{Pop Culturally Insensitive will now be co-hosting (De)Constructing the Ion Canon, an ongoing blog surveying the entire official Star Wars canon according to its timeline. Check back every week for the next installment.}

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The year is 1977. Jimmy Carter has taken office, The Eagles have taken us to Hotel California while the Sex Pistols told us to Never Mind the Bollocks, and Smokey and the Bandit came roaring through cinemas while Diane Keaton sang “La dee da, la dee da”. Yet, while Woody’s masterwork of romantic comedy Annie Hall would take best picture that year (and as an obsessive Woody fan, I support this whole-heartedly, even though he deserved it two years later for Manhattan as well, if not more so), cinema was about to be changed forever when the guy who made American Graffiti decided to make his own Flash Gordon. The result was the revolutionary Star Wars, a breathtaking display of cutting edge special effects, dazzling cinematic techniques, and classical storytelling updated for the modern age. It’s groundbreaking use of a “used universe” was a first for the genre, adding a sense of reality to the far-flung film that would reverberate in science fiction forever forward. A fairytale in space, a sci-fi bedtime story, a daring tale of good vs. evil, of brave knights rescuing princesses, drawing from the expansive pantheon of cinema at all ends, from Kurosawa (R2 and 3PO are modeled after two characters from the director’s The Hidden Fortress) to Leni Riefenstahl (the final medal scene looks uncomfortably like Triumph of the Will), Star Wars was at once unlike anything anyone had ever seen and yet instantly familiar. It’s astounding to think that the story, the dialogue, the visuals have in just under 40 years become as ingrained in the cultural vocabulary as Le Morte de Arthur or biblical lore.

Everything about the original Star Wars can be rightfully labeled as “iconic”, from the score any person on the street can perform from memory, to the costumes that still grace doorsteps every Halloween. The classic film still entrances audiences to this day, capturing imaginations and igniting flights of fancy.

Quite obviously, I did not see the film when it debuted, but grew up with it, so much so I can’t recall the first time I ever saw it (nor its two sequels). Of course, I’ve seen it since, leaving it on any time it comes on television, showing it to anyone who claimed they hadn’t without the hipster-ish air of pride (pro-tip: never take pride in not knowing something. It’s the s**tiest thing to be proud of), relishing in every retelling of the classic tale in homage and parody alike. Yet, I realized upon this re-vieweing that it had been a solid decade since I’d sat down and consumed the film completely in a single sitting, and though I knew the story backwards and forwards, was delighted to find several little moments and inflections that I’d forgotten, enhanced by the fresh history of the universe I’d brought with me to it, seeing how well the original film fit into a timeline with such a hefty array of media now preceding it.

Of course, with the myriad of alternate edits and editions out there, through George Lucas’ continual tweaking to match his original vision, selecting which version of the 1977 space opera was difficult. Does one go with the latest special edition, carefully crafted to match the prequels in style, or the original theatrical cut? Indeed, there are almost as many different Star Wars‘ as their are Blade Runners, and though fans of both may bicker, there’s no answer more definitively valid than any other. Some special edition changes I love (the Jabba scene added in, with it’s clever way of getting around Harrison Ford “walking over” Jabba’s tail, has always delighted me) others I loathe (the universally reviled “Greedo shooting first”), but ultimately they still tell the same story, and that’s what truly matters.

In the end, I settled on the original theatrical release, if for no other reason than my own fondness for imagining something’s inaugural experience. It’s the same reason every time I lay the needle down on an LP of Sgt. Pepper’s, I like to imagine what it was like to pick it up the day it came out, and be washed over with a masterpiece. However, it raises the question: especially in this new world of CGI, with 40 years of technological advancement and other filmmakers plucking from and building upon what Star Wars had done, does the original film, with all it’s models and practical effects still hold up?

The answer is yes. A thousand times yes, and remarkably so. So much so, my notes throughout this viewing mainly consisted of gushing praise and “this film is flawless”, much to the detriment, I’d imagine of this article. In the past, I’ve filled these posts with critiques, dissecting awkward moments, defending others, determining what could have been done to improve or “save” the film. Yet here, nothing needs changing, nothing needs tweaking. The film is truly flawless, a rousing adventure which never drags, never diverts. A masterwork of fantastic forward momentum, a rousing and swashbuckling adventure that truly earns its place amongst the greatest of all films, in the lofty Elysian fields alongside the rare perfect few like Lawrence of Arabia and Rashomon (and yes, Annie Hall too).

So, without much further fanfare, let’s get to the immortal story of Star Wars.

I always say it, and even though I find it hard to believe anyone who’d seek out a Star Wars blog hasn’t seen Star Wars, it must be said we will be discussing the entire story here, so spoilers will be abound.

It’s hard not to anticipate that eruption of orchestration when you see the famous “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” (“A long time ago” meaning it can’t be happening “right now” as the original trailer would have you believe), and when it happens, it is glorious. It sets the tone perfectly for what’s about to unfold, and the brief opening scroll (penned in part by Brian De Palma) sets the stage (while stating that stealing the Death Star plans was the first victory for the rebellion, meaning the crew of the Ghost are ****ed).  I, for one, love practical effects, forever favoring something like The Thing or 2001 over Avatar, so seeing those models fly past, particularly the looming Imperial vessel, gave me as great a chill as it likely did those original audiences on that fateful day in 1977. Peering inside the rebel vessel, the first face we see is remarkably not human, but rather a trio of droids, the familiar astro-mech R2-D2 and protocol droids C-3PO and…that silver one, who I’m sure starred in, like, 3 novels in the expanded universe (I’ll concede, its hard to remember I don’t need to introduce 3PO and R2, as even though this is their debut, in the context of this blog, we’ve already come to know them through three films and two television series). Rebel forces brace themselves to be boarded as stormtroopers flood through the door, followed by Darth Vader, who storms the ship in search of the woman he doesn’t know is his daughter, Princess Leia Organa (why he can’t sense her with the force….eh, I can live without an answer to that question for now).

Leia, however, has snuck off and implanted the schematics for the Death Star into R2, and when 3PO finds him (worrying they’ll be shipped off to the spice mines of Kessel, where we saw the Ghost crew rescue the Wookies in Spark of the Rebellion), the two sneak off into an escape pod that Imperial forces let slip through their grasp, disregarding it as a malfunction since the scans show no life forms. Meanwhile, Darth Vader, opting to actually physically choke a man rather than force-choke him (but don’t worry, that’s a-comin’) demands his troopers search the ship, and they eventually find Leia, stunning her and taking her prisoner.

It’s when the two droids land on Tattooine that the film’s shot choices become remarkable, especially with the prequel films taken in perspective. Whereas they relied on computer imagery to impress, here Lucas (and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor) the a much more cinematic approach, utilizing not just wipes reminiscent of old film serials, but zoom ins and POV angles blended with deliberately paced editing. The film is unafraid to linger on shots to allow us to soak up the atmosphere, especially when R2 is kidnapped by Jawas and trapped inside the vessel with the other droids, nor is it afraid of silence. Despite being in possession of what would become the most revered film score in history, Lucas knows when to use it, opting instead to let a moment like the capture of R2 to be noiseless, but for the whispering of the Jawas.

The Jawas take their wares to the familiar homestead we last saw in Revenge of the Sith, where a much older Owen Lars and his nephew Luke seek two new droids for their farm. Selecting 3PO but not R2, luck (or the force, or I’m sure some twist of fate expounded upon in 8 expanded universe novels the droid probably starred in)would have it that the droid they selected had a bad motivator, allowing the duo of droids to be reunited. Luke, as many viewers forget, as a bit of a petulant teen, every bit as whining and angsty as Hayden Christensen’s Anakin (making Hayden’s choices totally appropriate to the role, but nobody cares about that because it was the 2000’s and it wasn’t “kewl”), and while cleaning the droids, discovers the message Leia hid inside R2 which leads to two very awkward moments: Luke describing his sister as “beautiful” (I know he doesn’t know, but in retrospect, that’s gonna be awkward for him), and C-3PO straight up admitting he’s been part of the rebellion.

Let’s just take a moment to acknowledge that had they wound up in the hands of someone with stronger Imperial allegiance, the entire rebellion would be over; they would have been turned over to Imperial forces who would have recovered the plans and extracted whatever information they could from the droids (just like Cad Bane did during the Clone Wars) and defeated the rebellion swiftly and mercilessly. Come to think of it, considering the amount of times 3PO has been captured, compromised or otherwise endangered the mission, he’s actually a colossal liability that Bail Organa is being insanely reckless for continually involving in crucial missions (not that Bail’s poor strategic thinking is going to matter much more anyway, but we’ll get to that).

As it is, Luke just tells his family that the R2 unit used to belong to Obi-Wan Kenobi, and wonders aloud whether he’s related to Ben Kenobi, while Owen and Beru exchange knowing looks. Meanwhile, R2 has gone out in search of Obi-Wan, leaving Luke and C-3PO to give chase, pursuing the droid until they’re attacked by Tusken Raiders. Luke is knocked unconscious and his ship almost torn apart when Obi-Wan arrives, waving his arms and uttering an animal cry that we’ve never once had any indication he could make up until this point. Knowing that Lucas had originally intended the role for legendary Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune, who always brought animalistic elements to his performance, it would have been interesting to see how scenes like this would have played out with him in the role.

Obi-Wan reveals himself to Luke when he regains consciousness, explaining who he is while denying he ever owned a droid (yet giving R2 a look of surprised acknowledgement, shocked to see the astro-mech again, and throwing a wrench in the complaint of “Why doesn’t Obi-Wan recognize R2 in New Hope?” from prequel whiner Amblin kids), and takes Luke back to his home where he explains that he knew his father, presenting him with Anakin’s old lightsaber, and explaining that Anakin was killed by Darth Vader, his former pupil, which we know is a lie, even from a certain point of view. Now, of course, seems the appropriate time to acknowledge the masterful work of Alec Guinness (a key component of so many of my favorite films, from Lawrence of Arabia to Kind Hearts and Coronets), who just knocks it out of the park in even the smallest of moments, like watching the full hologram of Leia asking them to deliver the plans to Alderaan.

Obi-Wan asks Luke to join him in the journey to Alderaan, but Luke initially refuses and heads home. However, upon arrival he finds the homestead destroyed and his relatives disintegrated, presumably by Imperial Stormtroopers as Obi-Wan suggests, trying to disguise their actions as Tusken Raiders, which doesn’t make much sense considering the modern stormtrooper’s aim isn’t the accurate sharpshooting Obi-Wan remembers the clones having, and they have no interest in killings, even less in covering them up, and it’s even harder to believe Vader would just suddenly decide to off his relatives after all this time, which lends credence to the most believable Star Wars fan theory of all time. Luke and Obi-Wan head to Mos Eisley in order to find a ship to take them off-world, and are stopped by stormtroopers searching for 3PO and R2, leading to one of the most famous scenes in film history, the Jedi mind trick, which Guinness executes brilliantly given how silly it must have seemed to him at the time.

They arrive at the cantina, the droids are told to wait outside (eventually hiding behind a locked door that stormtroopers decide isn’t worth unlocking in their search for some reason), and we’re treated to one of the most beloved songs in the series, as well as some memorable aliens (and one werewolf mask). While Obi-Wan talks with Chewbacca, Luke gets into a tussle with two patrons, leading Obi-Wan to intervene with his lightsaber. Weirdly, everyone in the cantina seems pretty cool with a guy in robes having a lightsaber, considering how weirded out everybody is by Kanan and his blade a few years’ prior. Anyway, Chewie takes them to meet Han Solo, who from his first moments is already the coolest character in the history of Star Wars. From the swagger he has talking about the Kessel run to the way he later plays with the wall behind him while slowly removing his pistol from its holster to shoot Greedo (unprompted, mind you, the way it should be) who comes to him to collect his debt to Jabba, Harrison Ford just oozes cool, and opposite the regal dignity of Alec Guinness and the youthful vigor of Mark Hamill, its here where the film’s energy comes together and launches it swiftly into the pulse-pounding second act. Within a matter of moments, the group are fighting off stormtroopers and boarding the Millennium Falcon (the single greatest Star Wars ship of all time. Screw the Slave 1), hitting their hyper-drive for one of the coolest visual effects in the entire series, and arriving at Alderaan only to find it gone (while finding time for some Holochess and Jedi training that Han dismissively mocks along the way, of course).

You see, while aboard the Death Star, Leia is subject to a series of interrogations, some involving the sinister torture droid (which her father directly oversees, mind you), yet refuses to give up the location of the rebel base until Grand Moff Tarkin (played with sinister relish by Peter Cushing) determines a better means by which to ascertain the location. Leia is brought to the bridge of the Death Star (and speaks with a slight accent that in my mind is used to mock Tarkin and totally isn’t the one big weird flaw in an otherwise perfect film) where Tarkin threatens to demonstrate the full power of the station by destroying Leia’s home planet of Alderaan unless she reveals the location of the base. Eventually, she confesses that the base is located on Dantooine (which, let’s remember, it isn’t, so she essentially sold a totally innocent planet out), but Tarkin decides to destroy Alderaan anyway.

A lone TIE fighter tips them off to the location of the Death Star, and their ship gets caught in the tractor beams, leaving them no choice but to hide beneath the floorboards of the ship and wait until the initial search crew leaves the vessel. Then disguising themselves as stormtroopers (for the record, the subtle bits of humor used to cover up potential plot holes, like Luke signaling his comm not working to the guy in the control room, are just brilliant)and infiltrate the Death Star. Obi-Wa breaks from the group to shut down the tractor beam and confront his former pupil while Han, Luke and Chewie set off for the princess, at first pretending to have captured Chewie, then abandoning the ruse when they reach the prison level, opting instead to shoot every camera and person in the room in a jarringly destructive scene leading to the finest piece of supposedly improvised dialogue in the entire franchise, Han Solo responding to an Imprial inquiry with “We’re all fine here, now, thank you. How are you?” before shooting the console saying it was a “boring conversation anyway”, which is the kind of casual, fun humor that was in very short supply in the dim, dirge-like prequels, but helps the film come alive.

Indeed, that’s the beauty of the original Star Wars, how it blends the classical and the modern. Yes, at its core it’s the classic orphaned knight saving the princess, but it tosses in a smuggler cowboy. It’s a rebellion against an evil Empire, but it’s in space, with laser guns and robots. It’s dialogue always walks a thin line, never two steps away from the classically dramatic or the casually conversational. It’s writing follows the same principle as it’s production design; the used universe. Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is by far the more “realistic” of the two, it’s physics and fictional reality rooted heavy in our own, meticulously researched and even utilizing current brand names like Pan-Am, while Star Wars couldn’t even use the word “parsec” right (though George has suggested it’s intentionally misused to show what an arrogant blowhard Han is, and I like that explanation, so I’ll believe it). Yet, it’s Star Wars that feels more real, in part due to the dirty, used world we see as opposed to the sterile white walls of Kubrick’s film, as well as the warmth and honesty of the dialogue. Luke talking about power converters at Toschi station (terms that reportedly perplexed Hamill at the audition, though he tried to read them “sincerely” which won him the role over the guy from The Greatest American Hero) or Leia screaming about rebel bases on Alderaan feel more honest and real than William Sylvester’s daughter saying she’ll see him next Wednesday. It blends the fantastic and the honest so well that throughout the film you feel as though you’re watching you’re old friends become fairytale heroes, watching archetypes come alive in a way both modern and timeless.

Luke rescues Leia, and the four are pursued by stormtrooper, with no escape plan, until Leia grabs a blaster rifle and shoots their way into the garbage disposal. Now let’s just address the fact that the garbage disposal scene is hands down the least consequential scene in the entire film, as it does nothing to advance the plot, nor develop any of the characters. Yet, I have no qualms with this moment, as opposed to the myriad of inconsequential scenes in the previous films for one simple reason: It’s fun. It doesn’t slow down the pacing of the film at all, it adds some extra thrills and never overstays its welcome. Yes, sure, there’s no real stakes to it, as you know the film isn’t going to kill the hero or the princess or anything, but it’s essentially the James Bond principle: you know they’re gonna survive, you just wanna see how.

While the quartet reunite with the droids and make their way to the Millennium Falcon, Obi-Wan confronts his former apprentice, Darth Vader (though thus far there are still gaps in the timeline between Rebels Season 1 and this film wherein some interaction could have occurred, presumably this is the first time Obi-Wan has seen Anakin in his robotic suit, which he seems strangely unfazed by. I can understand reaching out with the force and all, and perhaps the one “From the Journals of Obi-Wan” issue of the Marvel Star Wars comic fleshes this out, but Obi-Wan went from watching his apprentice burn, leaving him for dead and never even knowing his Sith title to just sorta going “Yeah, Darth Vader, robot suit, I’m the only person who knows your real identity. Cool. Lightsaber fight?”). Though their lightsaber fight lacks any of the acrobatics seen in the prequels, there’s not force pushing or backflips (indeed, there’s one spin in the whole thing), it’s still utterly enthralling, and that’s in no small part due to the commitment Guinness brings to what would ultimately be his final scene, bringing a Shakespearean gravitas to both his combat and his ultimate sacrifice, when he lifts his blade and focuses on the lessons he learned from Qui-Gon (as Yoda instructed him to at the end of Revenge of the Sith), disappearing at the moment of his death, causing enough of a distraction to let the group of rebels escape, though of course letting them escape was always the plan, as Tarkin and Vader planted a tracking device in their ship to find the rebel base (which, again, is totally not on Dantooine, a likely peaceful planet full of children Leia sentenced to die to save the probably super-guilty of treason Alderaan since their leader Bail straight-up founded the rebellion but hey, whatever).

The group make their way to the rebel base on Yavin 4, where General Jan Dodonna explains the attack strategy for the Death Star, that it’s invincible save for one very small exploitable weakness (and every video game designer who had to make a boss fight suddenly cried out “Eureka!”), and Luke criticizes Han for abandoning the cause, which is weird considering a few hours ago Luke was stoked to join the Imperial pilots academy, and now he’s acting like they all live for the rebellion, but then again Luke is a whiny, emotional, entitled teenager just like his father (which, once again, means Hayden was just following the blueprints of the old films). Luke straps into his X-Wing, along with a childhood friend of his we’d never seen before (though the special edition actually restores a previous scene with Biggs that makes his ultimate death far more powerful, just to show all the special edition changes aren’t sinful), and the fleet of X-Wing pilots take off for the Death Star, which approaches Yavin 4, arming itself to destroy the planet and wipeout the rebellion outright. The pressure is on in this ticking time bomb of a dogfight, and everything from the detail on the models to the shot choices and camera movement (the swoop into the canyon is a personal favorite), and the disembodied voice of Obi-Wan encourages Luke to use the Force. With Darth Vader hot on his tail, things look rough for Skywalker until Han returns, blasting the TIE fighters out of the sky, sending Darth spinning into space, and inexplicably not jumping out of his ship and kicking ass like he did in Lords of the Sith for some reason, nor using his three films worth of established piloting mastery to right the ship and continue his pursuit. Hey, we’ll just attribute it all to the Force, the same way Luke does with his making the impossible shot without his targeting system on.

Of course, the shot lands just as Tarkin tells his crew to fire when ready (as Tarkin has swiftly become my favorite character, it saddens me to see a little scene I’d heretofore forgotten where he has the opportunity to evacuate and doesn’t. I and by my belief that Tarkin would have made a better Emperor than Palpatine), destroying the Death Star and securing the momentary safety of the rebel alliance. In order to commemorate their triumph of the will, Luke, Han and Chewie are honored in a special ceremony, where the rebellion decides to squander valuable metals they could have used for weaponry of repairs in order to make a ceremonial gesture, and then the classic score returns, a final wipe explodes across the stars and in the middle you see the blue center light of the “Directed by George Lucas” credit pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

That’s how it ends, brilliantly capping off the film by making it feel both a part of something much greater and ultimately also self-contained (the only film in the franchise to do so). As I’d stated above, everything about the film is iconic, and rightfully so. It’s a masterclass in how to create fun, adventure cinema, matched only perhaps by Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Man Who Would Be King. Somehow, all the stars aligned for this film, creating an endless array of memorable moments and characters, utilizing the whole vocabulary of cinema to create something akin to a whole new language, standing like a gatekeeper alongside Jaws to usher in a new era of fun filmmaking. My typical “Is it worth watching?” is silly to even ask for this entry. It goes without saying, not even fawning as a fanboy, that Star Wars is essential viewing for anyone who wants even a passing understanding of the American, or even global, cinematic landscape, and the broader popular culture as a whole. A landmark of American filmmaking and imagination, Star Wars deserves both its legacy and its inevitable immortality.

Well, that’s all for now. If time permits, check back in midweek to see a quick catch up on everything that came between Episodes IV and V (which includes several comic book titles, some short stories, two YA books and a full novel, not to mention a mobile game), then come back next week for perhaps the most esteemed entry in the entire franchise, containing cinema’s biggest twist since Rosebud, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.

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4 thoughts on “(De)Constructing the Ion Canon: Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope)

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