Star Wars at 30: ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’

Do you remember the first time? I can’t. My uncle took me when I was four, and apparently I spent most of the time chatting to a girl in the row behind, which must have delighted the other patrons. On another run before the sequel was released, I tried sitting through it again, and was entranced. There was little to beat the sight of a starship that went on forever passing overhead, the horrific majesty of the Death Star, the scores of different races in the canteen, Chewbacca, the dogfights, the lightsabre duel, robots that talked and interacted with each other and their human masters, that whole ‘force’ business, the stormtroopers, the Millennium Falcon, the checkerboard effect that ended one scene and introduced another. Oh yes, and Darth Vader, an impossibly bad baddie, whose heart was as black as his uniform. Darth could deal out death and judgement with a contemptuous flick of his wrist, which - like his voice - was both cool and terrifying.

A New HopeMy first introduction to Star Wars came before the movie itself, when I was given a series of action figures. I had Darth (obviously), R2-D2, C-3PO and a stormtrooper. Later, these would be added to with Chewie, the bland human goodies, various others, a TIE fighter and a cardboard Death Star. The issue of scale wasn’t much of a problem back then. No ‘Why is the TIE fighter nearly as big as the Death Star?’ queries arose, which was just as well, considering how large the latter would have needed to be in order to meet proportional correctness.

Star Wars appears to have made some sort of impression on everyone who was around to see it. There might have been better movies, bigger epics, and certainly we hear about box office records being slain on a near-monthly basis, as if the Wars was just another flick that made lots of money. Yet even where something as universally acclaimed and well attended as The Lord of the Rings trilogy is concerned, it still can’t be compared with the effect of the original Star Wars. Quite simply, there was nothing like it. From endless queues to see it at the cinema, to the tie-in merchandise, disco records, and the playground games, it was a genuine phenomenon, so massive and all-pervading that nothing is ever likely to match it.

Is it worth all the fuss? 30 years on, and a five-day party is taking place in Los Angeles to celebrate the anniversary (Natalie Portman is said to be disgusted at not being invited). Magazines are finding any old excuse to churn out retrospective content about it, and even sites like this get a bit more attention than normal by promising to celebrate the thing. In fact, the only one not sharing the excitement would appear to be George Lucas himself. Despite being handed a meal ticket for life, Lucas has done everything to downplay its importance, relegating it to a mere fourth instalment within the story arc and taking away its very title. The brand name ‘Star Wars’ now covers the lot – all the movies, the books, everything that has some connection with a galaxy far, far away. In contrast, the film that kickstarted everything is now rather shabbily known in official circles as…

Episode 4 – A New Hope

The problem with writing about ANH is that it’s been covered in exhaustive depth, so what else is there to say? It’s a little like having to write an English Literature essay on Hamlet - pretty soon, you’re poring through criticism after criticism, finding every line has been covered to such a degree that there’s nothing left to add.

To begin with, watching it now is a galaxy apart from seeing the thing twenty something years ago. Both from the perspective of an adult viewer, and having experienced the latest CGI outputs, Star Wars seems so very different. On the latter point, I don’t think the effects have dated all that badly. Maybe this is because Lucas has a tendency to tinker with his movies, and their look, years after their initial release. My version is the one that came with the Episode IV - VI boxset released in 2004, which means I pay witness to the odd instance of Obi-Wan and Luke speeding past a freshly CGI’d Mos Eisley, and the like. Most of these 21st century additions to the effects suite aren’t too shabby. On other occasions, they jar, such as the stormtroopers sitting on giant lizards, set against a horribly bland sandscape. The poorest is Han’s encounter with Jabba, reprising a deleted scene during which the Hutt was originally just another bloke. It’s rubbish, made worse when Solo steps on Jabba’s tail, and gets away with it! Surely, an instance of best left well alone.

The X-Wings line upElsewhere, we get cleaned up effects work from the 1970s, and it still looks okay. The rich detail from the prequels is conspicuously absent, yet that works in ANH’s favour. Instead of Coruscant’s ‘Metropolis with flashing lights’, we get a Tattooine setting that is notably shabby. When we arrive at Mos Eisley, junk is piled up everywhere, giving the place a rough, lived-in look that adds authenticity to the movie. Once the film moves onto the Death Star, detail is kept to a minimum, the Empire going for austere grandeur, just like you imagine it would.

Another great pleasure about watching ANH now is to wonder at what story lay beyond it. These days, we know exactly what happened before and after the original chapter. Comics and novels have plugged even more gaps in our knowledge, and if all that isn’t enough, you can spend hours poring through databases of worlds, races, characters, factions and histories on the web. The Wars is now almost Tolkeinesque in its copious richness of information, but it wasn’t like that in 1977. Then, we had it all to speculate over - what does the Empire want? What is the Rebellion fighting for? Why did all the Jedi knights die? What’s the Kessel Run? Why does Darth Vader need buttons and a mask to keep him alive? What’s the big deal with Luke’s father? How does the force work? All this is vaguely teased at in ANH, but it opens up a whole raft of questions to those who would wish to explore an expanded universe. Clearly, the movie comes with a great wealth of ‘previous.’ Like the Rings, these are characters inhabiting a working galaxy, one that hasn’t just opened for business when the screen comes to life but with a heritage of its own.

It’s performed with a perfect feeling for their characters by the actors. We’ve read the praise for Harrison Ford many times, but seeing it again, I realised how much the film depends on Mark Hamill’s wide-eyed turn as Luke Skywalker, the movie’s focal point. Every inch the idealistic innocent, the sheer bewilderment on his face upon seeing Owen and Beru as charred corpses is beautifully judged, as is the way he quickly latches on to Obi-Wan as a figure of respect, even when nobody else does. It’s easy to spot the chemistry between the three leads - Hamill, Ford and Carrie Fisher - and the authenticity they bring to their parts. Clearly, they became friends off the camera and developed a canny sense of mutual understanding, as witnessed in the very last moment of the movie. As Han is awarded his medal by the Princess, he gives her a cheeky wink - clearly, he knows exactly what the trinket means in the greater scheme of things. Luke, in contrast, looks like someone who’s just won his first 1500m.

The whole thing is given a touch of class by Alec Guinness, who brings a stately gravitas to the affair as Obi-Wan. Ewan McGregor spent three entire movies attempting to emulate Guinness’s performance in one, and you can see why he did it. There’s a sense that whereas the younger actors don’t take themselves too seriously, it’s the older heads - Guinness and Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin - that centre the film, adding a degree of dramatic weight to its proceedings. By all accounts, Sir Alec came to loathe the fame that came with being Obi-Wan, yet Star Wars wouldn’t have been the hit it was without him.

Despite Lucas’s efforts to place ANH within a story arc, it still works better as a single piece of work. Personally, I find it hard to believe that the movie was planned as just one chunk inside a larger tale, as we are told it was. Perhaps Lucas had the rough outline of an ‘expanded universe’ sketched out at this stage, but surely it was little more than that. It’s for this reason that the links between the film and those around it gel less easily than elsewhere in the trilogy. For one thing, it’s more of a romp than its sequels, a boy’s own adventure where the good guys and villains are clearly drawn and unambiguous. There are none of the heavy going revelations that are still to come here - the relationship between Luke, Leia and Darth Vader is far, far away.

The presentation ceremonyAs for the ties with the prequels, the main concern when making the newer films was a technical one - surely, given the advances in digital technology over the years, ANH would look like the step back in time that it was after Episodes I - III. Yet this works surprisingly well. The ‘look’ of spaceships in the prequels is gradually evolved so that by the close of Revenge of the Sith, we’re watching the natural predecessors to ANH’s Star Destroyers, fighters, etc. It’s in a narrative sense that the jarring takes place. The emotional weight of the events at the end of ROTS bears little similarity to what happens in this chapter. Shifting from Padme’s death and Anakin’s transformation to the light entertainment here makes the saga appear inconsistent and contrived. There aren’t too many obvious plot holes, but the patient viewer is asked to accept a lot of coincidences, such as the unbelievable long-shot that C-3PO and R2-D2 somehow manage to find themselves in the hands of Darth’s son at the start of the movie. I mean, had they gone anywhere else, anywhere else at all, the story would have turned out very differently. What are the odds?

But that’s hardly this film’s fault, rather that of a production company that tried to weld a five-part epic onto it. ANH is good fun, exciting and lacking the flab of its prequels. Its production was famously a series of trials for George Lucas, who faced on-set problems, difficulties with studios, and the fact that everyone involved seemed to have a feeling of ‘What is this nonsense?’ Clearly, very few people had much faith in the project, believing they were working on some inconsequential babble and far from the biggest film of all time. It must have been a massive test of faith for Lucas, who invested so much personally, and faced derision and setbacks on every corner. Mr Star Wars might be slated these days for his over-protective attitude to the saga, but given the uncertainty of ANH’s prospects in the build up to its release, I find it difficult to blame him. The film could have turned out much worse. After everything that went wrong in its production (a series of mishaps and technical problems that cropped up frequently - watch ‘Empire of Dreams’ on the boxset for more), it’s surprising to find the end result is as tight, consistent and magical as it turned out to be.

7 Responses to “Star Wars at 30: ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…’”

  1. Amanda Jones Says:

    “I realised how much the film depends on Mark Hamill’s wide-eyed turn as Luke Skywalker, the movie’s focal point. Every inch the idealistic innocent, the sheer bewilderment on his face upon seeing Owen and Beru as charred corpses is beautifully judged”

    …Also the comedic parts, like his bewilderment when Leia gives him a peck ‘’for luck'’. Thanks for mentioning this, Hamill turns a somewhat thankless character into endearing, both with the sad and the comedic parts, but doesn’t get much props for it.

    “The poorest is Han’s encounter with Jabba, reprising a deleted scene during which the Hutt was originally just another bloke. It’s rubbish, made worse when Solo steps on Jabba’s tail”

    One of the worst of the offenders among the ‘updated’ editions. It ruins the moment when the camera pans to the Millenium Falcon and we see it for the first time with Obi Wan and Luke. The added scene makes this redundant and ineffective.

    “Do you remember the first time? I can’t.”

    Annoyingly, I can’t either. I recall watching it regularly somewhere in the winter between the ages of 6 and 7 with my mom, grandma, and a movie-fanatic neighbor, and having a fabulous time of it. But everything about the movies is so familiar and like-I’ve-always-known-them that I don’t recall the first time I was actually introduced to the movie and its characters (and subsequently, I don’t remember if I was spoiled or not for such revelations as ‘I am your father’ etc.)

    Nice writeup.

  2. Mmmm » Star Wars at 30: The worst programme ever made Says:

    […] I downloaded the Holiday Special for the sake of completism, and also because I’d heard it was quite bad and wanted to know for myself. The show was broadcast in November 1978, for American audiences bloated on Thanksgiving, and sated their desire for Star Wars, by this point at its peak. Conceived as a tangential episode to the overall Star Wars mythology, it was intended by George Lucas - who came up with the story - to keep the fans happy while The Empire Strikes Back was in production, and as a consequence it enjoyed a good share of the ratings. […]

  3. Mike Says:

    Cheers Amanda. I think the great thing about the original Wars is that kids can remove the politics, backstory, etc, and just enjoy the action and what’s going on immediately before their eyes. There’s literally something for everyone, and I suppose that’s the entire key to their success.

    Thanks again for the comments. Seems a shame about Mark Hamill’s career after the Wars and everything…

  4. Mmmm » Star Wars at 30: ‘The Adventures Continues…’ Says:

    […] So how do you follow a film like Star Wars? George Lucas could have approached the sequel to A New Hope by rehashing the original, and no doubt the film would have made its millions in both box office receipts and spin-off merchandise. Instead, he wanted something that weighed in with a heavier blow, an altogether deeper movie experience that would wow fans with its technical prowess and narrative virtuosity. […]

  5. Mmmm » Star Wars at 30: ‘Return to a Galaxy… Far, Far Away’ Says:

    […] Back then, the leak of data seemed far more under control. Though you could learn much from newspapers, and television fed a limited number of updates to viewers, it was less easy to be prepared for the film to come. Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back made for a heady broth of hype. The third part, or Episode VI, was as breathlessly awaited as any movie, a promised culmination of the saga that had led to welters of toys, books and other merchandise. Known until only weeks before its release as Revenge of the Jedi, the final chapter promised much, showing us the images of horrible looking new beasts, like Bib Fortuna, the albino butler to Jabba the Hutt, and the imposing looking Imperial Guards, with their flowing red robes and a single black slit where their eyes should have been. […]

  6. tom barnett Says:

    “My uncle took me when I was four, and apparently I spent most of the time chatting to a girl in the row behind”

    Bloody hell Mike you did start young.

  7. Mike Says:

    Yeah, but it didn’t last :(

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