RECAP: Star Wars
Star Wars (1977): George Lucas
From the childhood fantasies of George Lucas came a draft of silly space fantasy called The Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Starkiller. Wow. Let’s be glad that he turned that into the simple Star Wars.
What began as a reject film from several studios, including the same Disney that would buy the franchise for $4 billion decades later, became, arguably, the most famous movie ever made.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: A young farmer learns to trust the mystical energy of the Force to help oppressed people blow up a planet-destroying weapon.
It’s a long time (17 minutes) before the hero of Star Wars appears on screen. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) lives with his boring old aunt and uncle on a moisture farm on the dusty planet of Tatooine. Like millions of teenagers suffering under the roofs of their parents, Luke just wants transport off his rock.
His uncle Owen angers him early when he informs Luke that he will have to get their two new droids ready for work in the fields. Luke wanted to go into town with his friends to pick up some power converters. Can’t we all relate?
Luke is eager to train at “the academy,” apparently some flight school somewhere. He’s a good pilot, though we don’t see him fly anything until the final battle against the Death Star. Like most teens, he has no fear of death.
When Luke removes a restrictor module from R2-D2, one of the new droids purchased from the local Jawa traders, the droid flees the farm for Obi Wan Kenobi’s (Alec Guinness) place. Luke goes out after him, but only in the morning, for fear of sand people. While searching for R2, Luke is swiftly attacked by the treacherous sand people.
Soon he meets Old Ben, formerly known as Obi Wan, who wants to take him on a journey away from Tatooine and to help the rebellion. Luke, offered a chance to fulfill his dreams, immediately caves. “I can’t get involved,” he says, despite being mad at Owen for not letting him get involved.
Obi Wan tells Luke of his father (not the whole truth): that he was a terrific pilot and brave and fought alongside Obi Wan until Darth Vader murdered him. Luke isn’t convinced. Obi Wan offers Luke his father’s light saber. That’s STILL not enough to get him involved.
The two track the Jawas that found R2 and C-3PO, a protocol droid capable of speaking six million languages. They discover that the evil, plastic-clad stormtroopers got their first. Despite Obi Wan’s warnings, Luke races back home, knowing that the troopers would have learned about R2’s purchase from the slaughtered Jawas. Obi Wan barely tries to stop him, as if he wanted Luke to see.
Luke sees. He finds his home bellowing black smoke. All he can do is turn his face. I don’t think Hamill applied enough despair to this scene. He turns away as if he had come upon a broken arm or a car wreck, not the death of his entire family. I would blame Hamill for this, but having seen all the Lucas-directed Star Wars movies, I know where the fault lies.
Luke’s eager to leave Tatooine now. “There’s nothing for me here,” he tells Obi Wan, and, save the clothes on his back, the light saber, the droids, and his land speeder, that’s literally true.
Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), and Obi Wan drag Luke around for the next hour-plus. Luke has to watch as these titans battle forces Luke’s barely conceived. George Lucas has explained that he divided his original script into three movies, so Luke’s blundering across the galaxy makes sense when considered in terms of Star Wars being Act One of a larger story.
Luke is the man to finish off the Death Star, a weapon not meant to appear until the final act, but put in Star Wars to add some firepower to the Empire. By film’s end, he is only beginning to use the Force. Obi Wan’s crash course is enough to get the job done here, but to face Vader, he will need to run to Dagobah. (I’m getting ahead of things.)
Coming at #3 on AFI’s list of greatest villains, Darth Vader terrifies from the first moment. Vader holds a high position in the Empire, though it’s clear that he’s not the top dog. Vader leads the strike on Leia’s blockade runner that opens the film.
After some stormtroopers blast their way onto the ship, Vader swaddles in in full black glory. He wears a pyramidal mask and a cape, all of it black. Vader leans all the way in to villainy.
James Earl Jones voices the iconic character. Jones’s voice, partly thanks to this role, is as iconic as Vader the character (THIS is CNN), but he’s yet to reach the Shakespearean depths of fright he will in The Empire Strikes Back.
After seizing the blockade runner, Vader chokes a guy out to find the Death Star plans. Not Force chokes, that comes later, but lifting the fool and tossing him into a wall.
After seizing the ship, Vader berates Leia. “You are part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor,” he shouts while angrily pointing at the senator from Alderaan. Leia, don’t come at Vader chanting that “diplomatic immunity” shit. Vader’s wearing a black cape, dammit!
Later, Vader pops up in the Death Star. Strangely, he is not in command, but is more of an advisor. In a council meeting of the Empire’s top military officials, one chides him for his adherence to the Force. Vader chokes that guy with the Force. That was an epic reveal, an iconic moment of dastardliness perhaps only topped by Vader chopping off his son’s hand. To the general he says, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”
Vader is on his own quest, to rid the galaxy of the Jedi Knights. He cares less about the end of the rebellion, the task of his proverbial master, General Tarkin. As the Death Star rounds the planet Yavin, Vader celebrates it as a great day, great for having killed Obi Wan, his master/nemesis. And ending the rebellion or whatever.
Vader proves himself a capable pilot, able to sweat the small stuff. He pilots the TIE fighter that gets all the kills in the rebel attack on the Death Star, and is saved from death by Han Solo, assuring us we’ll see more of him later.
I know he’s #3 on the AFI list I mentioned earlier. But Vader elevates to total villain in the next episode, so nine points it is. He needs room to grow.
Star Wars is surprisingly devoid of tense, extended action scenes. Take out the Death Star attack and what have you got? About nothing.
That’s OK, though. The film opens with the attack on Leia’s blockade runner. A bunch of rebel soldiers/pilots line up in a corridor as the stormtroopers prepare to board. What’s unclear is why they broke into the ship anyway. The star destroyer had captured the ship in a tractor beam. There was no escape. Why did Leia’s people fight the stormtroopers, and why did the stormtroopers bother putting their lives on the line? A useless venture.
Most of the shooting takes place in narrow corridors with little cover. The good guys hide in doorways and shoot at a phalanx of imperial soldiers that can’t hit anything. Han is able to hold off regiments with gusto and blaster fire.
After Han, Luke, and Leia escape the Death Star, they are pursued by four, yes, only four, TIE fighters. Luke and Han leave the flying to Chewy and climb/descend ladders to the laser guns guarding the ship’s top and bottom.
Each man sits in a mobile chair, the first gaming chair, affixed to a quad laser. Wearing mics to talk to each other, they look at tiny monitors that display the shapes of the fighters. The guns are obviously outside the ship, but are attached to the chairs inside the ship. In other words, the lasers appear to be in empty space. Han and Luke don’t wear spacesuits, so this seems to be a tremendous oversight on Lucas’s part.
Putting that aside, Han strikes first, quickly followed by an excited Luke. “Don’t get cocky, kid,” Han tells him, in one of cinema’s most ironic statements. R2 has spent the whole movie figuratively putting out fires, now he’s literally doing that. Luke gets the next TIE, and Han finishes the job with a cataclysmic explosion. Too quick for my taste, but Star Wars is only set up.
Lucas says that he wanted to start his space saga from the perspective of two minor characters, R2-D2 and C-3PO, two droids wrapped up in the Empire vs. Rebellion struggle. (Lucas borrowed this technique from Akira Kurosawa’s 1958 film The Hidden Fortress.)
So we begin our tale amongst two droids. The golden, mouthy one, C-3PO, speaks six million languages but mostly speaks English to annoy the other characters. His buddy/antagonist is the tri-wheeled cylinder R2-D2.
R2 is the MacGuffin of Star Wars, the object of everyone’s desire. He attains this position when Princess Leia encumbers him with the technical readouts of the Death Star in the film’s opening sequence. Once R2 and 3PO escape Leia’s blockade runner, the chase is on across the galaxy. Anyone near the droid, including 3PO, will be in trouble.
The more I watch Star Wars the closer I get to naming R2 as my favorite character. From the start we can see that it’s cute as hell. The bleeps and bloops comprising its speech are unintelligible to all but 3PO and maybe Luke. That makes R2 more endearing.
It’s not the sounds, though. R2 has guts. It’s not a question of following AI protocol, because we have 3PO to show us that droids in this galaxy can be afraid. R2 receives the Death Star plans and Leia’s hologram and sets off to fulfill the mission. He rolls to an escape pod and crashes on Tatooine.
On the desert planet, R2 rolls toward where he thinks he’ll find Obi Wan Kenobi. After Luke buys him and then removes his security device, R2 again goes to find Obi Wan. He does the grunt work in the Death Star to help Luke and company move through the levels and corridors. And he accompanies Luke on the successful Death Star run. R2’s near death, after being shot by ___, is the film’s most tense moment.
This focus on the droids makes Star Wars seem like a children’s movie. The first 20 minutes feature a princess, a man wearing a black pyramid mask, two funny robots, and the diminutive Jawas.
Well, I guess there are other sidekicks in this piece. Let’s get to them.
Obi Wan Kenobi: Old Ben Kenobi, as Luke knows him, lives as a wizard hermit in the deserts of Tatooine. We believe his placement there is coincidental, but soon we’ll learn that’s not true.
Obi Wan taught Luke’s father the ways of the Force, and he’s eager to teach Luke. So eager, as if he’s waited two decades for the day when Luke would wander into his hut. Obi Wan isn’t quite ready to tell Luke the truth about his father, telling him enough to entice Luke to leave his home.
On the way to Alderaan and the Death Star, Obi Wan gives Luke a brief lesson in the powers of the Force. See how he all-but-rolls his eyes as Han Solo discounts the “hokey” religion.
In the end, Obi Wan must have known that in leaving Tatooine he would not return. He tells Han to leave the Death Star’s tractor beam to him. Obi Wan slinks around the Death Star’s less populated sections to deactivate the beam, also luring Darth Vader to battle him.
Obi Wan gives his life to help Luke escape the battle station. But, as Obi Wan warns Vader, in death he will become more powerful than can possibly be imagined. That power manifests in speaking into Luke’s mind at key moments. But will there be more powers in films to come?
Princess Leia: Alderaan’s heir apparent represents her planet in the Imperial Senate. She’s also one of the leaders the Rebellion, and Darth Vader found that out.
Doesn’t bother Leia. No character is as feisty as the princess. She condescends to Vader the moment they meet. She’s not frightened of the galaxy’s second-most powerful Force wielder.
The only thing that appears to threaten Leia is the floating torture probe Vader brings to her Death Star cell. The hypodermic needle the globe sports makes the princess squirm. As a fellow needle-phobe I can relate.
Once Han and Luke free her from detention, she’s back to her feisty self. She immediately berates Han for his poor rescue plan as they return fire to the stormtroopers flooding the detention level. Leia blasts a hole in the wall and leaps into the garbage compactor.
Leia has the best lines in Star Wars, a case befitting a highly bred princess. “Into the garbage chute, fly boy.” “The more you tighten your grip, the more star systems with slip through your fingers.” After Han says that sometimes he amazes even himself, Leia says, “That doesn’t sound too hard.”
Han Solo: The smuggler supreme makes his debut in the Mos Eisley cantina. A man in debt to a portly talking worm, Han seems like a guy in trouble all the time, so often that he doesn’t worry about the next day, next hour, next minute of his life.
We know Han is a tough bastard after his showdown with the green alien Greedo. Greedo sits with Han, blaster drawn, ready to extract hush money. Han, feet propped on the table, coolly draws his blaster and SHOOTS FIRST. Let the record state that.
Cool under fire describes Han to a T. And he’s often under fire. On the Death Star he charges after a half-dozen stormtroopers with a rebel yell. He retreats only when more start shooting after him.
I love how Han keeps calling Luke “Kid.” (Ford is only nine years older than Hamill.) And his talking down to Leia marks the script’s highest dialogue achievements. Han shines during the scenes inside the Death Star. “We’re all fine here, how are you?” he says to an offsite Imperial apparatchik.
Love it. That’s example #49 of why Han Solo made AFI’s list of greatest heroes at #14, ahead of the great Alec Guinness. Also helping were the low-collared shirt he wears through the first hour.
When you are literally the second most powerful person in the galaxy, about everyone is your henchman. In Vader’s strange case, he seems to be second-in-command to Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. As Leia tells him, “I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash.”
Tarkin commands the Death Star. He’s charged with ending the rebellion, by learning the location of the rebel base. He has Princess Leia for that, but she won’t give it up. So he drags her out of her Death Star cell, in the marvelously named Detention Block, to watch the initial test of the Death Star’s primary weapon.
With Leia’s home planet of Alderaan on screen, Leia begs Tarkin not to destroy it. She gives him a name. Satisfied, Tarkin blows it up her planet anyway. He orders Leia back to her cell and to have her terminated in a little while.
There’s a funny scene later when Tarkin and Vader wait for the rebel base to come into firing range. Vader is happy that the rebels will die on the same day as Obi Wan. Tarkin, his back to Vader, expresses his belief that Vader is a huge weirdo to care about some old coot who died on the Death Star.
These are two old dudes fighting with laser swords. And they look it. Obi Wan and Vader slap their sabers at each other. The footwork is not there. They seem unable to move their shoulders and upper arms, moving as if their arm pits stank and they had to keep them covered.
The guys can’t last long during their fight, but Obi Wan doesn’t care. Both know this fight is to the death. And that’s what Obi Wan does–dies. “If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine,” Obi Wan says. Vader doesn’t care much about that. He strikes him down.
Once our heroes get off the Death Star, the action accelerates quickly. The Millennium Falcon quickly reaches the rebel base on a forest moon orbiting Yavin. The Rebellion almost instantly analyzes the data from R2 and finds the lone weakness to the Death Star.
The Death Star is not far behind the Falcon. It can jump to light speed, apparently. When it arrives in Yavin’s neighborhood, it cannot arrive immediately in range of the rebel base moon, instead needing a half hour to encircle the planet.
A rebel leader delivers the battle plan to the orange-clad pilots. With firepower greater than half the star fleet, the Death Star is designed to resist huge attacks. Perhaps a small group of fighters could destroy the weapon.
The target is an exhaust port two meters wide at the end of a trench at least 50km in length. The pilots balk, except Luke, who used to bullseye wamp rats back in his Tatooine heyday. Piece o’ cake.
In the hangar, Luke finds Han collecting his 15,000 and eager to flee. Luke tells him to look around and consider what’s about to happen. “What good’s a reward,” Han asks, “if you aren’t around to use it?”
Luke turns away in anger, but offers a weak smile when Han says, “May the Force be with you.” He boards his X-wing and, with R2, prepares to fight. C-3PO tells R2 he hopes he will return. Han and Leia be damned, the droids represent the true love story of Star Wars.
In space we get quick shots of several pilots. I preferred Red Six and Red Two, the latter Wedge Antilles, who marvels at the size of the Death Star and is ordered to “cut the chatter.” Red Six was a jowly man who I think was named “Porkins.”
In trios the rebel ships attack the Death Star. The turbo lasers cannot hit craft as small as the X-wings. Vader chooses to lead a squad of TIE fighters to take them out one by one.
The dogfighting is terrifically filmed. The sound team provided gritty, choppy radio chatter amongst the rebels, and the camera covers the turns and rolls well.
Gold squad, flying Y-wings, is the first in the trench. Vader and two wingmen descend. Vader kills one, two, three rebels with quick work.
The Death Star inches closer to the rebel base. The timer Tarkin watches doesn’t match with what his underlings say regarding time to target.
Back in space, a new group of fighters has entered the trench. One pilot, 25km away, says he should be able to see the target, which makes no sense. He shoots two torpedoes, but misses the exhaust port. Vader, doing all the work, shoots down two more ships.
Now it’s Luke’s turn. He’s been hearing Obi Wan’s voice in his head for a few hours now, but he’s playing it cool. “Be just like Beggar’s Canyon back home,” he says.
Red Two and some other guy are between Luke and Vader. Vader shoots one quickly and hits Wedge as well, without killing the latter. Luke sends him back, ready to go alone.
Vader senses that the Force is strong in Luke. How does he not recognize his son? Vader knew Obi Wan was the disturbance he felt on the Death Star, but Luke gives him little to nothing.
Luke’s got his targeting computer up, until that pesky dead Obi Wan’s voice pops back to tell him to use the Force. Goodbye, targeting computer.
Vader shoots at Luke at hits R2. We are scared. 3PO looks at Leia, presumably scared for his friend, but she offers no reaction.
Finally, the rebel base is in the Death Star’s range. Tarkin says they may fire when ready.
Vader’s got Luke in his sights until…Han arrives to blast an enemy fighter. Yah hoo! Vader misses and is somehow knocked into space. Luke takes the shot, the torpedoes hit the exhaust ports, travel to the center of the Death Star, and destroy it in a spark-tacular explosion. Just like wamp rats.
Back on the moon, hugs all around. R2 is damaged. C-3PO offers any circuits and gears needed. Luke brushes off this touching display by telling him R2 will be fine.
In the end, Leia bequeaths random medals to Han and Luke as the rebellion celebrates its victory.
Comedy is not Star Wars‘s strong suit. We will give some points for giving the jokes the old college try.
The droids are funny. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes not. It’s as funny as sad that the humans treat C-3PO with such disregard, especially when he’s there to help. More likely they make us laugh for their interdroidal relationship. For example, when the droids crash on Tatooine, R2 wants to go one way and 3PO another. After they part, 3PO laments that R2 “tricked me into going this way,” as if droids could lie to each other.
R2’s bleeps and bloops make us laugh, as if he were a hyperactive dog, yipping at everything but with good reason. You can hear the fear in his voice in the Tatooine canyon before the Jawas get him. R2 getting into trouble? “Oh, he excels at that,” 3PO informs new master Luke.
The best banter is reserved, or perhaps created, by Han and Leia. Luke, wearing a stormtrooper getup, enters Leia’s cell in the Death Star. She asks, “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” Remember, these are clones.
She’s nice to him, but Han hears it immediately. “Some rescue plan,” she chides Han. “Maybe you’d like to get back in your cell,” Han says. While pinned down in the corridor outside her cell, Leia shoots a hole in the wall saying, “Somebody has to save out skins.”
“Your Worshipfulness” is my favorite name Han assigns Leia. He tells Luke that he hopes to avoid any more “female advice.” Leia, when she first sees the Millennium Falcon, tells Han, “You’re braver than I thought,” a backhanded compliment if I’ve ever heard one.
Perhaps the highest comedy comes from the hapless stormtroopers. First, their helmets. They hang loosely on heads, and look as if they will fall off unless heads are ramrod straight and unmoving. They provide little sight, and their toothy grins are as cute as they are scary.
Are they any good at their jobs? Jury’s out. Cloned from the bounty hunter Jango Fett, the stormtroopers could have asked for a better shot. Time and again they can’t hit anyone at any range. Their preferred method for attack appears to be blowing a hole in the wall and entering single file. A better way to die I can hardly imagine.
And they sure are dumb. Obi Wan outright calls them weak minded. They can’t find the droids they were looking for. The constantly fall for hiding people and droids. They must work cheap, because why else would the Empire use them?
That galaxy far, far away sure left its mark on our planet. Tatooine, Yavin, the Death Star–these are some of the places known by fanatic and casual film watchers alike. Alderaan is a planet never visited in the film and still it’s a name people could identify.
Perhaps most iconic of the Star Wars planets, Tatooine is the first shown in the saga. Home to Luke Skywalker, the desert planet has two suns and plenty of sand.
R2 and 3PO introduce us to Tatooine after their escape pod crashes there. Filmed in Tunisia, the dunes and mountains create a very un-spacelike atmosphere but one equally as desolate. This planet is haunted by cute Jawas and haunting Sand People.
A few humans call the planet home, notably Luke on his moisture farm and Obi Wan in some isolated hut. The planet also is home to Mos Eisley. “A more wretched hive of scum and villainy” cannot be found.
Mos Eisley lives up to Obi Wan’s boasting. He, Luke, and the droids enter a cantina. The droids are immediately told to leave. “We don’t serve their kind here,” the barkeep says. All non-artifical life forms gather in the cantina, many of them pilots, ready to take on eager passengers such as Luke and Obi Wan.
Luke orders a drink and is quickly accosted by gentlemen who claim they don’t like him. One has the face of a pig, the other a scrotum. THEY don’t like LUKE. Where do they get off? They start trouble, but Obi Wan draws his light saber and literally disarms the scrotum face guy.
Despite the species integration of the customers, the band is as segregated as they come. At least they play light jazz.
The final iconic setting is the Death Star. Han, Luke, Obi Wan, Leia, and the non-humans spend a good chunk of the movie in the Death Star.
Outwardly, the “battle station” is a gray orb with a concave shield that functions as world-destroying weapon. It moves, but we never see how.
Inside the Death Star resembles the dark concourse at a baseball stadium. The halls gleam as a new building should. Imperial personnel populate the passages but rarely notice the intruders lurking. You see that dollar figure on the right. They must have saved on safety regs because you won’t find a guardrail in the entire battle station.
Star Wars is pure escapist fantasy. Lucas wanted to update old mythologies for a new millennium. He did a great job. Here’s a quote from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, a book about the myths of ancient history: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
If that doesn’t describe Luke learning about the Force, it can’t be done.
Mos Eisley, Obi Wan’s “hive of scum and villainy,” might be the most diverse place in the galaxy. Is Obi Wan a speciesist? Is Lucas? Yeah, it’s not worth considering.
The only non-humans, non-robots we see in Star Wars are the pilots in the cantina, Chewy, and Jabba. Chewy’s the best of the lot, and he’ll rip your arms out if you beat him in space chess. However, the Empire is chock full of British people and a clone army, so a lot of humans don’t come out well either.
- (2) The most famous and successful film composer in history, John Williams’s score is a character itself. Star Wars was the first of five Oscar wins for Williams, and arguably these themes are his most iconic. The Imperial theme, the title scroll, the triumphant score at the film’s conclusion–any of these three tracks can hold their own against any other film track. From the start, Williams crafts the Star Wars music as epic and with finality. This will not be some languid story meditating on the enormity and loneliness of space, no, Star Wars is the be-all, end-all of space epics, and the Williams score communicates this fact better than anything Lucas did.
- In the 1997 version, Lucas inserts a long skeleton in the Tatooine desert. Was this swipe at the greatest sci-fi story in history, the giant sandworms of Dune?
- The added scene with Jabba the Hutt sets up well the action in the next two films.
- There’s, like, 40 cameras in the detention block to shoot out.
- Watching this movie in 2016, after Carrie Fisher admitted to an on-set affair with Harrison Ford, adds much to their onscreen dynamic, especially in the garbage masher when Han tells Leia to “get on top.”
Summary (43/68): 63%
The opening salvo in a series eight movies and counting, Star Wars broke Gone With the Wind‘s 38-year-old box office record. It placed three characters on AFI’s Heroes and Villains list. It launched words into the English language. It has a place on the short list of most impactful movies ever made.