The good, the bad, and the Force: Re-evaluating Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope
NOW THAT we’ve dished out the horror and the glory to the prequel trilogy, it’s time to take an even-handed stab at some of the most revered films in the history of cinema. Kicking us off, a long time ago (in a galaxy far, far away), it was the be-all and end-all. Before the franchising, before the toys, before the comics and the games and books. It’s the trigger point of a revolution; it’s beloved by endless millions of adoring fans, and it’s under the SCM microscope today. It is, of course, Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope).
Tom Jennings: This is where it all began, folks, and it is so very good. It’s not a far stretch to say that this film changed the face of cinema and the sci-fi genre. Just look at the films that came before it. The majority of them dealt with sleek, polished, futuristic societies where people came into contact with weird alien beings. Or they were sleek, polished, futuristic, psychedelic societies that looked like something out of a drug trip. But the fact remained that everything was very shiny and new. Then Star Wars came along.
Put yourself in the shoes of a 20-something year old in 1977. You’ve seen quite a few sci-fi films and you love Star Trek on the TV. So this Star Wars lark sounds like something you’d love to see. You pay for your ticket and plant yourself in the seat at the local cinema. The film starts but something isn’t quite right. The spaceships don’t look fresh at all. If anything they look used and dirty. On the inside they look polished but further on in the film we see Tatooine and that looks dirty and used too. Plus the story, a young boy wants to go off and be a soldier but his Aunt and Uncle make him stay to work on the farm. Later on, he encounters a wise old man who promises to teach him about something called “The Force” and gives the young boy a “lightsaber”.
Are we watching a sci-fi film or a Samurai/Western? We’re watching all three. It was Lucas’ intention for Star Wars to pay homage to Akira Kurosawa films and, being the giant film nerd that he is, he couldn’t resist putting in other references. There are so many homages to and pastiches of other film genres, and B-movie serials, that it often feels like we are witnessing the culmination of cinema itself.
This is what makes A New Hope such a great film. It shows that you can take all of those cultural and generic conventions and utilise them to tell a fresh, for the time, story and you can still be excited by them.We’ve seen the hopeless youth stuck somewhere wanting to make a better life for himself. We’ve seen the wise old mentor who guides the youth on a spiritual journey to be a warrior. We’ve seen the swaggering anti-hero who’s only in it for himself. And we’ve definitely seen the evil empire ravaging large areas whilst a plucky band of rebels fights for the common people.
But Star Wars is aware of it’s unoriginality and, because it has a rich seam to tap into, it comfortably plays around with these conventions to make them it’s own. The mythical sword is now a lightsaber. The spiritual entity is The Force. It’s not different clans of Samurai, it’s Jedi and Sith. These stories work and will always work but Star Wars did it this way first and influenced so many others to try as well. No Star Wars = No Firefly. And I don’t think that’s something we want to contemplate.
Harry Brewis: Playing Devil’s Advocate on A New Hope is a difficult thing for me, because I love that movie. It’s a brilliant examination of heroic fantasy and science fiction and the ways humanity relates to the world through them. That said I have a few criticisms:
Firstly, some of the effects are really quite bad. The lightsaber stuff, for example, just doesn’t look quite right. The shots that utilise them are laid out like they were just testing the effects and didn’t intent to use those shots in the final movie. They’re designed to demonstrate the effects instead of tell a story with them – which is what the sequels achieved, using lighting and composition to create very striking and meaningful images.
Of course, these aesthetically ‘bad’ shots are used to set up what was at the time a novel effect and the very cool science fiction device we all know and love today – and since the only lightsaber fight is at the very end, giving them a proper setup is good. I just think a scene of Luke discovering a cool, ancient, elegant device for the first time could have been done a little more – well, elegantly.
C3PO is bad as well – he was designed to be evocative of the ‘maschinenmensch’ from Metropolis, but the outfit doesn’t really invite that comparison. It looks like it was the best they could manage on their budget rather than what Lucas had really wanted to achieve. It also keeps changing between clean and dirty and occasionally messes up the continuity. I think they realised a shiny robot would reflect the camera and crew and show dirt really easily so they decided mid-shoot to dirty up its cosmetics a little. C3PO is an iconic character recognised the world around though, so it clearly has its own appeal anyway.
Also, the story’s very milquetoast. Even for the time, stories about ancient knights and people in spaceships fighting each other and saving princesses and big final battles and evil empires had all been done before – in fact the film is so similar in narrative terms to Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress I’m a little amazed he never sued. Lucas went on to pay Kurosawa back by executive producing his film Kagemusha and saving it from falling apart when it ran out of budget. It all works out in the end!
Yes, the film is simplistic on purpose to be an easy narrative to get into and adds depth through subtle character interactions (one of my favourite scenes is when Luke bursts into Leia’s cell and calls in an over-the-top manner ‘I’m Luke Skywalker, and I’m here to rescue you!’ and she just looks annoyed by the sheer cocky idealism of it all), but it might have been better to do away with this stuff entirely and tell a completely new story that hadn’t been seen before.
But that’s seriously all I’ve got. The original Star Wars film is pretty fantastic and spawned a following for a good reason. The only nitpicks I really have are some botched effects and the fact the sequels both put it to shame (in my opinion). JJ Abrams certainly has a lot to live up to.