Here is the first of what will eventually be reviews of all six Star Wars films (the sixth most likely coming in 8 months when Revenge of the Sith comes out.) As a person who saw this film in 1977 in the theatre, I will always refuse to call it anything other than Star Wars, even though it is and always has been titled A New Hope. It was a watershed moment of my youth, which ended up providing me with hours upon hours of entertainment through the subsequent films and the toys that they spawned. I own each and every action figure produced between 1977 and 1983, and almost all of them are in worn but good condition today (except for my Luke who lost a hand unfortunately when I decided to echo what the second film had done - burned off it was, as Yoda might say.)
The film itself, if you have somehow never seen it, details the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Princess Leia as they battle the evil empire of Darth Vader and his stormtroopers. At the time, there was no Emperor. The only other bad guy was Grand Moff Tarkin, played wonderfully by Peter Cushing. The three heros are joined by Solo's co-pilot, Chewbacca the wookiee, two droids named C-3PO and R2-D2 and the old and worn down jedi knight, Obi-Wan (Ben) Kenobi. They battle through the desert planet of Tatooine, through space itself, and eventually to and around the huge and destructive Death Star.
Released in 1977, the year after Jaws made the summer blockbuster what it is today, it was a landmark film that pushed film and sound technology as far as could be, introduced the massive marketing tie ins that we see today and has ended up spawing five other films, as well as countless books, comic books and TV shows. From Princess Leia's hair buns to Darth Vader's breathing, the look, sound and feel of the film is both unforgettable and instantly recognizable to most anyone today.
In re-watching it for who knows the current number of times now, I have enjoyed it as much today as I did when I first did when I was four years old. Even with the changes made by the director, George Lucas, once in 1997 and again with the release of the DVD's, the film still holds up and is arguably the finest of the bunch. The only other one that might be able to claim that status is it's sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.
Further, it is rather striking to see a film that had no qualms in painting in black and white colors - evil and good. The age old stories that Lucas chose to base his idea off of I think helped America get out of what President Carter called a malaise. It did not preach or apologize. Rather, it said the good guys win and the bad guys lose. And while we saw that message, we were taken on a glorious ride and were awed by the presentation. I'm sure Lucas did not intend for any politcal message. It was the later the he saw as his goal. But to combine both, I think gives this film extra credit.
The performances of the film are far better than I remember them. Of course Alec Guiness, as Kenobi shines. He always does. And the movie was the catalyst for Harrison Ford's career. But Mark Hamill as Luke, and Carrie Fisher as Leia are often underrated as actors. Yes, there are a few moments from Hamill that make one cringe (think when he is helping his uncle pick out the droids they will buy from the Jawas), but throughout, they both work off each other and the rest of the cast to create a totally believable world.
Then of course, there are the actor's faces you don't see. David Prowse as the menacing Darth Vader was perfect casting. And when combined with the voice of James Earl Jones becomes quite possibly the best movie villain of all time. Can you ever forget his first screen appearence coming through the door of the rebel ship? Anthony Daniels is perfect as C-3PO, always fussing about and nervous, chastising the lovable tyke, R2-D2. And R2 himself is one of the greatest creations of movie magic ever. His whistles and beeps are spot on every time, a testament to the sound effects crew, and Kenny Baker inhabits his metal skin with delight it seems. But the best of them all is Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca. His mannerisms are perfect, and once included with the sound, his snarls are menacing when they need to be and lovable when he is worried or joyful. And of course, the make-up was outstanding. He was a truly believable character, and a fan favorite - for this one at least. Until Gollum was created in LOTR, R2-D2, C-3PO and Chewie were the most incredible non-humans to ever grace the screen.
But of course, what would this film be without the special effects? Done with mat paintings, miniature models and blue screen, Lucas revolutionized special effects, to the point of starting many new studios and companies that live on to this day, most notably Pixar, THX and Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). Who will ever forget the feeling they had when they first saw the Millennium Falcon take off, or the first approach to the Death Star? Who can ever forget the thrilling Tie-Fighter/X-Wing dogfight at the end? These things were impossible to do just years before, and now, are unfortunately obsolete with CGI.
And this is my major gripe about the newer films. One of the things that I find most impressive about Star Wars now, is the way it was able to be made for what is considered a small amount of money for a film this size. It is not the highest grossing independent film in history for no reason. Something I had never considered before rewatching them recently was how little sets and locals were used. Just the desert of Luke's home, space and the Death Star really, with much of it aboard the Death Star. In contrast with the later films, which are constantly wisking the audience off to some other fanatastic local, it is telling. Lucas talks about how he wished he could have created those worlds as well, but money and technology were not available for him to do so. And thank goodness it was not. Much like the limitations that Spielberg had with Bruce the shark in Jaws, Lucas moves past his own limitations of budget and technical ability and ends up with a happy accident - a brilliantly conceived film that makes the audience dare not question the places, people and subject matter of the film. It sounds funny to say, but the smallness of Star Wars is what makes it so huge. Certainly not the smallness of the subject matter, but the smallness of the production itself.
Lucas was able to utilize what he did have, and combine his cinematic achievement with John Williams brilliant score to give generations of children and adults a wonderful fantasy ride a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. As I said in the comment section below, no matter what else Lucas ever does with this franchise, I will always watch it, and most likely enjoy it, as I will never be able to repay him for the joy he gave me as a child (although I imagine the money spent to see each film countless times and his payout from Kenner Toys of which I bought plenty was quite a large effort in that direction.)
His more recent changes to this film are generally done to better the original quality. The picture of the DVD is outstanding. It is now possibly the best looking of all of them. There are a few moments when the limitations of 1977 are simply too great to allow current CGI to be introduced effectively, and it shows. Mostly in the run up to the space port of Mos Eisley. And some of the CGI creatures on Tatooine simply look out of place. But I cannot deny that the additions he has made to some of the space shots, the grander city of Mos Eisley itself and the addition of the Jabba the Hutt scene do create some beautiful shots and add to the whole (though more on Jabba in a moment.)
The biggest issue is that of the Han Solo/Greedo meeting inside the Cantina. In the original, Han Solo shoots Greedo in cold blood as it should be. Yes, this is a cold, hard fact of the character. But children do not notice this. Yet he has now changed it twice. In 1997, when he first revisited the film, he made Greedo shoot first and miss. Now, he has them both shooting at the same time, and it is quite jarring to watch Ford's head dodge the blast.
As well, the scene with Jabba, though great to watch (especially since it was intended since the beginning) does create some unwanted consequences. First and foremost, it takes away the wonderful moment of Boba Fett's introduction in Empire (as well as Jabba's in Jedi.) He is not one of the most beloved characters of the franchise for no reason. Second, there was an urgency that Han Solo suggested in the original, which I always took to be because he wanted to skip town before Jabba caught up with him, especially as the bounty on his head is played up in the second film. Now that he has met with him, and gets a pass so to speak, it is a bit disjointed to have him still suggesting that they don't have much time, especially since he does not know that Stormtroopers are coming after them.
But I take these issues with a grain of salt. The overall picture is still a great ride, and as I said, some of the changes do add for the better. There are legions of Star Wars fans out there that are simply scary. In the run up to the release of the DVDs, I spent some time reading a few of the forums dedicated to the series, and I was simply mystified that people spend as much time as they do arguing over certian aspects of the films. I'll get into it a bit more when I finish up this initial series of reviews, but it was truly a culture shock to me. I consider myself a Star Wars fanatic (rather than a "fanboy" - a term I despise). But I cannot hold a candle to some people out there.
In the end, I am most pleased with the result of this first film's release on DVD. The picture itself holds up brilliantly. It is not dated in the slightest. And the memories it brings back by watching for the (what seems) millionth time are priceless, as they say in the MasterCard commercials. I won't be getting rid of my VCR tape of the original theatrical release, but I am glad to have a beautifully remastered DVD of one of my favorite movies (#4 in my list of favorites, if you remember correctly.) I will return with a review of The Empire Strikes Back soon. That is all.