From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.
This one is from May 4th, 2014, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker…
‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away’ are the first words we see before John Williams’ iconic leitmotif blasts theatrically and introduces Star Wars, later given the subtitle Episode IV: A New Hope, and immediately George Lucas sets out his stall: this is fantasy, a space-born piece of future history independent almost of time itself, existing in a place where gigantic spaceships and planet killing machines fuse with kidnapped Princesses, evil Empires, daring rebellions, heroic pilots and dashing troubadours.
Much has long been written about the first of Lucas’ trilogy (later to become a trilogy and indeed a franchise), about its touchstones of mythology, of influences such as Joseph Campbell or Kurosawa, and indeed how it single handedly created not just a sub-genre that has persisted across the last four decades, but the most recognisable piece of cinematic pop culture of the 20th century.
The reason is simple: it’s about as charming and fun as motion pictures get.
George Lucas isn’t the greatest director in the world, and he certainly isn’t the greatest writer, but A New Hope is easily the finest picture he’s ever directed and written.
It went through numerous drafts in which Lucas attempted to pin down the key themes and ideas he wanted to convey, having failed to get the rights to Flash Gordon & resolving to create his own version, he ultimately distills the core essence into a tale as pure as mythic storytelling can be – good vs evil, through the prism of Mark Hamill’s idealistic young farm boy Luke Skywalker; blonde haired, square jawed, naive yet filled with hope and excitement, he looks up at the galaxy in wonder as Fate in many respects draws him into the Rebel Alliance as they fight back against the Galactic Empire – he may be simplistic, but he’s human and relatable, as is his mythic quest to understand ‘the Force’, Lucas’ monotheistic approach to a retro future religious concept, a binding ‘chi’ or ‘greater power’, unseen yet coursing not just literal power but an unseen hand that brings Luke into the orbit of his destiny. Lucas worked hard to simplify his thematic concepts and he never lets them intrude on the derring do, the sense of adventure.
It helps that around Luke are such enjoyable, equally relatable characters and in many respects archetypes; you have the plucky Princess, Carrie Fisher’s Leia—riven with chutzpah, able to hold her own and ultimately showing the men she’s a force to be reckoned with (while admittedly still needing rescuing once or twice); there’s the wise old mentor/surrogate father, Alec Guinness’ Ben ‘Obi-Wan’ Kenobi, the ageing legend often heaping scorn in later life on his involvement but nonetheless bringing needed gravitas to a role he imbues with wisdom, touched with an element of pain we would later come to greater understand.
There is the rogue in Han Solo, with Harrison Ford perhaps stealing the show in places as the smuggler with a heart, tossing reluctant jibes and one-liners about the place & adding a crucial internal layer of tension (not to mention a great double act with the primal yet cuddly Chewbacca); and then of course the most iconic visage of the entire saga, Darth Vader – clad in reflective black metal, heavy breathing yet booming a terrifying, cold voice (brilliantly echoed by James Earl Jones) as he looms over everyone, crushing the throats of his own men and killing rebels with abandon; he strikes terror even when he’s not speaking; and this is without even mentioning the droids, C-3PO & R2-D2, a Greek chorus almost who are delightful whenever they’re on screen, bickering like an old married couple.
One must also point to the production design in discussing how important A New Hope is to the cinematic landscape, as Lucas really does present a sense of world building behind the visuals; with pioneering production designer, Ralph McQuarrie, he creates a galaxy that looks lived in, used, equipment hundreds of years more advanced than our own yet looking worn, adding to strangely a sense of in-world realism despite the silly alien prosthetics, outlandish names and alien planets – indeed Peter Cushing, almost as terrifying as Vader as Death Star commander Grand Moff Tarkin, once laughed his title sounds like “something that flew out of a cupboard”. Lucas never lets what could have been hamstrings get in his way – he totally believes in the world he’s presenting, and his script manages to get away with clunky lines and simplistic concepts thanks to how riven with natural charm the whole endeavour is; by the time we reach the climactic battle, you’ll be cheering on Luke & the rebellion exactly in the way you should.
Star Wars changed cinema, forever. It blasted its way out of a sceptical decade, tainted by real world conspiracy, paranoia and post-counter culture revolution darkness, as an antidote to the times, an escape into wonder and fantasy that—along with Jaws—created the modern day blockbuster. So many movies, TV series and other pieces of entertainment have been inspired by it, it has seeped so deeply into pop culture even to those who aren’t fans or have never seen it, as a piece of cinema it has transcended into a signature piece of not just Americana, but human endeavour.
It’s far from the greatest movie ever made, but A New Hope—and its sequels—will be remembered, discussed and loved until we’re all living in a galaxy far, far away. The Force is with this one.