Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Star Wars

AFI Top 100 Ranking: 13
Year: 1977
Writer/Director: George Lucas
Star: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher

Note: In the case of “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” their inclusion on the AFI Top 100 is an obvious representation of the entire trilogy. Otherwise, why were the superior sequels not chosen? Still, my article will only address the listed film. Also, after a less-than-entertaining encounter with a re-release of Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush,” I’ve decided to, if possible, track down the original theatrical release version of all films on the list.

I love it when a movie announces its arrival with bombast and style. “All the President’s Men” grabs your attention immediately with the smashing of a typing key against paper. “Dead Again” opens with a loud musical note and the word “MURDER!” filling the screen. “Star Wars” explodes into our consciousness with John Williams’ lush score and the title filling almost every inch of the screen. It snaps us to attention and is the perfect way to introduce us into this world of lightsabers and jawas.

Writer/director George Lucas’ film is filled with such swashbuckling fun and so many moments that make you smile knowingly, that it might be easy to dismiss it as light entertainment. But then again, what the heck is wrong with a movie being “light”? Does that make the underlying themes and storytelling any less impactful? I don’t think so. In fact, one could argue that wrapping these themes and morals in a space adventure is much more difficult than dealing with things like “belief in a higher power” and “sins of the father” by stating them explicitly.

For a film that wears its “Flash Gordon” serial inspirations on its sleeve, Lucas actually does a few really gutsy and interesting things with the screenplay. In the first place, the film is basically driven by non-humans for the first twenty minutes. Sure, there are soldiers around and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) says a line or three, but these minutes are driven almost completely by two robots and a dude who might as well be one. Their faces are expressionless. Hell, R2-D2 can’t even speak—he beeps and boops when he needs to communicate.

And yet Lucas makes the sequences work and, in very subtle ways, communicates just about everything he needs to about the world (or, in this case, worlds) we are entering. After C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels under that gold suit) and R2-D2 crash on a desert planet, they argue with one another and choose to go in opposite directions. So, without having a human character babble on with exposition, Lucas shows us that not only do these robots (sorry, droids) have distinctive personalities, but they can also make decisions for themselves and form friendships.

The two droids soon become the possession of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who teams up with a desert hermit named Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to save the Princess from the evil Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) and join the rebellion. Darth Vader is overseeing the final touches on their new space station called the Death Star. With names like Darth Vader and Death Star, no wonder there’s a rebellion, these people aren’t even trying to hide their wickedness.

Also in the mix is scoundrel Han Solo (Harrison Ford), who begins by acting as a taxi for Luke and Obi Wan before becoming part of the plan to rescue the Princess…for the reward, of course. The characters aren’t deep, but then again, they don’t have to be. These are archetypes more than characters, though the charisma of the actors playing the roles (save for a bland Hamill) makes us care more than we otherwise would.

Films usually end their second act with the low point of the hero or heroine, but Lucas instead decides to use it as a rallying point for our heroes. The Princess has been rescued (though once out of her cell did a pretty good job of protecting herself), and now she brings together the rebellion to launch an attack on the Death Star. How, you ask? Well, turns out there’s this two-meter wide hole in the outside that, if a bomb is dropped into it, will explode the entire space station. Seriously. If you didn’t smile at the preposterousness of that plot development, there’s just no talking to you.

Lucas loves to paint around the edges of his frame, giving us beautiful sights that mesmerize quickly. Hell, the first shot of the movie is what we think is a pretty big space ship being overshadowed by a star destroyer that travels into the frame from above and just. keeps. going. Lucas would later eclipse this with us another variation in his “Revenge of the Sith” opening, but the moment still plays outstandingly well here.

And then there are the special effects. I know that Lucas went back multiple times to fiddle with the movie, but looking at the original theatrical version again, I have to say that it still looks great. From the dogfight between the X-wing fighters and the Tie Fighters to the interiors within the Death Star, the movie looks great. When the characters enter a bar, it’s enjoyable to see the puppets with the glittery eyes mixing in with humans in grotesque make-up. Sure, the special effects might not be as polished as the summer movies of today, but then again part of the fun of the movie is the line Lucas tows between the fantastic and realism.

John Williams’ score is, dare I say, the best of his career and perhaps the best in the history of film? The secret is that he hasn’t scored “Star Wars” like a space movie, he scores it like a dramatic action flick.

Ultimately, “Star Wars” is fun. It’s always a little smarter than it needs to be, always has another trick up its sleeve and is always eager to please. It grabs you immediately, keeps your attention and makes you invested in its characters and world despite the fancifulness of the film’s happenings. I think I smiled all the way through, all the way from Tatooine to the ceremonial hall that closes the movie.

My Score (out of 5):

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