May 4th is known the world over as Star Wars Day thanks to it acting as perhaps one of the most fitting and amusing puns ever devised (“May the Fourth be with you” in place of the traditional “May the Force be with you”). The first and most popular of what can easily become a three day celebration of the influential science-fiction series, the day stands as the perfect excuse for Star Wars fans to celebrate the beloved franchise in a variety of ways and, this year, I’ll be celebrating with a three day review of the Original Trilogy!
Released: 22 September 2019
Originally Released: 25 May 1977
Director: George Lucas
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
Original Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Budget: $11 million
Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse/James Earl Jones, Peter Cushing, and Alec Guinness
For twenty years, the galaxy has been held in the grip of the malevolent Galactic Empire. Although captured by the wicked Darth Vader (Prowse/Jones), Princess Leia Organa (Fisher) manages to spirit away the plans for the Empire’s superweapon. When unassuming farm boy Luke Skywalker (Hamill) unwittingly acquires these, he is suddenly swept into a conflict against the Empire and their all-powerful, planet-destroying battle station: the Death Star!
Nowadays, everyone knows about Star Wars; the science-fiction “space opera” film has become a near-unstoppable multimedia juggernaut, branching off into numerous sequels, prequels, spin-offs, novels, videogames, comic books, and more. But, back in 1977, it was merely the brainchild of a very young director called George Lucas, who was just coming off of the commercial failure of his debut feature, THX 1138 (ibid, 1971). Inspired by pulp science-fiction serials like Flash Gordon (Stephani, 1936), Lucas’s initial drafts for The Star Wars held the nucleus for what would become a generation-spanning franchise but was, at the time, a low-budget, risky venture for film studios to bank on.
After refining the script into something more closely resembling the film we actually got, Lucas formed his own visual effects company to bring to life his vision for an ambitious galactic conflict and managed to secure veteran actors Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness (who, paradoxically, so believed in the film that he signed on to receive 2.25% of the royalties but also disliked the undue attention the film’s success brought him), and filled out the cast with a bunch of relative unknowns (and some carpenter who I’ve never heard of…)
Despite the pressure and stress of filming negatively affecting Lucas’s health, Star Wars made over $10 million at the box office and became a cultural phenomenon almost immediately upon release. The critical reception was overwhelmingly positive and the film won numerous Academy Awards. Star Wars would go on to have numerous sequels, prequels, and spin-offs but Lucas returned to the film numerous times over the years to use modern computer-generated imagery and special effects to expand, improve, and remaster his classic film. While these changes have been debated by long-term series fans, many of these changes have been for the better, such as restoring long-lost scenes and improving the film’s noticeably-dated effects.
I’m going to kick this one off with a controversial statement: as much as I like Star Wars, I am not really the biggest fan of A New Hope. Of the three films in the Original Trilogy, it ranks the lowest for me because, as visually impressive and exciting as it is, it doesn’t quite feel like it “fits” in the overall saga because of the concessions Lucas made to consolidate his original ideas. Things like Darth Vader acting so neutered and out of character really stick out for me; I never get the sense that he’s supposed to be the “hero” of the franchise or really anything more than an intimidating, mysterious henchman of Grand Moff Tarkin and a lot of the film’s effects and lore are sub-par compared to what we see in later sequels. Crucial, for me, is the fact that the Death Star is destroyed at the end; this is the Empire’s greatest weapon, capable of destroying planets, no doubt staffed with thousands of their people, and it’s hard to really top that or believe that their forces are as formidable after it’s destroyed.
Still, it is an appealing space/fantasy film and it works really well in a bubble; its themes and world were greatly expanded and improved upon in subsequent films, though, meaning that whenever I watch A New Hope (particularly in a Star Wars marathon) I can’t help but notice that it just sticks out a bit from the others and it doesn’t surprise me at all that Lucas added and expanded so much of the film in subsequent re-releases to try and better align it with existing continuity.
Anyway, A New Hope is basically the story of Luke Skywalker, a wide-eyed farm boy from a back-water, desert world who longs to escape the monotony of his everyday life and find adventure and excitement out in the big, wide galaxy just like his long-dead father, whom he idolises with a naïve hero’s worship. Luke acts as the audience surrogate for the most part; cut off from the rest of the galaxy and ignorant to many of the greater conflicts and nuances of life, we learn bits and pieces of this world as he does and are drawn into the conflict alongside him, and view the majority of the film’s events through the eyes of this unassuming farm hand.
Luke is primarily motivated by his libido; after stumbling across Leia’s holographic plea for help, he becomes immediately infatuated with her and, though torn between his desire to meet and help her and to explore the galaxy and his duties to his uncle, Owen Lars (Phil Brown), he jumps at the chance to accompany Obi-Wan Kenobi (Guinness) on his journey to assist the Rebel Alliance after the Empire slaughters the only family he has ever known, turning his motivation also into one of hatred and revenge for the Empire and everyone in it. Accordingly, the minute he infiltrates the Death Star alongside his newfound friends and gets a blaster in his hand, he is more than happy to blast away at the myriad of nameless, faceless Stormtroopers and the first one to jump into the cockpit of an X-Wing to take on and destroy the Death Star to deal a crippling blow against the Empire he hates so much.
Obi-Wan (posing as an old hermit with the ridiculously paper thin pseudonym of “Old Ben Kenobi”) acts as Luke’s wise old mentor and father-figure; having fought alongside Luke’s father, Anakin, in the “Clone Wars”, Obi-Wan is Luke’s sole remaining (and strongest) link to the father he never knew. Obi-Wan talks of Anakin with reverence and respect, passes his lightsaber down to Luke, and is extremely enthusiastic about training Luke as a Jedi so that he can follow in his father’s footsteps. Though old and clearly haunted by events from the past, Obi-Wan is a patient and sage character, able to use the Force (the mystical energy that binds the galaxy together and can be manipulated by Jedi and Force-sensitive individuals) to influence (or manipulate, I guess) the minds of the “weak minded” (which, arguably, also includes Luke…) and resorting to conflict only when absolutely necessary.
Obi-Wan also adds to Luke’s motivation not only by fostering and encouraging his desires for adventure but by fuelling his personal vendetta against the Empire through his self-sacrifice; aboard the Death Star, Obi-Wan has a confrontation with Darth Vader, a former pupil of his who he claims betrayed and murdered Anakin, and the two have a…lacklustre duel that is absolutely devoid of the hatred and animosity that there is supposed to be between these characters, which is disappointing when you consider the calibre of later lightsaber battles in the saga. Still, the point of this duel is to kill off Obi-Wan so that he can ascend to a higher state of existence and to push Luke further towards his destiny and it remains a surprisingly affecting scene as Obi-Wan is one of the most compelling and interesting characters thanks to the backstory he hints at and Guinness’s quiet, veteran screen presence.
As the only prominent female character in the film beyond Luke’s Aunt Beru (Shelagh Fraser), it falls to Leia to carry the film as a strong-willed, independent female character. Though she appears to be a mere helpless damsel in distress who is dependant on a gaggle of misfit men to rescue her, she immediately takes charge of their escape from the Death Star, berating Han Solo’s (Ford) recklessness and immaturity and throwing snark at him, Luke, and even the mighty Chewbacca (Mayhew). Fully capable of holding her own in a firefight, she’s also human and sympathetic enough to console Luke after Obi-Wan’s death and respected and influential enough to be a commanding figure in the Rebel Alliance once they finally reach the Rebel base on Yavin 4. We don’t really learn a huge amount about her (truthfully, we don’t about any character save Luke and vague hints of life prior to the film from Obi-Wan) but her actions speak louder than words; she’s clearly a very complex and layered character as she has deceived the Empire (and Darth Vader) into thinking she is a loyal supporter of their cause while actually being a principal figurehead in the Rebellion and her commitment to bringing down the Empire drives her character through and through.
The linchpins for the film’s entire plot are, of course, probably the most famous droid duo in cinema history, C-3PO (Daniels) and R2-D2 (Baker); Threepio is an overly polite and helpful protocol droid who has no time for drama or adventures but is swept up into perhaps the biggest space adventure ever, whittling and complaining and despairing the entire way, and Artoo is the unsung hero of the film (and the entire saga) whose entire personality is brought to life very effectively despite the fact that he can only communicate through “beeps” and “boops” and at Threepio’s discretion. For the most part, they exist as mere supporting characters and the film’s comic relief but, without them, the movie couldn’t happen; similarly, Chewbacca, despite his great size and communicating only through growls or Han’s translation, isn’t much more than a supporting character but makes an immediate impact thanks to his unique design and screen presence.
Speaking of which, easily the film’s most likeable character is, of course, Han Solo. World-weary and cynical, Han is a loveable, self-serving rogue who is only motivated by the money and has little time for the Rebellion’s futile efforts against the Empire or “hokey religions” like the Jedi and disparate concepts like the Force. Where Luke is young and naïve, Han is well travelled and has experienced the very worst that the galaxy has to offer; it helps that Ford brings a natural, relatable, and likeable charisma to the role and that, as a result, Han is the most “normal” of the film’s heroes and his “Everyman” persona is immediately appealing. His character arc is, obviously, that he comes to sympathise with the Rebellion’s plight and you really get the sense that he comes to care for Luke as a surrogate younger brother and it’s still a fantastic moment when he dramatically swoops in in the Millennium Falcon to clear Luke’s path in the film’s finale, proving that he has a moral compass and a heart of gold after all.
Finally, there is the film’s antagonistic force, the Empire, represented by Tarkin and, of course Dark Vader. Tarkin is the voice of “the Emperor”, an unseen figurehead who is behind the Empire and their iron grip on the galaxy; with his straight-laced, officious tones, Tarkin immediately commands and demands respect and attention from all of his peers…and that includes Darth Vader. Of course it helps that Tarkin is masterfully portrayed by the late, great Peter Cushing, whose screen presence and veteran ability commands attention; when Tarkin walks into a room or speaks, you pay attention and the film does a great job of showing how disconcertingly quiet and sadistic he is through his unwavering decision to torture Leia and destroy her home planet without hesitation. In the end, though, pride is Tarkin’s downfall; like many of the other Imperial officers, he believes so completely in the Death Star’s power and impenetrability that he refuses to heed the warnings and is killed alongside countless others when the Death Star is destroyed.
Which brings us, at last, to Darth Vader…and this isn’t the complex, terrifying character we would come to know in subsequent sequels. Though he cuts an intimidating figure with his cold, emotionless suit and booming voice and wields mysterious powers that the ignorant cannot comprehend, Vader is little more than Tarkin’s puppet in this film. There are attempts to show him as a threatening presence and a malevolent force through the way Obi-Wan talks about him and his callous murdering and terrorising of those around him but it seems as though Vader is overwhelmed by apathy and boredom in this film (perhaps understandably so, in retrospect). He seems to lack the passion and drive we would see in later films and is a hollow character for it; thankfully, his personality, characterisation, and backstory are expanded upon significantly as the saga goes on but, for me, Vader sticks out the most as the film’s most out of place personality.
For a sci-fi fantasy that deals with a conflict that spans galaxies, A New Hope is surprisingly limited in terms of its locations; thanks to the film’s small budget, we only really spend any significant time on one alien world and it is, for me, the worst kind of environment to see in a film as it is little more than a dry, arid, boring desert. As soon as our heroes dramatically escape from Tatooine and head towards the Death Star, the film really picks up and gets interesting and that’s a bit of an odd thing to say considering how bland and uniform the Death Star’s grey and black corridors look. Still, it’s way more visually appealing than a desert and we get to see a lot of different locations on the Death Star before joining Luke and Rogue Squadron for their thrilling assault on the space station.
Although the effects in A New Hope are probably the most dated of all of those in the Original Trilogy, even after all of Lucas’s re-edits and digital tweaks, it’s still commendable and impressive how detailed and visually interesting all of the film’s models and ships and such are. Everything has a very practical, “lived-in” feel to it, as though it’s been around for some time and characters have had to make do or the focus has been placed on purely practical, military equipment. The standouts are, obviously, the Millennium Falcon and the Death Star; probably one of the most, if not the most, iconic ship in sci-fi history, the Millennium Falcon is as rugged and crude as Han and you really get the sense that it is just barely holding together despite Han’s boasts and its impressive capabilities. Compare that to the sleek, quiet ominous Death Star, which hovers against a blanket of darkness and stars like a foreboding eye. The Death Star’s planet-destroying power is a terrifyingly immediate threat and one that, I feel, was perhaps too great for the first (or fourth, whatever) film in a series but that is, again, the benefit of hindsight; if you watch A New Hope as a standalone feature, it works really well and the film even ends with the suggestion that the Empire has been irrevocably crippled. As part of a saga, it then works as the first real, decisive blow against the Empire but the Death Star’s threat was never really topped in subsequent films, only duplicated and expanded, such is the influence of that impressive battle station.
Finally, we have the film’s more disparate elements and world-building; it is primarily through Obi-Wan that we learn of the Force but both Tarkin and Vader also provide a few snippets of insight into this abstract concept. The suggestion is that those who can truly harness the power of the Force were once known as Jedi Knights and that the Force’s power renders even the capabilities of the Death Star obsolete; we don’t really see any of that in the film (or any Star Wars film, to be honest) but that’s mainly because the Jedi are all-but-extinct and the Force is largely perceived as an “ancient religion” that has died out, become a folk talk, or is a source of derision. Far more proactive and useful than simple blind faith, the Force allows Obi-Wan to manipulate the minds of others, move objects with his mind, feel the death of Leia’s home world, and ascend to a higher plane of existence from where he can continue to advise and direct Luke. Trusting in the Force over his targeting computer and more tangible senses allows Luke to make the all-but-impossible shot that destroys the Death Star, thus putting him on the path towards his destiny of following in his father’s footsteps and becoming a Jedi Knight.
There is a lot to like about Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope; the world-building and concepts introduced and hinted at are intriguing and Lucas presents just enough to both wet our appetite for expansion of this lore and tell a simple sci-fi fantasy with a beginning, middle, and end. The characters are all distinct and likeable in their own way, with each one hinting at having a particularly interesting and exciting life prior to the film except for Luke, who longs to be a part of an interesting and exciting life and, through the will of the Force, gets his wish in more ways than he could have bargained for.
And, yet, for all the respect and praise I have for A New Hope, it remains, for me, the weakest of the Original Trilogy and one of the weaker entries in the entire Star Wars saga. It’s just too simple, is the thing, too limited in its scope and so at odds with the films that come after it. As a standalone movie, it absolutely works but it’s as though Lucas struggled to fit A New Hope into his wider narrative in retrospect as the film’s portrayal of Darth Vader, the Force, and the groundwork it lays for the Clone Wars are all decidedly at odds with what we later experience and was unsatisfactorily waved away by a throwaway line from Obi-Wan in the third (sixth? Whatever!) film. It may be a classic piece of cinema but the sequel takes everything that worked about A New Hope and expands upon it in ways that make it, and even subsequent follow-ups, superior in many ways as the narrative has been clearly established rather than being distilled into one single film.
What do you think about Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope? Where do you rank it in the Original Trilogy and against the other films in the Star Wars saga? Do you think I’ve committed a cardinal sin by expressing my dislike of the film over others in the saga or do you, perhaps, agree that it’s a weaker entry compared to its sequels? What do you think about Darth Vader’s portrayal in this film and the way the Force and the Clone Wars are presented? Which character was your favourite and why? How are you celebrating Star Wars Day today? Whatever your thoughts, good or bad, feel free to leave a comment below and be sure to check out my review of the far-superior sequel!