By Sam Moore
Directed: George Lucas
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness
Before the episodic sobriquets it was simply called Star Wars and George Lucas thought it sure to be a flop. He believed this to such an extent that he did not even attend the movie’s premier, instead choosing to go on holiday to Hawaii with Steven Spielberg (where they incidentally came up with the idea for Raiders of the Lost Ark).
Prior to its release in 1977, Lucas showed an early cut of the film to a few of his director peers, including Brian de Palma who reportedly described it as the ‘worst movie ever.’ Instead it became the first movie ever to gross $300m worldwide and has since become a pillar of science-fiction filmmaking, a classic in its own right.
Inspired by the Flash Gordon serials and the classic samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, Lucas began work on what would later become known as Episode IV: A New Hope in 1974 with a budget of just $11m. What is perhaps more difficult to comprehend is simply a world without Star Wars. Most fans these days are so well informed about the franchise’s canon that they know every single bit of detail about every character, however minor. With a total of seven (soon to be eight) Star Wars movies having now been released it is difficult to watch A New Hope without prior knowledge of the saga interfering, with so much having happened after – and indeed before – the original movie.
What is so fascinating about A New Hope is the way in which it introduces what is now standard procedure for Star Wars movies – the opening fanfare and contextualising scrawl floating in space, the graceful establishing shot of meandering space craft, the bombastic and beautiful John Williams score. And yet back then this was not standard procedure but stylistic innovations that would inspire generations of young filmmakers and movie fans alike.
Objectively speaking A New Hope does very little for the first-time viewer who is perhaps none the wiser. In the opening ten minutes alone we are introduced to an entire galaxy under empirical rule, the presence of a government and diplomats in the form of the Old Republic, not to mention a slew of characters such as Leia Organa, C3PO and R2D2, stormtroopers and Darth Vader all set to a backdrop of civil unrest in the form of a secretive rebellion. And yet thanks to a fantastic opening space battle/chase sequence dominated by fizzing lasers, slick visuals and boisterous sound effects the audience is immediately sucked into this visceral world without hesitation nor question.
Of course a lot of this is down to the high definition restoration the film has undergone in the past fifteen years or so, having been released on DVD in 2004 and eventually Blu Ray in 2011. The digital tampering, however, is not all beneficial; the reconstructed and additional scenes featuring poorly animated characters are so out of place it is a wonder they were ever approved. But it is clear that overall the picture and sound quality clearly far surpasses that of the original, making the classic sequences all the more special.
After an extremely exciting introduction featuring an empirical Star Destroyer attacking and boarding a diplomatic ship, the film’s first act is relatively weak. A lot of necessary but fairly slow character building follows as C3PO and R2D2 escape the boarded cruiser, jettisoned toward the desert planet of Tatooine. Here we are introduced to the film’s hero, Luke Skywalker, the somewhat whiney son of Anakin Skywalker or the evil Darth Vader as he later became (although this was not yet known in 1977) as well as Obi-Wan ‘Ben’ Kenobi, a former Jedi of a more ‘civilised’ time.
It is at this point where you really begin to appreciate the contextualising prowess of the prequel trilogy as names and events are dropped which would otherwise make no sense to the first-time viewer of A New Hope. The Old Republic, the Clone Wars and the Jedi Order are all hinted at but never elaborated on and it is only now that we can put the pieces of the puzzle together thanks to the admittedly flawed yet under-appreciated episodes one through three. Indeed this makes for highly entertaining viewing as the audience can now readily picture exactly what is being alluded to and all that the likes of C3PO and R2D2 have been through to get here.
Although a lot of criticism aimed at the prequel trilogy was regarding poor acting and scriptwriting, it is worth mentioning that A New Hope is actually no saint when it comes to its actors’ performances and much of Lucas’ script is ham-fisted and clunky. During the now famous trash compactor scene it is to the sound of tired eye rolling that Harrison Ford claims that they are all going to get ‘a lot thinner,’ and even James Earl Jones’ voicing of Darth Vader is, at times, stilted and clichéd. The choreography also leaves much to be desired, particularly during the lightsaber battle between Vader and Kenobi whilst Han, Luke and Leia make their dramatic escape from the Death Star.
Yet alongside the bombast and naivety there is also nuance – a cryptic reference to Luke’s nefarious heritage, an inkling of romance brewing between Luke and Leia, Obi-Wan all but allowing Vader to kill him so as to be of better service from the afterlife. As Luke pilots his X-Wing through the trench in the film’s climactic final sequence, Obi-Wan urges him to rely on his instincts, rather than technology – words reminiscent of the old Jedi’s former master, Qui-Gon Jinn.
This was the only movie in the franchise to have ever been called simply ‘Star Wars’ and as such it follows that this could well be the best Star Wars film there ever was, or ever will be.