Saturday 3 October 2015

Hokey religions and ancient weapons

Star Wars is the first blockbuster franchise I loved. Whether it was for lack of interest or because I preferred books, I didn't watch a lot of films when I was a kid. Star Wars blew me away. It opened up my imagination to a whole world of pulp science fantasy and started me off on a geeky obsession that has never gone away, attested to by shelves of tattered, treasured Expanded Universe novels.

Admittedly the Star Wars film I'm talking about was The Phantom Menace, and I only caught up with the first film in the series on VHS a few months later. I loved them both - I suppose I wasn't the most discriminating eleven-year-old. With time I learnt that fandom orthodoxy frowned on The Phantom Menace but loved Episode IV: A New Hope, as Lucas retitled the 1977 film on its re-release. And at least as far as Episode IV is concerned, the fandom is right. The film is ace: a total matinee delight that may not be the same technical marvel it appeared in 1977, but holds up just about perfectly all the same.

(A quick note: the basis for this review is the Despecialized Edition of Star Wars, a fan-made high-definition version of the original trilogy that attempts to restore the films as they originally appeared in cinemas, instead of the 1997 'special editions' (plus subsequent additions and changes) that modern Blu-ray copies are based on - fan-made because Lucas infamously wouldn't release anything except his new and allegedly improved versions in high-definition.

The thing is, the special editions are how I first experienced Star Wars, and I imagine it's the same for a lot of people who weren't around in the seventies and early eighties. But because of all the criticism the special editions get in fan circles - Han shot first et cetera ad nauseam -  I was aware of most of the changes. They're pretty minor, by and large: CGI critters instead of practical effects, mostly, and a weird floating Jabba who pops in to utter the exact same threats Greedo did hardly five minutes earlier. But there's one exception: a scene near the end, in which Luke meets his old Tattooine mate Biggs Darklighter on Yavin 4, which ended up on the cutting room floor in the original release but was restored for the special editions. And considering the banter between the pilots during the Death Star attack is damn weird without that scene - they're talking as if they've known each other all their lives, which isn't indicated in anything we've seen before - restoring it was clearly the right decision.)

The story: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a nineteen-year-old living on the backwater planet of Tatooine, longs to be released from his tedious life on his uncle's moisture farm and go off to become a starfighter pilot. Tasked with cleaning two new droids his uncle has bought (Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker), Luke discovers they're carrying a message of vital importance from Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), which they're tasked with relaying to a retired general and current hermit Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Obi-Wan reveals to Luke that just like himself, Luke's father was a Jedi Knight, a fighter for good drawing on the mystical Force killed by the evil Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones), and perhaps Luke would like to accompany him to leave Tatooine and join Princess Leia in their rebellion against the evil Galactic Empire?

This is understandably too much for Luke to take in straight away, but his decision is made for him: Imperial stormtroopers attack his home, massacring his aunt and uncle and forcing Luke, Obi-Wan and the droids to flee. In the seedy spaceport of Mos Eisley, they hire smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his towering alien sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who are themselves in a lot of trouble with some unsavoury elements. Together, this motley crew head to Leia's homeworld of Alderaan, only to find the whole planet obliterated by something that decidedly isn't any moon...

Everyone knows that story, but it's perhaps worth pointing out the ways in which the plot of the 1977 film isn't the story of the Star Wars franchise that developed after it, simply because George Lucas and his collaborators hadn't settled on those things yet. Certain family relationships don't yet exist; Obi-Wan unambiguously hates Vader's guts; the Jedi are treated as a myth of the ancient past and the existence of the Force is explicitly denied by several characters, although in the course of the film it seems to become the official creed of the Rebel Alliance; the emperor is a distant, unseen figure; Vader is only one of the empire's henchmen and Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) orders him around, while others openly insult his religious beliefs.

It's so simple and archetypal (little wonder, since Lucas was heavily influenced by Campbell's Hero with a Thousand Faces): a wide-eyed audience stand-in who dreams of seeing something of the world, be a hero and rescue a beautiful princess; a wise old mentor, not long for this world; a charming rogue who learns to value friendship over money; a dastardly villain; and a character who, yes, is at this point still kind of an old-school damsel in distress, but at least has her own mind, some justifiable complaints about her ill-planned rescue, and ideas for how to do a better job. But it takes skill to do this stuff well, and Star Wars does it extremely well.

The script isn't usually given the amount of credit it's due, but it's among the reasons for the success of Star Wars and its immediate ability to capture the imagination. Lucas wrote the thing more than once, never happy with the results, and when Star Wars started filming in Tunisia the screenplay was still unfinished. The process of often sharply critical feedback over several years from Hollywood insiders and Lucas's wife, as well as uncredited dialogue rewrites by Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz, somehow produced a particular alchemy.

The result is glorious high pulp, instantly quotable and wonderful: "You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy"; "I find your lack of faith disturbing"; "Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid"; "Evacuate? In our moment of triumph?";  "The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers", and so on. None of this is remotely how real people talk, but it gives the film an outsized air of adventure and wonder that helps it hit all the high notes.

Then there are the performances. The role of Luke Skywalker at this point is still something of a generic person, but Mark Hamill gets that right: we like and empathise with Luke, and that's what the film needs. The others are allowed to do more, and they're terrific. Alec Guinness forever seems gently amused at being asked to deliver dialogue about Jedi knights and disturbances in the Force, which results in a winning, light performance. Peter Cushing, veteran Hammer Horror vampire hunter, makes for a marvellously icy and authoritative warlord with drive, determination and cruelty to spare.

To me, there are three standouts: Harrison Ford's natural charisma causes him to make the role his own so much that he essentially spun it off into another franchise, as Indiana Jones. Anthony Daniels portrays C-3PO as a self-pitying but fundamentally decent comic foil who gets some of the film's biggest laughs ("Listen to them, they're dying, R2! Curse my metal body, I wasn't fast enough, it's all my fault!") And lastly, David Prowse's physical acting has always been overshadowed by James Earl Jones's voice, but his performance inside the Darth Vader suit is perfect: authoritative and menacing, but very far from emotionless. I adore the scene in which he pauses as he senses Obi-Wan for the first time; it's subtle but all kinds of wonderful.

Star Wars wouldn't be Star Wars without the lovely production design, though: it's chock-full of amazing ideas brilliantly executed. And unlike the second and third prequels, which are full of stuff happening in the background, the first film has the sense to actually briefly focus on the terrific alien suits, grime-covered droids and fossils bleached by the Tatooine suns, giving them each the dignity and two seconds of glory they deserve. (My favourite is and remains the tiny droid skittering away from Chewbacca on the Death Star, beeping in fear.) The film's used-future aesthetic - which belongs exclusively to the good and neutral characters, while the Empire is exquisitely glossy - is wonderfully and consistently realised.

The special effects are extremely good: they look dated, yes, but virtually never unconvincing. The real star is Ben Burtt's sound design, though. From all the mechanical whirring and hissing to Chewbacca's voice and Vader's breathing, the sounds of Star Wars remain instantly recognisable. There's so much high-class craftsmanship here, it really makes you appreciate the often-forgotten art of sound design (and miss it in all the projects that neglect to go beyond mere competence).

So what doesn't hold up? Despite everything, the final film is a bit slight; it zips past having established fairly little of its world beyond rough outlines, and selling some of its character development more through conviction than storytelling logic (Luke's attachment to Obi-Wan, in particular, feels dodgy after so short an acquaintance, especially since he immediately forgets about the people who raised him). The film offers a world of adventure so appealing, it's not surprising people wanted sequels and an enormous expanded universe. But it also feels a little like Star Wars needed those things to round it out, and like, had nothing else ever followed, the film would feel roughly sketched. But if the worst thing I can say about a film is that I want more of its world and characters than it can possibly provide in two hours, well...

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