Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (PG)
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This originally came out in 1977, about a year and a half after I was born. At the time, it was simply called "Star Wars," but when it was re-released theatrically in 1981, it was called "Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope." (Episodes 1-3 wouldn't be released for more than two decades after episode 4.) Over the years, episodes 4-6 would be released both theatrically and on home video numerous times (and in numerous formats). I'm not sure exactly when I first saw episode 4, or even in what format... though I suspect I may have first seen it on videodisc, sometime in the early 80s. Some years later (in the late 80s or early 90s), I got the original trilogy on VHS. I was vaguely aware that changes had been made from the original theatrical 1977 version, though I'm not sure if I was aware of what those changes actually were. As a kid I had read The Star Wars Storybook, and the main thing I knew was different in that was a scene between Luke and Biggs, which should have appeared early in the movie, but didn't; I always wanted to see that scene. But many years later, I read that that scene had been cut before the movie was even released, so I've probably spent a large part of my life wanting to see the 1977 version for no reason. If I ever did see it, I'd just be disappointed, anyway. Quite possibly the only difference I'd notice would be the lack of episode number and subtitle. (A list of changes on Wikipedia are definitely things I wouldn't notice even if I watched both versions side by side, nor would I care about them.)
In 1997, I saw the movie in a theater for the first time when the "Special Edition" was released. (The theater was giving out free swag, including a plastic Star Wars pail and an action figure, both of which I still have.) The Special Edition included more changes to the movie than ever before, which annoyed a lot of longtime fans, but I don't really recall being particularly disappointed, myself. I might not see any reason to tinker with what was already one of the most awesome movies ever, but the changes didn't really bother me. Anyway, in 2004 the Special Edition of the original trilogy was released as a DVD box set, which I received for my birthday (though I took it back to the store to exchange the full frame version I'd gotten for a widescreen version). In 2006, each movie from the original trilogy was released as a 2-disc "limited edition" DVD, containing both the Special Edition and the 1977-83 theatrical versions. (The trilogy would be re-released as a box set in 2008). When I saw them in stores in 2006, I really wanted to get them, but even though they weren't expensive at all, it seemed like more than I could afford to spend at the time. (It's one of those things where, looking back, I hate myself, because now they're harder to find, or at least more expensive.) Still, there were complaints about the quality from fans who did get the limited edition DVDs, so I'm not even sure if it's worth my buying them. But I probably will, someday. For now, I can still watch the 2004 Special Edition DVDs, or an earlier, if not quite original, version on VHS.
In any event, I love the movie no matter what version I'm watching, and I think a lot of fans are just way too eager to complain. Not that I blame them, because George Lucas clearly doesn't give a damn about what fans want. But considering fans clearly don't give a damn what Lucas wants, it's all sort of arbitrary, which side you take in the debate. If the Special Editions of his movies are closer to what he would have made in the first place if the technology had been available back then, I can't blame him for preferring the newer versions. Even if his opinion is wrong. They are his movies, after all... so he has every right to be wrong, if he wants. (And I really don't think he's as wrong as many fans think he is.) Anyway, now that the history lesson is out of the way, I'll get on with my review. (I'm finally writing this in 2014, while I watch the movie to refresh my memory.) I'll mention the names of lots of things that you may not hear until much later in the movie, or even things you don't learn unless you're familiar with all kinds of reference materials (but I promise you, I'm forcing myself to refrain from including as many names and references as I'd like to). It's kind of surprising to me how much I know about the universe in these movies that aren't even mentioned in the movies themselves, and I may not always remember which things I learned from the movies and which I learned elsewhere. Anyway, so many of the things I say will seem unnecessary, since it's all a part of our cultural vernacular, at this point, but I suppose it's important, just in case there are some things that one or two people on the planet might not already know.
To begin with, I need to mention the score, by John Williams. It is absolutely epic and probably the best fit between movie and score in the history of movie scores. Seriously, if you pop in a DVD (or tape/Blu-ray/whatever), unsure whether you're really in the mood to watch Star Wars for the umpteenth (or umphundredth) time, the instant the theme starts playing, you will be sure you're in the mood. And the various themes throughout the film will be every bit as perfect as the main title theme. The next thing I need to mention is the iconic opening crawl, a block of text that sets up the context for the movie. Star Wars wasn't the first movie to use such a device, but the franchise has become by far the most famous example of it. So... before the action even starts, we learn that there's a civil war in a galaxy far, far away. Rebel spies have stolen plans for the Empire's new weapon, a space station called the Death Star, which can destroy a planet. Princess Leia's ship is being pursued by Imperial forces, who want to recover those plans before they can be delivered to the Rebel base.
And then we see the end of a battle, between a relatively small Rebel ship and an enormous Imperial ship, which captures it. Rebels then have a fight on board their ship, against Imperial stormtroopers (both sides use laser guns, or "blasters"). The stormtroopers are led by a scary guy in black armor, Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones). Before long, Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is captured. She is questioned by Vader, but denies any knowledge of plans, or of involvement in the Rebellion. (She's actually a member of the Imperial Senate.) But before her capture, she had interacted with a small droid (robot) called R2-D2. Artoo doesn't speak (at least not in any intelligible language), but he's accompanied by a taller, more human-shaped droid called C-3PO, who does speak. (In fact we'll later learn that he knows a lot of languages.) Artoo and Threepio get into an escape pod and land on a nearby planet, Tatooine. Meanwhile, Vader figures out that Leia must have hidden the plans on the escape pod.
Tatooine is a desert planet, so once the droids land, they'll have a lot of walking to do. They get separated, but they're both soon captured by little creatures called Jawas, and they're reunited on the Jawas' transport. The Jawas stop at a moisture farm (which is a pretty useful kind of farm, on a desert planet). The farm is owned by Owen Lars, his wife Beru, and their 18-year-old nephew, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Owen buys Threepio and Artoo from the Jawas, and later, when Luke is cleaning them up, he discovers part of a holographic message from Princess Leia, which Artoo is supposed to deliver to Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Luke wonders if he's any relation to an old hermit named Ben Kenobi. That night, Luke mentions this to Owen and Beru. He also wants to know if he can join the Academy one season earlier than planned, if the droids work out, but Owen doesn't want him to go (and he has a reason he's not telling Luke about). Later, Luke discovers that Artoo has gone off looking for Obi-Wan, so in the morning he and Threepio go looking for Artoo. They're attacked by Sand People, but rescued by Ben Kenobi, who turns out to be Obi-Wan. (He says he doesn't remember ever owning a droid, which is odd considering that in the prequels, he knew both Artoo and Threepio... though the first time he sees Artoo, the way he talks to him could be interpreted as if he knew him already. As for why the droids didn't know him, that will be explained in Episode 3.) Obi-Wan provides Luke with some exposition about the Old Republic, the Jedi Knights, and tells Luke that his uncle had lied to him about who his father was and how he died. He says Darth Vader, a former pupil of Obi-Wan's, had betrayed and killed Luke's father. Because Vader had turned to the dark side of the Force. (The Force is a mystical energy field that maintains balance in the universe and gives various telekinetic and psychic powers to Jedi.) Also Obi-Wan gives Luke a sort of laser sword called a lightsaber, which had belonged to his father. Meanwhile, Artoo finally shows the full recording of Leia, who had been planning to find Obi-Wan herself and bring him to her homeworld of Alderaan, to help with the Rebellion. (She says Obi-Wan once served her father during the Clone Wars, which is something I spent a couple of decades wanting to learn more about.) But her mission had failed, so she placed the plans for the Death Star in R2's memory banks, and wanted Obi-Wan to bring the droid to Alderaan, himself. Obi-Wan wants Luke to go with him and study to become a Jedi, but of course he can't. He has responsibilities.
However, the stormtroopers had found the escape pod, and were tracking down the droids. This... leads to circumstances that force Luke to join Obi-Wan, after all. So they go to Mos Eisley spaceport, to find transportation off Tatooine. They go into a cantina with lots of different aliens, and some cool music. Obi-Wan meets a Wookiee named Chewbacca (a big, hairy alien who only talks in growls, though people seem to understand him). Chewie is co-pilot of a small smuggling ship called the Millennium Falcon, and he introduces Obi-Wan and Luke to the captain, Han Solo (Harrison Ford). Han agrees to take them to Alderaan, but after his new clients leave, he's confronted by a Rodian bounty hunter named Greedo. Now, I need to say that most of the changes made for the Special Edition are things I'd neither notice nor care about, but the first truly important change happens in this scene. (I might have noticed some earlier changes like CGI creatures in various scenes, but then again I might not have, because there were always such creatures... not in CGI, but I can't even remember if I could tell the difference or not. Because my memory is terrible. Such additions are kind of cool, though.) The major change here is something that became a heated debate among many Star Wars fans: Han shot first. See, in the original version of the movie, Han shoots Greedo before Greedo can shoot him. (They're having a disagreement based on the fact that Han owes money to gangster named Jabba the Hutt.) Apparently this scene has been changed several times. Fans say in the original version, Han shot first, while in the Special Edition, Greedo shot first. When I saw the movie in 1997, I didn't even notice any difference, and when I heard about how upset some fans were... I couldn't manage to care. Lucas says Greedo always shot first, but you just couldn't tell because of the way it was filmed originally. Watching it now on DVD, I can tell that Greedo shot first, but I still can't manage to care one way or the other. Nevertheless, I would feel remiss if I didn't mention it. (Though I do kind of agree with Lucas's position that if Han did shoot first, that would make him a murderer, and not a hero. But I also think it's pointless to argue about it, because for one thing, I don't doubt that Greedo would have shot him, so regardless of who shot first, it's still reasonable to call it self-defense on Han's part. Secondly, the whole scene has a very Wild West vibe, and who the holy hell stops to ask who shot first in a Western?) Shortly thereafter, there's a whole new scene in which Han talks with Jabba in person. Hutts, btw, are basically huge, fat, slugs, though in this scene Jabba is considerably smaller than he is in Episode 6 (which is where we first saw him, prior to the Special Edition). I'm not sure how I feel about this added scene; some of the lines are virtually identical to lines Han and Greedo had just a minute earlier, so it adds nothing at all to the story, but I guess it wasn't a bad scene.
Meanwhile, Vader had taken Princess Leia to the Death Star, where he tried using an interrogation droid to extract the location of the Rebel base from her, but he failed. So this guy named Governor (or "Grand Moff") Tarkin (Peter Cushing) threatened Leia with the destruction of Alderaan unless she told them where the base was. And... that scene ends rather tragically. It also means Luke and the others aren't going to reach their destination. Instead, they get caught by a tractor beam and dragged into the Death Star. Obi-Wan then goes to deactivate the tractor beam, and the others are supposed to stay put and wait. However, Artoo accesses the station's computers, and learns that Princess Leia is in a detention cell, and scheduled to be executed. So he convinces Han and Chewie to help him rescue her. And... it isn't easy. (Incidentally, I must point out that Leia isn't your typical damsel in distress. She's an intelligent, brave, defiant woman who can take charge and hold her own in a firefight.) Anyway, after some difficulties (and a dramatic loss), they finally escape, and the Falcon heads for a moon orbiting the planet Yavin, where the Rebel base is located. However, Vader had a tracking device planted on the Falcon, and the Death Star follows them. (Eventually, Star Wars fandom would come to reckon events in the franchise's timeline in terms of years before or after the Battle of Yavin.)
Back at the base, the plans Artoo was carrying are analyzed, and a weakness is found in the Death Star. This weakness can only be exploited by a small, one-man fighter ship. So, there'll be a major space dogfight (the Empire uses TIE Fighters and the Rebels use X-wings and Y-wings). But first, there's a new scene in the Special Edition in which Luke is briefly reunited with his old friend Biggs Darklighter, just before going into battle. That's not something I remembered reading about in the Storybook, but it was still cool to see, even if I would rather have seen the scene I did remember reading about. (Incidentally, at some point, I read things online about other friends of Luke's that we've still never seen in any movies. I really wish we could see all of them, especially Camie Loneozner.) Oh, also I should probably mention that Luke was upset about Han not sticking around for the battle, after he received his reward for helping to rescue Leia and deliver the plans to the Rebels. Anyway, the battle comes down to the wire, with the Rebels trying to destroy the Death Star before the Death Star can destroy the moon their base is on. Very exciting stuff. Of course the good guys win in the end, but not without some losses. (And some "surprise" assistance from someone that probably didn't surprise anyone but Luke... and Vader.) And then there's a lovely medal ceremony, the end.
Man... have I ever mentioned how long it takes to watch a movie if you keep pausing to work on a review? Anyway, I have left out a lot more details than you might imagine, and I still feel (as usual) like I've revealed far too much of the plot. But, that's why God invented spoiler warnings. And I haven't said any more than I feel is absolutely essential. In fact I'm sure I'm forgetting any number of things I might have wanted to say. But... this is one of those movies where I feel like I need to talk about a lot more than just the plot. It's also a movie that gets better when you rewatch it after you've seen the sequels. All of them are great individually, but they're best when seen as parts of a single story. Because after all, Star Wars was inspired by old movie serials, and it is the epitome of all that was great about that format... and then some. I suppose I don't really need to say too much, because more than I could ever think to say has already been said by countless other people. But I just... want to say all I can. It's not just movie serials that inspired Star Wars, but much older stories of samurai, and fairy tales, and so on. One of the things that's most awesome about these movies is the blend of science fiction and fantasy elements, of storytelling techniques ancient, modern, and futuristic. And the movie introduces some great characters (though it's easier to see how awesome they are once you've seen all three movies in the original trilogy). And... I'm starting to lose the ability to form coherent thoughts, so I'll end this for now. But this is the kind of movie where... I wouldn't be surprised if I tinkered with my review for years to come. Because it's such a huge part of my consciousness, and one of the few movies that cannot be watched too many times.