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Wednesday, 6 January 2016

A New Hope (1977)

Director: George Lucas
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!

I should add here that there are a number of ways to watch this series. The two main approaches are to watch the films in order of original release, ie IV-VI and then I-III, or to go with the chronological order, ie I-VI, as George Lucas intends us to. A few readers have kindly let me know about Machete order, which prioritises the avoidance of spoilers by running IV and V, II and III and finally VI. It excludes I entirely.

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.

Brief Synopsis


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.

Quality


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.
However, other things quickly shine. For instance, the few seconds we get of Princess Leia early on are enough for us to forget how awful Senator Amidala was in the previous film and not all of that is through the power of nostalgia. She's much better written and much better played, even when silent.

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.
Guinness didn't like this film, referring to it as 'fairytale rubbish' but was confident in its success and negotiated well, making a fortune off his 2¼% interest. Thank goodness for his involvement! It's not just what he does, it's also what he doesn't do in between what he does. He's a little doddery to begin with, but when he plays the message from R2-D2, the age begins to fall away. As he tells Luke that he should accompany him to Alderaan, there's a gleam in his eye. During the rest of that short scene, which mostly focuses on Luke, he transforms more believably from nobody into a Jedi master than Hayden Christensen managed in two entire movies.

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.
This is also an iconic scene, one of many. Roger Ebert noted that the prequel films were short on quotable dialogue. This is riddled through with it and, however cheesy some of it really is, much of it is iconic and has fairly found its way into the bedrock of popular culture.

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.'
Howard Hawks famously described a good movie as one with three good scenes and no bad ones. It's tough to pick merely ten archetypal, iconic, quotable scenes in this film and Ebert's absolutely right; the prequels missed out on this almost entirely.

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.
It's not difficult to spot issues and some are harder to ignore than others. The gap between the landspeeder and the ground in Mos Eisley is not well done. Some of the aliens are obviously rubber suits. There are little editing blips when lightsabers are activated. The rank ribbons of Grand Moff Tarkin and his staff are notably cheap. I can live with these things, but the controls of the Millennium Falcon and especially the Death Star are relentlessly analogue. Some examples are notably cheaper than others, but the preponderence of 1970s plastic buttons is rather problematic. The digital targets in the Millennium Falcon and the X-Wings are awful too.
I was highly surprised to realise that the famous lightsaber battle between Vader and Obi-Wan is stunningly basic, really nothing more than two actors standing still and banging their sticks together. It's almost embarrassing after the spectacles created out of each fight in the prequels. That said, I found the blaster battles much more believable here, as they all feel appropriately hectic.

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?
Of course, Lucas hated how empty this film was, but I believe that it really works for the most part. The giant skeleton and twin moons are all that's needed for the deserts of Tatooine. Even the Death Star doesn't feel inadequately staffed. Mos Eisley does seem rather empty though, especially after we've visited a much busier Tatooine in the first two episodes. And, for God's sakes, there's dirt! Lovely dirt! And rust! Tarnish! The tin thud when R2-D2 tips over and hits the ground! The junkpile in the jawas' transport looks like a frickin' junkpile and the garbage compactor on the Death Star is full of garbage! I can deal with plastic buttons as long as the dirt is real.

Progression


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.
The droids also sit at the heart of a major continuity error. In the first film, we learn that Anakin Skywalker built C-3PO. In the second, we learn that the droid went with Shmi, when she was bought and freed, to the Lars homestead, until he was retrieved by the nineteen year old Anakin. That means that the early scenes here constitute C-3PO coming home and, while the droid's memories were wiped, Owen and Beru's weren't. Why don't they remember C-3PO? Just because it's been a generation and he's got a new skin? That's a stretch. It's even more than that for Obi-Wan not to remember both C-3PO and R2-D2, given what they all went through together in three previous films.

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.

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