Sunday, September 11th, 2011

Introduction

In recent days, I’ve seen some disturbing trends where someone says “In order to like Star Wars, you had to have seen it as a kid.”1 and then that assertion goes unchallenged. Sometimes, it’s even said by someone who claims to like Star Wars!

As you may have guessed, I am not one to leave such a statement unchallenged. But a proper challenge needs to be more than “Yes it is! No it isn’t!” which is often all the defense I’m able to mount in actual conversation2. So this post is my response to that argument.

I sat down this weekend and I watched Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope3 and “live-blogged” it to an extent. As I came across things that contribute to Star Wars being an objectively good movie, I noted it. Of course, a good movie is more than the sum of its part. So I’ve also included a large section which is more of a classical movie review where I try to argue that, as an entire film, Star Wars is better than a lot of people give it credit for.

Here, presented in order of these things appearing on screen, I give you A New Hope.

The Music

It’s been almost 35 years now, but it’s still impossible to lavish enough praise on the John Williams score. The opening fanfare of the main title theme punches you in the gut. In the cinema, it tells you to hold on to your butts4. At home, it tells you to crank up the volume on your sound system because this is going be an exciting ride.

I’m not sure it’s possible to overstate just how much this music has become part of the culture. Everyone recognizes the main theme and there’s no better way to say “this person is no good” than to play the Imperial March. But, of course, the score goes so much deeper than that.

The song from the Mos Eisley cantina lets you know that it’s a seedy place where seedy people try to have a good time without getting their heads blown off. Leia’s theme is sad and wistful, expressing how much she’s lost in the fight for freedom while also expressing the nobility of her character and her cause. Luke’s theme echoes the title theme to let you know that he’s the hero, but it flows lazily to signify that he’s just beginning his hero’s journey. And, of course, it’s sounds just a little bit magical to tell you that Luke is going to end up with a couple of tricks up his sleeves.

I could go on. But all of this is what a movie score is supposed to do, so it probably isn’t all that impressive. The music for Star Wars is also just good. It sticks with you (well, me). It gets down into your soul. It resonates its moods long after you’ve put away the DVDs. Unlike many film scores, the music here is utterly unforgettable. It was the masterwork of a master composer and it fits the film perfectly.

The Opening Crawl

The Star Wars films harken back to a simpler time: a time when the great sci-fi serials were on televisions every Saturday morning and when you could tell the good guys from the bad guys by the hats that they wore. The opening crawl helps set the stage for this. Sure, it’s a little cheesy; but so was Flash Gordon. With the opening crawl, the movie lets you know right away that this is a story about good guys and bad guys. The Galactic Empire is described as “evil” in the second sentence so their enemies, the Rebels, must be good. There’s no room for moral ambiguity in the first Star Wars film. Right away, you know that you’re going to be watching an old fashioned sci-fi adventure story.

The crawl also serves to give a sense of time and place within the first few seconds of the movie. There’s empire of some sort which is old enough and large enough5 to call itself galactic. But it’s corrupt and evil and it’s building a super-weapon, so there are now rebel freedom fighters attacking the Empire from within. Sure, it’s exposition-city (as one might expect from a giant wall of crawling text), but it allows the film to start somewhat in-media-res with respect to the larger story and it won’t require a lot of weird dialog later from characters discussing it for the audience’s benefit.

The opening crawl is iconic now with good reason. It was a genius way to set the movie off on the right track in terms of story and atmosphere.

The First Shot

It’s gorgeous. Even by the standards of modern effects, this shot looks good. A good looking shot wouldn’t ordinarily be worth calling out (or this is going to become a very long post indeed), but this one is special because it sets the stage for the entire film. The slow pan down past multiple moons to the atmosphere of a strange world lets us know that we aren’t in Kansas anymore. And then a spaceship flies past. And then a giant spaceship flies past. And keeps flying past. And suddenly we know the scale of the fight that the rebels have on their hands. Again, without anyone having to say a word about it. This shot should be on the syllabus of any instructor who utters the phrase “Show. Don’t tell.” as it distills that principle perfectly.

Also? It’s gorgeous.

Darth Vader

Where the opening crawl had to settle for telling you that the Empire is evil, Darth Vader shows you as soon as he is first visible through the airlock door. A giant figure robed all in black and with a helmet that only hints at a face. It’s a nightmare image translated perfectly to the screen. The black cape billowing behind him adds to that and his deep, mechanized voice complete the picture. His now iconic breathing contributes throughout the film to make sure we never forget that this embodiment of evil is more machine than man.

He’s almost the perfect villain even before we learn that he has magic powers. He’s an unstoppable force who kills with a wave of his hand. He can’t be reasoned with: arguments invariably end with his opponent dead. As the personification of the Empire in this first film, he gives a focus for the audience to hate and for the good guys to fight against.

He’s marred, of course. It turns out that he’s not, in fact, the personification of the Empire. And he’s not an unstoppable force. And, indeed, he can be reasoned with. Vader is lessened in this movie by the presence of Grand Moff Tarkin, Vader’s superior. I believe Tarkin was supposed to be be the calculating and charming villain. But, compared to Vader, he just isn’t that scary (even when destroying whole planets). But he does serve to diminish Vader’s presence in the film. “Vader can’t be that bad,” the audience thinks. “He’s being ordered around by that old British guy.” I think Vader would have packed a larger point had his character also had Tarkin’s role in the film. Vader will, of course, take on that more supreme leadership role in the second film and I think it works a lot better.

The Droids

R2-D2 and C-3PO are much beloved. Certainly, they are beloved by me. Together, they provide so many different roles to the movie: comic relief, audience viewpoints, plot driving, etc. Most importantly, perhaps, they’re the real heart of the film. R2 is the plucky little companion. Luke may end up being the hero, but R2 is easily the most heroic of the characters. Despite being a mere droid6, he sets off across a vast desert in a single-minded quest to finish his mission (which he eventually does). And, unlike Luke, R2 can’t even climb stairs! Everyone loves R2-D2. Heck, the US Postal Service doesn’t dress up their mailboxes like any old movie character!

3PO, on the other hand, is clearly the viewpoint character for most of the series. I can’t speak for everyone in the audience, but I’m not terribly brave. I hope that I could step up in a crisis, but for the most part, I’m content to stay at home and let other people have adventures. 3PO is like that too. While he certainly has his moments, he usually stands aside and tries to let the action happen around him instead of to him or because of him. So the more cowardly members of the audience (a group in which I must count myself) can sit and watch 3PO and sort of imagine ourselves in his place in the film. I think it works surprisingly well.

The droids also tend to provide the comedy in the series. Part of this is physical: you can do a lot of destructive physical comedy to characters who are essentially immortal (assuming enough spare parts). But it’s largely verbal. R2 and 3PO bicker like an old married couple: quite the challenge considering that only one of them speaks English Basic. Frankly, their interactions never cease to be delightful. Beyond the bickering, they bring the funny in various ways such as R2’s always running off to get into trouble or 3PO’s insistence on quoting long odds.

Even if the rest of the Star Wars film (sci-fi, adventure, ham-handed romance, etc.) doesn’t appeal to you, you have to have a little place in your soul that likes R2-D2 and C-3PO. I find that they open the film and the genre up to a much wider audience.

World-building

The current state of the Star Wars universe and expanded universe is staggering. But even at the beginning, Star Wars feels like it takes place in a large and solid world.

It feels old. Rebel equipment is dirty and beat up and battle-scarred. The droids look like they’ve got stories to tell. Luke’s farm and clothes look like they belong to farmers who’ve been there a long time. Without anyone saying a thing about it, there’s a weight of history that’s felt throughout the film.

Even though it doesn’t play any part at all, we learn a bit about the economy of Tatooine: it’s a desert world7 where water would be the most valuable commodity. So, of course, Luke’s family are moisture farmers. Moisture vaporators litter the homestead. Luke looks out over the famous twin-sun sunset scene. Tatooine didn’t have to have two suns. But they’re there because it makes the world feel more complete somehow.

We learn a bit about smuggling operations in the Galaxy and that there’s a crime kingpin who wants Solo dead8. We learn a bit about the geography of the galaxy: how Tatooine and Dantooine are remote backwaters while Alderaan is more core-ward. We learn about the Jedi and the Old Republic.

Without ever feeling like it’s interrupting the action, Star Wars makes us feel that it’s existing in a real place with a real history and where actions will have real consequences. And it does all of this while a guy is wandering around in a Wookie costume. That’s pretty special.

Sir Alec Guinness

I’m not sure how much I should have to write about Sir Alec. He’s an actor who was knighted. For acting. And he acts in this movie.

And he does so wonderfully. He projects warmth and gentleness and wisdom along with justice and hardness and strength where necessary. His delivery can turn even terrible lines into something wonderful. Much like the droids, he’s simply a delight every time that he’s on the screen and there’s nothing bad to say about his performance.

Lightsabers

I suppose there are at least two sorts of people: those who find laser swords inherently cool and those who don’t. It should not surprise you to learn that I find them cool simply because they’re laser swords.

Thanks to the lightsabers, Star Wars was able to include old-style swashbuckling back-and-forth dialog during fights. Though the fight choreography in the original film left a lot to be desired, what there was became far more personal and engaging than an old-west-style shootout. Later films would improve on this (I’m particularly fine of the fight in Return of the Jedi), but they still serve a nice purpose in Star Wars as well by letting Obi-Wan talk with his old student without having to keep ducking his head out from behind the cover that would have been necessary with a blaster fight.

This film also gave us the classic line “An elegant weapon for a more civilized age” which has since been used to describe so many things so well.

Peter Cushing

I mentioned earlier that I feel that Tarkin’s character was both unnecessary and that he lessened the impact that would have been made by having Darth Vader be the single strong villainous presence in the film. Don’t take that as a mark against Peter Cushing, however, who is simply brilliant in the film. He’s menacing and powerful and authoritative. He’s the classic super-villain who spars verbally with an opponent over an expensive bottle of wine before finally ordering his death sentence. It’s a joy to watch him play the part.

Princess Leia

Leia is something of a remarkable character, especially in the first film. She’s strong and smart and capable. She’s a natural leader who’s followed because people see her strong character. She stares down Tarkin, the one man that even Vader backs down from. Even with the threatened destruction of her home planet, she refuses to betray her ideals and her people. When her ship is captured, she has the presence of mind to send R2 off as a backup plan. When Han and Luke’s rescue attempt go awry, she takes matters into her own hands and builds them an escape route.

There was a huge risk that she would end up being the typical damsel-in-distress in this story (heck, she has the title “Princess”!), but she subverted that and ended up being at least as heroic as the other main characters. In the third film, she’ll even turn the tables and have a chance to do some rescuing herself.

But mostly, she’s just a bad-ass who outshines both Luke and Han and most characters in other movies. In my mind, Leia is the real star of the saga.

Comedy

I’ve already talked about the comic duo of R2-D2 and C-3PO, but the film is littered with lighter moments. From Chewbacca’s self-satisfied grin after 3PO advises his counterpart to “let the Wookie win” to Chewbacca terrifying a small cleaning droid on the Death Star. Come to think of it, a lot of the humor involves Chewie.

But the movie is full of great little comic bits and one-liners9. There are even some great non-verbal comic bits, such as Han’s unfortunate charge at the storm troopers on the death star or the more visceral “They’re covered in smelly garbage!” reaction.

Altogether, and throughout the film, the humor serves to add an element of charm beyond “sci-fi adventure” to the mix. The humor rounds the film out and provides a lot to like even if you don’t find laser swords cool on their own merits.

Overall

A lot has been written about Star Wars as myth and how it’s a modern retelling of the hero’s journey and how George Lucas may-or-may-not have actually drawn influence from the work of Joseph Campbell. It doesn’t really matter how much of it was or was not intentional, though. The end result is the important thing.

And the result is the old story packaged up into a space-age saga. Luke is a simple orphaned farm-boy who meets a wise old man before his adopted parents are killed which prompts him to go on a quest. During this quest, he has adventures, meets fantastic people, and develops his own magic powers. Eventually, by trusting in those powers, he saves the day and destroys the ultimate hero. He becomes the larger-than-life hero we always knew he would be.

This is just a telling of an ancient story that has been told for thousands of years across almost every culture on the planet. This story resonates. It resonates with us in the year 2011 no less than it did with our ancient ancestors who told the story around their newly-discovered fires in the first languages to ever flow from a human’s tongue. And just like the myth has resonated with us across time and culture, so does the story of Star Wars resonate with us as it translates that myth to the screen.

Star Wars takes that ancient myth and cloaks it in the veneer of Saturday-morning sci-fi (a genre that doesn’t really exist anymore, more’s the pity). It takes this thing that’s a deep and serious part of humanity’s cultural psyche and wraps it up with lasers and spaceships and brash smugglers and swinging over a crevasse on a line and a big scary guy all dressed in black. Which is to say, Star Wars brings the fun. I suppose that if you aren’t a fan of lasers and spaceships, it might be less fun; but even then, there’s got to some part of you which enjoys the escapism of a film like Star Wars. It’s a serious story that doesn’t take itself terribly seriously.

I think that’s the reason that so many of us are able to give a pass to a lot of the hokey dialog and bad acting and direction. It’s not so much that we fell in love with it as kids, but that we accept it on its own merits10. I’ve tried to describe some of its larger merits here, and there are many more11.

And I think it’s okay for people to not like Star Wars. With both art and entertainment, we all have our own tastes and there’s no one-size-fits-all12. But to not like a thing is different from dismissing it as valueless. Especially when, like Star Wars, that thing has immense value on both artistic and personal levels for so many of its fans.


  1. Even worse are the people who say “You had to have experienced the hype in 1977 to understand why people like Star Wars.” Given the large number of people I know who (just like me) love Star Wars and were born well after 1977, this is clearly false. Yet people still say it as if it were meaningful. Annoying. ↩

  2. It’s inarguable that my debating skills suck and that I’m terribly slow at thinking on my feet. In my fantasy life, I like to imagine that I make up for this deficiency by being better at thinking in long-form writing. Obviously, this very post will put the lie to that fantasy. But so it goes.  ↩

  3. I actually watched A New Hope Revisited a fan-edited version of ANH which fixes a bunch of continuity errors, removes wires and such that shouldn’t be there, and generally improves on the film (especially some of the more questionable things that Lucas did in the Special Editions). All told, it’s amazing editing work made all the more amazing that it was something someone did in their spare time. In the end, I only had issues with two of the changes[^changes] (far fewer issues than I had with Lucas’ changes!)  ↩

  4. If I may quote Jurassic Park, another film featuring the work of the great John Williams. ↩

  5. Of course, we later learn that the Empire itself isn’t terribly old (although the government that preceded it certainly was!), but that doesn’t matter. You don’t learn that in this film, and the inference one gets from the crawl sets the correct mood. And even if it’s not that old, the Empire is certainly large.  ↩

  6. It seems to me that there was a great deal of potential for Lucas to discuss things like class distinctions and slavery in Star Wars, but he skipped all that. Droids in this universe are clearly sentient, yet they’re also completely subservient to their human masters. Canonically, droids have their entire memories and personalities wiped every year or two. Ghastly stuff. Indeed, one in-universe explanation for why R2 is so much more heroic than other droids is that he’s skipped a few memory wipes and so has a much stronger sense of self. I suppose I can understand why Lucas didn’t want to have a discussion about how all of his heroic characters are, in fact, slave-owners. That said, it seems like a great big missed opportunity to have really said something. Alternately, he could have re-written it so that droids aren’t property. It would have neatly gotten rid of a great big moral hole with the films and their universe.  ↩

  7. Star Wars does tend to go a bit overboard with what TVTropes has dubbed the single-biome planet trope (WARNING: TVTropes). Desert planets, ice planets, city planets, swamp planets, forest moons, etc. I think it does detract a bit from the world-building since such things are rather improbable on a habitable planet, but most audiences don’t seem to mind. ↩

  8. In a proper version of the series, Jabba himself doesn’t show up until the third film. He’s simply a sword hanging over Han’s head.  ↩

  9. Including “We’re all fine here. Now. Thank you. How are you?” from my favorite scene followed soon after by “Aren’t you a little short for a storm trooper?” and “I don’t care what you smell!”. Great stuff. And, though it’s extra-movie, I feel it necessary to mention my all-time favorite Star Wars joke: How did Darth Vader know what Luke was getting for Christmas? He felt his presents.  ↩

  10. There are a lot of ostensibly “bad” movies that are good once you accept them on their own terms. Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl, and almost every rom-com (French Kiss is what I’m thinking of) comes to mind. And these are movies that I started liking well past my childhood. Not every movie wants to be The Godfather, but they can still be enjoyable. ↩

  11. Other things that are great about Star Wars: The Force lets the movie masquerade as sci-fi even though it’s clearly fantasy; Harrison Ford; Anthony Daniels; Han Solo; Wedge; the “He doesn’t like you” scene; the Dianoga; Han shot first; etc. Both big (major characters and story arcs) and small (individual aliens which are only on screen for a moment) , Star Wars is packed with great stuff. ↩

  12. Except for The Lord of the Rings (books, not movies). If you don’t like The Lord of the Rings, I see no reason to know you. ;)  ↩

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