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Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope

#651 - Star Wars
George Lucas, 1977

In a distant galaxy, a young farmhand finds himself caught up in the conflict between a totalitarian regime and a group of rebels.

Is it possible for me to get seriously objective about Star Wars? I ranked this as my third favourite film ever about ten years ago and even now, despite the many flaws that are evident (especially when watching the revised Special Edition that grafts on all sorts of computer-generated effects to make the film quite the eyesore), I still like it. It helps that it's a fairly uncomplicated film that doesn't get too bogged down in things, although there's a sluggishness to the first act as the film starts setting up all the conflicts and players. The opening sequence with Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and her small diplomatic vessel being overrun by a massive spaceship full of Imperial stormtroopers is still a good way to start the film. However, from there the film hits something of a dull patch as it follows the misadventures of a pair of droids - neurotic chatterbox C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and his inscrutable counterpart R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) - as they are marooned on the desert planet of Tatooine as part of a secret mission. The one-sided banter that forms as a result of R2 only being able to communicate in beeps and whistles whose meaning can only be inferred from 3PO's responses is amusing, but it definitely needs to be in order to carry a series of fairly slow scenes that are interspersed with the occasional cutaways to the bad guys' side of things as the deep-voiced cyborg Darth Vader (played by David Prowse and voiced by James Earl Jones) readily demonstrates why he's one of the most iconic villains in cinema history (if not the most). Fortunately, this doesn't last too long after the introduction of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the plucky young hero who dreams of leaving behind his dull farming lifestyle in the hopes of becoming a fighter pilot for the Rebel Alliance.

From that point on, Star Wars becomes a good example of high adventure at its purest as Luke is soon caught up in a perilous situation that sees him go from encountering savage raiders to fighting high-speed space battles against professional fighter pilots. After getting its somewhat clunky first act out of the way, it speeds through the rest of the plot thanks to the careful dedication displayed in every factor of the film. Major credit has to go to the actors; though they may vary in terms of ability, they all manage to make characters that have become memorable for all the right reasons. Hamill gets the thankless job of being the film's naive farmboy hero, but he sells it well and doesn't get annoying. Harrison Ford naturally steals the show as freewheeling mercenary Han Solo, deftly balancing a world-weary outlook with steely-eyed charm and cavalier bravado. Though Fisher spends a good chunk of the film being a damsel in distress, she gets credit for being one very acerbic damsel who is still able to demonstrate a sensitive side without it coming across as fake. Alec Guinness's turn as the wise old Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi can be marred by an awareness of the man's later disdain for the series, but it's hard to tell her due to his sheer professionalism bringing some serious gravitas to the proceedings. Prowse's imposing physical stature and Jones' metallic delivery combine to make Vader a great villain, while Peter Cushing delivers an appropriately ruthless performance as the callously bureaucratic Moff Tarkin. There's also Peter Mayhew as Solo's hirsute partner-in-crime Chewbacca (who is like R2 in that his unintelligible lines have to be translated via his partner's reactions), and Daniels and Baker's great odd-couple act still holds up very well even though they also had the potential to turn out badly.

The world-building is still impressive (though now that I'm trying to read Dune I'm wondering if Lucas took influence from that book when it came to creating Tatooine) as it peppers its high-fantasy tale with distinctive-looking aliens and flashy pieces of technology. Lucas definitely wears his influences on his sleeve as he takes inspiration from various different genres and sub-genres and combines them together into a surprisingly consistent whole. Though it's a bit difficult to judge while watching the Special Edition (I do wonder if I've ever seen the un-altered version - if I have, it's been long enough that I don't remember for sure), the effects used to render the world and its action are also amazing in their detail and the work needed to bring every facet to life, which is ironically obscured a bit by Lucas's attempts to create a "special" edition that isn't very special when all is said and done. Even now, I still think of this film as a special-effects touchstone where the entirety of cinema can be divided into films that came before this and films that came after this, and it is very easy to see why as it comes up with all sorts of set-pieces to generate thrills and excitement even when said set-pieces don't make the most sense. This was the viewing where I finally realised the lack of logic behind a monster being able to live and thrive in a trash compactor room - if it swims away when the compacting starts, where does it even swim to? (I'm sure there's an explanation, though.)

Star Wars still proves to be a very watchable film underneath its occasional questionable moments or extremely unnecessary digital touch-ups. The writing is obviously far from perfect but the diction is still charming even in the unlikeliest of instances and it provides the foundations for an elaborate mythology that manages to avoid getting too muddled here. A variety of performers infuse everyone from bickering robots to sallow-faced bureaucrats with a vital energy that adequately compensates for any written shortcomings. The film is still a technical marvel to the point where the attempts to upgrade the film with newer technologies manage to feel very unimpressive in comparison. John Williams' iconic score covers a variety of moods ranging from triumph to melancholy and sounds good all the time even when it shouldn't (case in point - those ridiculously jaunty tunes from the cantina scenes). Star Wars is a classic that has weathered many problems since its release and, though I'd be hard-pressed to call myself a huge fan of the series these days, I think I'll always have a place in my heart for it.