Attempting to mount a fresh, contemporary viewing of the original Star Wars is a thankless errand that tasks the viewer with the impossible, namely forgetting the cultural impact of a seminal film that changed the medium. In spite of this, a fresh take in light of the forthcoming sequel seemed a worthy venture.
Divorced of a reverential disposition as the opening crawl explodes onto the screen, it’s hard to avoid the notion that Star Wars, later subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope, has you from minute one. The sheer enormity of the film’s conflicts are given proportion in both sound and image, imposing the oppressive dominance of the Galactic Empire on the scrappy Rebel Alliance from the instant the first shots are fired from one spacefaring vessel to another.
Then we see inside one of the ships, and the façade nearly crumbles.
We are at once introduced to two robots picked off a garbage scow, and moments later, a cadre of nameless soldiers who bolt down a plastic corridor in cheap matching outfits with stupid helmets. Just as soon as it begins, it looks like Star Wars could set the sci-fi genre back twenty years, as it appears beholden to the production values of Forbidden Planet. But damn, is John Williams’ score rousing.
Enter the bad guy, clad in all black with a cape, a samurai helmet, and a wheezy facemask (presumably hiding his twirled moustache), coming up against a fair maiden with cinnamon bun hair and a flowing white gown. Though their rap session is replete with exposition and passable acting, no one pauses to mention lasers or being fed to exotic fauna, perhaps surprisingly. In spite of this, it gets harder by the minute to dismiss the notion that there’s some slick cinematography making these sets and people look more interesting than they arguably deserve.
Then the bastard child of Maria from Metropolis and the tin-can MacGuffin blast themselves out of the ship to avoid detection and land somewhere west of Lawrence of Arabia. They separate, but nevertheless get captured by the same midgets with flashlight eyes whose storage hold looks exactly like you’d imagine Roger Corman’s garage. They get sold to an old jerk and a whiny kid in tunics; the kid naturally has dreams of adventure, but the old jerk is trying to make a living, so the kid stamps his feet and stares at the twin sunset, allowing us to be intoxicated by the score once more.
Finally, we meet an old hermit, embodied by the film’s only true thespian, and just when that golden dandy voluntarily shuts up, Obi-Wan Kenobi relates the history for which we’ve been longing. With his lyrical drawl, Alec Guinness suggests that a singular, mystical energy governs the nature of the galaxy, and suddenly the conflation of everything we’ve seen to this point zaps into focus: Star Wars is trying to be an epic, science-fantasy space opera, and it’s succeeding more than any other representation of any of those genres taken individually.
In the truest sense of the word, there is nothing original about Star Wars; it is merely an amalgam of common ideas, conventions, and techniques. The story borrows from a mountain of sci-fi literature and film, the plot is a reformulation of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, the cinematography is clearly indebted to Freddie Young’s work for David Lean, the miniatures and rear projection are even older than Flash Gordon, but their contemporaneous counterparts birthed from Douglas Trumbull’s pioneering work on 2001: A Space Odyssey. Even the aged, dirty, used-up futuristic technology had a precursor in the Thunderbirds series.
In spite of its prevalent influences, what sets Star Wars apart from its predecessors is the confluence of these inspirations; this is not originality, but ingenuity.
If one thing can be divined about George Lucas by the conclusion of Star Wars, it’s his strengths and weaknesses: the weaknesses take the obvious form of his debilitating failures with the art of acting, and in spite of his storytelling instincts, his character conception is terrible, a shortcoming that echoes in all of his atrocious dialogue. Put simply, he doesn’t care about people. Just ask the fans who have been screaming for a remastering of the original films.
On the flip side, he is a master world-builder, on par with J.R.R. Tolkien, and has a technical faculty that is inimitable in film history: Lucas not only understands the technology at his disposal, he has a clarity of vision and the collaborative spirit necessary for a truly great leader. In no place is this clearer than his unification of the filmmaking geniuses responsible for the look and feel of Star Wars; there’s no doubting for a moment that you’re seeing Lucas’ reveries played out on screen, but only because he had the good sense to find intelligent, creative artisans to turn loose so they can do what they do best.
It’s plain to see why the potential for a trilogy of films, let alone an ever-expanding saga, was not identified before Star Wars hit theaters; the fragile balance of ingenious effects weighed against the hodge-podge of shoestring sets, clunky dialogue, and stock characters cast it well within the realm of an expensive flop. But no matter how you regard George Lucas as a person, you cannot deny the honesty of his intentions when it came to realizing his vision of imaginative entertainment that instantly reduces its viewers to children. Roger Ebert brilliantly described the film at the time by anointing it ‘entertainment so direct and simple that all of the complications of the modern movie seem to vaporize’. Accepted on these terms, Star Wars undeniably belongs in the pantheon of cinematic achievement.