Stars: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness
This is the fourth entry in my Star Wars I-VII Runthrough, which aims to look at the entire series of feature films with three things in mind: quality, progression and the fan theory of Jar Jar Binks as ultimate villain. Hello, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope!
My approach is to watch chronologically but with the original versions of the films. I'm therefore watching the 1977 version of A New Hope here rather than one of the various Special Editions which Lucas has produced over the years. This means that some problems will be apparent that he has retroactively 'fixed' since making the prequels.
A generation after the end of Revenge of the Sith, the galaxy is mired in civil war. The Rebel Alliance have finally won their first victory against the Galactic Empire as their spies have stolen the plans to the Death Star, a giant armoured space station. However their escape has been halted by a Star Destroyer, so they place the plans into a droid and jettison it onto the planet of Tatooine, along with a message intended to bring one of the last Jedi knights out of seclusion to assist the rebellion.
Primary characters are Darth Vader, the Emperor's representative on the Death Star, and Grand Moff Tarkin, who commands it; Princess Leia Organa, a rebel leader who is captured during the search for the plans; Obi-Wan Kenobi, now a recluse on Tatooine under the name of Ben, and Luke Skywalker, the son of Anakin who falls under his protection after his family is murdered by Imperial stormtroopers; and Han Solo and Chewbacca, a pair of smugglers who they hire to transport them and the plans to Alderaan. C-3PO and R2-D2 also feature heavily, of course.
It's very quickly obvious that this film was made much earlier than the prequel trilogy. The opening shot of a little ship trying in vain to escape an overwhelming Star Destroyer is a great shot, but both vessels are clearly models, albeit very good ones. They come from a different era to the CGI space battle that opened up Revenge of the Sith.
Also, John Williams’s score is notable immediately. He did good work in the prequels too but the best parts were riffs on what he composed for this film. There's nothing in any of them that works as well as the iconic themes introduced here, which are truly resonant. While Lucas wrote and directed a pretty good movie, the music is a fundamental component in its success.
The cast establish themselves gradually as the film progresses. I know these scenes relatively well but was still surprised at how much time passed before we meet Alec Guinness and especially Harrison Ford.
And then there's Peter Cushing! And Don Henderson! While the lead actors are variable, to be brutally honest, the primary support is impeccable. When the entire planet of Alderaan is destroyed in seconds by a single beam from the Death Star, the power of the scene isn't in the cheap effects or the cheaper explosion, it's in the deliveries of Cushing beforehand and Guinness afterwards.
The single scene where Darth Vader finds 'your lack of faith disturbing' is more memorable than anything anywhere to be found in the entire prequel trilogy. Then there's Obi-Wan's famous description of the Mos Eisley Spaceport. And his casual use of the force to send stormtroopers the wrong way. And the cantina band, even if Bea Arthur isn't working that day. And Han Solo's grin and his choice to shoot first (yes, that's an important detail). And, of course, 'That's no moon.'
The leads got better in the future films but they're decent enough here. Mark Hamill is believable as the energetic kid strong in the force who aches to get off Tatooine and just do something. Carrie Fisher is great at being sassy and tough but she's not so good at emotional; her big scene watching her entire home planet destroyed was stolen out from under her by Cushing and Guinness. Harrison Ford is a natural talent and he simply became Han Solo but there are some scenes here where he was rather wooden.
These are far from the biggest problems of the film though. The technical aspect leaps out today because the prequels had state of the art technology and massive budgets to play with, while this original film had only $11m and nothing digital.
There are also internal consistency errors here that only grow in number each time I watch. I've long had trouble with Darth Vader leaving the Death Star to take on the attacking X-wing fighters personally, as it only makes sense because he has to survive the space station's destruction in order to come back for the next two films. Otherwise, it's unexplainable. On this viewing, I wondered why Leia and her rescuers were suddenly so alone in the garbage compactor. Why didn't the stormtroopers shooting at them from mere feet away walk down the corridor to blast these fish in a barrel?
Here's where I was most keen on seeing how well one film moved to the next. I wanted to know how A New Hope would play after Revenge of the Sith and the films that went before it.
Mostly, it's surprisingly good, especially during early scenes when the droids spark conversation at the Lars Homestead about Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke's father. Also, when a pouty Luke tells his parents 'it just isn't fair' that he'll need to stay on another season, he's capably channelling Anakin from the second film, but Hamill is believably frustrated rather than merely annoying. The progression of the Death Star from the planning stage in Revenge of the Sith is thoroughly believable too, as it takes a generation to build something that big. However, there are some obvious flaws.
C-3PO and R2-D2 are right in the middle of it from moment one, in accordance with the original concept Lucas had borrowed from The Hidden Fortress to have epic action on a grand scale focus on a pair of minor characters. Their crossing of a corridor at the beginning of this film, avoiding the laser blasts of both rebels and Imperial stormtroopers highlighted just how far this approach had been forgotten in the prequels. C-3PO is also much calmer here and has more character.
What's more, it's clear that Lucas hadn't figured out some of his concepts fully at this point.
While the force is mercifully free of midi-chlorians, it's used inconsistently. Why would Darth Vader say that the force was with Obi-Wan? Why would the rebels, given that the Jedi order is little more than a memory at this point, use the force as their catchphrase? I get why Han says 'May the force be with you!' to Luke, as it shows respect, but why would most of the other people who recite this during the film do so? It makes no sense.
Also, when Obi-Wan talks to his former padawan, he calls him Darth, even though he's never had dealings with him as Vader. Clearly Lucas saw Darth as a name here rather than a title, but in the context of this being the fourth film, Obi-Wan really should call his opponent Anakin.
Overall, I felt that A New Hope followed Revenge of the Sith surprisingly well, given that it was made almost thirty years earlier with a different era of technology and a different set of actors. A key part of this success is surely the choice to leave a generation between the chronology of the two films.
Jar Jar Binks
There's no Jar Jar here, of course, because I'm not watching a George Lucas special edition. Maybe, once this saga is done, I should do so as an epilogue to see if he shows up there or not.
In fact, we don't even get an Emperor. He's still in charge as he is mentioned at one point, but Darth Vader is the dark power in this film. The Emperor is a long way away, letting his minions run things on the Death Star, so a supremely evil Jar Jar Binks would surely do the same and seeing him here would constitute a problem, so even his absence supports the theory.