Thursday, 20 October 2011
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (George Lucas, 1977)
Originally released under the title Star Wars rather than Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope it is worth noting that the context this was released within was completely different to every other Star Wars film. With this in mind, I will be ignoring the prequels in the first instance and focus more upon the idea that this was the "one that started it all". Lucas had made THX 1138 with Robert Duvall in 1971 - the idea of the clean, sheen of mechanical processes controlling the man. American Graffiti in 1973 showed a completely different side to Lucas as the characters were teenagers, chatting about girls and cars. Star Wars managed to pitch these two worlds against each other - the clean, mechanical nature of the Empire versus the rebellious group of teenagers Luke, Leia and Han. Star Wars was genereally considered a complete change in style for Lucas - as if his art-house sensibilities and experimental nature of his shorts and directorial debut had now been completely replaced by the financially motivated box-office figures that American Graffiti generated. In fact, this one film manages to show a combination of differing ideas ... it was the cult-following and worldwide success that followed this film that changed Lucas. This film itself, highlights multiple facets to Lucas that are ignored today.
As the first film made in the franchise, you have to ask yourself "Where did this idea come from?". Lucas, an experimental filmmaker and fine artist looked to films as diverse as Hidden Fortress, The Searchers, Metropolis and Casablanca for references. We are introduced to a world that has passed - the worn-and-torn clothing of our Rebels and the world of Tatooine is highlighting a past of glory. A culture, language, Universe and Galaxy that we do not know. Will Brooker* notes how Lucas, an avid fan of Kurosawa, watched international cinema as an American himself. He automatically found himself, on a regular basis, watching films with established cultures, languages and history that were not his own - and during the films, he would understand the culture better. Lucas then created Star Wars, a galaxy "far far away" with it's own cultures, languages and history that are established before the film begins. Much like Samurai's in Seven Samurai, the time of the Jedi has passed - and it is technology and the opposing cleanliness of modernity that has eroded away these cultures.
Lucas feeds into this world droids which hark back to Metropolis - which, as a silent film of 1927, it managed to communicate it's message to the world: language was no barrier. C3P0 is a droid who is "fluent in over six million forms of communication"... much like the film itself was. Luke, Obi-wan, C3P0 and R2D2 set forth to fight the Empire on the basis that Luke's family are murdered - much like in The Searchers, whereby the film opens with the murder of the entire household of Ethan's (John Wayne) brother Aaron - this set Ethan, amongst others, to search for the two missing children. The dusty landscape is akin to the Western world John Wayne inhabits and certain shots are repeated in the Star Wars universe. Even Han Solo, as an outsider in a bar within a colonised territory seems to echo Rick (Bogart) in Casablanca. These intertextual references show how Lucas was making something that managed to merge multiple histories and ideas for the benefit of a cult following - Umberto Eco defines a cult film as a film that is "a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan's private sectarian world". By rooting these films in a world that imitates and pays homage to so many cultures, genre's and ideas, fans already feel as if they know this place - and can almost relate to it.
Not to mention how, by ticking so many different generic boxes, it appeals to multiple audiences members with differeing preferences for genre. On the surface it is Science-Fiction, but it has a Western world of gun-fighting and a Samurai-style in the lightsabre duels. Han Solo owes money to the 'gangster' Jabba the Hut and we see dogfights between the spaceships end the film which Lucas modelled on World War II movies. A bit of Romance between Leia, Luke and Han - and some comedy from C3P0 and R2D2. You have to question which style of filming did not influence him. It even touches upon the differing social classes between our characters - as Leia and C3P0 are from the palaces of Alderaan opposed to Luke and Han who hail from the slums of Tatooine. Even their clothing dictates their background - Leia fitting in perfectly with the storm troopers, whilst Luke is at home with his Uncle and Aunt on the farm.
The spirituality in Star Wars is much more to the forefront of the themes. When we see Luke, blindfolded, and wholly "trust" the force you inevitably compare this to the idea of blind faith. The "Empire" do not believe in the legendary nature of the force - assuming it is outdated and remains as an archaic faction of the old Republic. We have contradicting characters that challenege the very nature of "the force" in numerous ways - Han Solo, as an allie, does not believe in the force whilst Darth Vader, as the enemy, does believe in the force. Whether you have faith in the power of the force or not, this does not determine your morals. It is how you use this power. I vividly remember someone explain to me how if you replace the word "force" with word "God" - or even, in a very overt Christian sense, "Lord" - then you are preseneted with an exceptionally religious film: "May the force be with you" becomes "May the Lord be with you" or even "May the grace of God be with you". You have to "believe in the force" becoming "you have to believe in the Lord". What is equally fascinating is how it seems that this original film is the only film that is so overt in this meaning - and the prequels completely destroy this meaning as it simplifies "the force" into scientific reasoning as "midichlorians".
But, this "power" of the force can be used for good and evil. Even now there is a more sinister element to the martyrdom of Obi-Wan. In a time whereby suicide-bombers and terrorists kill thousands of people "for God", Obi-Wan comfortably dying and making a martyr of himself could be construed as maybe going too far - and considering the very nature of 'blind faith', by definition, is trusting something that may have no evidence, you have to wonder how these morals and belief's may be outdated in this post-9/11 environment.
Updated and Remastered
Suffice to say, I have watched the Blu-Ray versions - adapted films that have been developed since 1997. Specifically in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope there is a definitive change in tone as, on Tatooine, we see CGI creatures walk the desert, poo-poo jokes by robots preceding scene's and awkward body language as Han Solo walks behind Jabba the Hut. I think you cannot get away from the dated nature of these films. This is not to say that it makes the film weaker in any respect, but inevitably these clearly computer-gernerated creatures seem out of place and jar with the environment. John Jansen on The Hollywood Saloon 'Star Wars Podcast' made a very good point about how, in some sequences, your attention is distracted by busy CGI additions in the background. When your attention should be on a Storm-Trooper, instead it is taken by a robot-joke in the background. As Jansen said, it is simply "bad directing", but it's bad-directing after the fact.
As noted when analysing Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, this film is strong on the grounds that it truly manages to bring incredibly dark subject-matter into a family film. Despite all the multiple-genre references that ensure that it appeals to the widest possible demographic, it also depicts an army that is clearly modelled on the German-Nazi Fascist movement, or at the very least the Japanese Army Uniform. There is an automatically ingrained dislike for the villains - and I would even go further to note how Peter Cushing's gaunt, slim Governor Tarkin seems to be modelled on Nazi Propoganda Minister Joseph Goebbels. Akin to the horrors of World War II, we see entire planets destroyed and human corpses strewn on the ground - and not characters who are unimportant, they are the protaganist's only family!
To conclude, it is worth noting how Luke is very much a teenager in Episode IV, with an argumentative nature and almost-lazy approach to life. We can relate to him as he dreams to join the Star Fighter's and, maybe we cannot relate to his clearly mysterious birth and direct family, we know that this film charts the change as he moves from being a child on Tatooine to become a young man who is much more aware of the galaxy. He is a farmboy, with little experience of anything outside of his current situation - he is completely unaware of the universal problems that he will directly face. He is aware enough to dislike the situation, but his reluctance to assist in chore's on the farm is something that we understand.
The story itself is on a very small-scale - unlike every other Star Wars film. The film shows our group get together, with very little exposition on the wider situation - we find out more about the Jedi via Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, and other than a small appearance in Empire, even the "apprentice" stature of Darth Vader to the Master Darth Sidious is not discussed. It is simply good-guy Luke versus bad-guy Vader ... it is only through the following two films (and the prequels) that we get much more scope on how big a galaxy, and how rich the history, truly is. As a historical 'classic', this film has much to offer - but it is equally fascinating to highlight how so much was hinted at in this film without any exposition. Imagine, in 1977, watching the film and dreaming about the days whereby the Jedi existed ... imagine discussing at length what Vader and Obi-Wan's relationship was like "back in the day". How lucky we are that, with the technology and special effects we have today, we can actually see these moments that, up until 1999, everyone could only dream of.
*Many aspects of this analysis are credited to Will Brooker and his BFI Film Classics: Star Wars book which can be bought on many websites.