As we count down to The Rise of Skywalker (Dec. 20), Entertainment Weekly critic Darren Franich is looking back on every film in the Star Wars franchise. First up, the one that started it all: A New Hope.
Was Star Wars ever better than Tatooine? The original 1977 film has hallways and cockpits, starscapes stretching to warp speed and very big rooms for very important meetings. There’s something special in the desert, though: blue sky on the barren horizon, new species round every canyon, mystics of rumor, a wolfman with glowing red eyes sipping the strong stuff.
Tatooine is the bland life Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) wants to escape. Not another farming season, Uncle, no more haggling over the binary language of moisture vaporators! Farm kids can grow up hard, dawn wakeups and sunburnt harvests. The Lars homestead is well-automated, though, so Luke comes off like a joyride princeling, still playing with a toy spaceship.
And then Tatooine is also danger everywhere. A drive away from home are nomads on the hunt, and itinerant merchants kidnapping loose tech. Just where is Tatooine, relative to whatever this civilization is? The “bright center of the universe,” Luke explains, is pretty far off. Any explicit talk of a frontier belongs to the other Star franchise. Still, in 1977 audiences could suss some Wild West coding: sweet-faced white farmers adjacent to screechy killtribes. And any 2019 citizen will gag over the phrase “sand people.”
But Tatooine defies any obvious context — and it’s unclear how much young George Lucas ever cared about the real world, anyway. This first planetscape runs on fairy-tale logic, like forests of old. C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) set off in precise opposite directions, and they’re reunited just a few movie minutes later by pure Jawa coincidence. Meanwhile, Mos Eisley is a high-tech town, too populated to be just any old backwater. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) promises, “You’ll never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy.”
We will find out, in later-earlier movies, that Obi-Wan is a dedicated soldier-monk, probably celibate. Wise, no doubt, but a priest will warn you away from Vegas. And Obi-Wan claims that the local cantina “could be a little rough.” Is this what rough feels like? The jazz swoons danceworthy. The alien close-up parade intoxicates: cackling horns, a goatfur satyr nuzzling some gatorface, the impossibly cute little mouseman squeaking out a booze request. Lucas had a whole generation of effects mastery embryonic in this cantina: Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Phil Tippett. The scene as shot needed texture — in the master shot, the clientele is maybe 73 percent human, and the main room feels too small for the band. There’s the quality of a sketchbook, of anything-goes creativity. Be Weird As Hell was maybe the one directive.
The Cantina’s dangerous, sure. A couple nasties pick a fight with Luke: “He doesn’t like you,” says the man with a blasted face (Alfie Curtis). “I don’t like you either.” But have you ever really thought about why they don’t like Luke? Imagine. You’re a barfly at the local, downing a few with your tusked colleague while Figrin D’An toodles his Kloo horn. Some floppy-haired pretty boy walks in with heavily laundered clothes, a judgey glare in his bright eyes, and a better-than-this attitude. To announce his presence at the bar, he actually pulls on the back of the bartender’s shirt: Faux pax, Luke, faux pas! In Star Wars (later retitled Episode IV and A New Hope and so forth), the nominal conflict is between Rebellion and Empire, light and dark, the youthfulness of moptopped blond Luke on one side and the positively skeletal Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) on the other.
The Mos Eisley Cantina is beyond all that, somehow. Luke’s left home at last, out on an adventure in the universe. He’s seeing all new kinds of people. He has escaped the comforts of home. And it’s freaking him out.
Forty-two years since Star Wars arrived, the saga is with us and upon us. There will be a new movie in December. A TV spin-off launches earlier, flagshipping the Disney+ streaming service. The latest videogame hits around then. Star Wars is now a place you can visit at Disneyland. There are release dates penciled into the next decade. Half a century before Star Wars, cinema was black and white, and sound was new. Half a century after Star Wars, Hollywood will be making more Star Wars.
Still, properly rewatching every film in the franchise — which I will be doing weekly from now till Rise of the Skywalker — is surprisingly difficult. Lucas famously tinkered with his first trilogy, unveiling ever-less-special editions for theatrical reruns and home viewing. The old-school theatrical cuts hit LaserDisc and DVD, but the official stance going forward seems to honor Lucas’ final revisions. This is troubling, not just because all his additions are terrible. I wanted this journey to be chronological, tracking the saga from 1977 through today. The special editions represent Lucas’ middle-aged instincts. The first Star Wars is a youth movie — longhairs vs. baldies, parental figures obliviated. And this would be my first time ever watching the movie as an older man than George Lucas circa 1977.
There must still be many ways for the industrious viewer to track down the originals, legally or otherwise. The theatrical trilogy DVD is available for resale on Amazon. But I feel nothing for those shiny discs — and anyhow, anything that looked great on a 2008 DVD looks fuzzy to 2019 eyes. And even if the first three Star Warses were playing at one of the repertory theaters here in Los Angeles, the big-screen experience wouldn’t really open up my personal memory box. I have no memory of the original Star Wars on a glorious big screen, with pinpoint THX audio and the hush of audience awe. I watched the trilogy on futzy VHS, the Salacious Crumb of home entertainment options. And my mother still has the tapes.
Did George Lucas hate videotape? He turned into one of those filmmakers whose output was less artistic than technological, and for decades his companies developed industry-standard audiovisuals. He seemed eternally frustrated by the possibility that people were watching Star Wars wrong: effects unfinished, theaters not properly updated. And yet I grew up loving his creation in the square TV format cut off on either side, through a constant tracking flutter, with that tinny, poignant quiver in the corner of Williams’ score.
Kids today will never know motion pictures like this. Televisions widen, camera eyes sharpen, the tiniest screens offer vibrant color tones. And I had a hot explanation for watching Star Wars this way, really. One big Lucas idea — maybe the idea — was setting his space opera in a used future, the central starship a piece of junk, the droids just casually imploding, always with one eye on where space people threw their trash. Perhaps VHS — recorded a long time ago, in a childhood home far, far away — was a way to honor Lucas’ original vision. These tapes have been places. They have a history.
And some sense of history mattered to Lucas. The first movie famously begins in medias res, and the dialogue nudges you to imagine all the adventures you’ve been missing. “There’ll be no escape for the Princess this time,” C-3PO worries. “There’ll be no one to stop us this time!” exults Darth Vader (David Prowse with James Earl Jones’ voice).
I wonder. Did it require more imagination to watch these movies on tape? The blurry image suggests the fuzz of memory, or maybe it just gave some of the jankier effects the authenticity of newsreel. I was watching Star Wars before I could even properly speak, and yet I don’t think I really caught a lot of the dialogue, buried in the mix of whatever combination of scotch tape and chewing gum comprised the interior of a VCR. (I do not understand technology, probably another demerit in the eyes of Lucas the tinkerer.)
At the end of the movie, after the Death Star explodes, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) runs up to congratulate her new pals Luke and Han (Harrison Ford). I swear this is the first time I ever realized that she tells Han, “I knew there was more to you than money!” There are empires built reading Star Wars for moral instruction, but whoof, what a bad line — right up there with “So this is how liberty dies” in Revenge of the Sith.
And “George Lucas writes bad dialogue” is precisely the kind of statement you will hopefully not be reading here each week. Generations of fandom fully digested the trilogy before the internet arrived to deconstruct every ambient piece of Star Wars lore. The prequel saga released from 1999 to 2005 was disemboweled and, more recently, staunchly defended. There has already been more conversation about the latest Rise of Skywalker trailer than most feature films will ever get.
Is there anything new to say about Star Wars? Maybe not, but I would like to watch this franchise with fresh eyes. There are things you notice more as an adult. Luke’s nasty tavern etiquette stuck with me: Seriously, he grabs the bartender’s shirt, doesn’t he deserve some comeuppance?
And I surely didn’t appreciate how thrillingly brutal the carefree mood can be. Luke’s aunt and uncle get blasted into sizzlebone, and a couple scenes later he’s complaining that his landspeeder sold for less than market rate. He watches Obi-Wan Kenobi disappear into Force vapor — and within minutes, pure battlefield adrenaline renders him a randy horndog. Princess Leia leaves the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, and Luke can barely contain himself. “So, what do you think of her, huh?” he asks Han. Cockpit, indeed!
In 2019, franchise characters might spend an entire sequel mourning events of a previous adventure, and origin traumas are defining character traits. But Princess Leia watches her entire planet blow up — and gets over it. “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” is her first line after the Death Star kabooms Alderaan. Treasure Fisher’s over-it delivery, like she left the party hours before you arrived. “We have no time for our sorrows, Commander,” she explains later. This is a movie about people who get to leave home forever, and they are very happy about that. “I’m never coming back to this planet again,” Luke says, and he means it.
Lucas would occasionally claim some master plan for the franchise. I recall, with the vividness of a LaserDisc pause, an old high school pal explaining to me how Luke’s journey through the first trilogy is the precise Joseph Campbell monomyth: Separation, Initiation, and Return. He leaves Tatooine, he learns magic from a swamp mystic, and then he returns to Tatooine.
Respectfully, friend of yore: Bull. Lucas kept returning to the desert planet because brilliant ideas are hard, and no planet in the movies has the texture of Tatooine, the feeling of multiple realms co-existing, the possibility of turning a corner into a mythic fantasy quest or a fascist gundown or an ancient skeleton. And after, I think, the Cantina, the movie loses the feeling of infinite possibilities. The Death Star is a wonderful pile of effects. Pioneering sound designer Ben Burtt turned the firing montages into a sci-fi symphony, and one of the best lines in all of Star Wars is the non-verbal moaning of the computer as it weaponizes. But the sets are dull, and the Empire seems composed of swaggerless middle managers. The Imperials aren’t marching yet. Even Vader’s part of the furniture for now, a cool helmet in a movie full of headgear.
Lucas was a control freak, so it’s striking that best human moments are the most chaotic. There’s Han’s famous improvvy “How are you?” phone gag. I laughed harder at the centerpiece dialogue of the trash compactor scene. Luke’s encircled by the tentacled dianoga, and he begs Han to fire his blaster. “Where?” the smuggler asks. Logical answer: “ANYWHERE!!!!!”
And there are a lot of X-wing pilots who die in the thrilling final battle, most of them disposable despite their personalized helmets. But this time, I took special notice of Red Leader (Drewe Henley), the squadron honcho whose American drawl stands out amid all the posh accents. The actor actually was British, and at times I swear he’s imitating Slim Pickens from Dr. Strangelove. His steady monotone delivery rope-a-dopes you into his shocking deathscream. His end is pure madness: He’s yelling, and I swear it looks like a smile on his face.
There will be more to say about the characters in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. In this first film — inevitably, but sincerely — what jumps off the screen are the machines. There’s no human gesture so poignant as R2-D2 fidgeting back and forth, like a trashcan in a long bathroom line. For the space sequences, effects artist John Dykstra was building an entirely new system of filming, Frankensteining old cameras together with 12-channel computer tape. That clash of old and new suggests a real-world variant of the onscreen style; recall Han bragging that he’s “made a lot of special modifications” to his old freighter.
There would be much animosity between Lucas and Dykstra, and they never worked together again. This is one story behind the scenes of Star Wars: collaborators falling away like nameless X-Wing pilots, until only Lucas remains. Star Wars was a country-hopping production, Tunisia for outside and London for interiors. Most of the special effects were filmed at Industrial Light & Magic HQ: So another story behind Star Wars is THE story of the modern age, the whole world looking on with awe at what machines in California hath wrought.
You can identify strains of California mysticism in the Force — and no aspect of the franchise have been as debated, analyzed, retconned, and generally seen to symbolize whatever bee you’ve got in your bonnet. Let’s just start this journey by noting the yearning strangeness that George Lucas, a singularly unrelaxed man, built his epic saga around a philosophy of chill vibes. (Imagine every Obi-Wan line with “maaaaan” added on at the end.)
There’s something secretly lame about the Rebellion, I think, in this first movie and always. You want some feeling of revolution, or counterculture. In this first Star Wars, they’re just a nicer military peddling more colorful uniformity. The guys in charge have an out-of-touch professor vibe, and the man mapping out battle strategy (Alex McCrindle) even pronounces “Leia” like it rhymes with “Mia.” This is some kind of populist genius that Lucas didn’t even realize he had: His hero is a dreamer who wants to leave the stifling banality of home… so he can go take orders from graybearded authority figures. A message kids and parents can enjoy!
So this first Star Wars is a journey from one kind of order to another, with bursts of chaos shining: In the Cantina, in Fisher’s who-cares attitude, in Han Solo’s deep-V drug dealer collar (all buttoned up in the closing ceremony). I didn’t get emotional this go-round, and then I suddenly started weeping. It happened when Obi-Wan whispers from beyond, telling Luke to turn off his targeting system. “Let go,” the dead man says.
There’s a modern tangibility to this moment, and maybe a touch of aspirational autobiography. Here’s George Lucas giving his namesake the franchise’s first great hero moment, and all he has to do is turn off his damn computer.
[Next: The Empire Strikes Back]