Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.
When her ship is boarded, resistance leader Princess Leia sends the stolen blueprints of an enemy space station to ally Obi-Wan Kenobi. However, a farm boy called Luke Skywalker intercepts them and decides to join the rebellion…
WHICH VERSION? Can open, worms everywhere. Star Wars films have been issued at the cinema, on TV, on VHS, on LaserDisc, on DVD and on Blu-ray in a succession of different edits. Each has brought either minor changes – a sound mix tweaked here, a shot trimmed out there – or significant overhauls of key scenes. To all intents and purposes, I watched the original 1977 edit of Star Wars. And it *is* just called Star Wars on this version. The subtitle ‘Episode IV: A New Hope’ wasn’t added until a cinematic rerelease in 1981. However, I watched it on a DVD that came out in 2006, which is a letterbox (rather than anamorphic) transfer from the 1993 LaserDisc, which itself had done some minor remixing to the 1977 cut’s soundtrack. If your head isn’t hurting enough yet, check out this page on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_changes_in_Star_Wars_re-releases#Episode_IV:_A_New_Hope
* C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) is the first ‘person’ we see. He’s a nervous, fussy, jittery robot (or ‘droid’) who’s our point-of-view character for the film’s opening 19 minutes. An English butler of a character, he’s the story’s comic relief.
* R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) is C-3PO’s partner, a forthright, squat, little droid who is trusted with a mission by Princess Leia and doesn’t take any bullshit in his determination to carry it out. Only C-3PO can understand R2’s bleeps-and-whistles dialogue; the two of them have the vibe of a bickering married couple. At the film’s climax, R2 takes part in the assault on the Empire’s HQ, a space station called the Death Star. He always seems to know what’s going on.
* Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is a young, confident, ballsy, slightly sexy ambassador from the planet Alderaan. She’s also a high-ranking member of the Rebel Alliance, so when Imperial forces board her ship she tasks R2-D2 (who she seemingly picks at random) to deliver some important documents to an ally. When she’s captured, she’s forced to watch as her home planet is destroyed – but she’s regained her spunk by the time our heroes rescue her. She bickers with Han Solo (they clearly want each other) then coordinates the Alliance’s attack on the Death Star. Fisher was 19 years old when she made this film – doesn’t that make you feel ancient?
* Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is the hero of the story, a corn-bred farmer who lives with his auntie and uncle. He dreams of far-off places but can only look on in envy as his friends escape their dreary community. When he stumbles across Leia’s message, he helps R2 deliver it. They soon find Ben Kenobi, an old hermit who knew Luke’s dad. Kenobi is actually a Jedi in hiding – they were quasi-religious knights before the days of the fascist Empire. He gives Luke his father’s weapon and teaches him about the Force, an “energy field created by all living things”, which “surrounds us, penetrates us and binds the universe together”. After Luke’s relatives are killed, he asks to join Ben on his mission to help the rebels; he wants to train to be a Jedi too. (Cults take longer than this to recruit people.) They end up on the Death Star, where Luke and new ally Han Solo have to masquerade as soldiers and rescue Leia. Luke clearly fancies the Princess, and even gets defensive when Han suggests he might have a crack at her. Luke also gets sniffy when Han doubts the existence of the Force – something Luke only learnt about earlier that morning. (There’s nothing like the zeal of a convert, is there?) After destroying the Death Star, Luke and Han are given medals by the Rebel Alliance. Han’s mate Chewbacca is not given one – neither are the two other pilots who survived the battle. Fickle bastards.
* Uncle Owen (Phil Brown) and Aunt Beru (Shelagh Fraser) clearly know more about Luke’s family history than they let on. Owen especially seems keen to keep Luke in the dark, while Beru enjoys drinking blue milk. The pair are killed by stormtroopers. The chilling image of their burnt skeletons haunted millions of childhoods.
* Ben ‘Obi-Wan’ Kenobi (Alec Guinness – how the fuck did they get Alec Guinness?) fulfills the wise-old-wizard role in the narrative. Ben can take care of himself – both physically and by using his Force skills. But should we really trust him? He’s in hiding from the Empire but still using the surname he had when he was a Jedi. And he doesn’t seem to recognise C-3PO and R2-D2, which is odd given what happens in the prequels. Or maybe he does know them: note how he only starts giving Luke details about the past after 3PO has switched himself off… Once aboard the Death Star, Ben gets a sneaky-monkey subplot then sacrifices his life to save Luke. He then talks to Luke from beyond the grave (Luke is totally unfazed by this surprising development). Guinness may have thought the whole project was horseshit – “New rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day,” he wrote at the time. “I just think, thankfully, of the [fee]…” – but he’s terrific in this film. He adds soul to every scene he’s in.
* Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) is a Wookie – a tall, hairy alien – who growls a lot but can only be understood by his friend and colleague Han.
* Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is a rogue, a scoundrel, a smuggler and dresses like a cowboy. He’s sarcastic, world-weary and cynical. No wonder so many of us fanboys developed man-crushes on him. Interestingly, though, a lot of us have been mispronouncing our idol’s name: he says it ‘Haan’. A man under pressure, given that he owes a chunk of money to a gangster, he’s a refreshingly ambiguous character in this otherwise black-and-white story. He’s not short of confidence (“Sometimes I amaze even myself…”) and joins the mission solely for the payday. Soon after we meet him and he takes on Luke and Ben as passengers, he’s cornered by the lackey of an unseen mobster called Jabba. Han distracts Greedo while he surreptitiously slips his gun from his holster then nonchalantly shoots him under the table. It’s a vital piece of plotting, this: we’re not mean to trust this man; he’s selfish and reckless. (When the scene was re-edited for the 1997 special edition, Han shoots only in self-defence. A million geeks cried out in terror.) Han Solo has the downright most coolest space ship in all of sci-fi: the Millennium Falcon, which can do the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs (whatever that means). It has smuggling compartments, which come in handy when the gang are captured by the bad guys. Before the climax, Han takes his reward for rescuing Leia and fucks off – but he’s clearly feeling guilty about abandoning his new mates, and returns in the nick of time to save the day. He’s given a medal, so presumably this wobble of loyalty is forgiven.
* Biggs Darklighter (Garrick Hagon) is an old mate of Luke’s. He joined the Rebel Alliance before Luke got involved, but is killed during the final battle. (Most of the character’s scenes – including stuff early in the film on Tatooine – were cut out.)
* Darth Vader (body: David Prowse, voice: James Earl Jones) makes an arch first appearance: he’s a swish of black in amongst a cloud of white smoke. We’re told that years earlier he betrayed and murdered Luke’s father (who’s not named) after being seduced by the Dark Side of the Force. (Religions, eh? Always making nice people do bad things.) He wears a full suit of all-black armour and a helmet that covers his entire head. No one dares ask if he’s human, an alien, a robot… We do know he’s violent (he strangles someone with his hands) and touchy (he throttles someone via telekinesis after they ridicule the Force). He murders Ben then zeroes in on Luke during the final battle. At the end, he’s not killed off but rather sent spinning away into space – ready for the sequel.
* There are plenty of stormtroopers (did anyone else used to think they were robots?) and Imperial officers. Don Henderson and Leslie Schofield (JOHNNY BRIGGS’S DAD!) play two of the officers.
* Lots of Jawas appear in the early stages. They’re a race of cloaked midget traders (that is, traders who are midgets: they buy or steal and then sell droids).
* The Sand People (or Tusken Raiders) are nomads on Luke’s home planet who have mammoths and cause trouble.
* Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing – how the fuck did they get Peter Cushing? Oh, yeah: because he’d do any old shit) is the commander of the Death Star. He seems to be Vader’s boss and is icy cool and cruel. His arrogance leads to his downfall.
BEST ACTION SEQUENCE: The thrilling attack on the Death Star: a sumptuous 12-minute slice of cinema gold. It showcases world-class model work, really smart editing and some monumental music cues. The tension builds and builds and builds. (The terse dialogue also contains a large amount of unintentional innuendo.)
BEST COMEDY MOMENT: Han pretending to be a stormtrooper over a radio: “Er, everything’s under control, situation normal… Er, had a slight weapons malfunction, but, er, everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine, we’re all fine… here… now… Thank you… How are you?”
MUSIC: The score is a masterpiece by John Williams. Whether dark or light, driving action or creating mood, it’s a total joy. There’s also terrific use of character-specific themes (or leitmotifs, to use the musical term). George Lucas once said he designed the Star Wars movies to be, in effect, silent films in terms of their storytelling techniques – and indeed the score conveys emotion and drama much more elegantly than the dialogue. (Ben Burtt’s sound design, meanwhile, is extraordinary.)
PERSONAL CONNECTION: I don’t really remember a time before I’d seen Star Wars. It came out two years before I was born, so I would’ve first watched it on VHS soon after we got a video recorder in about 1983.
REVIEW: The 20th Century Fox logo and fanfare… The Lucasfilm logo… The caption reading ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….’ The Star Wars logo and a triumphant burst of theme music… The crawl of scene-setting text… And then *that* shot of a monumentally enormous spacecraft flying overhead. It’s a thrilling opening, whose power hasn’t dulled after even a hundred viewings. Star Wars is all about momentum, and this beginning propels us right into the middle of the action. We’re thrown into a simple story of good versus evil. It’s a familiar tale of a pure hero to cheer for, a wise old man to offer guidance, a damsel in distress, sidekicks to chuckle with, a maniacal villain intent on evil, and little if any subtext. Mythology scholar Joseph Campbell should’ve got a screenplay credit. As well as the silent-movie vibe mentioned above, the colour scheme is almost black-and-white (with occasional browns). Cliffhanger-heavy plotting highlights the Flash Gordon/movie-serial roots. A Wilhelm Scream or two adds an old-Hollywood connection. And there’s no sex, no swearing, and only flashes of real violence. If you ignore some of the haircuts, it’s practically timeless. But that doesn’t mean it’s not inventive. It’s a totally believable fictional universe, at once both different and familiar. Even now, after so many imitators and plagiarisers, the film feels fresh and textured. The design work is breathtaking: every set, every vehicle, every costume, every robot… There’s detail and nuance and storytelling in each decision. The special effects, meanwhile, are still excellent today, and have the heft and verisimilitude that’s often absent from CGI-era blockbusters. (The use of models for the space battles is worth the entry price alone.) The dialogue is full of exotic references – to spice mines, a language called Bocce, a teen hangout called Tosche Station, the Clone Wars – that mean nothing and everything all at the same time. However, that’s not to say the writing is especially well crafted. Of the cast, Harrison Ford is probably the best at ironing out the kinks in George Lucas’s hackneyed dialogue, giving what are torturously constructed lines some life and humour. In fact, it’s generally thanks to the actors that the characters and situations are so engaging – Mark Hamill is winsome, Carrie Fisher is feisty, Alec Guinness adds gravitas, Anthony Daniels is funny, James Earl Jones is terrifying, and Harrison Ford redefines swagger. Packed full of joie de vivre, Star Wars is an extraordinarily enjoyable escapist adventure. It’s cliché from start to finish, but done so well – so joyfully, so exuberantly, with so much style and pace and panache – that it’s become definitive. It’s as close to perfect as makes no difference.
Ten wretched hives of scum and villainy out of 10