Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

The first (i.e. the fourth) Star Wars changed the space film forever, and while it makes a few missteps, the strides it took have enriched mass entertainment to an incalculable degree. 

Star Wars Episode IV: A New HopeUSA
3.5*

Director:
George Lucas

Screenwriter:
George Lucas

Director of Photography:
Gilbert Taylor

Running time: 125 minutes

Alternate title: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

This is one in a series of reviews including:
The Phantom Menace (Episode I)
Attack of the Clones (Episode II)
The Revenge of the Sith (Episode III)
The Empire Strikes Back (Episode V)
– The Return of the Jedi (Episode VI)
– The Force Awakens (Episode VII)

“It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.

During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.

Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy….”

This is where it all started: in the middle. In 1977, George Lucas, who had turned 33 just a few days earlier, released his third feature film, the first part of what would become a trilogy, and ultimately the first trilogy of three. It featured three main characters – Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo – and would become not just a cult science-fiction but also an incredibly popular film overnight, racking up more than $300 million at the time. For a film made for just $11 million (around $46 million in 2017), that is quite an achievement.

Star Wars has gained a major following over the years, even though its status as a foundational piece of blockbuster entertainment was slightly tarnished by the “origin trilogy” (the so-called prequels: Episodes I, II and III) released 1999–2005. In Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (originally released as “Star Wars“), the cornerstone of the series, the story starts in medias res, and there are frequent reminders of events the viewers of 1977 had no knowledge of. Mentions of the Clone Wars or dramatic irony would only be revealed with the release of the prequels many decades later. Thus, while the film slots well into the overarching story, it can also be rather frustrating for the uninitiated.

But that is quite beside the point. Those unfamiliar with the back story might be slightly misled, but the result is slight mystery instead of confusion, and the effect is a desire to know more. By contrast, Star Wars fans who have seen the earlier episodes will be up to date on the details of the Empire, but the mystery will turn into an appreciation of why certain kinds of information are being misrepresented or withheld. And the experience is at times incredibly moving.

Such is the case with Obi-Wan Kenobi, whom we get to know here as “Uncle Ben”, a solitary individual who has lived for decades deep inside the rocky region on Tatooine called the Jundland Wastes. At the beginning of Episode IV, the small but chirpy R2D2 unit is given a hologram message by Princess Leia of Alderaan to deliver to Obi-Wan. Thus, this droid, along with its gold-plated humanoid robot companion C3PO, arrives on Tatooine, where it is promptly abducted by the tiny cloak-wearing Jawas and sold to the Lars family, to whom Obi-Wan had delivered Luke as a baby.

Luke’s family is his uncle and aunt, and whenever his father comes up in a conversation, usually very obliquely, Luke is all ears, but there is no mention of him beyond his death. Thanks to earlier episodes, we know something the character does not, which is very effective in setting up expectations and creating tension. Viewers of the film back in 1977 did not share this knowledge, and thus the revelation of Luke’s heritage in Episode V would come as a complete surprise. At last, watching this film in the correct chronology (after the earlier episodes), we immediately understand why Obi-Wan responds with such a chilling silence when Luke tells him: “I wanna learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi, like my father.”

Episode IV reveals what an important role the droids, R2D2 and C3PO, play in Luke’s evolution. An orphan raised on an isolated farm somewhere on the dusty planet of Tatooine, he appears to be stuck in a rut until the family needs a new droid. When he and his uncle go shopping, they buy C3PO, but instead of his trusted companion, they opt for R5D4, a red-coloured droid. Fortunately, this R5 unit malfunctions (the film doesn’t show this, but there is widespread suspicion, based on subsequent novelisations and radio performances, that R2 sabotaged the droid on purpose), and R2 ends up in the hands of the Larses.

Arguably, without R2D2, Luke would not have seen the hologram destined for Obi-Wan, in which Leia begs the old Jedi master for help and requests that he go to Alderaan to deliver the plans hidden inside the droid. Taking a fancy to Leia, hearing about the Force from Obi-Wan, receiving his father’s lightsaber and losing his adopted family, he decides to set off for Alderaan. In no small measure, all of this is thanks to R2D2.

But to get there, they need a spaceship and someone desperate enough for money to steer it. They manage to persuade Han Solo, a full-time smuggler (emphasis on the “smug”), who brings along his giant hairy companion, Chewbacca. While Han Solo’s gift of the gab ensures a constant volley of good-natured insults that he lobs with both charm and admirable dexterity, he should not be underestimated. Inside the Mos Eisley cantina, shortly after Han strikes a deal with Obi-Wan, he is confronted by Greedo, a bounty hunter who has come to collect him dead or alive. Han shoots Greedo point-blank without blinking.

Now, it’s worth pointing out that, in the version released in 1977, Han Solo shot first. It is clear as day. Greedo was fighting with nothing but his rhetoric. But George Lucas, who loves to tinker with his own work, creating a new director’s cut as technology allegedly catches up with his vision, had Greedo shoot first (with a gun that appears out of nowhere) in the 20th-anniversary re-release in 1997. In yet another release, the two seem to shoot simultaneously, but Greedo misses. Whether this is of any consequence is a good question, although Lucas seems to think it does. Then again, Lucas has changed or added so many (often extraneous) details that we should honestly ask whether his vision will ever be complete, and whether his vision even matters. Probably not. But this was obviously not a question of technology catching up; this is just blatant re-directing.

What everyone remembers about Han Solo is not his indifference to killing people but his pointed quips, which, whether delivered to an enemy, a friend or a potential love interest (he keeps referring to Leia with variations of “Your Worship”), never cease to entertain us.

Lucas’s streak of comedy here is much stronger than his subsequent, fatally cringeworthy attempts in the origin trilogy, and the only reason is Harrison Ford’s comedic timing. Leia’s unflappable demeanour goes a long way towards establishing her stability amid the adrenaline, the hormones and, frankly, the emotions of the men around her.  

But the director, here as in most of the other episodes he helmed, with the possible exception of Episode III, is hopelessly inept at staging action scenes. Blaster bolts usually shoot into all directions, no matter how much training the one behind the trigger has, and the shootouts aboard the mammoth Death Star space station are particularly slipshod when the images recede behind a blur of seemingly random streaks of red plasma.

In other respects, however, the film’s undeniable visual effects accomplishments had arguably as much of an impact on the genre as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Obi-Wan, in perhaps the most understated but most important line in the franchise, tells Luke, “The Force can have a strong influence on the weak-minded.” In a way, all viewers of Star Wars were uninformed and weak-minded before they laid their eyes on this raucous space opera. But Lucas fixed that, and this single episode would continue to make ripples decades down the line.

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