Friday, 25 July 2014

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope




Cool Han, Luke

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
1977 plus subsequent ruinations USA 
Directed by George Lucas
20th Century Fox BluRay Region A/B 

So this film was pretty much my life for 6 and a bit years.

When I first saw it, back at the very end of 1977 when it was released in the UK, I was two weeks shy of my tenth birthday. It was just called Star Wars back then. Lucas had no real thoughts of it making enough money to do a sequel and it wasn’t until the 1978 thetrical re-release that he retroactively redid the opening to reflect the Episode IV: A New Hope title (many people say it was later but I remember going to see it again in 1978 with that title). I went and saw the original version at the Dominion cinema in London (now a theatre which shows musicals) and the crowd scrabbling for entry beneath the massive, giant, illuminated signage poster artwork was a leviathan of chaos.

The Dominion cinema was pretty much one of the bigger cinemas, the likes of which you just don’t get in London today. It was an ideal venue for a film which pretty much blew away most people who went and saw it. It was the biggest cinematic event I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. I couldn’t even begin to tell you how much the hype and the pre-marketing of this film, after it had already premiered in the US, dwarfed pretty much any modern blockbuster to this day. The only thing which came near it was when I had to queue around the block for a midnight screening (at least a day after the release) of Tim Burton’s Batman back in 1989... but as big as that was in terms of media saturation, the original 1977 Star Wars was like a bomb going off in everyone’s collective consciousness. I don’t remember it playing for less than three months at my local cinema and this was in the days when cinemas had one screen only, remember.

The film is simplistic in theme and content while still retaining a gritty, lived in look for the setting. The effects were so groundbreaking that Lucas even had to set up Industrial Light and Magic part of the way into production and invent new ways of doing things, just to cope with the demands of what was required. It payed off big time... people had never seen anything as slick as this in the space opera genre on the big screen (or small, come to that) before. An homage to those old theatrical serials that Lucas loved as a kid (who doesn’t love those serials?), Star Wars was shopped around through a lot of studios before 20th Century Fox agreed to pick it up. This was after Lucas had already tried to acquire the screen rights to his beloved Flash Gordon, of course. Once he was refused, he made his own homage to Flash Gordon with his own characters... who later became Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Leia Organa, Obi Wan Kenobi etc... after a fair few rewrites.

The way it affected me personally was to engulf almost the whole of my life at the time.

I read the Marvel Comics, listened to the double vinyl LP record on almost constant replay, collected and swapped the two sets of blue and red bubble gum cards that came out in the UK (not knowing that the Americans had three other sets released after these until over a decade later), played with the action figures when they, eventually, hit the shelves and kept two or three ring binders full of my own sketches, notes and articles based on the first two Star Wars films. It was all I, and many of my friends, ate, breathed and slept apart from when we were eating, breathing and sleeping the various bandwagon spin off movies that followed hot on the heels of Lucas’ magnum opus (Battlestar Galactica, The Black Hole, Star Trek The Motion Picture etc.). It was a phenomenon which I don’t expect to see repeated in my lifetime.

On BluRay we have to live with the “revised through various versions to buggery” editions. So, I think it would be fair to say, the film has never looked as bad as it does now but, even with the annoying additions and alterations, you can still see a lot of the sheer genius and panache coming through which marked this film as the real deal back in the day. It’s a shame that it’s been so tinkered with on subsequent editions, where backdrops now come alive with moving CGI creatures and ships which kinda fill the screen more... but somehow leave you with less of an experience.

There are, of course, some big problems with the prequels to this film not tying up too well. I mentioned in my review of Star Wars Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith (which you can read here) that there’s no way Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru wouldn’t recognise C3PO, who is effectively the mechanical son of Darth Vader, when they saw him because he’d been living with them for a long period of time not even two decades before. Similarly the ageing process of both Obi Wan Kenobi and Grand Moff Tarkin, not to mention the significant amount of time it takes to construct the first Death Star in relation to the time it takes to knock up the second one for Return Of The Jedi, really doesn’t hold water when you inspect it all closely.

Now this is further nitpicking, I’m sure (nitpicking is the path to strong continuity decisions my friends) but in the scene where Obi Wan Kenobi is blatantly lying to Luke about his father... certain point of view my ass, lying is lying... he also compounds his lie with the completely unnecessary fib that his father wanted him to have his lightsabre when Luke was old enough to have it. Well excuse me but Vader assumes his one child (he doesn't know they are 'twins' in Revenge Of The Sith) died with his wife... presumably until he learns different somewhere in between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Also, although Lucas was smart enough to add a shot of Obi Wan retrieving Anakin's lightsabre, post duel, this could hardly be, by any stretch of the imagination, representative of the specific sentiment that Obi Wan expresses to Luke in this specific scene.

Another thing Obi Wan says, and you may want to attribute (aka stupidly retroactively attempt to justify) this to the effects of old age, is that he has 't gone by the name of Obi Wan since before Luke was born. Nope mate. Completely wrong. Just saw it in the last movie... you were still going by the name Obi Wan until shortly after Luke was born. So this really is not good attention to detail and both this and the previous problem of Anakin's lightsabre are both examples of many foolish mis-steps which the prequel trilogy has created where none existed before.

The film was, of course, not without it's problems when it first came out as a stand alone experience. Many of these, such as the stormtrooper who bumps his head on a door, are remembered affectionately by fans of the series but I, lunkheaded viewer that I am, only now noticed one particular one on this last viewing (even though I've probably seen the film close to 50 times since 1977). The particular case in point is when Luke and Han steal the stormtroopers' uniforms. One of the more spectacular things found in this first Star Wars movie was that "laser guns" had real, visible consequences. They were just like regular, bullet firing guns... only prettier. They ricocheted, they left scorch holes in their wake and the guns had a recoil to them. It was details like this that set Star Wars apart from many of its predecessors and, sadly, many of its successors. Why then, I ask you, after you hear the laser blasts as Luke and Han incapacitate two stormtroopers to steal their uniforms, are their costumes all squeaky clean and free from blast holes? This enquiring mind wants to know.

Asides from all the little niggling negatives, though, the original Star Wars still holds up as a really decent movie. The device that Lucas attributes as a steal from Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress, that of telling an extraordinary story from the viewpoint of the two lowliest characters (in this case the droids R2D2 and C3PO) works very well in dragging you right into the story straight away and engages you in a way that other films with a different starting point are not always able to do.  The plotting is simplistic but ferociously paced and doesn't let up until the end credits.  much like those old 1930s and 1940s serials that George Lucas was trying to emulate. Heck, even the opening title pyramid crawl was a particular gimmick used in a lot of the serials specific to the Universal studio... and in this particular instance it might be worth pointing out that this style of recap was used in the third of the Flash Gordon serials... Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe.

There's one last thing I want to properly mention before bringing this little review to a close because I think it's important in that this was another way in which the film has had, still to this day, a lasting impact on the way many films are made... and it was all down to John Williams', frankly, outstanding score.

Before this film, the age old way of scoring a Hollywood film with a lush, orchestral score the likes of which the Steiners, Korngolds and Newmans of this world used to provide, had gone way out of style somewhere around the late 1950s/early 1960s. Directors wanted more jazzy, funkier and transparent soundscapes for their films. The music had to be hip. It had to be cool and, mostly, it had to have a hit title song if at all possible. Now Johnny Williams (soon to be listed with the shortened, more respectable form of his first name) had already bucked that trend a little a couple of years before this movie... when he provided an absolutely brilliant score for Steven Spielberg's first film Jaws. For this film, rather than take the space aged, modernistic, computerised tones most associated with sci-fi pictures, Lucas wanted a proper, full Golden Aged Hollywood, wall to wall score for his movie and this is exactly what Williams gave him... he gave him "the full Korngold", so to speak. When the record sales for the film were in, not to mention John Williams winning his third Oscar for this score, the studios realised that, not only could romantic, classical music still work as a viable option for a film score... It was also still incredibly popular. Popular enough to get some serious cash back from the record sales. And that's why many film scores to this day still use this Golden Age approach to the scoring... because Johnny Williams proved it could still work wonders in support of a movie.

So that's all I have to say, in this particular kind of venue, about the first Star Wars movie. Still a good film and although it has many added revisions, on the Blu Ray version Lucas has at least softened the much criticised ( and rightly so) Greedo shoots first revision. On the Blu Ray the two gun shots happen faster, pretty much simultaneously, and you can kind of justify to yourself that Greedo’s blaster just went off as a muscle spasm reaction to Han's killing shot. It was kind of impossible for either of them to miss at that close range anyway.

So, yes, a marred film now but still a classic. I still have the “untampered with” versions of the original trilogy on a special DVD release from around 6 or 7 years ago and I won't be parting with those versions anytime soon.  An elegant movie from a more civilised time... not as clumsy or random as a director's cut. The greatest Star Wars movie, however, was just three years away...


Star Wars at NUTS4R2

 Episode 1: The Phantom Menace 

Episode 2: Attack Of The Clones

Episode 3: Revenge Of The Sith

Episode 4: A New Hope

Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back

Episode 6 Return Of The Jedi 

Episode 7: The Force Awakens 

Rogue One

2 comments:

  1. The panache of this flick, the way it took over your life--yes, thanks for describing it so brilliantly! My everlasting image is right after seeing it within a month of its release, I can only recall the epic perfection of my Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated father, who had gone there on the American GI Bill after the Korean War (so life and education and culture were a serious business to him)"pwew pwewing" offending cars before ours in the parking lot as we tried to get out. Being a geek was never/has never been so empowering. Thanks for capturing that and illuminating the score in your usual thorough way!

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  2. Hey there Bucko.

    Aha. Now we never acquired a car until the mid/late 1980s so, luckily for us, we never had to deal with the car crowding issue. We got the tube into London to see it but I remember being caught in a human traffic jam in the lobby of the Dominion, trying to get near the merchandise booth after the movie. My mum picked up the John Williams album for my birthday for two weeks later. That really fed my passion for music.

    Thanks so much for reading and then sharing your memories of Star Wars here. You got it about 6 or 7 months before us, I think.

    All the best,

    NUTS4R2

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