George Lucas’s Star Wars changed cinema forever. Released in 1977, and with a little help from the blockbuster monster that was Spielberg’s Jaws, the movie set a new precedent for blockbuster movie making and changed the industry forever. Star Wars (later released as A New Hope) marked the end of the 70s Renaissance, and though classics like Alien, Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now had yet to be released, but the days of those kinds of movies – ambiguous, adult features driven by edgy young directors – were certainly numbered. With Star Wars, studios came to understand the concept of unstoppable summer blockbusters, franchising, and merchandise – and gradually, moved to regain control of Hollywood throughout the 80s – until the likes of Tarantino, Stone, and the Coens’ ushered in the independent age of the early 90s. The changes bought upon by Star Wars are often discussed negatively by filmmakers and critics, but the fact remains that the original trilogy – especially the first two movies – remains one of the most iconic, influential and exciting moments in all of cinema. Star Wars as a franchise has become a household name, and in public consciousness, remains loved and admired to this day; the fan base is rabid and passionate (look at the annihilation of the prequel saga) and for good reason; when released in the 70s, the film became a cultural benchmark, and for millions of people, one of the most defining moments in their cinematic lives. As with The Godfather Trilogy, the Star Wars Saga has been discussed a thousand times in a thousand reviews, forums and essays, but after catching the entire original run on a lazy Bank Holiday weekend, it seemed fitting to revisit the series, to try and pinpoint just makes Star Wars such a landmark in cinematic history.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
What’s most surprising when revisiting the original Star Wars movie is how airtight the screenplay is; this isn’t something you’d notice watching as a child, but the script makes remarkable use of its time; there’s very little in the way of unnecessary bulk and every scene works to progress the plot. A New Hope manages some quick and convincing world building – perhaps some of the best in all of cinema – and we’re presented with an airtight three-act structure propelled by fast, confident pacing. For a movie loved by children, the film never talks down to its audience and respects them enough to put the plot together; it’s easy to forget these days that Lucas was a very talented writer back in the 70s. The ease of the world building is however helped by the fact that A New Hope, like Indiana Jones and Kill Bill years later, is a movie built upon reference and homage, and so plays on archetypes and tropes familiar to audiences and readers worldwide; it’s not an original movie, despite its surface dressings, and Lucas borrows from spaghetti westerns, Arthurian and Greek legend, and most prominently, old school radio and television serials like Flash Gordon, though this isn’t a criticism. Lucas builds his own world from these borrowed tropes and even without understanding the references directly (the screen-wipe edits for example) it’s easy to pick up on the hero’s narrative, the good versus evil plot, the chosen one element versus totalitarian antagonist – these are the elements which make up ‘boy’s own’ tales of every form and the familiarity certainly helped with the film’s success and appeal; there’s a comforting familiarity to A New Hope which reminds audiences of their childhoods. It’s also worth noting that Star Wars as a whole isn’t really science-fiction, despite its space setting – it has more in common with fantasy like The Lord of the Rings than it does 2001.The movie captures a wonderful sense of whimsy, adventure and is utterly charming. At this point, despite what Lucas claims in interviews, it’s unlikely that the trilogy was fully formed in his mind, which means that A New Hope is much more of stand-alone film than any others in the franchise; it works fine without its sequels and stands entirely on its own terms. The Episode IV title (which the studio wouldn’t let Lucas use at the time) doesn’t mean that the film is the fourth in an already planned saga; it’s simply meant to give the impression of the movie being part of a long-running serial show, similar to how Indiana Jones movies begin with the climax of a previous, but unseen, adventure. In narrative terms, A New Hope is Luke’s journey from naive farm boy to hero, which is one of the reasons it jars with the prequel trilogy, which focus on Anakin’s fall, an aspect which wasn’t part of the original movies until late in Return of the Jedi. The locations are impressive and imaginative, and the trench run climax is one of the best of all time.Moving past narrative structure, the movie is extremely imaginative, and perhaps every single element of the film – characters, villain, music, creature and set design, script, style, sound design, cinematography, and even hair styles – has become iconic and integrated within popular culture. The opening crawl, stolen from Flash Gordon, is one of the best of all time, and John Williams’ score is lofty, epic and atmospheric, and you could easily make a case for it being the strongest score in the history of cinema. Darth Vader is one cinema’s most imposing and impressive villains. Mark Hamil, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher give solid and suitable performances; Hamill does a good job portraying Luke’s innocence and charm, Fisher’s Leia is a strong female role and Ford’s Han Solo is charming and loveable, despite personal faults – the character went someway to cementing the idea of the anti-hero within popular culture. The special effects are incredibly for 1977 and the model work in particular holds up very well today; it’s fitting that the original Star Wars movies feel more real and authentic than the green-screen heavy prequels.
Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
A New Hope made a lot of money – more money than anyone involved in its production could ever have imagined – and 20th Century Fox, who had so little faith in the original movie, basically let Lucas do whatever he wanted with The Empire Strikes Back whilst providing him with a giant budget to work with. The results were impressive, and The Empire Strikes Back stands with The Godfather Part II as one of the greatest sequels ever made; it was a huge event movie at the time of its release and remains a critical darling to this day. The movie refuses to play to the audience, and where A New Hope was light-hearted, fun and adventurous, The Empire Strikes Back is considerably more dark and mature. It’s perhaps the greatest middle-movie in cinematic history; the middle film in any trilogy is always difficult, as filmmakers lack the safety nets of either first film world building wonder/exposition or final movie wrap up; as such, middle movies can feel bland and uninteresting on a narrative level. Lucas subverts this by basically undoing everything and leaving his characters broken and scattered; Empire lacks a happy ending and is all the better for it. The movie builds on the franchise’s Jedi lore and contains the biggest plot twist in cinematic history; it’s at this point that Star Wars moves from homage to their own product, as Lucas develops the ideas he stole in A New Hope into his own concepts.Empire is considered the best movie in the franchise; it’s perhaps not as solid as A New Hope, but works in the opposite direction, by leaving the audience disorientated and lost. As with A New Hope, everything in Empire is iconic and memorable, and there’s some really impressive scenes. The opening attack on Hoth is unlike anything seen before in cinema with some brilliant vehicle designs, and Dagobah and Cloud City remain impressive feats of imagination and set design. It’s easy to see how the fantasy aspects would have transported audiences to other worlds here, and the extra budget is clear on screen and the production values top notch. The climactic battle between Luke and Vader is intensely atmospheric with stunning cinematography and perhaps the strongest close in the entire series; its considerably smaller and tighter than any of the other movies and as such, feels far more character driven and personal. It’s worth noting too that the lightsaber battles here are far more rooted in spaghetti Westerns; these are slow, measured fights a world away from the ninja-antics of the prequels, the idea that the characters here are wielding dangerous and impressive power and need to be careful.The actors and characters come into their own here, with the audience feeling involved in the core group, and Williams builds on his fantastic work in A New Hope with his iconic and powerful Imperial March theme. The Empire Strikes Back is emotive and powerful and feels epic in scope; it’s the last truly great Star Wars movie and the franchise peaks at this point.
Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
The final movie in the original run, released in 1983, is the weakest in the original trilogy, though that doesn’t mean it’s a bad movie – it’s good, but there are issues here not found in the first two movies. To start with what works; the opening act in Jabba’s palace is fun, with great monster designs and a real sense of high energy; the Star Wars universe feels like its own breathing fully formed world by this point and it’s great to be back with these characters. Most of the movie – the gold bikini for example – remains very iconic, and the climatic moments between Luke, Vader and the Emperor remain well written and powerful. It’s nice to see Luke Skywalker grow into a Jedi Master too, and the franchise seems to have reached its logical conclusion.The problems come from an uneven tone – the scenes between Vader and Luke are considerably darker and stronger than those with the slapstick Ewoks, which means the movie feels a bit up and down. The Ewoks themselves are infamous in their terribleness, and really do pull the movie down; seemingly created with merchandise in mind, they come from a cynical place and perhaps represent where Lucas’s interests lied at this point in the series. The ‘simple nature beats the mechanical empire’ is a nice idea, but handled sloppily and feels far too broad for a series which until this point, was much more subtle. The second act is weak and suffers from a dull forest location – there’s nothing impressive like Hoth here – and the movie doesn’t help itself by recycling locations and ideas from the first movie; we return to Tatooine and the Death Star; which feels unimaginative, especially when Lucas had a whole galaxy to play with; we seem to restrict the world here. The characters are written in a more broad fashion and Harrison Ford in particular seems utterly uninterested in being in the movie. Certain elements, such as a the sister reveal, are a little clumsy. It’s likely at this point in the series, the passion was off for Lucas and Jedi was probably born from a monetary rather than artistic desire; it’s not a bad movie at all, and serves as a nice climax to the series, but the heart of the first two films is missing.
Prequels and Sequels
Lucas returned to the series years later with a second Prequel Trilogy, which failed to make the same impact as the original saga and was torn apart by critics and fans. The issues with the prequel trilogy is that the movies serve to make the universe feel even smaller whilst suffering from poor narrative choices and some very suspect writing. In some ways, the prequels are more Saturday morning serial than the originals, but they serve as an exaggerated and unnecessary addition to the series, adding in story which doesn’t feel important to the emotional arc of the first trilogy whilst corrupting established plot elements (the Force). Darth Vader’s fall, rise and redemption would have made an interesting counter to Luke’s journey, but Lucas handles it terribly, and there’s an air of fan fiction to the prequels. The poor special effects don’t help. A quick overview:
The Phantom Menace – Simultaneously overstuffed yet boring, Menace both tries too hard (the three-way climax) and doesn’t make any impact. The plot and characters are boring, the acting weak, and there’s an extension of Jedi‘s merchandise drive. It lacks the simplicity and purity of A New Hope and in narrative terms, adds nothing. Highlight is John William’s epic ‘Duel of Fates’ score.
Attack of the Clones – More fun than Menace, suffers from a terrible love story and clunky plot, feels utterly unnecessary in narrative terms and borders on self-parody at times. Highlight is Christopher Lee, who brings a bit of old school class to the movie.
Revenge of the Sith – The best of the three, and probably where the prequel trilogy should have began – it’s the only one with anything interesting to say and has the best action sequences. It’s still a mess, but more ambitious and relevant than those before it. Highlight is the opening sequence.
Disney is set to release Episode VII next year – we’ll see what that adds. For now, stick to the original movies.