Saturday, September 11, 2010

It Might Not Be Perfect, But Star Wars - A New Hope Got The Saga Started!

The Good: Characters, Acting, Effects, Philosophy
The Bad: Plot is pretty predictable
The Basics: With A New Hope, a galaxy filled with aliens, robots and light-based swords is clearly established in a film worth coming back to over and over!

Every now and then, I find myself ready to review something relatively new and wanting to reference another work, but then discovering that the thing I'm looking to reference is something I never reviewed. As I wrote my review of Family Guy: Blue Harvest,” I discovered that I had never actually reviewed Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. And there is no time like the present for that!

The classic late 1970s science fiction epic that put established director George Lucas prominently on the map, A New Hope is known to most from that time as simply Star Wars. However, as the films progressed and now that there are at least six films in the franchise, most aficionados of the series refer to it by George Lucas's preferred title, A New Hope. This is essentially an archetypal hero story and as a result, it might seem familiar beyond the simple spectacle of it.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away there lived a beautiful princess, Leia of Alderaan, who was pursued through the galaxy by the evil Lord Darth Vader, a masked partly-robotic villain who uses force to crush the Rebellion against the Galactic Empire. As Leia's small ship flees with stolen plans for the seemingly invincible battle station that the Empire has constructed, she launches the plans in the memory banks of a robot to a nearby planet, Tatooine. On that desert world lives Luke Skywalker, reluctant farmhand. The droids - R2-D2, who has the plans, and his translator, C-3P0 - come into Luke's possession and he triggers a message from Leia which leads him to Obi-Wan Kenobi.

Obi-Wan Kenobi is an old man, a Jedi - a knight who uses the mystical energies of the galaxy known as the Force. Obi-Wan takes Luke in and trains him in how to use the Force and when Luke realizes that the Empire will not rest until the plans are back in their hands - and he has no further reason to remain on Tatooine - he and Obi-Wan hire a starship to take them to Alderaan to deliver the plans to the Rebellion. Unfortunately for all concerned, the imprisoned Leia has been brought by the Empire to Alderaan with its mighty Death Star, which wipes out the planet. Luke and his little band are captured by the Empire and they must escape and deliver the plans to the Rebellion, else the freedom fighters in the galaxy are likely to be wiped out, like the citizens of Alderaan!

A New Hope is at once a masterpiece and a film that needed at least three other movies to make it make sense. Indeed, a significant portion of me is convinced that George Lucas felt compelled to make the prequel trilogy for Star Wars because the Empire was not truly evil. Seriously. Objectively looking at A New Hope, the Empire does nothing that is inherently wrong, except in response to terrorist activities by a bunch of yahoos who have no noticeable grievance. After all, Tatooine appears free, there is no real oppression evident and the only people who have to fear the Empire are those dissidents out to destroy in for no clear reason.

Of course, writer-director George Lucas did not need a reason; this is a simple story of heroes and villains. The heroes are good because they act good, the villains are bad because they act inappropriately, like Darth Vader manually and psychically strangling his enemies. As well, off screen we are informed that the Empire is inherently bad because the Emperor has done away with the Galactic Senate and turned over control of star systems to military governors who will rule with fear and intimidation.

Indeed, the delight in watching A New Hope is that it is very completely a story about characters becoming. Darth Vader becomes a leader within the Empire, something he does not start the film as. Instead, through the default of removing all of his superiors - he is kept on a pretty short leash by Grand Moff Tarkin - Vader grows into a powerful force within the Empire who is unrivaled by any but the Emperor. Paralleling Vader's rise to power through force and death is the character arc of Luke Skywalker, who grows from a boy to a man through the adaptation of a faith that is new to him, the use of the Force.

As well, the supplemental characters tend to develop as the film progresses, except Leia. Leia pretty much whines and complains her way through all of A New Hope, which allows George Lucas to keep gender stereotypes alive as well as mythological and heroic archetypes. While Leia is being a nag and the bitch character, Han Solo, interstellar smuggler, is growing past his fear of the Empire and his pursuit of wealth in order to become a (somewhat) principled man. Indeed, in A New Hope, Solo makes he choice between sex and money and the viewer watches as he alters his motivations from money to principles. To be fair to Han Solo, he has a pretty strong profit motive; he is deeply in debt to the slimiest gangster in the galaxy, Jabba the Hutt.

And that is why A New Hope endures; the spectacle. The plot may be predictable and the characters might be mildly interesting as they travel along the preordained arcs of the hero archetype, but it is the special effects that made A New Hope so incredible when it was originally released and even now, on DVD. So when I wrote "slimiest gangster," that was literal. Jabba the Hutt is basically a giant slug.

But A New Hope is populated by an incredible array of aliens that flesh out a very rich sense of setting. The aliens are so prevalent because the galaxy Lucas has created is overflowing with racial diversity. The creatures are everywhere and humans are just one of many aliens in the galaxy. In A New Hope, there are more aliens than there are women! Then again, there are more droids than there are women as well. Lucas created a reality where robots, aliens and mystical sorcerer knights coexist and fly around in space ships that are involved in impressive space battles.

Thematically, the diversity of the universe outside the empire makes a powerful statement. Lucas created a diverse society on Tatooine where the aliens all mix and mingle with one another. And flying high above them is the monochromatic Empire, with its white-armored Stormtrooper soldiers, its jet-black priest of the Dark Side of the Force, Darth Vader, and the gray-clad officers.

Yes, it's spectacle, but A New Hope contains spectacle with a purpose as opposed to spectacle for the sake of special effects promotion. No, A New Hope is carefully constructed to do what films ought to do; use the visual medium to express ideas and themes.

But all the spectacle in the world would be nothing if the acting within the universe was not convincing. Fortunately, A New Hope has a pretty amazing cast. Featuring the voice of James Earl Jones, the body and the acting irritated of Carry Fisher, and the dignified presence of Sir Alec Guiness, everyone who performed in A New Hope brought something special to the effort. Sir Alec Guiness, who performed with an admirable stiff lip in Bridge On The River Kwai has a more casual and subtle greatness to him as Obi-Wan Kenobi. Similarly, having seen Carrie Fisher in films like When Harry Met Sally where she was playing a character who was warm and friendly, Fisher proves she can act by being convincingly and consistently annoying as Princess Leia.

A New Hope also put Harrison Ford at the center of the Hollywood map with his portrayal of the arrogant Han Solo. Unlike the fairly brilliant archaeologist he played in the Indiana Jones Trilogy, Ford impresses by the way he takes a monolithic character like Han Solo and slowly evolves him. And he makes a reasonable transition from cocky to courageous that goes well beyond what is scripted.

But much of the film rests upon the back of Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker. Hamill plays Skywalker as initially very whiny and confused and he slowly infuses Luke's ability to assert himself. The performance is so good that it is hard to not notice how much taller Luke stands at the end of the film in contrast to the beginning.

There are tons of nitpicky things to find about A New Hope and its various "Special Edition" incarnations that restore scenes like Jabba the Hutt threatening Han Solo, but for the most part A New Hope remains the dominant myth of our time. It has an engaging story and a sense of spectacle that is very easy to lose oneself in.

You didn't think all those geeks were attracted to A New Hope without good reason, did you? Fans of science fiction will still respect and enjoy this film and most anyone who likes movies will find this entertaining. Those who rewatch it might well find it enlightening.


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© 2010, 2008 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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