Saturday, November 28, 2015

"Star Wars Saga" Retrospective - #4: A New Hope.

Before Star Wars, USC graduate and Independent filmmaker George Lucas was best known for his debut feature THX 1138, and his 1973 smash hit American Graffiti. A fan of the classic Flash Gordon Sci-Fi serials, and fascinated with Joseph Campbell philosophy, his success then led him to his most ambitious project yet. It was a trilogy of films under the name of Star Wars.

After taking his idea to 20th Century Fox, and adapting the first third of his story (which years later would be given the subtitle A New Hope) to form its first installment, Lucas’ desire for creative control over his dream project and the heavy influence of the production company created friction to the work environment. Couple that with a disastrous initial edit, and various production problems on location, and it seemed like this project was doomed to failure.

However, the film just kept pressing forward, against all odds and expectations making its way to theaters in May 1977. To everyone’s surprise, including Lucas’, the film was a gargantuan success, selling out theater showings for months, and eventually earning a total of ten Academy Award nominations, including six wins and a separate Special Achievement Award. Ever since its release, it has remained one of the most fondly remembered films in all of cinema, and is commonly included among the greatest films of all time, and all for good reason.

In the midst of a war between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire, the ship of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is raided by the Imperial Stormtroopers searching for stolen plans to the Death Star space station. Hidden with two droids who eventually make their way into the care of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a message asking for the help of hermit and former Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) is discovered, and so Obi-Wan and Luke, along with the two droids, attempt to give the plans to the Rebels. Seeking the aid of rogue smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford), they eventually find themselves captured by the massive space station, attempting to rescue the captive Princess as they try to escape, and evade the ruthless Imperial general Darth Vader.

The overwhelming cultural impact and widespread inspiration of Star Wars simply cannot be understated. Very few films have connected as strongly with audiences and rising filmmakers in the same way that this film has, building an empire out of some of the most striking imagery in cinematic history, so much so that even those who haven’t seen the film know of its most iconic characters and worlds. It reinvigorated adventurous Sci-Fi for years to come, and despite numerous imitations cashing it on its success, its timeless atmosphere and endearing storytelling still makes it stand above all of them even to this day.

While perhaps simplistic in comparison to its eventual successor The Empire Strikes Back, that one thing is what has helped Star Wars stay as profound and impactful as it is; Simplicity. Star Wars is the classic example of a good story, well told. Lucas relied on so many influences when forming this film, ranging from age old religious philosophy, old-fashioned theatrical serials, to Japanese culture such as Samurai and the films of Akira Kurosawa. Using all of these elements, he took them and infused his own unique and creative spin on them, establishing some of the most fascinating lore and mythology in any movie ever made. Any time you revisit this series, the various small details of its history and the power and mysticism of the Force continue to astonish with every rewatch, making for a rich history that could fill several encyclopedias on their own.

On top of that, the structure of the script is fantastic all across the board. Bemoan the occasionally cheesy dialogue all that you want, but comparable to a case like James Cmaeron’s Titanic, the actual structure of the script is flawless. Lucas bounces effortlessly and rapidly between skillfully assembled character development and exposition, emotional resonance, escalation to bigger action, world building, seamless visual storytelling, and moves from sequence to sequence without a dull moment to be seen. It’s that kind of quick and perfectly built up progression that has made the film a name for itself, and continues to be the standard template for films of this size and style.

Speaking of character development, those players in the story are much of the reason the film has had as much staying power as it does. First and foremost is our audience surrogate Luke Skywalker, who’s become a bit of a punching bag for his whiny nature (“I was gonna go to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters”), but that whiny nature is actually much less grating and more powerful in context than it’s given credit for. Yes, Luke is initially presented to us as whiny and overly temperamental and eager to get off his home planet, but through the slow burn course of the film, develops into a much more mature and knowledgeable boy growing into adulthood, driven by his desire for something much greater than he can imagine, and through his direct actions and experience becomes a man every bit as noble and selfless as his father once was.

Princess Leia herself serves as a clever ode to the classic damsel in distress archetype, which the film subverts with her very direct and no-nonsense participation and natural leadership in many of the film’s most important sequences, but especially for her hilariously sarcastic and sassy sense of humor. Obi-Wan also serves as a fond tribute to the wise sage of classic adventure fare, with Alec Guinness’ warm-hearted nature, spry sense of humor, and general sophistication, universal knowledge, and ethereal presence fitting him to a tee. Other fan favorites include the panicky and bumbling C-3PO, the eager and stubborn R2-D2, and the tender muscle Chewbacca the Wookie.

However, the true scene stealers come in the form of Han Solo and Darth Vader. Solo is perfectly played by a suave and cunning Harrison Ford, with a very evident violent streak (HAN SHOT FIRST!!!) and a rogue lone wolf personality, initially caring little for the wellbeing of anyone other than himself, and armed with a quick-witted sarcasm, himself maturing over the course of the picture, and learning to fight for things other than himself, revealing the heart of gold underneath that scruffy exterior.

Then we come to Darth Vader, as far as I’m concerned, the greatest cinematic villain ever created. Fitted with intimidating all black armor, and towering above all of his soldiers like a fearsome SS commander (no surprise, given the World War 2 undertones of the film), the mystery and mysticism of the character, a carryover from an older era, commands every scene he’s in with a methodical and quietly unsettling aura of terror, always heightening the tension of the room, with characters always sweating if they’ve done anything to anger him. Much of this is owed to the hulking and aggressive body language of David Prowse in the suit, but even more so for the sinister and deep tones of James Earl Jones. Even the sound of his heavy breathing, which has become synonymous with his character, is enough to give the viewer goose bumps.

What’s perhaps more important to Star Wars than its written storytelling is its visual storytelling. To bring much of Star Wars to life, George Lucas put his faith and trust into a legendary team of technicians. Because so much of the movie revolved around space travel and aerial fights, Lucas and effects supervisor John Dykstra worked extensively with miniature effects and blue screen to integrate the lifelike models into the film, realized through inventive and swift camera work as well. The opening shot of the film which sees a Rebel cruiser fleeing from an Imperial warship alone is a marvel of wordless establishment, using low camera positions to show the overwhelmed oppression of the rebels, and the massive, intimidating reach of the Empire. There was also reliance on seamless matte paintings for much bigger environments like the Mos Eisley spaceport, and on set practicality that continues to wow me every time I watch it. It’s remarkable that after almost forty years, the timeless effects continue to look as impressive as they were when the movie was first released.

This was also back in the day before CGI was possible, meaning that George Lucas couldn’t rely on digital tools to construct his iconic set designs. This was back when his production designers actually built things, and for my money, Star Wars has the best production design and art-direction of any movie I’ve ever seen. From the serpentine corridors of the Death Star to the seedy and worn down streets of Mos Eisley, the sets appropriately complement the tone from scene to scene, and intelligently uses the blue screen to enhance the production design rather than *act* as the production design. All the costumes, creature designs, various spacecrafts, as well as the many props and weapons are as essential to its unmistakable identity.

Just as important to the film was its sound, supervised by the legendary Ben Burtt. Because of the boundless scale and numerous imaginary creatures, spaceships, and weapons at play, Burtt left no stone unturned when it came to creating many of the sound effects that have become synonymous with the Star Wars Universe. It set the standard for future sound design in film, with a wide array of imaginative effects that films to this day attempt to emulate, from the recoil pulses of the blasters, to the faint buzzing of the lightsabers.

Another equally impressive sound element came in the form of the music by John Williams. As one of the few initial elements of the production that actually exceeded Lucas’ expectations, Williams took his own space opera and classical influences, even setting aside nods to the Errol Flynn epics of old, and the result was one of the most perfect achievements in musical history. Its one thing to write a grand, fully-orchestral adventure score with numerous memorable themes, exhilarating action, and beautiful individual pieces, but it’s an entirely different thing for the combination and execution of all of these elements to be so flawless, that not only is it unlikely that anyone (even those who haven’t seen the film) doesn’t know them, but that they’ve actually become more famous than their actual accompanying film. For years, it’s rightfully remained the standard that every composer strives to reach, and while Jurassic Park will always remain my personal favorite score, I have no hesitation in calling Star Wars the greatest film score ever conceived.

And because this was an epic space adventure, Lucas pulled absolutely no punches and spared no expense when it came to some of the most satisfying action sequences of all time. These sequences ranged from small scale like the opening raid on Princess Leia’s ship and the shootout in the detention cell, to the suspense of our heroes being trapped in a trash compactor, the daring escape from the Death Star, the cathartic duel between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader, all the way to Luke and Han’s dogfight with tie fighters. Star Wars is a classic example of escalation, in that you establish your characters and allow your audiences to connect with them, pit them in brief but memorable moments of excitement with high stakes, and wait as long as you can to play your best cards. That’s precisely what the film does as it builds to the climactic assault on the Death Star, in which the Rebel alliance engages in a race against time to destroy the space station before it obliterates their base. Through its dazzling photography, majestic fanfares, and nail-biting suspense, It stands as the most perfectly set up climax in any movie ever, and easily ranks among the greatest action sequences of all time.

Its overall production may have foretold disaster, but despite it all, for Star Wars to have come through it as one of the most fondly remembered films of all time is nothing short of a miracle. Who knows how different it would have turned out if Lucas back then had the power he has now, but there’s no denying that the amount of creative and environmental challenge he faced during production could only have brought out the best in his perfectionist filmmaker - at least until he felt the need to spend millions of dollars on new CGI dance sequences. With all of its memorable and endearing characters and storytelling, there’s good reason that Star Wars has become an eternal symbol of pop culture that continues to enchant viewers of all ages to this day.

And to think that this was only the first step into a much bigger, better universe…

***** / *****

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