Tuesday 30 June 2015

BlogalongaStarWars: Episode 1:
Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope

I remember it so clearly: it was the summer of 1982. Or possibly 1983. I don't actually remember it that clearly. My dad took me on a surprise trip to see a double bill of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back at the aptly-named Empire cinema in Shrewsbury which, like a tiny Alderaan, would eventually be destroyed and (unlike Alderaan, as far as I'm aware) replaced with a Pizza Express. It would be my first viewing of both films; I'd read and played the book-and-tape of Star Wars until the pages fell out, but was unprepared for Empire, which was why I cried my face off when Han Solo was frozen in carbonite. But more on that next month.

Star Wars for real - i.e. without R2-D2 irritatingly bleeping every time I had to turn the page - was a predictably thrilling experience for my tiny self, and thirty-three (possibly thirty-two) years and fourteen million viewings later, nothing has changed. It's still as magically exciting, beguiling and brilliant as ever, only now that I'm old and boring I can strip away the fun and dispassionately pick apart why it's so great. Obviously nostalgia is a massive variable in the Star Wars Amazingness Formula - that's why so many discussions around it begin with a tedious retelling of a first viewing - but let's be honest, EVERYTHING works here. George Lucas gets it so right it's hard to believe he could ever get anything wrong. But again, more on that later.
That beginning, man. I do enjoy a film that begins in medias res (cf. every Bond film), and this particular medias is so loaded with excitement they're making a whole film just about the first paragraph of that opening crawl. The collective jaw-droppage caused by the Star Destroyer has been written about so much that it's now taken entirely for granted, but that scene alone is the perfect argument for the most extravagant home cinema setup you can lay your hands on: Ben Burtt's sound work in that scene works best when it can be heard by all of your neighbouring postcodes. I always find movies' first scenes fascinating when you know the whole story, and Star Wars' is a classic in that regard - it's a David vs Goliath battle in space, with groundbreaking effects, a majestic score and spectacle coming out of its ass: the entire saga in microcosm.

And Darth Vader's introduction needs no introduction: representative of every major character's first scene in the film, it tells you everything you need to know about him in seconds. Still not sure why he kills the ship's captain before he gets an answer to his interrogation though; that, and the decision not to destroy the escape pod just because it contains no lifeforms, are early indicators that the Empire is beset by an overcomplicated hierarchy containing so many layers of middle-management that everyone is too afraid to make a judgement, and therefore deserves everything coming to it.
"Could you guys not have killed quite so many rebels?
The paperwork on this is going to take, like, FOREVER"

Lucas' exhaustive studies of storytelling pay off in spades in Star Wars. Eschewing backstory and trusting in the audience to just go with it (a lesson to which painfully few modern blockbusters - including the Star Wars prequels - pay any attention), he instead leaves us with no alternative but to be swept along on the journey as each character connects to the next with effortless efficiency: R2 and 3PO take us to Luke, Luke takes us to Ben, Ben takes us to Han, Han takes us to Leia. It's worth noting that at no point during this process do we stop for a fifteen-minute landspeeder race in which we learn that Luke is a genius pilot. The setup is textbook and the mid-section flawless, and before we know it we're escaping from the Death Star and biting our nails as the rebels try to destroy it before it destroys them. Lucas' writing failed him in the script's final act, but he savvily recognised the genius in editor Richard Chew's idea to introduce the threat of the Empire aiming at the rebel base, and to crosscut between that and the simultaneous attack on the Death Star - hence why nobody on Yavin IV talks about how they're all about to die; their story is told entirely in graphics sequences and spare shots of them gawping at screens.

En route we've seen some of the most on-point matching of actors to characters, not least of which is Han Solo, saved from being the unbridled selfish twat he is on paper by a relentlessly charming Harrison Ford: his antagonism with just about everybody is perfectly pitched, and his arc across the original trilogy a joy to watch unfold. Similarly, Mark Hamill shrugs off Luke's initial whiny brattishness in a way Hayden Christensen never could, and the inspired casting of Alec Guinness gifts Obi-Wan Kenobi the precise balance of wisdom and playfulness that stops him falling into cliché. And Lucas writes all their relationships honestly and believably; the only missing link is a dynamic between Luke and Vader, but that's only because they never even meet - a fact easily overlooked amid the excitement of it all.

Like most children of the late twentieth century, Star Wars ruled my life for years. Its presence waned over time as the (barely) more grown-up adventures of James Bond took prominence, but like a comfort blanket made of lovely soft Ewok fur it remains, propping up my love of films since that fateful day at the Shrewsbury Empire. The prequels allowed me to be all cynical and arch about the series, but it was a smug, superficial detachment; watching the trailers for The Force Awakens have indeed awakened something deep down, and it all started with that Star Destroyer back in 1982. Or 1983. Whatever: it was a long time ago, in a galaxy (*record scratch*)

There is so much going on in the background
I love that there are so many random droids and aliens that pop up for one shot or bimble by in the background in scenes like the cantina and the sandcrawler interior. Some poor buggers spent forever working on some of these and they were rewarded with a mere handful of frames showing off their creations (admittedly because some of them are a bit shit), but it totally sells the universe as a multicultural melting pot of beasts and weirdos, like Dalston Kingsland station on a Saturday night.

Stormtroopers really are quite thick
  • While hunting for droids that could bring down their entire army, Stormtroopers come across a locked door. "This one's locked", they say, and move on, reasoning that if someone were trying to hide they would never possibly contemplate locking themselves inside a building.
  • Having located the droids on the Death Star, the troopers have a quick chat then leave them be, apparently unaware of their significance. Where are the lines of communication in this organisation?
  • Meanwhile, in another part of the Death Star, two troopers exchange idle conversation. "Do you know what's going on?" says one. JESUS CHRIST MAN YOU ARE FACING THE THREAT OF TOTAL ANNIHILATION DO YOU NOT CHECK YOUR PIGEON HOLE ONCE IN A WHILE
Lightsabres are fucking amazing
What a genius idea, executed perfectly: a sci-fi sword that makes a noise easily replicated in the playground. Teased in Ben's home, flashed in the cantina and given a full outing in the duel with Vader, it perfectly represents the idea of updating classic tropes for a new generation of moviegoers.

Princess Leia is a bit reckless
"They let us go, it's the only reason for the ease of our escape [...] they're tracking us", says the figurehead of the rebellion before doing precisely fuck all about it and leading the Empire straight to the rebel base. Yeah thanks for that sister.

The production design
It's as un-incisive to comment on as everything else I've mentioned above, but the worn-in look and feel of the Star Wars universe really is a joy to behold, again selling it as a place with life and history. The fact that none of the X-Wing pilots' helmets match is a detail I hadn't spotted until this viewing, simultaneously bringing me a small twinge of pleasure and an equal amount of embarrassment for not clocking it sooner.

What is the point of all this? I'll tell you. (short answer: no point)
Header pic by dark lord of the Sith Olly Moss

1 comment :

  1. I also remember this very clearly........the double bill was shown country-wide in......1981........I remember because I literally MADE my dad buy me two action figures after we came out of the cinema. Incidentally, they were the AT-AT Driver and Han Solo in Bespin fatigues.

    ......And I still have them and the backing cards with the £1.50 price sticker!