A film review by Craig J. Koban
RANK: # 1 (tie)
STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW
30th Anniversary Retrospective
1977, PG, 127 mins.
Luke Skywalker: Mark Hamill / Han Solo: Harrison Ford
Princess Leia: Carrie Fisher / C-3po: Anthony Daniels
/ Darth Vader: David Prowse / Vader's Voice: James Earl Jones / Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi: Alec Guinness
Grand Moff Tarkin: Peter Cushing
"If you were to take STAR WARS away, out of film history....you would just be seeing a whole different landscape of entertainment over the last thirty years."
- director Peter Jackson
To quote its full title, STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE was perhaps the first film that I recall seeing that truly transported me.
I have seen it countless times (50…perhaps 100 times…perhaps more), but the one prevailing characteristic that it has is its ability to defy what it means to simply watch a movie. STAR WARS, in retrospect, can hardly been seen in simple definitions as a popcorn flick. This film – no matter how many times one views it – is an experience. It's one of the few transcending escapist films that works by working on us.
That’s what George Lucas’ space fantasy – easily the greatest of its genre in the history of the medium – means to me. While viewing it – either in a theater with hundreds of spectators or in a more intimate setting at home – STAR WARS still remains one of the most timeless classics of cinema. The film has universal recognition for its gigantic financial success and the multi-billion dollar merchandise empire that turned a thirty-something novice filmmaker from Modesto, California into one of the most powerful figures in the film world. Yet, there is certainly more to the film's success.
Surely, one of the film’s most long-standing legacies is that it changed to how films are seen (in its case – as hugely profitable commodities that can make money). Less superficially, those pundits that lay those legacy claims on the 1977 space opera forget its more notable and subtle donation to the film world: it fundamentally changed movies – artistically – for the last quarter of a century. Lucas has come under strong scrutiny for his aesthetic choices over the last decade, but there should be no denying his place on a very short list of cinematic pioneers.
STAR WARS is not just a science fiction/fantasy film; it was a watershed work in the annals of the film world. Like other pioneering films like THE BIRTH OF A NATION, THE JAZZ SINGER, BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN, and CITIZEN KANE, STAR WARS reinvented the modern movie and forever changed the film industry. The other films previously mentioned have nothing really in common with Lucas’, other than the fact that they altered the aesthetic landscape of the cinema, in terms of film grammar (like editing and storytelling) to technically milestones (like - in THE JAZZ SINGER’S case - sound in the movies). STAR WARS, like those works, came at a crucial time in film history when the medium became ripe for new ways of telling age-old stories. By taping into ancient and familiar thematic archetypes of the past, Lucas was able to appropriate them and spin his own narrative by using state-of-the-art technology, which – up to that time - was absolutely unheard of. That’s why the film was so fresh in the late 70’s; no one had ever seen anything quite like it.
Before STAR WARS, George Lucas was a USC graduate and a struggling independent filmmaker. Mentored by Francis Ford Coppola, Lucas would see his first taste of the mainstream film world when he released his first major feature, 1970’s THX-1138, a science fiction morality tale set in an oppressive, Orwellian future. The film was a bold and impressive achievement, but was a spectacular flop at the box office. From there he went on to making something more audience friendly, 1973’s sublime coming of age comedy AMERICAN GRAFFITI. That film was hugely successful - from a critical and financial perspective - and it was during the making of that multiple Oscar nominated film that Lucas’ idea of making an old fashioned epic started to germinate. He had the idea for what would be STAR WARS as early as 1972 and labored for years developing a script. Trying to sell is as a blend of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Captain Blood, and the B-grade, adventure serials that he worshiped as a child, Lucas attempted to make a new, modern fairy tale with elements people remembered from the past. By trying to forge a new-age film mythology for the viewing audiences, Lucas’ aims for making STAR WARS were in direct opposition to what he saw were dying, old fashioned values of good and evil in the movies.
The 1970’s – a relative Golden Age of the cinema in terms of worth – were a time when gritty, urban, and personalized violent films like MEAN STREETS, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, CHINATOWN, and TAXI DRIVER were the norm. These films – despite being great in their own right – were downbeat to their core and Lucas saw this. He wanted a film to combat the growing cinematic and social nihilism of the time. He keenly believed that what downtrodden people of the decade craved for was a bit of escapism. In short, he wished to transport viewers to an imaginary world fuelled with traditional Hollywood staples of valor and heroism. Before STAR WARS came out, ancient myths seemed out of the everyday subconscious. The economy was suffering, the Vietnam conflict left Americans disillusioned, and scandals like Watergate made the population fearful and distrusting of leaders. This was a culture that needed something new, and along came STAR WARS in 1977 to provide that new life into the movies (as a 1977 Variety review wisely pointed out, it was “like a breath of fresh air”).
Upon reflection, it is not entirely hard to understand why STAR WARS would go on to be one of the highest grossing films of all-time. Yet, the film opened on only 32 American cinemas, which is miniscule compared to modern openings, which play on several thousand. When it opened on May 25, 1977 it grossed a then amazing $254,309 and – within eight weeks – it grossed $44 million. It would go on to dethrone JAWS as the biggest grossing film ever (it would hold that position until 1997’s TITANIC). Prior to the release of this movie, the greatest profit 20th Century Fox – the movie’s exhibitor - had ever made in one year was $37,000,000. In 1977- and because of the film - their year-end profit was $79,000,000. Ironically, studio pundits thought the other film opening that week – SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT - would pulverize the film. STAR WARS went on to nearly double that film’s grosses. Within three weeks of the its release, 20th Century Fox's stock price doubled to a record high.
Not bad for a film whose genre was box office poison in the 70’s, that had no big name stars, that had a director that had no faith in its future success, and that had a low budget of only $11 million.
STAR WARS redefined the blockbuster film and seemingly all other summer films that have been released to this day have tried to duplicate its success. It targeted a once neglected demographic – youth and adolescents, a group that most modern summer films seek out today– and was one of the few films that tried to understand its demographic. Lucas specifically targeted his new pop-mythology to the audience he believed the film would attract the most. There have been other blockbusters pre-STAR WARS, but the film fundamentally changed the Hollywood perception of what made a hit film. Every studio today has tried to capture the STAR WARS lightening in a bottle twice, so to speak. Its numbers are remarkable, even to modern scrutiny. In 1977 one in twenty filmgoers saw the film more than once.
The film – originally entitled THE STAR WARS – began modestly with a 14-page treatment that seemingly every studio passed on. After years of writing, a 200-plus-page screenplay was developed (the first third primarily being the first STAR WARS, the two other sections would later be devoted to two other sequels). One sympathetic ear was Alan Ladd Jr., who was so impressed with AMERICAN GRAFFITI that he trusted Lucas with his new fantasy. The movie was given the green light with a puny $8 million budget and Lucas himself was paid equally little. However, he opted for a deal which can be seen now as the most lucrative and shrewd contract in film history: he asked for $175,000 to make the film, but only if he had exclusive merchandise and sequel rights.
The actual making of the future epic was anything but pleasurable. Lucas himself labored for months trying to assemble cast (familiar stars like Nick Notle, Al Pacino, Burt Reynolds, James Cann, Kurt Russell turned parts down) and he cast three unknowns, Harrison Ford (who was in GRAFFITI, but went back to his old carpentry job after), Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher. This displeased studio brass. Once his controversial cast was assembled, Lucas launched a grueling production that took the crew from Africa to London and back to the States.
The making of the film was plagued with issues. Countless setbacks made it pushed back from its initial release date of Christmas 1976 to summer of 1977. There were problems with shooting, editing, and – ironically – the special effects crew, which would go on to win Oscar for the landmark visuals in the film. Realizing that old effects techniques could never, ever be used for his vision for the film, Lucas launched Industrial Light and Magic, which would become of the most influential and important effects houses in the world. Their beginnings were not void of problems. When Lucas returned from shooting in London ILM spent $5 million of the $8 million on effects without any usable footage. Lucas became so ill that he checked himself into a hospital after suffering from hypertension and vowed never to direct a film again (he would return over twenty years later to helm EPISODE I of the STAR WARS sextet).
Considering its mammoth production woes, it almost could be considered a miracle that STAR WARS emerged as one of the greatest films of the 70’s, if not all-time. Perhaps it was how Lucas was able to tell age-old stories and myths and make them feel simultaneously new and familiar. The film is a gloriously mounted, 1930's adventure serial come to life, which makes viewers hearken back to the simplistic and bold stories of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, not to mention echoing classic myths of the past. Previous films also influenced STAR WARS (the works of Akira Kurosawa and John Ford, to name a few) in how STAR WARS felt. By combining elements of these stories with breakthrough, 20th Century technology, Lucas changed the cinema irrevocably, even if - at the time - he never thought he was.
The story itself has simple and defined touches and does not have any real areas of grey (it's a simple black and white story of good versus evil set against the backdrop of space). Reiterating his desire for the film to feel like a fairy tale, Lucas began the story with the words, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….” This is crucial to the film’s success: it gives it a gravitas and grandeur. Soon, we are thrown right smack dab in the middle of the action (Lucas wisely does not waste time with useless expository scenes; he throws us into the world). Again, this is key to the film feeling like a true out-of-body experience. Wasting time of intros would be tedious; thrusting us in without explanation allows the movie's magic to engulf us.
We meet two lovable, but bickering, robots, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) who find themselves knee deep in the middle of a Galactic War. The evil Empire, led by Lord Darth Vader (physically played by David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones; still one of the great, enigmatic villains of the movies) wages war against a small band of Rebellious freedom fighters led by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). The Empire has developed a space station, The Death Star, capable of destroying an entire planet, but that pesky Leia has its technical plans. She hides them on one of the droids – with a message – and the droids escape to a nearby desert planet. Eventually, they hook up with a teenage farm boy named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) whose uncle purchases their services. Soon, the message makes its way to Luke, who later brings it to the attention of a strange old wizard-like hermit named Obi-Wan Kenobi (played memorably by Alec Guinness). Soon, the group hooks up with a space pirate Han Solo (Harrison Ford) his gigantic, furry co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and engage on a rescue mission of sorts to free the Princess while on board the huge space station. The heroes – in fitting, cliff-hanger style manner – narrowly escape the station, regroup with the Rebels, and plan to mount an attack on the Death Star before all is too late.
The smartest thing Lucas did with STAR WARS is to tell it with broad and universal strokes. Inspired by the works of author Joseph Campbell, Lucas tells STAR WARS as part of a “hero’s journey” – we have the resourceful hero faced with adversity who must grow to understand the evil in the world in order to confront it. Again, these themes are as old as fiction itself, and this is what makes Lucas’s world feel so lived in and real. Most ancient myths have familiar strands through and through, and STAR WARS is no exception. The film's art direction also contributes to this. Using virtuoso set and costume design, STAR WARS has a lush, epic feel that films three times its budget fail to have. There are cheerful and sly nods to famous films (C3P0 is a direct descendent of the robot from METROPOLIS); Han Solo dresses like a western gunslinger; Darth Vader looks like a dark, Samurai warrior; the Empire’s men dress in Nazi-like fatigues, and so forth. All of this is done so impeccably to sell the universe of this film. We’ve seen subtle examples of the film’s style before, but just never in the way STAR WARS presents it to us.
The visual effects, of course, only contribute to Lucas’ limitless vision. It’s so deceptively easy to take them for granted today. Yet, what should be taken into consideration is the magic and pageantry of how new and exciting those effects were to untamed eyes in the late 70’s. There were large scale, immaculate effects in films before (Kubrick’s 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, to be exact), but never in the history of the movies had effects taken such a quantum leap in terms of scope and quality. Every little nuance felt real in STAR WARS, from the rusted out and lived in space ships to odd, alien-occupied taverns, to the aerial dog fights between the good guys and bad guys in space. There is something happening at every corner of every frame in the film. The sheer density of the STAR WARS universe is astounding. If anything, the visuals of the film exploded what was then impossible to be achieved. It ushered in new ways of visualizing and editing stories. By effectively combining a new, kinetic style with sharp direction, bombastic sound, and stupendous music (provided by John Williams, in one if the greatest, most recognizable soundtracks ever), Lucas created a new visual language for the art form.
There are simply too many memorable moments to mention. There’s the sight of the two troubled and beguiled droids against the backdrop of a desert landscape (an ode to David Lean); a scene where Vader’s evil minions battle it out with rebel forces with their blaster pistols; Han Solo’s ship when it first docks with the mammoth Death Star; the laser sword battle between Vader and Kenobi…one could go on indefinitely. Some of the other moments have kind of an ethereal and quietly passionate strength, like when Luke poignantly stars out to a double, twin sunset to ponder his life or when he races home to find his family dead. Those small moments have real power too. Then again, nothing got people out of their seats more than the film’s opening shot – arguably the most sensational and awesome ever – with Vader’s ship – miles long – racing towards Leia’s smaller rebel freighter. The camera pans down to the planet, we see the Princess’ ship fly past and then the immeasurably long visage of Vader’s Star Destroyer pass overhead in a shot that goes on forever. Once that opening shot occurs, you are in Lucas’ universe, not to be let back into your earthly world until the final credits role. The film grabs you within the first few seconds and never lets go.
If anything can be said of STAR WARS it's that never before had special effects been more effectively intertwined with good storytelling. It could very easily be established that without STAR WARS, Lucas, and ILM then the last 30 years of effects heavy films would never have been made. STAR WARS gave legitimacy to a once dormant genre – science fiction and fantasy – but it also laid the path to other high-octane films with million dollar visuals to be produced. Many modern blockbusters, from STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE, THE INDIANA JONES TRILOGY, THE MATRIX TRILOGY, THE ABYSS, JURASSIC PARK, TERMINATOR series, and – yes – THE LORD OF THE RINGS TRILOGY may not have existed if it were not for STAR WARS. People may be quick to point out that Tolkien's books existed long before Lucas’ film fantasy, but it was the stunning advancements in filmmaking that occurred with STAR WARS that made filming THE LORD OF THE RINGS possible. No other single film has been as technically influential as STAR WARS.
There is no doubt that the film changed Hollywood, but did it do it for the better? Some industry analysts and historians point out that the unparalleled success of STAR WARS spawned hundreds of inferior copycats where characters and story were second fiddle to mindless action and effects. That is true to a degree, but one could hardly fault the film alone for contributing to the intellectual bankruptcy of modern movies. It did not directly cause witless, inane, adolescent-inspired fare for the future. Yes, the movie ushered in an unprecedented new kind of fantastical action film that was exploited by the studios. Many films today are seen as marketable commodities and not art forms. Yet, these critics fail to see what STAR WARS really is at its core: a powerful and expertly crafted piece of escapism and entertainment that can be appreciated on a level of technical art and enjoyment. Because the film transcended the business does not preclude that it wrecked the it in the future.
Critics of the time were very kind to STAR WARS. Time magazine hailed it as the film of 1977 and the Academy awarded the film with multiple Oscar wins, most often in the technical categories, along with nominations for Best Screenplay and Best Direction for Lucas. Despite the fact that STAR WARS lost the Best Picture statue to Woody Allen’s romantic comedy ANNIE HALL, 1977 was the year of STAR WARS. By year’s end it was the most loved and financially successful film of all-time and within a few years it would spawn two sequels, 1980’s THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK and RETURN OF THE JEDI.
By 1989 the film was honored as one of the first 25 films to be inducted into the National Film Registry for works of a cultural and social significance. Lucas would re-visit the first three films with effects enhancements and remastered picture and sound with the release of the Special Editions in 1997, in conjunction with the first film’s 20th anniversary. By the end of the 90’s through to 2005, Lucas would return to make the “prequel trilogy” to enormous – if not slightly incredulous and obsessively critical – fanfare. No matter how one feels about the worth of the STAR WARS prequels, they nevertheless proved with their release that the series was still one of the largest and most endearing mythologies of the last hundred years. No too many films have achieved such universal notoriety and status.
Some critics comment that revisiting films of yesteryear is like going into time machines and journeying into the nostalgic past. I don’t think that’s an apt descriptor of the visceral and longstanding allure of George Lucas’ original STAR WARS. Like all “classic” films of Hollywood, this space fantasy still remains a timeless experience. The world and universe of Lucas’ film feels as vibrant, detailed, and unsullied as ever. The out-of-body sensation that STAR WARS created in viewers will never waiver. It’s a pure and unpretentious exercise in escapism at its essence and a work for audiences to live vicariously through, as if the events on screen where happening to them. The film paved the way for a generation of future films – it ushered in new audience demographics; it revolutionized film visual effects and sound; it dramatically changed movie marketing and merchandising; and it created a new type of film going experience. STAR WARS is not just a film; it is an event, a phenomenon, and a pop-culture icon. It is - as Lucas initially envisioned - a modern fairy tale that reinforces noble, old-fashioned values for children of all ages; a new myth for people tired of societal cynicism.
It’s also a masterpiece…for sure.