Star Wars (1977)
In 1977, an extraordinary motion picture was released that changed filmmaking forever. It captured the imagination of millions across the world, and has remained a magical and beloved treasure of cinema for more than three decades. That film was Star Wars, and I am going to share my love and admiration for this film as it was originally released. Before a mess of mixed quality digital effects were inserted, and other arguable changes were incorporated into the context of this masterpiece, there was the film I grew up with in the age of VHS and cable television. This film was a major part of my childhood, and I could not even estimate how many times I have watched it. This was the first program recorded onto my family’s first VHS tape from when it aired on ShowTime. So, is it any surprise that this is one of the most important films of my life?
In a galaxy far, far away, a brave rebellion fights against a tyrannical Galactic Empire. When the ship of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is attacked and boarded by Imperials troops, she hides secret plans to the Empire’s planet destroying space station – the Death Star – into the memory banks of an Astrodroid – R2-D2. Along with his fellow droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), the two escape to the barren desert planet of Tatoonie where they come under the ownership of Owen & Beru Lars and their farm boy nephew Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Luke yearns for a life away from this dead end planet, but soon, he finds adventure when R2-D2 seeks out Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Alec Guiness). Princess Leia recorded a holographic message for the former Jedi Knight and General of the Old Republic to help her in delivering the Death Star plans safely into the hands of the rebellion. After securing passage aboard the smuggling freighter the Millennium Falcon by way of the cavalier rogue Han Solo and his wooly alien co-pilot Chewbacca, Luke, Ben, and the droids must evade Imperial troops and starships to rescue the Princess before she is executed by the vile Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and the powerful Lord Darth Vader. Along this journey, Kenobi begins to teach Luke the ways of The Force, a mystical energy field that surrounds all living things, binding the galaxy together, and may hold the power to defeating the Empire.
I believe what captured my young mind with this film is the level of wonder and fun. Having being born in 1980, I only lived in the era following the innovations of Star Wars, but that doesn’t lessen the amazing cinematic visual brilliance of this film. I didn’t see a widescreen version until the films started airing on the SciFi Channel in the mid-1990s. So, that’s saying something special about Star Wars. The quality of everything is so great with dramatic angles, dynamic special effects, and fascinating locations that even only having half the frame still brought massive impact to my eyes. Just based on nostalgia alone, I can still watch those old grainy VHS tapes in pan-and-scan for that youthful feeling of watching these films on some quiet afternoon in the 1980s. Of course, no presentation rivals that of the full widescreen aspect ratio. The compositions are immensely intelligent and rock solid presenting a film that shows it has a solid foundation in the technical qualities of smart filmmaking.
Simply everything about this film inspired my creativity throughout the years. George Lucas was an ambitious visionary who knew what he wanted to achieve, but had to do some building to make it happen. Industrial Light & Magic was created with a slew of young and passionate people who wanted to create innovative special effects. They had to build the equipment with some of the first computer controlled cameras to do the blue screen visual effects shots, and basically, they had to invent new ways of doing this type of work. Watching documentary footage of them doing all of this is immensely historic, and it looks like the pioneers of the industry taking those first major steps forward into a grander future. Every ounce of sweat, hard work, and long hours paid off. This is one of the absolute finest special effects pictures ever made. While there had been other films that had done amazing outer space-based visual effects prior to this, they had never done anything as exciting or dynamic as was done here. The fast paced motion of ships flying by in dogfights had never been seen before, and made this an intense feast for the eyes. The scope of these effects were awe-inspiring such as the opening shot of the Rebel Blockade Runner being pursued by the relatively massive Star Destroyer, or the Millennium Falcon’s approach to the gigantic Death Star. These filmmakers knew how to convey size, weight, and scope with these shots to give them a believable reality. The laser blasts throughout the film, accompanied by the amazing sound design, are vibrant and intense. They always convey power and danger. Of course, while the lightsaber rotoscope effects were still a little rough, one could not help but be fascinated and enthralled by their appearance.
In the late 1970s, films were rarely using traditional orchestral scores since disco and synthesizers were so popular. However, George Lucas knew that something big, epic, and rich was needed to make this a timeless adventure film. John Williams had already worked with George’s friend Steven Spielberg on the brilliant blockbuster Jaws, and it was Steven’s suggestion to employ Williams for this task. In retrospect, there surely was no other way to go. Star Wars is filled with iconic elements, but those gorgeous, masterful themes of John Williams go above and beyond anything else. Williams has since defined what a rousing adventurous film score is, and that began here. He captured every single emotion in this film from big and exciting to low and menacing to quiet and meaningful to magical and mysterious to deeply touching. Star Wars itself does touch on a wide range of emotions and dramatic tones, and every single one is given such depth and soaring richness with this score. The iconic scene of Luke peering out at the twin suns of Tatoonie yearning for something greater than himself is wonderfully punctuated with a powerful rendition of the main theme. The flourishes Williams adds throughout just bring such beautiful life to every moment striking the perfect chords every time. The musical brilliance of John Williams is lushly on display here, and he more than earned the Academy Award for Best Original Score here. It’s one of the finest achievements of musical art ever committed to film, and he would still be able to build upon and surpass himself later on in this trilogy.
I believe the casting of Alec Guiness was an invaluable one. He instilled such a wonderful depth of wisdom, warmth, wit, and world weariness to Ben Kenobi. Guiness carries a sense of history about him that makes Kenobi fascinating and intriguing. When Ben speaks of the Old Republic, there’s a heartbreaking weight behind it. You feel the burden of history upon Kenobi’s heart and mind. While Lucas had not yet concretely decided upon the back story of Star Wars as we’ve come to know it, you can surely read all that we do know into Guiness’ subtle, intelligent, and emotional performance. His is one of the most powerful and textured performances of the entire saga. He easily endears himself to an audience with his compassion and good nature. It doesn’t take long for Ben’s wisdom and caring manner to influence Luke. While the young Skywalker could still be a little brash, the trust is built right from the start, and it’s very much the tempered wisdom of Obi-Wan Kenobi that guides Luke down the right path.
Now, I have a lot of respect for Mark Hamill as an actor. Seeing how he grew with the character of Luke Skywalker is a remarkable achievement that I don’t think enough people give him credit for. Here, he starts out as an eager young man who is in awe of the wide, adventurous galaxy out there, and frustrated with being stuck on this barren world on the outer rim of that galaxy. Through Luke, an audience is introduced to and experiences the excitement, danger, and wonder of this galaxy far, far away. Mark Hamill brings that fresh faced youthful energy and desire to the role. He feels natural and authentic in everything he puts into the role. He embodies the wide-eyed and open minded innocence of Luke Skywalker perfectly. Some have called Hamill whiny as Luke. They’re not looking close enough at what he’s doing opposite such great talents as Alec Guiness and Harrison Ford. I like the banter between Luke and Han. The eager, young kid creating friction with the weathered ego of Solo results in some great funny moments that work very well. Luke has no problem challenging Han’s ego, and eventually, I think Han comes to respect that spirit in him.
Of course, no one else could’ve portrayed Han Solo as well as Harrison Ford. He brought a cool swagger and sex appeal which really popped off the screen. The laid back confidence and charisma made the character feel seedy and dangerous. He’s a guy who could casually fry an alien bounty hunter in a shady cantina without hesitation or breaking a sweat. He doesn’t wait for Greedo to make a move. He intends on shooting him right from the start, and only strings Greedo along until the moment is right. He’s a definite rogue out for himself only, along with his loyal Wookie friend Chewbacca, but I love seeing how that loner attitude slowly softens as he starts to care for Luke. Ford nicely shows that transition from rugged, egotistical outlaw to reliable, hopeful friend. I find it sly and clever how Harrison Ford worked off of Peter Mayhew’s Chewbacca. How Ford leans up against his seven foot tall, lanky frame in certain scenes reinforces that casual swagger of Solo. These two really felt like two old buddies who had seen it all and been through it all. They’ll back one another up every step of the way, and aren’t afraid to rush into danger, whether it’s wise or not.
Princess Leia is a great change of pace. She’s not a helpless damsel in distress. She can easily handle herself in tough situations whether it’s trading stinging words with the icy Grand Moff Tarkin, or grabbing up a blaster and fending off Stormtroopers in a firefight. She has solid, inspiring leadership qualities mixed with a sense of warmth and compassion that are strongly brought to life by Carrie Fisher. It’s great seeing that this young woman can be a very diplomatic, even tempered person in addition to being sternly intelligent and aggressive. She is not intimidated by Vader or Tarkin, but when others are threatened, you clearly see the humanity that is her core. It’s also a great dynamic between Leia and Han Solo. She’s not going to take any of his ego or machismo, and he clearly doesn’t want to suffer any of her insults. It’s a beautiful piece of writing and chemistry that both Fisher and Ford play up well to comedic effect. It’s a very nice building block for where the following film would take their characters.
The cast overall is great. The characters are very distinct and diverse ranging all the way from Anthony Daniels’ sophisticated, yet cowardly droid C-3PO to the amazing Peter Cushing’s razor sharp, authoritative, cold-blooded Tarkin. It’s interesting that Darth Vader is handled as a secondary villain under Tarkin’s command. Vader has an undoubtedly powerful, imposing presence that makes him more mysterious and intriguing than Tarkin. He’s truly a definite dark opposite to Ben Kenobi, but I take nothing away from Peter Cushing’s chillingly theatrical performance. Having the voice of Vader being provided by the exceptional James Earl Jones was a stroke of genius. Along with that brilliant respirator sound effect, Jones was integral in making the character as powerful and commanding as he has become. While he looked immensely awesome and striking, with the wrong voice it never would have worked.
Now, there are people that regard the lightsaber duel between Vader and Kenobi here as the most boring. I greatly disagree. It’s actually one of my favorites. It has a great sense of two old Samurai from a war long ago meeting again to close out unfinished business. They are not the vigorous young men they once were, but there’s a matter of honor or revenge to settle that neither can deny. There’s something to prove in one way or another for them both, and it is that aura which elevates the sequence for me. Their words hold great weight on a very deep personal level, but for Kenobi, there’s something greater at stake than himself.
I believe the writing of humor here is very smart. It’s always a natural product of the situation or contrasting personalities. R2-D2 is kind of spunky, and C-3PO is certainly a little uppity. So, there’s some magical comedic gold which extends from that, but never hijacks the tone of the film. It adds to the fun and entertainment value. It accentuates the personalities of the characters, and builds relationships. The humor is used as an excellent tool to bond these characters together. They might irritate one another, but eventually, they build a mutual respect through all the shared emotions in these intense life-or-death situations.
The film really does have a wonderful story structure. We follow these two lowly droids firstly who constantly push the story towards introducing Luke, then Ben Kenobi. Their actions initiate this slow assembling of an unlikely heroic team built through unexpected situations. The story nicely transitions into Luke Skywalker being the audience’s guide through this world, allowing us to feel his plight, and incorporating his journey with that of the overall plot. Ultimately, it comes down to an ensemble piece where each character has a purpose and opportunity to be heroic. They all have their threads, either plot or character based, that carry them through this adventure, and that’s a clever achievement. No one’s ever just tagging along without something to contribute or gain from this experience.
The Empire is firmly established right from the start as a dominant, oppressive entity in opposition of the smaller rebel forces. It’s also a nice juxtaposition where the Imperial Stormtroopers are fully armored, masking their human features while the rebel troopers are clearly human. It shows that the Empire is rather cold and lacking in humanity while the rebellion is very much about people. This is a motif carried through the whole film. Even the TIE Fighter pilots have full respirator gear on while the X-Wing pilots can clearly be seen to the audience. It’s a very smart visual idea that is realized strongest in Darth Vader.
I also love the seedy parts of the Mos Eisley Cantina sequence. Touching upon Han Solo’s shady world of smuggling, bounty hunters, and gangsters gives even more flavor and depth to this universe. It adds an extra layer of danger and treachery to this greater galaxy that we are being introduced to. The alien designs, while rough with limited rubber masks, still remain effective today. I can see and understand what George Lucas’ frustrations were with this sequence as he hoped for much higher quality masks and such, it’s still an iconic scene that really captured the imagination of audiences.
While Star Wars is generally a fun, rousing adventure film, it doesn’t shy away from the darker dramatic beats. The death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru is a very striking moment that penetrates deep inside Luke’s heart and soul, as it does for the audience. It’s an unsettling, grim scene followed directly after by Darth Vader about to implement a very foreboding interrogation upon Princess Leia. These setup the dangers our heroes have to face that will motivate them forward. However, it’s great seeing that Luke never goes down the path of vengeance. He remains true to who he is and to his friends. He also knows there’s a greater good to fight for, and he is fully committed to that. These heavier dramatic beats throughout the film create emotional obstacles for Luke. The loss of family and friends test his strength of spirit, and pushes him further towards believing in The Force.
The idea of The Force is an excellent one that plays into the mystical, spiritual, and magical. Luke must believe in something beyond himself to tap into this power. He learns to trust in himself by way of The Force to accomplish great things. We are gradually shown the extent of The Force with subtle feelings and tricks at first, but it all builds up to and pays off largely in the climax as Luke lets go of the cold technology to embrace The Force to defeat the cold, oppressive Galactic Empire. Kenobi becoming “More powerful than you can possibly imagine” to guide Luke in this assault on the Death Star enhances the depth of The Force overall. It’s something greater than any one person or thing, but if you trust in it fully, it can be yours to command to achieve the incredible.
Speaking of which, Star Wars is filled with incredible action that brings back that swashbuckling mentality of those old serials George Lucas grew up loving. Backed by that thrilling John Williams score, these are sequence that satisfy in a big way. In an era of film where things had gotten mostly dark, gritty, and explicitly violent, Star Wars made action fun again without sacrificing suspense, tension, or danger. The heroes keep getting into increasingly more perilous scenarios where they have to be smart and innovative to escape and survive. It’s one bad turn after another, which brings the film some humor and excitement, but these situations are never played lightly. There’s always a real, imminent threat. This maintains a tight, solid pace. The film simply has exceptional editing along with superb cinematography. George Lucas had a great approach to the editing in having the edits dictate the rhythm and pace of scenes instead of the performances. This ultimately created a much sharper and snappier pace.
The entire climactic assault on the Death Star is one of the best space battle sequences ever. The amazing, dynamic visual effects cinematography creates an exhilarating cinematic experience. George Lucas has always been fascinated by speed, and he accentuates that with this sequence. The fighters are always in motion with an environment that blurs by at a breakneck speed. The dogfights are nothing short of amazing. It all builds to a nerve racking apex, and how it ends must have had audiences on their feet cheering back in 1977.
Star Wars remains a triumphant motion picture that should stand and be preserved for all time. It’s a massive part of cinematic history which revolutionized filmmaking in every aspect. It was innovative and marvelous on a technical level. Still, despite all these awe-inspiring visual effects and technical achievements, this is a story that is all about its characters. It never loses sight of the human aspect, and that is what drives this film into excellence. George Lucas once said that special effects are just a means of telling a story, and that without a story, they mean nothing. At this point in time, he showed us exactly what that meant. He crafted a wondrous, exciting, adventurous, and emotional story first, and then, incorporated those groundbreaking special effects to tell that story in the most original and powerful way possible. For the last thirty-five years, this film has excited audiences like few other films can. Lucas took classic archetypes of literature and the classic hero’s journey, and molded and melded them into one of the best adventure films of all time. Audiences at the time had never seen anything like this before, and could never imagine that another Star Wars film could equal, let alone surpass this one. It would not be an easy feat, but in the right hands, it would become possible.