Wednesday, November 29, 2006
May the Saga Be With You: Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope
Another bit of nostalgia-inspired posting here (hey, I'm on vacation)- from Thanksgiving onwards there's a good portion of the holidays that in my childhood were effectively owned by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. If you've seen the STAR WARS movies and you know what "Spielbergian" means, you'll understand the grip these two had on American kiddom throughout the Eighties. Or maybe it's just that I first saw THE EWOK ADVENTURE around Thanksgiving. Anyway, for this reason, and because I've re-bought the original STAR WARS trilogy on DVD (the newest release containing the original, albeit un-remastered, theatrical versions of the films as well as their most recent revamps), I'm going to review the whole damn saga. Because of how I've been watching, I'll review them in release order, meaning that as someone who liked all six movies I'm going to start in the calm, easily defensible waters of the original trilogy and moving on to the more difficult realm of the prequels. But, of course, it all begins in 1977.
Do I even have to go into the story? Well, it's traditional, so okay. Some time back in a distant galaxy, a group of Rebels are at war with the evil Galactic Empire. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), a diplomat and Rebel sympathizer, is racing to her home planet of Alderaan with information on the Death Star, a giant battle station with the power to destroy planets. Her ship is attacked by an Imperial Star Destroyer, and she is captured by the evil Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones.) Fortunately, she's hidden the Death Star plans in her faithful droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), and he, along with fellow automaton C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels), hops in an escape pod onto the desert planet of Tatooine. There, the two droids are captured by scavengers and sold to a family of moisture farmers, one of which, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), stumbles upon a recording of Leia while fixing up R2. R2, still on a mission, runs off into the desert, and Luke and C-3P0 pursue him, meeting up with the mysterious Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), who turns out to be one of the fabled Jedi Knights, mystic guardians of peace and justice who were exterminated by the Empire. He works out that the droids must be taken to Alderaan, and the group charter a flight from smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who needs the money to pay off a debt to his crime boss. From this point, ah, screw it. Just rent the damn thing.
It's hard to imagine any film being as shockingly unheralded as STAR WARS must have been when it was released. The science fiction genre had, after the excitement of 2001 and PLANET OF THE APES, slipped into an unprofitable nihilistic rut, presenting mechanized dystopia after mechanized dystopia (for his part, Lucas contributed with 1971's THX-1138.) It may have been vaguely intellectual but it was getting old (compare SILENT RUNNING to SOYLENT GREEN to ROLLERBALL to LOGAN'S RUN and see for yourself.) The big action spectacles, meanwhile, were known for lavish setpieces and all-star casts and not really very much speed. STAR WARS was, and is, fast, sharp, and chirpy, drawing in equal parts from Akira Kurosawa's HIDDEN FORTRESS and the FLASH GORDON serials with a bit of WIZARD OF OZ on the side. We're at once confronted with a story of fairytale simplicity; there's a young hero, a beautiful princess all in white, a wise mentor, a villain so evil he wears black armor and lives on a station called the Death Star surrounded by stormtroopers whose armor gives them skull-like faces, a criminal who's cool and dangerous but you just know will be a good guy by the end, shiny robots, and a strangely endearing giant ape-creature. All presented with nary a hint of irony, in the middle of a decade choked with the stuff. In the end, it was probably a 50/50 chance that the audience would either burst into hysterical laughter or gasp with delight.
Viewed now, it's not flawless. After a fairly exciting opening there's a long stretch where, between the droids wandering in the desert and Luke wondering if he'll ever get off his miserable backwater planet, not a lot happens. It's necessary for the story and not unentertaining, but, even with the film overall being tightly edited, it lags a bit and is at odds with the sci-fi serial nature of the piece as a whole. Not that things don't pick up; the momentum of the film gradually builds over time, culminating in the brilliantly tense Death Star attack sequence (one of the best action sequences of all time, arguably.) Obviously, the characters are only rendered in the broadest of strokes, and the acting is similarly one-note; even Harrison Ford, praised as he is for bringing a bit of wit to the series, is really just doing a "charming scoundrel" turn better than most. Still, you can't knock what works.
The STAR WARS movies are more visual than most (at times it's been said that Lucas basically makes silent movies), and this is true in two ways. There's the spare, clean look of this particular movie, which favors clean compositions and a sparse color pallette (mostly blacks and whites and greys, with some yellow and other hues for sci-fi flavor.) This accentuates the simple fantasy feel, and coincidentally was probably a good idea given the film's reasonably mid-range budget. But in contrast to this is the cluttered, "lived-in" look of the Star Wars universe, something Lucas specifically asked for to give things a more authentic feel than most glitzy, shiny, and more fake-looking space movies. But there's quite a bit on the aural side, from John William's classical, sophisticated score to a range of unique and originally-produced sound effects which have become signatures for the series. (Everybody knows the lightsaber noise, right?) The special effects, of course, were innovative for their time, which may have contributed to the rebirth of the genre as much as the film's individual success by making specatcular visuals easier to realize on film.
STAR WARS- or rather its unanticipated success- is sometimes blamed for turning Hollywood away from the mature, thoughtful cinema of auteurs like Scorcese, Coppola, and Altman (RIP) and towards the summer blockbuster formula in which special effects prevailed over subtlety. I can't quite agree, because the unheralded freedom of the auteur era of the Seventies was the sort of golden age that was going to end sooner or later, and it was just a matter of the relatively inexperienced studio heads (most of whom came from other businesses) finding something- anything- that looked like a reliable formula. The exact influence of the film is hard to judge, but it was definitely something fresh and new, and the simple impression it made on children and teenagers who would go on to become filmmakers is unmistakable.
Anyway, it's a great movie. Sharp, fun and vaguely mythic, it's a first-rate entertainment, a visual feast, and possibly the best example we have of Joseph Campbell's fabled "monomyth". (That last bit isn't really an aesthetic merit, but it's still neat.) Not that I have to recommend it to anyone. Most of you have seen some incarnation. The newest DVD release has the original theatrical version presented basically as an extra, without anamorphic enhancement and not given the same degree of restoration; it sucks for folks with widescreen TVs, but I did find the grainier image makes for a weirdly "cinematic" experience, and I really just like having it available for historical purposes (not seeing any significant difference in quality between the two versions; they're basically the same film.) And I apologize for the run-on sentence back there. I love semicolons too much.
As the reviews roll out, I'll be looking a bit more at how the overall saga unfolds, but STAR WARS (aka A NEW HOPE) is the film that's the most self-contained. Made without any certainty of sequels or prequels, it's a bit of a microcosm, featuring a desperate struggle against oppression, captures, escapes, the passing of heroes and the redemption of a non-hero. We'll be seeing all this again.