Thoughts on ‘Star Wars’

I have decided to do a total re-watch of the Star Wars films: all ten films (plus the Holiday Special) in order of release. Partly this is out of curiosity, partly because I’ve determined to finally see The Last Jedi now that it’s on Netflix and I want to be fully prepared. Also, I only just realized upon beginning this project how long it’s been since I’ve seen these films: the original trilogy, of course, I saw many times as a kid, and more than once in subsequent years, but I haven’t been back to it for quite a while. As for the prequels, besides The Phantom Menace, I’ve only seen them once, when they first came out. Ditto for The Force Awakens. Rogue One I’ve seen once in its entirety and then when I rewatched it I skipped around to the highlights.

I actually have copies of the original trilogy in their original cuts: they’re not ideally formatted, but they are pretty much what the original theater audiences saw in 1977, 1980, and 1983, respectively, so that’s what I’ll be watching, aiming to see them as much as possible as they were originally viewed.

With that out of the way, here is my impression of the original Star War, now retitled A New Hope.

This may be a controversial opinion, but it’s a really, really good film: just a very enjoyable, action-packed adventure, bursting with creativity. You could, and I’m sure many do, give a whole course on storytelling just from this one film. The opening scene alone is a brilliant piece of visual exposition, letting us know at once who are the good guys, who the bad guys, and how badly the good guys are out-gunned, all without a single line of dialogue.

The plot (which you all know, so I won’t rehash it), is simple and easy to follow; there is a clear goal (destroy the Death Star), a clear condition (get the plans in R2 to the rebels), and a clear consequence for failure (whole planets will be blown up, and a tyrannical Empire will use the threat of more destruction to maintain power). This latter point helps show the thoughtfulness that goes into even such a simple plot as this: the evil plan of the Empire is actually pretty well thought out. A few quick lines of dialogue establish that there is an Imperial Senate that thus far has kept at least a theoretical lid on the Emperor’s power. Later we hear the Emperor has dissolved the senate, gambling that the awful threat of the Death Star will be enough to keep the galaxy in order. That’s a perfectly reasonable set of actions: it’s not just being evil for evil’s sake, but doing evil things as part of a larger goal. It also puts the heroes’ struggle in the larger context that this won’t just remove a single terrible threat, but will also loosen the Emperor’s grip on the galaxy.

Again, all of that is established in about two or three scenes and a few brief lines of dialogue. Moreover, none of it is really necessary to understand in order to follow the film: it’s enough to know that the Death Star is evil and must be destroyed, but paying closer attention reveals deeper levels to the plot. I don’t mean that it’s brilliant or intricate, but it is sturdy and well-put together, and holds up well under scrutiny.

One thing that struck me this time around was how good some of the acting is, especially from veterans like Peter Cushing and Sir Alec Guinness. Look at the subtle change of expression on Guinness’s face when Luke first mentions the name “Obi Wan Kenobi.” Or watch as he silently formulates a plan of action after hearing Leia’s message. It really is kind of amazing that this film, which was, after all, little more than a mid-budget B-picture has two such established powerhouse actors in key roles. Though, in hindsight, it’s no more amazing than anything else about the history of this film.

On the other hand, the three leads are generally no more than serviceable, with Harrison Ford probably being the best and Carrie Fisher being the most awkward (as others have noted, she seems to switch accents at several points in the film). Mark Hamill, I find, starts out the film a little stiff and whiney, but his performance improves as his character grows in confidence and begins to take a more active role in the story. But no one gives a bad performance; they are all serviceable at the very least, and it helps that, one, their characters are all very vivid and well-written, and two, that the three actors have fantastic chemistry with each other. Basically, they all have a lot of personality, and that compensates for some of the weaknesses in the acting. For instance, I love how, when Luke bursts into Leia’s cell disguised in armor, her reaction – while expecting her imminent execution – is to cock a hand on her hip and sneer at his height. Desperate though her position is, she retains her every inch of her poise. This is not just entertaining, but good character writing: she’s a princess, and so has considerable natural authority. We’ll…come back to that issue in a later entry.

I also really like the bit where Han shoots Greeto the alien gangster, preceding it with a sarcastic, though vitriolic quip (yes, upon revisiting the scene, I have to say having Han shoot first is necessary for the scene). Again, it establishes that he is a rather dark character at this point: he lives among people who stab each other in the back at the first opportunity, and he’s perfectly willing to stab them before they can stab him. This stands in stark contrast to the Rebellion characters, who willingly risk their lives for each other and their cause. Again, the scene works on a surface level of establishing that Han is deep in debt and all-but desperate, as well as being a somewhat shady, dangerous character in his own right, though not to the point that we can’t sympathize with him (no one’s going to cry for Greeto), but when you think about it it also provides insights into the motivations and progression of the characters. Again, the film works fine on a surface level, but gains strength from closer scrutiny.

Another thing that stood out to me was just how grounded the world felt, despite the fantastic technology. Surfaces are grimy, dented, and covered in dust. The environments are often dimly lit and full of miscellaneous, but purposeful dressing. There’s realistic-sounding military chatter coming over the soundtrack in the Death Star, and later on the rebel base. The world of the film feels real, even when it doesn’t necessarily look real. Little details like the Stormtroopers chattering with each other, or a pair of low-life aliens having an unintelligible, yet obviously heated discussion in the corner of the cantina, contribute to making this feel like an actual world, where things are going on outside of the view of the camera.

Then, of course, there’s the whole matter of the Force, which is the final element that ties it all together. I won’t go into the question of what is the Force: part of the strength of the film is that it leaves the matter vague. What matters, to my mind, is that there is an element of magic and mysticism in this technologically-driven space adventure, and with it almost an element of religion. This gives the whole story and the actions of the characters greater weight than they would in a straight sci-fi space opera. Their choices don’t just matter with regards to the events of the world, but matter in a larger, more fundamental sense, and doing things one way or another can have unexpected consequences based on their essential moral nature.

On this viewing, I also noticed a few more flaws: the editing is sometimes kinda choppy, with overly-quick scenes and transitions that don’t quite match up. The effects, even absent the special edition upgrade, have aged extremely well; I especially love the model work on the ships, and of course the crazy creativity in all the aliens and robots that fill out the screen in the first act. As others have commented, the final assault on the Death Star goes on a little long, though I don’t really mind that because it both serves to ramp up the tension and because the organization and plan of the assault actually plays out like a legitimate military operation. For me, the biggest problem with the sequence is that it’s about here that the film’s effects budget starts to run out. It still looks pretty good, all things considered, but they’re obviously struggling to work with what they have, and there are some very awkward edits, while Darth Vader’s fighter in particular doesn’t sit well in the scene. Though I don’t suppose anyone really cares because the storytelling in the climax, with Luke hearing Ben’s voice, turning off his computer, and Han joining the battle at the last minute, is just so strong.

Of course, I’m not saying anything a thousand other people haven’t said over the past forty years. Star Wars is one of those movies that just flat-out works on almost every level, for almost every audience. A full description of its virtues would fill a whole book (and I’m sure has on many occasions). Even viewed independently of what came after, it’s just a really, really good film.

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