Doomsday Reels

Star Wars (1977)



George Lucas

Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Leia Organa), Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin), Alec Guinness (Ben Kenobi), Anthony Daniels (C-3P0), Kenny Baker (R2-D2), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), David Prowse (Darth Vader), James Earl Jones (Darth Vader’s Voice)

Totalitarian Government/Galactic War

“Episode IV: A New Hope – It is a period of civil war.  Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.  During the battle, Rebel spies managed to seal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.  Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the secret plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…” – Opening text crawl.

In my review of Barefoot Gen I stealthily slipped in my criteria as to what is suitable fodder for a Doomsday Reels column: a “doomsday” movie is any movie that “depicts an event or events that have forever altered the world/universe in a negative way.”  While I did that to tell why I was reviewing a film based on a real-life account of a child living in post-nuclear Hiroshima, I also did it because I figured there would be people who would cry foul over my covering the Star Wars sextet.  To be honest I myself went back and forth on whether this series applies to my standards but it unquestionably depicts a galaxy in the process of being taken over by and fighting back against a totalitarian regime, placing it firmly into the realm of dystopia.

The other question facing myself as I write this column is, to paraphrase another member of the CHUD staff when asked whether he thought this should be covered, “What can you say about Star Wars that hasn’t been said already?”  That’s a fair question.   With the exception of maybe the bible, Star Trek, and Smokey and the Bandit 3 no creation of mankind has been lionized, denounced, discussed, argued over, and elevated to a point far beyond what it is quite like Star Wars.  It’s a legacy that goes well beyond 1, 3, or 6 movies; beyond numerous novels, toys, comic books, and commemorative plates.

Star Wars is a form of pop culture all its own, cordoned off from everything else.  Reviews are legion and generally come from folks in two camps: people with unwavering dedication to the brand (though this usually comes with an overly critical blind spot for the prequels) and anti-fans on a mission to take this sacred cow down a few pegs.

You can’t swing a cat on the internet without hitting a review of Star Wars that either appraises it as the greatest thing to ever happen to the world ever or the thing that killed smart science fiction cinema dead.  So what can I do to set myself apart from all those folks?  I’m going to review these movies as movies rather than cultural milestones.  I’m not deluded enough to think that I’m the first person to try and see this forest for the trees, but I can really only think of one review I’ve read that comes to the Star Wars table without a lot of baggage.

Full disclosure: I am a Star Wars fan but I have only seen each movie a couple time and I haven’t seen any of the original trilogy in nearly ten years and none of the prequels since Episode 3 came out.  I have also not seen any of these films in a movie theater.  So while I’m a bit biased, I’m still approaching this with largely fresh eyes much like I did with the Mad Max trilogy or the Terminator film series.  And speaking of those marathons, this one is going to work in a similar way as I post each installment of the six films on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday of the next two weeks leading up the December 18th premier of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which I will review well after it has arrived on home video.)

Star Wars 01

The history of how Star Wars came to be is covered in greater depth by better writers elsewhere on the internet so I’ll leave it to you to go dig that up, the short version is that George Lucas wanted to make a Flash Gordon movie but the owners of the license apparently would settle for nothing less than a cinematic masterpiece (or likely the studio was just too cheap to pay for it) so he settled on a sprawling tribute to weird cult sci-fi, movie serials, spaghetti westerns, samurai films, and sword and sorcery books called The Star Wars.

The Flash Gordon connection is most on-the-nose in the now-iconic opening text crawl as John Williams’ bombastic score swoops into your ears and fills you with a childlike excitement.  We jump to empty space as a tiny space ship goes across the frame, now a gigantic ship comes into view, fully conveying its size by how long it takes the underside of the craft to clear the audience’s point of view.  Princess Leia, a member of the Rebel Alliance (sworn enemy of the evil Galactic Empire) has encased plans for the Empire’s super-weapon The Death Star in the small trashcan-looking droid R2-D2 with instructions to the take the plans along with a short message by her to Obi-Wan Kenobi, the last of the Jedi, so that he can deliver it to the rebels.

Leia’s ship is boarded by Darth Vader, one of the most formidable warriors in the empire’s employ, as R2 and his bipedal interpreter robot C-3PO escape on a shuttle to the nearby planet of Tattoine where they are captured by tiny little hooded creatures and sold to a moisture farmer.  The farmer’s nephew, Luke Skywalker sees the message meant for Obi-Wan Kenobi, stating that the only Kenobi he is aware of is an old hermit named Ben.  R2 escapes the farm in search of Ben and Luke and 3PO set out after him.

Upon finding the hermit and the droid, Ben explains that he is a Jedi and that so was Luke’s father.  Luke’s father Anakin and Ben fought together in The Clone Wars, where Anakin was killed by Darth Vader (another Jedi who embraced darker practices and became The Empire’s servant.)  He gives Luke his father’s lightsaber (a glowing laser sword used by the Jedi for all you Amish folk that are just using the internet for the first time today) and asks the boy to accompany him.

At the Mos Eisley Space Port (the largest hive of scum and muppetry in the known universe) Ben enlists a smuggler named Han Solo, who claims to have the fastest ship around, to escort them to the Rebels to drop off the plans.  So now Ben, Luke, 3PO, R2, Han Solo, and his bear-ape copilot Chewbacca the Wookie set out for the planet of Alderaan, but the joke is on them because The Death Star has already been used to destroy the planet as punishment for a lack of cooperation on Princess Leia’s part.  So our ragtag band of heroes go on a rescue mission to rescue the princess and escape to the rebels so they can stop The Empire’s doomsday machine.

Star Wars 02

In the off chance that you haven’t seen Star Wars, I want you to understand that that summary above was as simplified as I could make it.  Narratively this movie is a bit of a mess with seven principle characters (admittedly two of them have no actual lines, and Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin doesn’t become important until late into the second act.)  There are a lot of plates spinning as far as plot goes.  Will Han Solo be able to pay off Jabba the Hutt?  Will Luke come to master The Force and defeat his father’s murderer?   Will the rebels succeed in overthrowing The Empire?  What isn’t Ben telling Luke about his old man?  It is important to note that this movie was made for a relatively small amount of money (20th Century Fox was banking on Damnation Alley as their big hit of 1977) and Lucas and company had no earthly idea if a sequel would even happen.

Roughly two thirds of Star Wars is set-up for its sequels (of which Lucas planned to make five as well as three prequels) which at this point only existed in theory.  The only part of the movie that does anything more than promise that all of this would make sense someday, maybe, is the third act where Luke and a group of Rebel pilots attempt a dubious plan to blow up The Death Star before it can open fire on the Rebels’ secret base.

There are some goofy action sequences, some gratuitous pew-pew dogfights, and a single rather lackluster lightsaber battle between Ben and Vader.  Luke barely even uses his own lightsaber in the film.  Other than the mystique of a unique and vibrant galaxy that is pregnant with potential and a pulse-pounding climax, there’s not a lot to latch onto.

Now this isn’t to say that Star Wars is awful.  The droids are unique and fun and blend in with this mostly serious story far better than your average comedy relief sidekicks.  Even 3PO isn’t as annoying as I recall, and at one point even comes up with a rather brilliant plan to trick some Storm Troopers.  Chewbacca is ostensibly a main character but I’m hard-pressed to think of anything of any importance he actually does other than serve as interesting set dressing.

Star Wars 04

Even die-hard fans are willing to admit that Mark Hamill’s performance as Luke Skywalker is lacking.  It’s true that Hamill is pretty awful in the role but a lot of Luke’s bad qualities are written into the character.  He’s a whiny petulant teenager, and kind of a dweeb.  Similarly bad is Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia.  She’s obviously as green as Hamill and in one scene affects a British accent for no apparent reason.  I realize she’s supposed to be the same age as Luke but she has all of his same annoying qualities which really goes against the more mature nature of her character.

If I haven’t already primed the comments section to unleash the fury then this next sentence should do it.  People often give Fisher and Hamill grief for their bad acting but almost no one calls out Harrison Ford for his.  Ford is a talented and accomplished actor but you sure couldn’t tell it by watching Star Wars.  He all but mumbles his lines in a droll monotone that may or may not be intended to make him sound grizzled or badass, but mostly just make him come across as bored.  There are glimpses of the Harrison Ford we know and love anytime that Han has an excited emotion (anger, fear, happiness) but mostly it’s one of the worst performances of his career.

Alec Guinness brings a touch of class to the film as Ben Kenobi, but he does little more than act as a guru and tease future plot points.  His drunk-sounding line delivery has been a subject of mockery since the film premiered.  Similarly Peter Cushing is great but basically wasted as Grand Moff Tarkin, who exists as a sort of mini-boss to be beaten since there’s no way Lucas is going to let Vader get killed off in the first movie.

The showpiece of the picture is Darth Vader.  He’s imposing, original, and badass.  From the first moment of his arrival dressed in all black, accompanied by his instantly iconic mechanically assisted breathing and a menacing musical stinger, it’s no wonder that he is one of the most recognizable villains of all time.  This is due in no small part to James Earl Jones’ imposing deep voice coming from Vader’s helmet.

Star Wars 03

Now, I’ve been pretty tough on this film so far.  The fact is that based on plot, acting, and character there’s almost nothing that sets Star Wars apart from stuff like Krull, Battle Beyond the Stars, and Ice Pirates.  So what was it about Star Wars that attracted droves of fans through almost four decades?  What was it about this film that caused Roger Corman to realize that his b-movie niche in the film world was suddenly in peril?

In a past column I took some flak for saying that a beloved 1990s dinosaur movie was every bit as dumb as Independence Day.  What I meant there was that the only thing which made Jurassic Park different from that movie (or for a more apt comparison, from Carnosaur) was that it was made by a visionary film-maker capable of elevating the material to where it felt less like a b-movie (Spielberg had already had practice in doing this by turning Peter Benchley’s silly pulp shark novel into one of the finest examples of film-making ever) while Independence Day was directed by Roland Emmerich.

The only thing that raises Star Wars above its b-movie trappings is the detail and craft put into it.  Take the exact script used for the film, give it to Bruno Mattei or Claudio Fragasso, with a cast composed of a bunch of no-name Europeans and Fred Williamson and you’d have any run-of-the-mill drive-in film that would’ve attracted people similar to me like flies but would’ve been mostly ignored by the public at large.

The reason that Star Wars endured is the same reason that Jaws and Jurassic Park have.  It’s not because it’s a particularly smart or classy story, but rather because it’s treated like one.  George Lucas made a b-movie with a-movie sensibilities.  While decades to come would turn Lucas into a jaded, and perhaps a bit lazy, cynic who completely misunderstood what people liked about his movies and what his skills were as a filmmaker (not writing or directing), the George Lucas of 1976 took a decent script, a cast of green and moderately seasoned actors, and a will to make the next great American movie and made miracles.

Porduction was famously fraught with trouble and the budget was stretched razor thin, but at no point did George Lucas throw up his arms and say “That’s good enough.”  No matter how ridiculously hard to realize a scene may have been with the limitations of money and the technology of the time, Lucas made it work.  With miniatures, with composites, with matte paintings, puppets, shitty Halloween costumes.  He made the movie and his professionalism and drive showed in the finished product.

Much of Star Wars hasn’t aged terribly well but those dynamic shots, those meticulous details that make the world vibrant and full, they give a richness to what otherwise could’ve been a mid-range cult film.  Star Wars is a movie with problems but it represents a turning point in cinema and storytelling in general and though it has its fair share of problems it is absolutely a legendary film.

Now, as to the updated version.  Most of the changes are insignificant: color correction has been done, some details have been added to make the sets look more grandiose, Han no longer shoots Greedo unprovoked which really is a minor quibble that people get far too upset about.  The biggest most distracting things are a re-inserted deleted scene with a horrible CG Jabba the Hutt (which is a shame as the scene is pretty good) and a bunch of ugly CG lizard creatures tossed into some of the Tattooine scenes.  It’s hardly the sacrilege I was led to believe and I now feel silly for holding off on buying these movies for so long because the “true” version wasn’t available on home video.

If you want to see the original theatrical cut of this film in a decent way then you’re out of luck. George Lucas has even released a statement in response to those who have insisted he put out the original untouched versions, but it can be found for free online.  But you can get the retouched version of the movie on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Amazon Instant.  Or just get the whole sextet on Blu-Ray.

“How you doin’ Chewbacca? Still hanging around with this loser?”

Star Wars 05

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