Movies & TV / Columns

Dissecting the Classics – Star Wars (Part 2)

December 5, 2017 | Posted by Aaron Hubbard
Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope

If you caught part 1, thank you for coming back. If you didn’t, check it out right here. Part 1 covered the basics of plot and character stuff. This part is dedicated to some things a little more unique to Star Wars, as well as looking at some areas where the film doesn’t quite hold up.

Let’s Talk About Those Effects

Alright, so even if you’ve never seen Star Wars, you’re probably aware that this film had groundbreaking special effects that changed the game in movies forever. The models and practical effects used to construct the starships are impressive not just for their design, but how much Industrial Light and Magic was able to do with them. I’m not the biggest fan of the climactic Death Star fight, but I tried to clear my head and watch it fresh, and I realized just how incredible it was that they managed to film that sequence and make it look so good. But they also tell stories with the shots. The iconic opening shot does so much to convey how helpless the Rebellion is against the Empire. When the X-Wings close in on the Death Star, we are reminded how daunting their mission is.

It’s not just spaceships though. What would Star Wars look or sound like without blasters and lightsabers? Not only do these effects impress (though they are improved upon in later films), but Ben Burtt’s sound design is invaluable. Consider also the robots and aliens, or the ground vehicles on Tatooine. Even the costume design, which is far removed from Flash Gordon or Star Trek. This was a massive production that truly makes us feel like we are in a galaxy far, far away.

But it also takes place a long time ago, and that can’t be stressed enough. George Lucas was insistent that everything look used, broken down, and old. Clothes are tattered, droids have spare parts, Luke’s speeder isn’t in demand, lightsabers are ancient weapons, the Millennium Falcon is a piece of junk, and even the brand new Death Star has a garbage smasher. This isn’t the clean, sterile futuristic look that typified sci-fi at the time. It is a lived-in, fully realized world with its own history. This approach has impacted everything from Alien to The Lord of the Rings.

And speaking of that history…

The Force Is Strong With This One

In Part I, I described Obi-Wan Kenobi as both a Crazy Old Wizard and a Magic Knight. In more serious terms, the Jedi Knights serve a dual purpose in this space fantasy, as if George Lucas combines the narrative functions of Lancelot and Merlin into one idea. Luke is Old Ben’s squire, but most of what he learns isn’t about swordplay. Instead, Lucas introduces us to The Force, a mystical energy field that binds the galaxy together. Kenobi explains that the Force gives a Jedi their power and also alludes to Darth Vader being seduced by the Dark Side. Other characters refer to it as a religion, and the comparison is clear; the Force and those who believe it serve as the spiritual and moral authority of Star Wars.

Inspired by Asian philosophies but serving the same narrative function as Christian belief in Arthurian legends, the Force as a religious concept is broad enough to be understood by everyone while not having a direct tie to any real world belief. This gives Star Wars extra mythological heft; good and evil are tangibles things in this universe. While this sort of moral absolutism lacks much real world applicability, it does create a sense of escapism. And that is what Star Wars really aims for: giving us a grand myth that provides not just adventure and excitement, but reinforces the idea that good will overcome evil. Good is good, evil is evil, nice and simple, if only the real world worked like that. Not only does this make Star Wars digestible for children (the intended audience), but it also generated a nostalgic feeling for adults even when it was new. And Star Wars is a film that, more than anything, runs on feelings. The emotion it stirs in people is what makes the movie. Which brings me to…

The Score

One thing I regret about my usual format is that it rarely gives me room to give more than a cursory sentence towards music. Now, I’m not a music expert, but I do know when music is heightening the experience of a film. Star Wars is elevated by its score so often that it can’t go without mention. Imagine the opening crawl without John Williams’ bombastic score, or the Mos Eisley Cantina without the jazzy ambiance, the daring escapes without his jubilant notes, or even the desert treks without Williams setting the mood. His score makes the Binary Sunset more than just a great shot, but communicates all the hope and longing that Luke is feeling and that Lucas wants us to feel. The triumphant theme in the final ceremony gives extra weight to everything that came before it and sums up the exhilaration of the experience. Williams imbibes every moment with the proper emotion, and may be the MVP of the entire film.

What Went Wrong?

Alright, so let’s address a few issues the movie has. No, I’m not using this to attack the Special Edition, which may as well not exist for the purpose of this column. (Though I do like the reunion with Luke and Biggs.) No, this is about the original film. Most glaring to me is that outside of Guinness and Cushing, the acting could generously be called “naturalistic”. Which is a kind way of saying wooden. Lucas has proved to be anything but an actor’s director in later films, and definitely carries some of the blame. Hamill and Fisher were inexperienced here and gave better performances later in the series. Harrison Ford… is Harrison Ford. I honestly don’t know if Ford is a good actor or if his default real life personality is so compelling he can’t help being good. But he obviously doesn’t care here, though in Han’s case it can only help the character.

More substantially, while being simple does not make a movie inherently bad, something that is pretty awful is the script. Again, writing dialogue is not Lucas’ strong suit. The actors do the best they can, but some lines are cringeworthy, and a lot of the film is a bunch of jargon, technobabble and spiritual mumbo jumbo that only half makes sense a third of the time. Also, there are occasional scenes like the X-Wing Hanger or the cardboard crowd where the film just looks cheap.

I’d also be remiss not to mention how Star Wars changed the way films are marketed to consumer culture in a negative way. Jaws was the first modern blockbuster, but Star Wars was the first to capitalize on the untapped potential of merchandizing. Action figures, dolls, lunchboxes, bedsheets, backpacks, books, comics, video games, board games, card games, posters, coffee mugs… you name it, there’s something out there with the Star Wars brand on it. Now, George Lucas did not cause the consumerism of the 1980’s, but they did compliment each other. And whatever you like or don’t like about any Star Wars movie, all of them are toy commercials. Not just toy commercials, they have artistic merit, but they are trying to sell you something besides the movie you are watching. I’m not going to pretend I don’t have Star Wars merchandise or action figures myself, but it’s still hard not to be cynical about every aspect of any movie that feels toyetic.

Of course, if you thought any of this stuff matters in any meaningful way… well you don’t read this column often. Because, let me remind you…

Star Wars. Is. Awesome.

No film is perfect, and a lot can be forgiven with strong likable characters and a good story. But you know, a lot can also be forgiven with spectacle and escapism. We go to movies to be wowed, to see what we could only imagine be made tangible. And Star Wars is full to bursting with spectacle, humor, tension, action, emotion, and moments that are burned in the memory. And I’m sorry, but I just have to gush about…

– Stormtroopers and Darth Vader taking over the cruiser when both were still cool and scary
– The escape pod shot
– The binary sunset
– The first time we ever see a lightsaber
– Darth Vader using the Force to choke an Imperial Officer and calling his lack of faith disturbing
– All the aliens in the Mos Eisley Cantina
– Obi-Wan proving he’s a badass by cutting off Ponda Baba’s arm
– The Millennium Falcon going to lightspeed
– Han and Luke disguising themselves as Stormtroopers with Chewbacca as a prisoner

– Han’s radio conversation
– The utter perfection that is the trash compactor scene; tension leading to humor, our heroes bonding, it’s amazing
– The cable swing over a seemingly bottomless pit
– The dogfight as they escape the Death Star
– “Hey Luke… may the Force be with you.”
– Han’s last second save

This movie is awesome and I get chills every single time I watch it. Again… movies like Star Wars are why we go to the movies.

And In Summary

If you had any doubt, hopefully I’ve helped convince you of the film’s merit. Yes, Star Wars is basic storytelling with well-worn tropes, shoddy acting and a banal script. Yes, it has black and white morality and relies on spectacle and raw feelings more than dialogue and thematic depth. And yes, this movie is the poster child for toxic consumer culture and blockbuster hype. But beyond the ticket sales, the toy sales, the special effects, and even the dubious merit of the script… there is something real here.

The powerful emotional connection millions of fans have to the characters and the world of Star Wars is not hollow. Star Wars engages its audience with a tight narrative that anyone can follow and with characters we want to spend time with as they grow and develop. Star Wars excites and thrills its audience with out of this world action realized through innovative special effects and masterful sound design. And Star Wars elicits genuine and lasting emotion by capturing a sense of hope, innocence, adventure and pure infectious joy that has to be felt to be understood.

Star Wars is more than an unassailable classic. It is perhaps the greatest cultural touchstone cinema has ever given us and is truly one of a kind.

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Check out previous editions!
Jurassic Park, Back to the Future, Chinatown, Taxi Driver, The Matrix, Batman (1989), Casablanca, Goldfinger, X2, King Kong (1933), Beauty and the Beast (1991), The Dark Crystal, The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Silence of the Lambs, Alien, Aliens, Casino Royale, Superman: The Movie, Superman II, Batman (1966), The Maltese Falcon, Spider-Man, Spider-Man 2, 12 Angry Men, Aladdin, The Wizard of Oz, Dial M For Murder, Godzilla (1954), The Hurt Locker, The Breakfast Club, Iron Man, The Shining, Dr. Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange, Eyes Wide Shut, Blade Runner, Rosemary’s Baby, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Princess Bride, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, Toy Story

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