Hello everyone. I hope you had a very happy May the 4th. As many of you well know and others may not, May 4th is essentially International Star Wars Day: a set time where fans around the world can revisit and celebrate the behemoth of a franchise that is Star Wars. I don’t have to tell you about the impact of that franchise since it’s already apparent by the literal bajillions in merchandising that George Lucas has made over the years. It’s a franchise that has been equally worshipped and deplored for the unprecedented amount of popularity attached to it. On the one hand, the original 1977 Star Wars was an inspiration to successive generations of storytellers who found themselves enthralled by the scope and heart of its epic story. Some of the greatest filmmakers of our time were shaped by that film and millions more worldwide give Star Wars thanks for keeping their inner child alive and thriving. However, Star Wars has been the subject of scrutiny over the years by other artists and critics who attribute the current bloat of popcorn blockbusters to its success. It also goes without saying that both the Prequel Trilogy and Lucas’ tendency to needlessly re-edit his older movies into “Special Editions” have left a bad taste in the collective mouths of Star Wars fans everywhere. Regardless of which opinions most match your own however, it is impossible to deny the endurance of Star Wars as a pop culture icon and constant conversation subject since its inception in 1977. So, I thought it would be appropriate to turn my religious viewings of the original trilogy on May the 4th into a review and talk about one of my all-time personal favorites while it’s fresh in my mind: Star Wars Day. Or in this case, the day after.
Inspired by the Flash Gordon serials that George Lucas devoured as a child, Star Wars takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy far far away” where a civil war wages between the fascist Galactic Empire and the underdog Rebel Alliance. Rebel spies have stolen the plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star: a heavily armored space station with the power to obliterate an entire planet. Just before the Empire’s commander Darth Vader (David Prowse with the voice of James Earl Jones) can capture her, Rebel leader Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) conceals the plans amongst a pair of droids named R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) before sending them to the desert planet of Tatooine. The droids fall into the hands of young farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who finds the information left behind by the princess and takes the droids to a mysterious hermit named Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Through Obi-Wan, Luke learns that he is the son of a Jedi: a warrior of a now destroyed group of galactic peacekeepers who derive their powers from a spiritual energy called The Force. In order to take the plans to the Rebel alliance and save Princess Leia, Obi-Wan takes Luke with him to teach him the ways of the Force and become a Jedi Knight like his father before him. Together, and with the help of roguish bounty hunters Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), Obi-Wan and Luke must evade capture from the Galactic Empire, save Princess Leia, and help the Rebel Alliance combat the Death Star before it annihilates the Rebellion for good.
After nearly forty years of technical improvements and the advent of CGI, it’s truly amazing to see just how well the original Star Wars has aged. That’s because regardless of how many hundreds of millions of dollars are thrown at the blockbusters of today, computer effects by themselves only dazzle temporarily. As time passes and the game of inter-studio one-upmanship carries on, older computer effects become obsolete and wither away until all they can produce is half-amused mockery from successive generations of moviegoers. Star Wars on the other hand utilized a host of practical effects that ground the film within a timeless world that still mesmerizes today. Setting no points of reference to Earth in either space and time, the art direction and costumes are allowed to flourish without restraint: creating an equally grimy and fantastical universe to explore. The cinematography and visual effects are still every bit as stunning as they ever were, meticulously employing models, matte paintings, and stop motion animation to augment the action set pieces with unprecedented imagination. And in regards to the film editing, it’s a beautifully organic structure that never stops moving the action forward yet knows exactly when to let a moment breathe. The Battle of Yavin in particular still stands as my all-time favorite film climax for that reason: it can be exciting, moving, frightening, or joyful at any time but the editing, effects, and emotion make it all extraordinarily cohesive.
All of this aforementioned technical wizardry aside, Star Wars would fall apart if it lacked the vibrant emotional core that pulsated throughout the story. Thankfully, Star Wars has that in spades, telling a story that may indeed be simple or fantastical, but stands nonetheless as a sweeping emotional experience. As George Lucas envisioned it, Star Wars is a testament to mythological tales across the ages as it tells a mystical adventure of good and evil amidst the last adventurous frontier left to humanity in the present day: outer space. From the moment we are introduced to the comic relief duo of C-3PO and R2-D2, we are given our guides through a sequence of characters whose own introductions and explorations are organic and accomplished with great finesse. Through the droids, our audience first meets Luke Skywalker: their avatar. With a combination of boyish charm and soulful longing, Mark Hamill breathes life into Luke as a farm boy proven boisterous by a longing for adventure. Like all of us have experienced this in the awkwardness of our youth, Luke is unsure about who he is meant to be or in what direction his life should go. His is a story told simply but honestly, as his journey to discover his destiny is the emotional crux within a galaxy at war: allowing it to resonate with anyone struggling with similar insecurities as a child or an adolescent.
While Luke as a protagonist is absolutely endearing and entertaining to watch, the greatest characters of Star Wars arrive after him in the introductory chain: Obi-Wan Kenobi, Han Solo, and Chewbacca. Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi is a masterful take on the archetypal wise man of myth who trains the protagonist into the great hero they should be. Much of the movie’s magic comes from the simple act of hearing Guinness speak, as he breathes emotional weight and even regretful longing into his musings about the Force. His Obi-Wan is a hero whose time has passed, as he has survived long enough to watch the elegant age he once defended become a malformed shade of itself: manifested in the iconic ex-partner-turned-villain of Obi-Wan called Darth Vader. Because of that, his interest in training Luke, while archetypal in nature due to what kind of story it is, is quite captivating as he sees in Luke a chance to not only save the galaxy but to redeem himself for his failures in training Vader. Conversely, Luke sees Obi-Wan as the father figure he’s never had: the only person who believes in him enough to help guide him on his adventure. As such, his character relationship with Luke is perhaps the most touching one in the entire film, and makes Obi-Wan’s climactic confrontation with Darth Vader all the more heart wrenching.
On the other end of the spectrum is the rough and smarmy pair of bounty hunters known as Han Solo and Chewbacca, whose cultural impact is enough for Guardians of the Galaxy to owe Star Wars its greatest thanks. Both are beings of impulsive action, zipping between smuggling gigs and the occasional tough scrape with the Millennium Falcon: perhaps the most well-known spaceship in fiction alongside the U.S.S. Enterprise. The difference between them however is that while Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is a beautiful conduit of cocky swagger, Chewbacca merely roars in a language that only Han can understand. While both characters are badass and lend themselves very well to the action, their relationship is at its best when they are communicating together as their seemingly one-sided conversations lend themselves for great comic relief. More than that though, their interactions speak volumes concerning the depth of their friendship, which in its own bizarre way, is yet another emotional crux-point for the film. Han and Chewie are rough around the edges for sure, but they have more than enough charm and camaraderie with one another to make them frequently steal the show.
I don’t know when the magic of Star Wars became truly apparent to those involved in its creation. Did George Lucas realize the possibilities of this fantastical epic when he first transcribed it onto paper in the early 1970s? Or had the technical problems and struggles with the executives kept him in the dark until he saw those credits roll down for the first time with John William’s masterpiece musical score? While I can’t answer those questions for sure, I can confidently say that the magic of Star Wars became apparent to me in September, 1996: when Hurricane Fran hit my home town and stranded us in our house for a few days. I was six year olds at the time and deathly sick to boot, so my Mom hooked up a generator to a small television and VCR before proceeding to play Star Wars for me. While it was on the screen, I was able to forget just how terrible I felt and as I’ve gotten older, it has never failed to inspire or comfort me when I am at my lowest. It may not be the most popular thing to say, but this film, not Empire Strikes Back, is my favorite of the franchise and has a permanent spot among my personal top ten movies. That’s because 1977’s Star Wars may stand as a single chapter in a larger epic, but it is the only film of the franchise that truly stands alone for me while boasting one of the greatest emotional and visceral adventures I have ever, ever seen.