The weather here in South Carolina has turned blissfully autumnal, which means we can finally partake in all manner of outdoor activities without dying of heat exposure and dehydration. The humidity has calmed itself to a bearable level, and the mornings and nights are crisp and cool.
One of my enterprising neighbors—and most dogged constituents—took advantage of the cool weather this weekend to test out an inflatable projector screen. He invited me to join his family for a private, driveway screening of the original 1977 Star Wars, later entitled Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope. Specifically, he screened the “de-specialized” version, as he called it, so there was none of the clunky 1990s CGI additions of the special editions.
In other words, it’s the way Star Wars was intended… before George Lucas changed his mind and decided to change his own films.
As for the film itself, readers are surely familiar with the classic story, which follows Joseph Campbell’s theory of the “monomyth” and the hero’s call to adventure, with generous inspiration pulled from Flash Gordon serials and samurai films. George Lucas also acknowledged the influence of Akira Kurosawa‘s films, specifically the concept of a story told from the points of view of its two lowliest characters: C-3PO and R2-D2.
A quick recap: Princess Leia Organa is taken captive in the opening minutes of the film, as the Sith Lord Darth Vader boards her ship, which is ostensibly on a diplomatic mission. Secretly, Princess Leia is smuggling plans for the Death Star, the Galactic Empire’s new super weapon, to the Rebel Alliance.
Her two droid companions, C-3PO and R2-D2, escape on a pod to the desert planet of Tatooine, where—after a hairy encounter with some scavenging Jawas—they end up on a moisture farm with the young and restless Luke Skywalker. Luke dreams of adventures in the galaxy, and hopes to leave behind the mundane life of a moisture farmer in the harsh desert.
The spunky R2-D2 leads Luke to Obi-Wan Kenobi, a legendary Jedi Master. Kenobi urges Luke to train with him, but Luke refuses, citing his obligations to his aunt and uncle. They return to find the Empire has destroyed Luke’s family; having no reason to stay, Luke agrees to depart the planet with Kenobi in search of Princess Leia.
To book passage off of Tatooine, they hire the rogue smuggler Han Solo and his Wookie co-pilot, Chewbacca. After some scuffles with local lowlifes, the mercenary Greedo, and Imperial Stormtroopers, the group escapes Tatooine.
From there, they reach the Death Star, which traps Han’s ship, the Millennium Falcon, in its tractor beam. That begins a two-part mission: disable the tractor beam from within the ship, and safe Princess Leia, who the group discovers is held prisoner aboard the ship, awaiting execution.
By this point, Leia has seen her home world, Alderaan, destroyed in a display of the Death Star’s immense power. In a desperate attempt to save her home planet, she revealed the location of the Rebel Alliance’s base on Dantooine, and the Empire sets a course for the planet to wipe out the Rebellion once and for all.
The gang all manage to make it back to the Falcon, only for Luke to witness his mentor fall to Darth Vader’s blade. Kenobi’s voice urges Luke to run, and the crew narrowly escape the Death Star.
With the base’s plans finally reaching the Rebel headquarters on Dantooine, the fledgling Rebellion stages a daring final assault on the Death Star, exploiting a weakness in its design—an exhaust port bay that leads to the heart of the station. Two proton torpedoes into the bay would trigger a chain reaction, destroying the Death Star and saving Dantooine.
The rest writes itself. What struck me about Star Wars—next to The Empire Strikes Back, probably my favorite of the Star Wars films—is that it is an incredibly slow burn. Whenever I remember the film, there are many iconic scenes that come to mind, but it never seems quite so long.
That’s not a complaint. Compared to modern films, Star Wars really takes its time to establish the characters and the set pieces, which make the characters and locations more memorable. Lucas in Star Wars was world-building, and the world he built is immensely popular today because he took the time to assemble it on-screen.
The characters, too, are rich and full—and show real progression throughout the films—because of the time taken in Star Wars to flesh them out. It takes seemingly forever to get Luke off of Tatooine—the end of the first act—because the film covers to much ground: the meeting with Obi-Wan; Han’s run-in with Greedo; Luke’s discovery of Leia’s hologram message on R2-D2; etc.
If Star Wars was filmed today, no studio would ever let it simmer for so long in the first act. That’s a shame, and it might suggest why—despite their length—the new trilogy’s characters are so flat and disappointing. Rey never has to try for anything—she just has power. We actually see Luke training with Obi-Wan, and we get a sense for his whiny impatience. As far as I can recall, Rey never has any complaints about anything in the new trilogy, and doesn’t seem to possess any flaws.
The difference is clear: Luke, Han, and Leia all grow and change across the three films of the original trilogy. Rey and her compatriots (who can even remember their names?) don’t really change at all; they just flow from one CGI battle to the next.
As for the world-building, Star Wars establishes the gritty, Western-in-space feel of the trilogy beautifully, something that neither the prequels nor the new trilogy really recaptured. Only The Mandalorian seemed to revive the feel of the original trilogy, with its cowboys-and-aliens roughness. There is a sense that, while the Empire is quite powerful and deadly, there are a lot of folks living on the extreme margins just trying to hustle their way through galactic life. The Mos Eisley cantina scene—so much better in the “de-specialized” edition—is so memorable because it presents what this dirty, morally-ambiguous world is like.
Of course, Star Wars is not all that morally ambiguous in the broad strokes: it’s all about Light versus Dark. The shades of grey exist in the gritty everydayness of the Star Wars universe, and seem realistic even in a film that is, essentially, a high fantasy.
There is more—much more—I could write on Star Wars. I haven’t even touched John Williams’s score, which elegantly weaves in character’s themes in a way that I think would be useful for some of my students to study (especially Mason). There’s a scene aboard the Death Star, shortly after Princess Leia has been rescued, where she pops her head out amid some ominous moment in the film and score. Williams subtly but noticeably reintroduces “Leia’s Theme” while still maintaining the danger and excitement of the moment.
In short, Star Wars is where it all started, and what a start. I have always loved that the original film is a self-contained story: you could watch it on its own and be completely satisfied. But it leaves open future possibilities: what becomes of Darth Vader after his TIE Fighter careens into space following the explosion of the Death Star? What will become of Han Solo and the price on his head? Has the Rebellion won, or are there still more Imperial threats?
We all know how the story goes from there, but imagine being in the audience back in 1977. What questions existed? Were there theories about what might come next? That was before our current age of guaranteed sequels, trilogies, sagas, decades-long story arcs, etc. Was there even a guarantee of The Empire Strikes Back?
We might not be able to recapture that sense of excitement and urgency for ourselves, but for any child who is new to Star Wars, start them off right with the original—“de-specialized”—film if possible.
Happy Viewing, and May the Force be with You!