A tale of droids and sand…
First, a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… There was a planet of Sand…
A glimpse at the original Episode IV, its iterations and context in the wake of The Force Awakens’ glorious boosting of Hollywood’s mightiest space franchise. Spoilers guaranteed.
THAT PLANET OF SAND WASN’T ARRAKIS, ALTHOUGH FRANK HERBERT’S EPIC EXPLORATION OF THE PLANET DUNE HUNG HEAVILY OVER GEORGE LUCAS’ GAME CHANGING SPACE OPERA. The sand preoccupying the director in May 1977 was on the beach in Hawaii where Lucas finally heard confirmation that his great gamble wasn’t just a first weekend wonder; his suspicion that he’d broken his back to helm a career stalling disaster was apparently way off the mark. Just as Spielberg, in the minority, had told him. On limited release on 25 May 1977, what was to become Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, but was forever seared into cinema-goers’ minds at the time as Star Wars, captured an astonishing $1.5 million on its opening.
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
It’s incredible how much of Star War’s original Episode hangs on the innate ability for people to forget…
Six major films later, five of those under Lucas’s stewardship, the brand renewed and strong in the lock-tight grip of the House of Mouse, the impact of that first film is increasingly difficult to gauge. While the prequel trilogy that appeared at the tail end of the 20th century is the root of most criticism that will forever hang somewhere around Lucas’ neck, tendrils of four decades of fan-base mistrust also hangs in the legendary tinkering that’s seen the original trilogy morph and shift and re-sheen an incalculable number of times. Incalculable as many alterations snuck into prints between big releases, many un-signposted and insidious… It’s a joke, but it’s also a matter as deadly serious as it can get in the realm of the world’s most successful space western.
Yes, let’s start with the recent years and work back to that original hope…
Through multiple variations that have remastered, rejigged, recut and re-pixelated, Episode IV has raked in more than $775 million worldwide. While the stories of Lucas meeting a muted reception among almost all his film contemporaries in the mid-1970s, and that legendary, yielding beach retreat, his irrepressible desire to change the result of a gruelling process that for all its innovation, had a budget that couldn’t match his vision, is understandable. His simple and rapid disconnect form a fan-base so attached to the quirks and overreaching scope of the franchise over a few pixels and forced consistency however, is not. But by the time of Special Edition releases Lucas had set out a certain stall that Star Wars was a work in progress. That attitude to Hollywood output would no doubt be far more prevalent if any other filmmaker had the finance and control that Lucas enjoyed.
Still, there’s no doubt that when those Special Editions emerged for the film’s 20th anniversary in 1997 they risked diluting the films’ vision. After that ever unnerving vision of Luke’s aunt and uncle’s smoking corpses at their devastated moisture farm, Obi Wan’s wonderfully over the top description of Mos Eisley as an unbeatable “hive of scum and villainy” can only ever be undermined by a cut to ‘hilarious’ droid and ‘pratfalling’ Jawa slapstick. For all Lucas’ protestations that this is a children’s film, that disconnect seems belligerent and wilfully perverse.
It’s also a deliberate rejection of the happenstance and zeitgeist that made Star Wars such an intoxicating proposition in the first place. Reinserting original scenes that were shelved at the time, shows a stubbornness worthy of the destiny tunnel-visioned Dark Side. While some changes draw out a powerful sense of apathy, particular hatred is rightfully reserved for the misjudged insertion of the Jabba scene in Episode IV. With the odd and strained logic that the Hutt should be thinner than his main appearance in Return of Jedi, the laboured closing dwell on a menacing Boba Fett is horribly fan-pleasing but manages to diminish the felon’s later appearances in the overarching story. We should all be very grateful that this scene didn’t guarantee a Han Solo cameo in the prequel trilogy, although of course, that nearly happened.
Such a scene may be a horrid jarring of special effects and blind stubbornness, but things are far more insidious aboard the Death Star. The much loved head-bumping Stormtrooper of the original film may have been enhanced in the 2004 DVD issues with a sound effect all of its own, then seized for an homage in the prequel trilogies to reinforce the retconned cloning of Jango Fett… But Lucas was stepping into the Death Star beam when he tinkered with Harrison Ford’s natural comedy, especially already tarnishing his anti-hero sheen with the Greedo controversy. Han Solo’s enhanced chase of Stormtroopers only to run into a greatly expanded contingent became the Special Edition’s prime example of how to ruin a joke. Or even worse, a sure sign of their distinct loss of a sense of humour in the face of CGI. It’s a small mercy that in every version of A New Hope Luke Skywalker remains by far the worst shot in the galaxy. Somethings are untouchable. Or unhittable.
Time to Forget
“Well, you can forget your troubles”
It’s incredible how much of Star War’s original Episode hangs on the innate ability for people to forget. And that’s a feeling that grows in the hindsight of successive films. Luke’s uncle Lars is happy to hide in ignorance, out of sight is out of mind for events far away from Tatooine despite the horror that lay in his bloodline. Luke is protected mainly by that ignorance. Obi-Wan Kenobi is content to hide in mystery and hermitage. Aboard the Death Star, senior figures of the Empire are more concerned with their “technological terrors” than the force. And It’s a mere 19 years since the great Jedi purge and the advent of Darth Vader. Almost all of those characters were adults at the time of the Empire’s ascendance, but memories of the Jedi have gone the way of droid armies.
The roots of the prequels set entirely ruing the dominance of that not so-old religion lay in throw-away lines from this first film, but they would be hampered by, among other things, iconic moments that came in the two 1980s sequels. In Episode IV there’s the Emperor’s final dissolution of the senate, the concept of Anakin as a good friend to Ben Kenobi, himself a former General in the Clone Wars. Every successive film highlights that A New Hope is a peculiar place to join a space opera, but it’ helped by some brilliant anchor points that tie us into what was once and should remain a marvellously simple, light and fairy tale mythology.
“Don’t try to frighten us with your sorcerer’s ways…”
On the side of the aggressors, there’s a solid weight to Grand Moff Tarkin’s role as the relatively static head of the opposition in the immaculate and menacingly controlled form of Peter Cushing. This is the only film in the sequence where the Emperor (although mentioned) remains unseen, acting through his puppets. “You my friend is all that’s left off their religion” says Tarkin to Vader, a considered put down to a supernatural and unfathomable force who doesn’t take kindly to criticism. Tarkin’s words, and the derision of the Imperial Admirals under his command, do much to show how sweeping and dramatic the Empire’s rise to power was. Tarkin isn’t stupid enough to dismiss Vader’s belief. Subsequent visits to the character in the expanded universe of Star Wars cartoons would draw out the rule of strength in this chief but un-supernatural architect of the Empire. A key and decisive figure of ruthless efficiency, Tarkin represents the schism in the Emperor’s new model. The Sith Lord and supernatural heart, protected by the universal fear generated by overwhelming military strength and iron rule. In that respect, it seems destined to fall at some point. But the tension is there from the start. In fact, that tension is never more overt than in Episode IV, although would be seared into the franchise DNA all the way up to the franchise’s third trilogy. The Force Awakens has almost robbed the original of some its uniqueness, as the First Order is a more dramatic and awkward attempt to recapture the Empire balancing of two opposing diktats.
Aboard the Death Star, the Dark Lord is hardly seeking the approval of his superior but it can’t be lost on any Sith that it takes leaders like Tarkin to make this difficult balance work. And would you believe there are reasons to be grateful for the creation of the Empire and indeed the terrible machine that the Sith Lord chose to unleash? Had the Empire not been able to impose its will in the past 19 years, the audience of 1977 would be watching the remnants of a hokey and discredited religion, soon forgotten, of which Kenobi is the main, misguided devotee, seeking autocratic rule over the galaxy.
That’d end your trip real quick, wouldn’t it?
On the light side, Obi-Wan fulfils the wise man role in a distinctly Cambellian piece. Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and quest for the monomyth hangs heavy over the original Star Wars trilogy particularly this first film. Distilling Frank Herbert’s Dune into that simple and stable quest is the secret of the film’s success. Indeed, for all of its length and slightly off-shift lurch into its third act, A New Hope is a tremendously simple story that follows its archetypes closely and well. Compared to the simplicity of the early films, it’s clear to see the errors that the complicated prequels made as soon as The Phantom Menace’s opening scroll appeared. That’s one lesson The Force Awakens learned well.
Of course, more and everyman lie alongside the influence of Campbell and Herbert in Star Wars. Screen science fiction has seldom captured the easy swagger of a western like Star Wars, or elicited the slightest hint of American revolution between its heavy-handed fascist enemy and a smattering of old British class on each side of the equation. The opening scrawl reaches to the 1930s serials just as sister franchise Indiana Jones would. But also, Lucas hides away some marvellous science fiction oddities. Beyond the quirky reliance on transferable droids, and frontier worlds that support countless alien species with multiple languages through capitalism, there’s the need to undertake complex calculation before any jump to light speed. It “ain’t like dusting crops” as Han says, somehow also setting up a fine joke in the sequel.
“The circle is now complete”
A New Hope is a simple film, deceptively slight despite the prolonged opening act that you couldn’t imagine making it through a cutting room today. Still, pondering on the dusky dual-sunset of Tatooine backed by John Williams justly lauded score is one thing that can’t be tarnished by the Special Edition treatment. Come the second act the small band of confused heroes prematurely arrive in the villains’ lair. But as if to prove the inherent balance of the film, the Millennium Falcon is tractored into the Death Star at precisely the halfway point of the film’s running time.
That second act has recently gained extra prominence, thanks to R2D2’s access of the Death Star computer at Obi Wan’s behest; 30 years later the galactic map he sourced would provide the key to finding the errant Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens. But as the old Jedi Knight is dispatched far sooner than memory might suggest he and Luke share very little interaction. A simple trip to Mos Eisley, a zappy bout of lightsaber training, and then it’s on to his fate for the hermit. If there’s any doubt why Kenobi might have bothered with this short trip to his doom at Princess Leia’s bequest, it’s worth remembering Episode III’s suggestion that he’d spent years hanging around with Qui Gon Jinn. 19 years is a very long time in his company.
“Who’s the more foolish? The fool or the fool who follows him?”
Yes, for Kenobi, it’s a consciously one-way mission, in a universe that has forgotten the Force as much as its inhabitants. A convenient reason built up by subsequent films, has the force so weakened in this time period that battles can’t be anything by excruciatingly poor. Power is weak on both sides, another compelling reason both for Kenobi’s reclusiveness and the Sith’s leverage of military technology. And that fight, which costs his mentor, is Luke’s first glimpse of who we would have to wait for a film and half to find out is his father. His first vision: Vader killing his mentor. That’s powerful stuff and it ends in an exquisite if odd moment of mysticism that Williams’ score massively enhances. Hidden in the fevered Falcon escape and oddly repetitive dialogue, Vader’s prodding at the abandoned cloak sums up the ignorance that’s inherent in the boo hiss dark side. And of course, some brilliant comedy as well. Was Anakin not listening to Palpatine at the opera all those years before?
Third act shift
“I’m taking an awful risk Vader, this had better work”
If it were a football squad, Episode IV would play a high pressing game with every player, even the keeper, pressing in the opposition half for most of the match. Hindsight suggests that the good guys headed into the game with a 0-36 goal aggregate to overcome, but that’s not to say they had nothing to lose. The heroes have taken the McGuffin of the piece straight into the monster’s maw, for a spot of conventional rescuing of an unconventional princess. And that means Leia is trapped in the very place she wants to destroy on the way to being ‘rescued’. Episode IV has no issue dramatically and almost preposterously heightening the risk; another trick that the crew of the Original Trilogy could carry but fell flat very flat in the stodgy prequels. At he heart of that is the princess herself. Her mother as portrayed by Natalie Portman in the subsequent films, never rose above her noble, crucial, archetype even in moments of rebellion. Trapped in the heady, incredibly uninteresting web of destiny that scuppered the trilogy, the most interesting thing about her was her oxymoronic position as elected queen. Leia, the original, the best, is the real deal. The princess in her own tower, who it turns out doesn’t really need much rescuing at all.
Of course, the end of that second act that could easily be a discrete storyline in its own right as the film shifts gear again. The trick of that immediate jump to the rebel base and the immediate use of the regained plans to return to the Death Star can’t be overrated. It’s a cheat of a final act in many ways, and an utterly superb one. So much depends on it, it’s the film’s great strength and its enigma.
Before the stunning assault tips the film into WWII celluloid homage, we’re introduced to the Rebel Alliance as a status quo for the first time. And that’s a long time after the rather dislocated destruction of Alderaan, a tragic moment that the audience can only witness through Leia and not the billions of lives lost n the planet. We’d never meet any inhabitant of that planet in the Original Trilogy. It’s surely no coincidence that Alderaan in appearance is one of the most Earth-like planets in the Star Wars galaxy. The Force Awakens would repeat the same difficult trick of over relying on destructive statistics rather than impact, but at least showed flashes of life on the doomed worlds. Perhaps most intriguing is that during that pivotal scene that finds Tarkin at his most treacherous and malevolent as he orders the complete destruction of a planet, Vader doesn’t speak a word. His reluctance to get too enthusiastic about the Death Star was already on record.
“May the Force be with you”
Far from the Empire, rooted in the Force, but necessarily unaware, the Rebel Alliance is happy to purloin the Force mantra as a sign off – not a religion, more an assumed nod to different times that we know nothing about. It’s another strange point in context. There’s a nice opposition in the Rebels embracing the Force without any empowered figurehead, while the majority Empire is ignorant of the Force at its centre. It’s dodged, but likely that many of those opposing the Empire would have had similar concerns about a galaxy maintained by the secretive order of Jedi Knights.
It’s no surprise, that aboard the Death Star, the Empire are confident. It’s a feat of engineering, presumably built on the backs of millions and as the prequel trilogy suggests, two decades in the construction. Of course, the seeds of its downfall are bled into the narrative from the first act. To add nuance to the antagonists, Tarkin looks suspicious throughout, Vader cocky in comparison.
“The force is strong in this one”
The trench dogfight is marvellously directed and shows Lucas’ real talent for FX action as much as it showcases his influences. The stylised dissolves propel the action throughout the film and come into their own at the end as they cut between different action points. Interestingly, this would reach both its peak and nadir in The Phantom Menace. Compounding the pressure, as the hidden talk of the stolen Death Star plans burst through into the WWII dog fight, Lucas serves up the double threat of the Death Star closing on the Rebel base. Contrary to the terror’s first test, the stakes are considerable and tangible. everyone we’ve met is threatened.
Kylo Ren’s patricide in The Force Awakens is the final revenge for Solo’s pivotal intervention…
It’s essential that Luke is no Force hero or new Jedi at this point; following a natural character curve he’s in the cockpit and reliant on skill and machine to exploit the skill and machine lapse at the heart of the Death Star. Piloting skills that owe much to the force are easy to retcon, and that’s an aspect Lucas chose to dwell on far more than the everyday hero. A slight chink of the Campbellian paradigm is lost by doing that. The Force Awakens puts Poe Dameron in this role, a mash of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, but its Lukes subsequent force struggles in 1980 and 1983 that have come to dominated the balance of the film just as much as the balance of the force. There is no awakening here, despite the tremor caused by Kenobi’s arrival or the mass destruction of the Death Star when an engineering fault is exploited. This is on a smaller scale than the story would tackle in following films. In hindsight, it’s on a familial scale. Vader pursues his son through the Death Star trench although we would have little idea as to the relationship for three years and disappears in an ignominious Tie spin. Vader’s path, had the film flopped as Lucas feared, could have been a short and homicidal one. But definitely the kind of day he would have long remembered. In a saga now almost obsessed with the tightening Gordian Knot of generational repeat, Kylo Ren’s patricide in The Force Awakens is the final revenge for Solo’s pivotal intervention during that Death Star run.
And so, unbeknownst to all during production, and thanks to its incredible box office performance, a behemoth was born. While Vader survives, Tarkin is a sad loss. Although the Grand Moff’s earlier actions require a reckoning and Cushing does get to remain imperiously sceptical until the very end.
And that explosive end leads to a coda, perhaps the strangest moments of the film. That laughably long medal ceremony looks incredibly indulgent in the context of the Rebel Alliance’s plight at the start of The Empire Strikes Back. But it serves one final, unifying purpose that ties together every aspect of this curious space quest. For all the swooping space opera, Star Wars is rooted in character. And no matter how strange and permissive that ending it is, it’s worth remembering that the original Star Wars a hope. A new hope, and nothing more.
There’s a long way to go.
Next Month: A world of Ice as The Empire Strikes Back