is doing in the sandcrawler (another piece of design that arrives as if it has been trundling Tatooine forever; shot against an exterior landscape Lucas ensures this real desert, not colour-corrected, is atmospheric and distinctive, everything lacking from the prequels). Lucas’ long time ago has the wear and tear of age and entropy; C-3P0 and R2-D2 are really grimy until the climax. The picture mixes the classical (Flash Gordon-esque wipes and opening crawl; we should be grateful Lucas couldn’t get the rights to adapt it) with the untried and untested (motion control work for the space ships). It’s no wonder, with all the plates he was juggling, that he was convinced Star Wars was going to be a disaster.
The construction of the screenplay, from action intro to the lull of establishing the hero, to the fury of rescue and personal loss, is an exercise in designed simplicity, providing a firmly recognisable context for this dazzlingly different environment. The only slight failing is that, after so much ridiculously exciting, engaging and colourful action, we retreat to a rather dull, nondescript rebel base and a regroup for the recognisably traditional, barnstorming attack and explosive finale, one that returns where our heroes just left for more.
It works, but perhaps because the innocence of Luke is centre stage, perhaps because it is so familiar (the use of the Force and effects aside), such that Lucas could use dogfight footage as a stop gap and still get the point across, it isn’t quite as captivating as it could be (and it leads directly into that ceremony). Certainly, my favourite scenes have always been the ones that suggested the excitement and strangeness of this world; the cantina, obviously, and the garbage compactor is an absolute highlight, the cliff-hanger element (it would be recycled Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) used with supreme confidence.
Of course, compared to what came immediately after, and certainly sat next to the frenzied CGI of its immediate predecessor, A New Hope may seem a rather spartan, drab affair. It isn’t, but its capacity for the exotic is tempered by the constraints of time, resources and technology that serve only to add to the tangibility of the world Lucas was fashioning. The Empire Strikes Back is immediately more luxuriant a prospect (and makes its home in more easily controllable hideaways and interiors, rather than A New Hope’s open expanses), as the look of ’70s filmmaking fades into the glossier, and by Return of the Jedi shallower, decade that would follow.
And what would the Star Wars saga have been had John Williams not provided the score? It scarcely bears thinking about. No one much talks about Gilbert Taylor’s cinematography (he also worked with Kubrick, Hitchcock and Polanski, so they probably should), but the contributors to Lucas’ vision, from Williams, to Ralph McQuarrie (concept design) to Paul Hirsch (editing) and Ben Burtt (sound) are generally recognised as representing a perfect alchemy. It’s difficult to believe Lucas’ coterie of wunderkinds were nonplussed by his preview screening (bar the enthusiastic Spielberg) but if you don’t have finished effects and (possibly) a score, it’s probably unsurprising it didn’t flow as it ended up flowing and didn’t instil the sense of magic it ended up instilling.
It certainly isn’t the case that Lucas did something easy here, and I don’t mean in terms of the stresses of a production that caused him to swear off directing for another two decades. Creating a fully-formed mythology just doesn’t happen like this every day, and it can get so the creator isn’t quite sure how they did it in the first place (hence the blunders of the prequels). How many great movie characters have been created post-Star Wars and Indiana Jones that didn’t derive from other sources? Forty years on, and Lucas’ lightning in a bottle is still unique.