Comics Ate My Brain

May 23, 2007

Here To Rescue You: Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope)

Filed under: star wars — Tom Bondurant @ 2:35 am
The original Star Wars doesn’t offer a lot of explanations. (Quick quiz: when’s the first time in this movie someone says the name “Skywalker?”) It gets by pretty well nevertheless, mostly by focusing on on one thing at a time. First there are spaceships, then droids, then laser battles, then a desert planet populated by wondering gnomes. We who have just watched the prequels are oriented as to time and place (i.e., about 20 years later, above Tatooine), but those just being introduced to the Galaxy Far, Far Away aren’t lost either.

The movie really commanded my attention a lot more than I thought it would. Coming out of seven hours or so of CGI, I figured the low-tech approach would make it even easier to divide my attention between screen and keyboard, but oh no — that steady focus demands to be watched, and invites careful scrutiny. It’s almost diametrically opposed to the full-to-bursting CGI backgrounds of the prequels, but it’s more captivating. The physical props themselves turn out to be a kind of silent commentary on the bygone world of the prequels. The sandcrawler’s hold especially calls to mind all those CGI robots flitting around, now humbled by substance (ooh, arty!) and tossed in a junk pile. This is a different galaxy than the one the Empire came to rule, and we’re looking at it from the bottom up.

Just noticed — the big double-sunset scene comes at about the 25-minute mark, and the movie already feels like it’s accomplished more in terms of plot advancement than at the same point in Revenge of the Sith. I lauded the latter’s opening battles yesterday, and I stand by that, but jeez, I’d forgotten how fast the original moves.

(I love the double-sunset scene. It’s one of a few that take me right back thirty years. I can feel the heat radiating up from the sand, and no matter where or when I see it, it’s always a stuffy, clear, sweet-smelling summer night.)

Things really get going once Obi-Wan shows up. Ewan McGregor was ingratiating in the role, but Alec Guinness was just such a phenomenal actor. His few lines, and the look in his eyes, after Luke mentions “Obi-Wan Kenobi,” pretty much made the prequels possible. There’s so much emotion, and such a suggestion of rich backstory, even though Guinness disavowed Star Wars later on and probably thought he was slumming at the time.

Obi-Wan lays a massive guilt trip on Luke too, even before Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen get flash-fried. Qui-Gon Jinn had his own agenda, but he didn’t put quite the persuaasive inflection into lines like “you must do what you feel is right, of course,” and “only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise.” Despite his “it’s too dangerous!” protestations, Obi-Wan also doesn’t do a lot to stop Luke from racing back to the Lars homestead. I bet even an older Obi-Wan — who’s actually just in his late 50s, according to the prequels — could have Force-pulled Luke out of the speeder cockpit if he’d wanted.

For those of you wondering how much time to allow for bathroom breaks, Han Solo shows up at the 47-minute mark. His presence, especially in the early Death Star scenes, really remind me of The Hidden Fortress. The movie slows down a little at that point, but considering that’s just after the one-hour mark, that ain’t bad. Once Han, Luke, and Chewie shoot up Cell Block 1138, and Leia enters the mix full-time, there’s no looking back. Her “who’s the professional terrorist here, anyway?” attitude is a great complement to Luke’s idealism and Han’s practicality.

It’s that combination of viewpoints which makes the original trilogy run. None of these new characters are the hypercompetents of the prequels — not yet, at least. (In fact, Artoo seems to be the only hypercompetent character to make it to Episode IV relatively unscathed.) In a sense, both trilogies are about the subversion of implacable systems. In the prequels, Palpatine and his apprentii turn the Republic into the Empire; and here, Leia and company try to turn it back.

Of course, what they’re trying to to involves constant reference to the Force. I suppose by this time it’s a rallying cry, intended to remind the Rebels of the fallen Jedi, and the Republic they represented, kind of like “Remember the Alamo.” Interestingly enough, Vader’s main allegiance in Episode IV also seems to be to the Force, as shown by his “technological terror” speech. If Anakin was all about fixing things, and playing by the rules, maybe the Force is the only thing he really believes in anymore? That sounds like a religion to me, and indeed, I think this movie is the first to call belief in the Force a “religion.” Both times the word is used, it’s derisive — the Imperial officer to Vader, and Han to Luke. Still, the Force looms unseen, waiting to be tapped, whether by Vader, Obi-Wan, or Luke. Obviously, the end of the movie gives the most play to Luke’s newfound Force skills.

To me that goes back to Qui-Gon’s “always a bigger fish” line. There has to be a bigger fish; otherwise, there’s no conflict, and therefore, no story. Battle droids sliced up by lightsabers can be fun for a while, but you can’t build a movie on it. (I say that, and the next thing I know, it’s 2010 and the big-screen version of “Gauntlet” is the big summer blockbuster to beat.) I liked the prequels well enough, most times despite their flaws, but they can’t help but have a different style. Their artifice and baroque qualities have finally been broken down by the time of this movie, and as we’ll see, this trilogy implies strongly that it won’t return. Instead, the Force seeks to reassert itself, first through Anakin/Vader, and now through Luke.

And here I thought this was going to be a simpler film. To be sure, this movie had it easier than the prequels. It only had to play off the audience’s expectations of westerns, B-movie sci-fi, serials, etc. The prequels had to a) convince viewers they were back in the GFFA, b) establish how the Republic was different from the Empire, and c) start dismantling the Republic, all while d) meeting heightened audience expectations. The prequels also didn’t have Harrison Ford.

Still, it’s fun to note how the prequels change expectations and backstories with regard to the secondary (and at least one of the primary) characters. Obi-Wan and Artoo must remember each other, and it’s hardly a coincidence that Yoda’s old pal Chewbacca is in Mos Eisley when Obi-Wan needs him. I’ve long thought that Leia was Plan A for dealing with the Rebels’ “most desperate hour” — when the time came, Bail would send her to Tatooine to pick up Obi-Wan and Luke, they’d all take out the Death Star, and then head to Dagobah for Jedi training. The way it turned out, though, Obi-Wan had to improvise, leaning hard on Plan B to blow off his aunt and uncle and come to Alderaan. It’s another broken system, isn’t it?

(Answer to the “Skywalker” question: around the 1:16 mark. “I’m Luke Skywalker — I’m here to rescue you!”)

I have to mention that it’s no exaggeration to say that Star Wars led directly to my blogging. I started writing out what came to be called “the manifesto” — prequel predictions, mainly — somewhere around 1996. That led to a brief stint with a StarWars.com fan site where the manifesto took on HTML form, which led to the TrekBBS, which led here. Star Wars was the first work which inspired fannish feelings in me, and it’s never really relinquished its hold.

Next: The Empire Strikes Back!

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