Now, I’ve often said that there’s a Simpsons clip for everything. And Star Wars is, of course, no exception:
And Luke is indeed being a Jedi tonight.
Obviously, Star Wars is popular and influential. I don’t really have anything to add in that discussion. However, I would like to point out that the entire Original Trilogy has, as of last year, been included into the Library of Congress‘ National Film Registry, which puts it in some pretty lofty company.
Let me preface this whole thing by saying I never hated the Special Editions. I’m young enough that I basically grew up on the Special Editions.
Though I do have a clear memory of buying the pre-Special Edition, um, edition of Empire at a Music World (a Canadian chain that went under in 2007) that I believe is now either a dentist’s office or a knick-knack store. However, I basically only ever watched the Special Editions from then on, including going to the theatrical re-releases as an Ewok-sized J.B. Norman.
So, thanks to a combination of nostalgia and not having the energy to be miserable about them, I have nothing particular harsh to say about the Special Editions.
A New Hope
Although Empire is generally regarded as the best Star Wars and even one of the best movies ever, period, as I’ve gotten older, wiser, and better-looking, I’ve started viewing the original Star Wars as basically the perfect movie.
That’s not to take away from Empire. The original isn’t necessarily better, more so that they’re both utterly sublime.
The plot of A New Hope is fairly straightforward. It’s basically a Fairy Tale in Space and the influence of classic samurai movie The Hidden Fortress is clear — to the point that the early drafts of the script aren’t like The Hidden Fortress, they are The Hidden Fortress. That being said, it’s brilliantly executed.
Notably, A New Hope is the only Star Wars movie that’s able to function as a self-contained, standalone story. Even though A New Hope is the film that started it it, no one knew at the time that it was going to be the start of anything, let alone the most popular film series of all time. It was open-ended enough that a sequel could be built up from it (and, obviously, was), but is also reaches perfectly satisfying conclusion that didn’t necessarily need a sequel. Incidentally, the original sequel to A New Hope was done in the form of a novel in case they couldn’t get funding for a second movie.
Rewatching A New Hope, I’m consistently amazed how good an almost 50 year old movie looks. It’s a testament to both the quality of ILM’s practical effects specifically and the value of practical effects to film-making in general.
Sidebar: Lord of the Rings is largely the same. Everything that could be a practical effect was and all of the practical effects still look awesome.
On the other hand, the much-reviled Special Edition GCI changes and additions have not held up well. But, like I said, these are the versions I basically grew up with, so although the extraneous Jabba the Hutt scene, for example, looks bad, I don’t really mind on principle that it’s there to begin with.
Which, is incidentally, also largely the case with Lord of the Rings. The Cave Troll is one the few things in the movie that was obviously CGI and in the intervening 20 years, its become painfully clear that it’s obviously CGI.
Getting back on track, the production and technical aspects of A New Hope are awesome. In fact, A New Hope all but swept that year’s technical and production Oscars, and although it didn’t win again, it was also nominated for the writing and directing awards. It took home the awards for Art Direction, Costume Design, Editing, Score, Sound, and Visual Effects, along with a special achievement award for sound designer Ben Burtt, and was nominated for Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor, and Original Screenplay.
A New Hope started the trend of Star Wars being noticed for its technical and production aspects. And it’s not hard to see why. The lightsaber ignition is basically the perfect sound, the sets, ships, and aliens are all phenomenal, everything about Vader is perfect — which is funny, because he’s not actually that important at this point in the series (more on that later).
Compared to what came later in the series, the lightsaber duel between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader is a bit of a let-down. Like I said in my post about the Prequels, Obi-Wan’s old and Vader’s basically a robot.
I’ve read that it was a conscious decision on Lucas’ part to treat the lightsabers as weighty and ponderous, though I’ve also read that the lightsaber props themselves were super fragile and couldn’t hold up to a vigorous fight scene. And, of course, while the action of the duel itself is pretty minimal, the drama of Obi-Wan’s sacrifice still has emotional impact and is the more important aspect of the scene.
Watching this time around, I couldn’t help but feel bad for a lot of the background extras in the Tatooine scenes. Wearing either head-to-toe plastic armour or heavy robes in Tunisia and/or Death Valley must have sucked.
The standout performances in the movie are Peter Cushing (notable for many Hammer Horror films, among other things) as Grand Moff Tarkin and Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan, hardly surprising given that they were basically the only credible, established actors in the film. Harrison Ford had mostly played minor roles, and not very many of them, by this point, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher were just starting out, and Peter Mayhew was a really tall hospital orderly who got cast as Chewbacca literally just by standing up.
Sidebar: pay close attention to Tarkin’s scenes. He’s only ever filmed from the knees or so up. That’s because his Imperial uniform boots hurt his feet, so he wore slippers on set during filming. Also, he was apparently such a lovely individual that Carrie Fisher had trouble filming her scenes with him because she couldn’t get in character as somebody who was supposed to hate him.
Also, I have mad respect for Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan. Dude was an award-winning actor, a trained Shakespearean, and had major roles in several classic movies, and, in fact got a knighthood out of it.
Now, it doesn’t sound like he hated Star Wars per se, but he certainly went on record as viewing it as facile and low-brow. And what he did hate was having his legacy largely reduced to “that guy from Star Wars.”
But despite this, he’s putting in a phenomenal performance as Obi-Wan, and was apparently a consummate professional on set. Because that’s what actors who act their way to a knighthood do, even when they’re playing crazy old Space Wizards in a movie with such gripping lines of dialogue as “But I was going to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!”.
Speaking of, dialogue was never really not a problem with Star Wars. Even at A New Hope, which several rounds of revision and George Lucas getting some pretty extensive help with edits, the dialogue is still pretty … yeah.
Also, there’s more than a little bit of “First Movie in the Series, Haven’t Quite Worked Out the Details” weirdness.
There’s no indication that Darth Vader is Luke’s father (not established until a few drafts into Empire), or that Luke and Leia are siblings (not established until Lucas decided to wrap up the series in one more film with Jedi), Vader himself isn’t a very important character, ‘Darth’ and ‘Vader’ are treated like his first and last name, rather than an assumed Sith title — hence, “Only a master of Evil, Darth”, the Emperor is only vaguely alluded to in passing and not really established to be a cackling supervillain, it seems like the Jedi have been gone for longer than twenty years, and the Force itself is pretty poorly-defined, there’s no Imperial March — in fact, despite the main theme and Binary Sunset being standouts, the soundtrack, while obviously competent, isn’t quite as memorable as it would become in future entries.
The Empire Strikes Back
Like I said before, I’ve started liking A New Hope more as I’ve gotten older and I now think it’s my favourite of the Original Trilogy (maybe even favourite movie overall).
That being said, it’s hard to judge which one is a better movie between it and Empire. They’re both basically perfect. But I think it comes down to the fact that 1) there wouldn’t be an Empire without the success of A New Hope and 2) A New Hope is a self-contained, standalone story that works on its own, whereas Empire really only works as a continuation of A New Hope and a lead-in to Jedi.
I don’t think that’s necessarily a criticism, so much as a recognition of the inevitable nature of storytelling in a multi-work series.
Though, when it does come to storytelling the dialogue and characterisation is noticeable better in Empire.
The special effects aren’t necessarily better than they were in A New Hope, but they are certainly more complicated and technically involved. And, again, it’s amazing how well the practical effects have held up.
Incidentally, Empire does feature one of the few Special Edition changes that most of the fanbase actually likes. Cloud City gets a lot more detail added, both to the exterior shots and adding open windows to the interior hallways.
Another point in Empire‘s favour: a lot of Star Wars didn’t become recognisably Star Wars until Empire. The Imperial March doesn’t appear until Vader’s first scene in Empire (also the first appearance of his personal Super Star Destroyer), the Emperor himself was only indirectly alluded to in A New Hope (and in early drafts, was only a powerless figurehead; the real villains were the Imperial officials who’d seized power), Force powers are a lot more impressive in Empire, the Jedi philosophy is better defined, characters have more fully-developed personalities
And even only one movie later, the difference in the intensity of the lightsaber duels between Empire and A New Hope is pretty stark.
It’s probably the best duel in the Original Trilogy, at least insofar as actual fight choreography. The duel in Jedi is more thematically and emotionally dramatic and ultimately has higher stakes, but Luke spends most of it deliberately not fighting.
And, of course, said duel sets up what is probably the single most famous twist in Pop Culture history: legendary Jedi Master Yoda turning out to be a crazy old Muppet.
Voiced, as it happens, by famous Muppet performer Frank Oz. But, seriously, when you realise Yoda has the same voice actor as Miss Piggy, you will never be able to unhear it.
Now, that was mostly a joke on my part, but the fact that the much-hyped Jedi Master who was supposed to train Luke ended up being a Muppet was a pretty big deal back in the day.
Though not, of course, as big as the twist:
Not for nothing, the Tv Tropes entry for this particular phenomenon (I refuse on principle to use the word “trope”) is Luke, I Am Your Father — though the actual line is “No, I am your father”, delivered in reply to Luke’s comment that Obi-Wan said Vader killed his father.
Granted, for the purposes of a Pop Culture encyclopedia, the “Luke” does make the reference much, much more obvious.
So, I can’t actually remember my reaction to Darth Vader being Luke’s father. I’ve been watching Star Wars for so long that the knowledge that he’s Luke’s father was basically been a part of my life forever.
Again, I prefer A New Hope, largely on principle, but Empire is indeed a good movie. It’s hard to pick a favourite between to essentially perfect movies.
I’d say it’s like trying to pick your favourite child but, like, I’m the Middle Child…
Return of the Jedi
As a kid, Return of the Jedi was far and away my favourite Star Wars. Luke, in fact, got to be a Jedi tonight, the fight over the Sarlacc pit was cool, the battle of Endor was cool, and the good guys won and everything was happily tied up in a neat little package.
I’m older and wiser, now, and still have a soft spot for Jedi, but it’s pretty obvious to me now that Jedi is the weakest of the Original Trilogy.
Now, that’s not that much of a mark against Jedi, all things considered.
Star Wars and Empire are pretty much both perfect. Return of the Jedi isn’t bad, just not quite at the same transcendent level as the other two. Which, maybe, isn’t exactly surprising. George Lucas originally intended for what become the Original Trilogy to be longer than just a trilogy (I’ve heard anywhere from 6 to 12 movies), but went through a nasty divorce, had a bit of a breakdown, got burned out on the project, and decided to wrap things up with one more movie.
So, I can see why Jedi ended up having issues like it did. Largely with its pacing.
Jabba’s Palace does have a lot of cool background aliens and droids — not least of all the Jabba puppet itself (which has held up remarkably better than any of the CGI Jabbas seen at various other points), the Rancor and Sarlacc Pit fights are pretty cool, Luke does get to show off the first hints of being a Jedi (tonight).
But, honestly, the sequence lasts too long (nearly 40 minutes), plays too little role in the overall plot, and doesn’t really serve much purpose other than the opportunity to see a young Carrie Fisher in a solid gold bikini and assorted attractive female aliens in not much clothing.
A quarter into the 21st century, it’s, uh, it’s kinda … yeah.
All in all, it’s a decent action-oriented prologue, but things don’t really start moving until the Rebels start planning to attack the second Death Star. I will, however, admit a certain fondness for the Max Rebo Band‘s literal song and dance number. Sure, it just eats up time, but at least it’s catchy.
And, honestly, I get why it’s there. It’s a way to for ILM to show off their techniques. Though, again, a lot of the Special Edition embellishments have not aged well.Now, I tried timing it during this most recent watch-through of the movie. I had it clocked at about a full minute, which isn’t a lot (and exactly less than I expected/remembered), but which is sort of a lot for untranslated alien singing and doesn’t really seem like it’s worth the time (and therefore expense) it must have taken on ILM’s part.
The Endor sequence — or, I guess, sequences: planetside, the space battle, and the lightsaber duel on the Death Star — is suitably climactic for the definitive final battle of a Sci-Fi epic.
And Ian McDiarmid is, once again, clearly having the time of his life.
With the aforementioned caveat that Star Wars was originally supposed to be more than three movies, the reveal that Leia is Luke’s sisters comes out of nowhere.
It’s pretty bad writing, but I get why it happened. Originally, the plan was for Luke to find and recruit his sister (apparently going to be named Nellith) as a whole separate plot arc, taking several more films to decisively defeat the Empire.
Naturally, since that didn’t pan out, there were only so many characters who could be the other Skywalker. Hence, it ends up being Leia. Also, apparently, Mark Hamill at one point suggested Boba Fett being their mother. Shockingly, George Lucas wasn’t on board with that.
And, yeah, that specific twist would have been ridiculous. On the other hand, in a vacuum, Boba Fett being a woman would have been kinda cool, I think.
Hmm. Famous masked bounty hunter is actually female. Why does that sound familiar?
Now, maybe’s a certain degree of “grass is always greener” here, but I think I’m actually a little disappointed we didn’t this 12-movie epic. At the very least, letting the other Skywalker angle actually breathe instead of being resolved in a single sentence 2/3 through the last movie of the trilogy would have been pretty sweet.
Jedi is pretty obviously the weakest of the Original Trilogy, and although it does introduce a bit too much a bit too quickly without really giving it time to breathe, it does bring the Trilogy to a satisfying, conclusive, um, conclusion.
At least until Disney decided it needed to recoup the four billion dollars it spent buying the franchise…
More on that later.
Two trilogies (plus a couple of anthology films) down, one to go.
I’ll wrap this up with my thoughts on the Sequels tomorrow.
In the meantime, here’s this week’s chapter:
And consider follow me on social media or my email list to make sure you never miss a thing:
Sign-up for my email newsletter here.