My life-long obsession with movies has been driven by a handful of titles including George Lucas’s Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977), Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998) and Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000). Over the years, some of these titles have fallen by the wayside, most notably Burton’s Batman, which was trumped by Nolan’s work on the Batman saga, best illustrated by The Dark Knight (2008). Still, my amour pour le cinema holds a flame for three subjects: Batman, Star Wars, and Soderbergh. On Saturday February 19th, I got to experience two of out three (and, as Meatloaf once sang, that “ain’t bad.”): the Director’s Guild of America held a screening of Lucas’s A New Hope (yes, for all of you wondering, it was the 2004 director’s cut) with a special, hour-long Q&A with Lucas and Christopher Nolan.
The program began with a short film produced by the DGA, focusing on Lucas’s career within and without the Hollywood system. A USC film student who specialized in animation, Lucas began his career with Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope studios and a feature length version of his student film, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB (1967), was greenlit by Warner Brothers. Yet, Lucas’s THX 1138 (1971) was not quite the film WB had in mind: it was abstract, philosophical. It was science fiction in the same sense that Brave New World, 1984, or 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) are science-fiction. As Lucas noted during the Q&A, he wanted to use the mechanisms of film form rather than story and character to get people to rise up against the oppressions of 1970s America. Except, as he so keenly observed, no one came to see it. The film was a disaster; it ended the Zoetrope deal and Coppola was forced into directing The Godfather (1972) to try to start from scratch. When Lucas approached Coppola for advice, his early mentor said “Try something new, make a comedy.” In other words, no more philosophical space movies.
So Lucas went off to make American Graffiti (1973) and when it finally hit it big with audiences (it was one of the first films to use rely on pop music for its soundtrack), the world was his oyster. This was not so much the result of Lucas’s talents but because the Hollywood studio system had been placed in a state of disarray thanks to the death of the moguls, losing revenues, and corporate take overs. Essentially, as Lucas recalled, the people in charge of the studios were those who had absolutely no experience making movies. While, in the cases of THX 1138 and American Graffiti, this had resulted in some tension with the studios, Lucas foresaw an opportunity when he was approached by Alan Ladd Jr. at Twentieth Century Fox to make his “space opera,” then titled The Star Wars.
Lucas, as he told Nolan, originally envisioned one film: a bad guy is confronted by his son and earns redemption in the third act. Then, when the script reached 250 pages and Lucas was confronted by a modest budget (initially $8 million dollars which grew to $14), he figured he’d spin the three-act story into three separate films, just like the old Flash Gordon serials. Lucas’s sentiments have been long documented (just watch the documentary Empire of Dreams and you’ll get the bulk of what Lucas and Nolan spoke about) but the biggest reveal that I took away from the Q&A was this: Lucas is a neurotically self-conscious director. He informed Nolan that after his company Industrial, Light, and Magic had run into obstacles creating the special effects he felt necessary to tell the story, he began cutting scenes faster, driven by both artistic inspiration (Akira Kurosawa’s fast cuts and kinetic camera movements in The Seven Samurai) and pragmatism (if you pack the frame with details and leave it up for only a fraction of a second, the viewers won’t be able to see that it’s fake!).
Re-watching A New Hope, it’s easy to take that for granted. Generations X and Y have been raised on films that emulate Star Wars, so the pacing of the montage and the panning camera in the original does not seem especially fast nowadays, it feels like a crisp freeway drive: economical and visceral, but nothing out of the ordinary. I hadn’t seen A New Hope on the big screen in nearly fifteen years and it amazed me at how well so much of it still works (and at how astray the prequels look in relation). As our friend Mr. Plinkett at Red Letter Media notes in his skewering of the prequels, A New Hope draws upon Lucas’s knowledge of film form perfectly to drive home the drama. John Williams’s score captures the relentless pursuit of a small freighter (obviously the good guys!) by a menacing and sizable villain, an Imperial Star Destroyer. Regardless of the film’s opening crawl, the graphic composition of the frame tells us everything we need to know: this is a David vs. Goliath battle between two forces.
Our story’s David is Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), a Rebel Alliance leader who has acquired the plans to the Death Star, a new weapon developed by the sinister Galactic Empire. In the opening sequence, the villainous Darth Vader (David Prowse/James Earl Jones), Goliath, dressed in his black mechanized suit, confronts her for the plans and, when he discovers that she has put them in the care of two droids, R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), he takes her prisoner.
The role of David is then left unfulfilled by the story, until the droids are acquired by a local farmboy by the name of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)—-God, this is torturous writing a plot synopsis to a film that 99% of people have already seen. Luke teams up with an ancient “wizard,” Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness), a hot-shot pilot (Harrison Ford) and his walking carpet co-pilot (Peter Mayhew), and learns the ways of the magical force in order to rescue the princess, deliver the plans, and save the day. Does that suffice?
OK, so to move on to why A New Hope still works today. Lucas’s informed us of film form: Check, we covered that. Secondly, the special effects and set design. Lucas and Nolan spent a good amount of time speaking about the filmmaker’s objective of making a science fiction movie that looks lived in, natural. Up to that point, as in Kubrick’s 2001, science fiction looked clean and streamlined. Lucas wanted to change that with dirty ships that look worn down and in need of maintenance. That’s what makes the Millennium Falcon such a great joke: it looks like something from Antiques Roadshow in comparison with the crisp design of the Imperial Star Destroyers. The impression is that this is a world that is lived in and it has been for quite some time (a long time, in fact!). This is what breaks my heart about the prequels (not to stray down this road for too long…), everything looks just the opposite, hermetically sealed, too clean for general consumption. Moreover, the tangibility of plastic models over CGI gives the entire film (and sequels) a tactile quality. We can feel that there is actually something there to be engaged with and it still looks amazing, even if we can see those matte lines that Lucas seems so self-conscious about. It’s alright man! You’re not going outside with clothes on or something. Flaunt those models and blue screen sequences, baby!
Finally, I had forgotten thanks to the overly serious tone of the prequels, that A New Hope and the original trilogy can be quite funny. Obviously, it’s not a comedy, but it is never afraid of letting you have a good time. The needling of Han Solo by Princess Leia (“Either I’m going to kill her or I’m beginning to like her!”) has some elements of the quick, sharp banter of earlier Hollywood productions and the chemistry between Ford and Fisher works extremely well (even if Luke, in this installment, thinks he’s the man for his…sister). Or the simple but endearingly funny interplay between the beautiful R2-D2 and the snobish ass C-3PO. The film never takes itself so seriously that it is oblivious to what it is: an homage to those serials that Lucas loved so much, a sci-fi adventure with some philosophical elements folded in. The prequels seem dour in comparison, lifeless, like looking at a wax museum imitation of an organic lifeform.
Re-watching a film that has defined much of my life — as I am a geek thanks to Batman and Star Wars — through the eyes of a more seasoned moviegoer, I started to notice a few flaws on this masterpiece. Yet, unlike Lucas, I don’t want to shun them or push them away. There’s something endearing about the awkwardness of some of the lines of dialogue (“Ben Kenobi? I don’t think he exists anymore.”) and to Hamill’s over the top, spoiled brat routine in the first act. Sure, it’s hitting the nose on the head when Luke angerly kicks the sand at his feet on Tatooine but then Lucas gives us a perfect moment: Luke, looking at the sunset, the Williams score swelling, and coming to the realization that he is just a small part of the universe. That scene, after nearly thirty-five years since it was shot and, to my knowledge, never digitally altered, still gave me goose bumps and noticing those goose bumps put tears in my eyes. I wanted to tell George Lucas that this is cinephilia, enjoying both the perfect and the imperfect, like one of Shakespeare’s muses (I can never remember which sonnet that is…). Don’t worry about changing it. I respect that, as an artist, you want to strive for a certain vision, for the impossibility of perfection. Yet, it’s easier to love something that feels real and natural, beauty that may even have a wrinkle or two.
Drew Morton is a Ph.D. student in Cinema and Media Studies at the University of California-Los Angeles. His criticism and articles have previously appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the UWM Post, Flow, Mediascape, The Playlist, and Senses of Cinema. He is the 2008 and 2010 recipient of the Otis Ferguson Award for Critical Writing in Film Studies.