Just as a fun project, I’m going to watch all previous Star Wars films except for Episode I and write reviews. I’ve seen the original trilogy before but I’ve never seen Episodes II and III. However, even the original trilogy I have not watched for a very long time, so this is definitely my first look at them with adult eyes.
I do not own the films, so I will not be watching the despecialized editions, though I would certainly prefer to do so. I really hope that Disney doesn’t continue Lucas’s refusal to release the original theatrical versions, because the corny digital additions really stand out as awful. I hated them in the mid ’90s and I’m not feeling any better about them 20 years later. Since they really stand out, I’m essentially going to ignore them in the reviews and just say here that they’re terrible, cartoonish, and unnecessary. And yes, I feel safe saying that even before I’ve finished re-watching them all. The prequels obviously do not have this issue–Lucas got to fill them with digital ugliness on first release.
I will be watching in Machete order, because (a) it sounds interesting, (b) it lets me start with some films that I know I used to love, and (c) it lets me skip the horror of Episode I. After I finish, if I feel that I can stomach it, I might try out Episode I, but I really doubt that I will feel able to do so. Anyway, so we begin with the film that started the franchise, the film that was once simply known as Star Wars.
The plot of Star Wars is pretty simplistic, by-the-numbers fantasy fiction. An adventure-seeking farm boy leaves his home on a quest to save a princess, discovering along the way that he has abilities that he never knew he had, as the long-lost heir to a warrior father. A mentor helps him to unlock some of those abilities but then dies, leaving his teachings behind to guide the idealistic youngster as he joins the princess’s wider battle for the freedom of humanity.
Lucas famously stole much of the plot of the film directly from The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, Japan 1958), but the fact is that it doesn’t have a surprise or anything new anywhere. It’s a film that’s about good and evil, suggesting that evil sows the seeds of its own destruction (which is why the Death Star has a weakness that not only allows the Rebels to attack it but makes it able to be blown into bits) and therefore good will always win. It’s a fairy tale. “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” is really no different from “Once upon a time…” And fairy tales rarely surprise or have anything really interesting to say.
However, Star Wars does one thing that many similarly commercial, simple-minded films don’t: it doesn’t take itself too seriously. The two characters we follow through most of the film are an annoying, whiny humanoid robot and a trashcan that talks in beeps and whirs. Han Solo is completely aware that he’s playing a role and is essentially openly commenting on just how silly so much of the film’s plot is. He shows false bravado that he is willing to admit (when alone) is false and laughs at the idea that saving a princess and bringing down an empire is a goal worth pursuing. He comments on the silliness of Obi-Wan’s teachings versus the modern technology of a blaster. There is even some good humor in the dialogue. (“Can somebody get this walking carpet out of my way?” is funny, even though I’ve now heard it about 2000 times.) It even opens with its own version of “Once upon a time” and a (rather long) crawl of words. This sense of humor allows the film to get away with its simplicity and silliness. It knows that it’s simple and silly, and that makes it okay.
Many have heard the complaints over the years from Alec Guinness about the dialogue, and his complaints are not ill-founded. It’s pretty clear that Lucas has a tin ear for words. Sentences sound forced and stilted throughout, and that language makes life difficult on the actors. That doesn’t mean he isn’t capable of a good turn of phrase on occasion, but one cannot help but think that the dialogue could have used a new writer to help work out the kinks.
Some of the characters are fantastic. Luke is a pretty standard fantasy hero, but Han Solo is interesting partly just for the odd position that he has within the film as something of a meta-character. And Darth Vader really is one of the greatest villains in film history. I do feel the need to point out that he is such a great villain because of a confluence of factors: David Prowse’s confident, graceful, minimalist movements; John Williams’s borderline over-the-top score, and James Earl Jones’s voice. Prowse never gets much credit for the job he does, but Vader is terrifying and commanding with the sound off, and his movements are much of the reason.
Lucas and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor (who was a fantastic cinematographer) don’t do a ton with lighting, angles, etc. to enhance things. They let the special effects shine, which they do, and otherwise really keep quiet–it’s almost a filmed play with special effects, and it works for what the film wants to do. It should be mentioned that the effects, from before the CGI days, still look decent 39 years later. Meanwhile, the CGI additions that Lucas made later look like absolute crap when they are only 22 years old.
I have done my share of making fun of the acting in the Star Wars series, and it really starts here, but the performances are better than I remembered. Mark Hamill has some very rough moments as Luke Skywalker (And what kind of crazy last name is that?), but he’s not bad throughout. Indeed, when he’s not whining to his uncle, he’s generally fine, though he doesn’t have a lot to do. Carrie Fisher is rather over-the-top as Princess Leia but that’s really fitting with the film. Alec Guiness has a great voice and that’s enough to make him work as a wise old mentor. Harrison Ford is really excellent as Han Solo, which is a surprise for any who’ve gotten used to him in the years since. He has to make his performance work on both a meta level as the guy laughing at the film he’s on and within the film’s world, and he succeeds, which is quite an achievement. The ones who really stand out as bad are Peter Cushing, Phil Brown, and Shelagh Fraser, the latter two in very little screen time. All three have the camp factor turned up to 11 in a way that just doesn’t work, so that they become laughable when not intended to be. In truth, part of the reason that Darth Vader is such a great villain is that he is in constant contrast with an awful one.
John Williams’s score is appropriately bombastic, loud, and completely unsubtle. Even the quieter moments, like the music accompanying Obi-Wan’s psychic post-mortem messages to Luke, are very obvious, but that obviousness matches a fairy tale film.
Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope may not be the masterpiece that its place in film history and popular culture would suggest, but it’s actually an excellent film. It’s simplistic and silly, but it does what it wants to do really well. The acting is a problem, partly because of the wooden dialogue, but I’ve seen worse-acted films that didn’t have the dialogue issues. It’s still a film worth seeing, even all these years later, and that’s saying something for a film this loaded with effects.
- I had forgotten that Obi-Wan outright lies to Luke about his father. He doesn’t even really play rhetorical games with his language like most oracles–he outright says that Darth Vader was a different person who murdered Luke’s father. Sure, you can say he was being poetic and saying that Anakin’s dark side murdered the rest of him, but I don’t think that makes it less of a lie to Luke.
- After what happened with his last pupil, why is Obi-Wan so gung-ho to train Luke? Especially since he’s Anakin’s son? Shouldn’t he be running away?
- When Obi-Wan’s and Vader’s light sabers touch, shouldn’t it produce purple light? And yet it somehow produces green.
- Is Obi-Wan’s voice in Luke’s head real?
- Why does Darth Vader now use a different light saber and Obi-Wan still have Anakin’s? Doesn’t that seem weird? He needs a new light saber because he turned evil? (This is probably explained in the prequels, but it seems weird.)
- We hear that Anakin was “the best star pilot in the galaxy.”And Obi-Wan doesn’t feel any need to warn Luke that the best star pilot in the galaxy will be chasing them when they leave the Death Star.
- It needs to be said: Needing that opening paragraph to set up the film is lazy screenwriting. The fact that it has become a series trademark makes it forgivable later, but it never should have.