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Sunday, June 1, 2008

100 Days, 100 Movies: Star Wars (1977)

Director: George Lucas
Starring: Mark Hamill, Alec Guinness, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher

Very few things bring out the geek in me quite like the first few notes of the Star Wars theme, and no subsequent episode in the series will ever really replace “A New Hope” in my heart. I will admit right off the top to being a Star Wars purist: I think the first trilogy was better, and I think the films were perfect in their original forms and no amount of tinkering by George Lucas is ever going to convince me otherwise. For sheer entertainment value, very few things come close to matching this film.

Star Wars plays with a lot of familiar tropes of mythology/fantasy including hidden identity, good versus evil, mysticism, and of course that one person (predominantly male) who holds the key to defeating dark forces. The bare bones of this story are about as old as storytelling itself, but as a film it rises above its formula due in large part to how fully realized this world is. When you watch Star Wars, you get the sense of a realm that has been lovingly crafted by the creator and generously shared with the rest of us. The scope of the film required not just a vision of one specific place, but of an entire universe of different, diverse places, from the sandy dunes of Tatooine to the cold fortress that is the Death Star.

From the outset, with it’s famous and much parodied scrolling prologue, Lucas places the story firmly in the realm of traditional mythology, where “A long time ago in a galaxy far away” replaces the familiar “Once upon a time.” By setting it “a long time ago” and starting with Episode IV, it’s made to seem like a textual fragment from an ancient civilization, which is part of it’s charm. If it was just a regular science fiction adventure, it’s place in popular culture wouldn’t be nearly as firm. This is a story that wants to achieve more than that and it’s intention is clearly stated in these first moments, right before it drops us into the thick of things.

The plot and its characters hardly need introduction. The characters – although they receive a great deal of shading in the subsequent films (especially The Empire Strikes Back) – appear here largely one-note, subservient to the formula. Luke (Mark Hamill) is a young man seeking adventure, who doubts himself but finds inner-strength. Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) is the wise mentor who will sacrifice himself to save the hero and thereby teach him self-reliance. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is the spunky heroine, a female presence to diffuse all the male bonding that’s taking place. Han Solo (Harrison Ford), like an intergalactic Rick Blaine, is a roguish anti-hero who is in it for himself and won’t stick his neck out for anyone. And, of course, there’s Darth Vader (voiced to perfection by James Earl Jones), a conglomeration of all the evil in the universe. On their own, these characters might not stand up to scrutiny but taken together they work as each one is designed to bring out something different in the others. For example, Obi-Wan’s teacher/student relationship with Luke brings out Luke’s humble side, while Han and Luke bring out the swagger and boastfulness in each other, and Leia brings out Luke’s heroic side. They only work for each other, not against, in terms of the characters being fleshed out.

There are a wealth of memorable moments in the film, with arguably the most memorable being when Luke uses the force to destroy the Death Star and win a victory for the Rebel Alliance. At this point, I can’t see it without thinking of the conversation in Kevin Smith’s Clerks about the innocent contractors who were at work on the Death Star when it blew up, but that doesn’t detract from the enjoyment I get when I watch it. In fact, nothing about the way the series has seeped into popular culture – as reference or parody – detracts from the pure enjoyment of watching this film, which speaks volumes about how well-crafted it was to begin with. The Empire Strikes Back is the better film, and The Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith made more money, but it’s this first instalment that’s really special.

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