Where to begin with the film formerly known simply as Star Wars? But begin we must, and refer to the film as ‘Episode IV’, I will, given that Star Wars has picked up the longer, clumsier title of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope in the years since it was first released, which perhaps more than anything else emphasises its creator’s strange decision to begin the series in the middle as well as the rampant empire-building that has followed in its wake. Pun intended.
George Lucas’s much-loved and occasionally-reviled 1977 space opera has, of course, been followed by two sequels and three prequels to date, with a new round of follow-ups and spin-offs scheduled to dominate cinemas from the end of 2015 until the dawn of the apocalypse. It’s hard to think of it as single, standalone film these days, given the billions that have subsequently been generated through merchandise sales, re-releases, different versions on different formats, TV shows, books and other tie-ins, and it feels like its original seat-of-your-pants DIY innocence has been lost amidst the commercial, technically-advanced deluge that followed. A simple tale of good versus evil has been steadily complicated, first in a necessary and ultimately very rewarding way in the early 1980s, and later stumbling under the weight of awful CGI characters and tedious, po-faced plots as we entered the new millennium. In the latest teaser trailer for JJ Abrams’ forthcoming instalment an elderly Han Solo (Harrison Ford) exclaims to giant Wookie Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) ‘Chewie…we’re home’, and fans will take the comforting words as a significant hint that the 1977 original has provided a clear template. If anywhere is ‘home’ for this pair then surely it’s Episode IV?
If nothing else Lucas managed to stumble across something back in the mid-70s, finding the right drug to push to a generation of children at the right time, and his lucrative discovery has been shrewdly marketed; the writer-director has of course now relinquished control of the brand, but for hefty compensation. Many of those who grew up with the toys and the films have remained loyal to the brand, still hooked even after the underwhelming prequel films, which were the cinematic equivalent of lying on a wet patch all night after an earlier, satisfying orgasm. They’re excited today about the prospect of JJ Abrams’ forthcoming Episode VII: The Force Awakens. This is quite a phenomenon given the time that has lapsed, and the extent to which all those young fans will have aged, and changed.
I’m a fan, and have been since I was about 5 years old. I was a kid at the right time, collecting the toys and obsessing over the films as Pusher George and various toy manufacturers concocted more and more alien characters and crafts and thus more and more figures and spaceships to peddle. Episode IV is the first film that I can remember watching, and I was instantly hooked, insisting on sitting through it every time I visited my auntie’s house in the early 1980s (she kept a copy on video for me, and later paired it as a regular double bill with Raiders Of The Lost Ark). I’ve seen Episode IV more times than any other film as a result and, up to my early 20s, I’d say being a Star Wars fan even shaped my identity to an extent. (As much as any other pop culture landmark, anyway; not something I’m necessarily proud of today, but I’m not ashamed of it either.)
Time has altered how I feel about it, if I’m honest, and although I’m looking forward to the new film I don’t feel as passionate about the old ones as I once did. I’m so familiar with the initial trilogy of the franchise I haven’t actually bothered to watch any of them for about 15 years, and figured I’d wait until I had kids before doing so again; however 15 years is a long time, and so I’ve decided to revisit them one-by-one this year in the run-up to Episode VII.
I guess it’s natural that I enjoyed Episode IV more as a child (or even as a teenager, when I would regularly partake in Star Wars drinking games with friends; we’re still in touch and I contacted them all excitedly when the new trailer for Episode VII dropped yesterday). I used to be able to overlook most of the dodgy acting and the wobbly script (‘You can type this shit, George, but you sure can’t say it’), but while watching Episode IV recently I found myself cringing on occasion, which has never happened before. Can it be that, finally, as I approach my 40th year, I’ve grown out of Star Wars?
Not exactly. In truth, many of the elements that impressed me years ago still do, presumably as they’re easy, direct links back to a happy childhood that otherwise seems distant as I stumble forth into middle age. The immediate sense of world-building, confidently overseen by Lucas and his team; Carrie Fisher’s effervescent, sparky performance, which gives the film a lift when the whiny navel-gazing of teenage Luke (Mark Hamill) threatens to dominate; the gravitas lent to proceedings by Oscar-nominated Sir Alec Guinness as Ben Kenobi; the space dogfights, copied shot-for-shot from old Second World War flicks like The Dam Busters; the work by the talented people behind Industrial Light & Magic; the battered oldness of everything; hologram monster chess; Sandpeople; the Japanese influence; the brilliant double act of prissy translator C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and rebellious tyke R2-D2 (Kenny Baker); be-cloaked jawas; the wise-beyond-his-years cynicism of Han (Ford); lightsabers; stormtroopers; the carpet that walks; the Jedi mind trick; the fact that we don’t understand anything that two of the main characters are saying but simultaneously understand what every single one of their bleeps and roars means; the opening title sequence; the music; the simple idea of a planet-destroying space station; the design work of Ralph McQuarrie; Darth Vader (James Earl Jones / Dave Prowse); Darth Vader’s choke grips; Darth Vader’s voice; Darth Vader’s breathing; Darth Vader’s helmet; the Millennium Falcon; the cold-blooded murder of Greedo (I refuse to acknowledge any alternative, regardless of anything I actually see happen on screen today); and last, but by no means least, the fact that Lucas called his fattest character ‘Porkins’ (William Hootkins). I understand this kind of thing puts some people off, but if you’re lucky enough to like it, no blockbuster provides in the way that Episode IV does.
Having gone so long without watching it, I was surprised to find out just how action-free the first half is compared to today’s blockbuster norm (there’s very little swashbuckling or shooting apart from the opening spaceship corridor battle, ten seconds of a Tusken Raider attack and a couple of brief skirmishes in Mos Eisley). There appears to be a near-universal acceptance today that action sequences must come early in blockbusters and must be regularly staged throughout the film, which I don’t necessarily agree with, and it’s probably because I grew up with films like Episode IV that oddly seem much calmer; last year’s Interstellar and Godzilla both felt vaguely reactionary in the way that they made their audiences wait for thrills. Episode IV is never static but it is certainly unhurried, and holds nearly all of the action back until the second half, as if Lucas was aware that the world he was creating would be enough for people to marvel at (and he was right). Additionally, three of the main characters of the series – Darth Vader, Han Solo and Princess Leia (Fisher) – barely appear in the first half of the film, the kind of gamble that I expect JJ Abrams is unable to make today.
Yes it’s silly (but don’t get so hung up on it: it was originally made for kids). Yes the acting is occasionally terrible (this latest viewing opened my eyes to Ford’s wobbly performance, which he improved considerably in Episode V; there are flashes of a movie star here, but they’re just flashes). Yes the additions by Lucas for the Special Edition were largely pointless and today stand out like a sore thumb (with one notable exception). But I don’t care, because I still feel the flickering embers of love for Episode IV all these years later. I love its warmth, its humour, its easily identifiable ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters. I love the fact that a director was able to make this defiantly eccentric story that could easily have turned into a minor cult hit or even a giant, career-ending folly for those involved. I love that it is so eternally spoofable. I love the fact that Lucas concocted his crazy mix from Kurosawa, Saturday morning serials, westerns, war films, Fritz Lang, Robin Hood, 2001: A Space Odyssey, The Wizard Of Oz and much, much more. And I love and hate its legacy, what it has done to cinema; though I accept Peter Biskind’s suggestion that mainstream cinema audiences have had vastly different expectations ever since, to the detriment of a certain type of filmmaking, I’m also fully aware that I’ve enjoyed a lot of post-Star Wars blockbusters over the years.
I can’t shake this film out of my system. It’s not perfect – it’s not even the best Star Wars film – but watching it after all these years is as reassuring as flicking through an old family photo album. It does make me cringe on occasion and I’ve given higher marks to other films recently – Blade Runner, for example – but this is the one that I feel tied to the most. Always.
Directed by: George Lucas.
Written by: George Lucas.
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness, Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Dave Prowse, James Earl Jones, Kenny Baker, Peter Cushing.
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor.
Editing: Paul Hirsch, Marsha Lucas, Richard Chew.
Music: John Williams.
Running Time: 120 minutes.