Most fans of the Original Trilogy will tell you that The Empire Strikes Back is their favorite entry in the series, and it's not hard to see why. Empire is dark, moody, emotionally wrenching and features several stunning set pieces. Few series have managed to use the requisite "get to Mordor" episode as effectively as Lucas and Kasdan did with Empire. But I'm not here to tell you how great Empire is. I'm here to tell you that its predecessor, Star Wars: A New Hope is in fact the best entry in the series. It is, in every way possible, the perfect blockbuster film.
Some history: George Lucas came from the storied "Movie Brats" generation of filmmakers, which also included Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorcese and Brian De Palma. These directors were as strongly influenced by European New Wave cinema as they were by Hollywood classics. Lucas was perceived by many as the least commercial of the bunch. 1971's THX1138 is dystopian science fiction as visual tone poem. 1973's American Graffiti is melancholic naturalism. Both were well received by critics; neither could boast the box office returns or cultural impact of Jaws or The Godfather.
Star Wars was something different altogether—and, as such, faced serious headwinds in pre-production. Science fiction was out of fashion and the magnitude of the story was difficult for Lucas to communicate in an elevator pitch. Lucas ended up hiring artist Ralph McQuarrie to help storyboard the script. McQuarrie's illustrations brought Lucas' script to life—from Darth Vader to the Millennium Falcon, most of the iconic images we associate with Star Wars emerged from McQuarrie's collaboration with Lucas.
More importantly, McQuarrie helped Lucas build his "world." This was a galaxy ruled by a despotic, militaristic Empire, but hardly totalitarian—rather, Lucas and McQuarrie envisioned an outer rim where Imperial power stretched unevenly; a run-down Wild West populated by farmers, scavengers, smugglers and pirates. This is where the Hero's Journey begins.
Star Wars was in no way, shape or form the first major film to adopt the Hero's Journey narrative structure. But it did inspire decades of retreads that ultimately coalesced in Save the Cat, a beat sheet for film pitches that has arguably made Hollywood blockbusters overly predictable and tedious. It isn't just that Star Wars did it first. Star Wars in many ways contrasts with the typical Save the Cat blockbuster, particularly in the notable lack of exposition.
(Really, if you want to find the prototypical Hero's Journey in popular media, it's The Fellowship of the Ring. Nearly all first films in blockbuster series ape the structure and pace of Tolkien's book—and more recently, Peter Jackon's cinematic interpretation of the book).
Part of what makes Star Wars special is that lack of exposition. As the yellow text scrolls up the screen, we learn this is Episode IV in a longer story. Very little is revealed during the film about the events leading up to Episode IV, aside from this:
- There was a Galactic Republic ruled by a Senate; an Emperor recently dissolved the Senate and placed administrative authority with regional governors; there is a rebellion against the Empire; its partisans are called The Rebel Alliance.
- The father of Luke Skywalker fought in something called The Clone Wars and was killed by Darth Vader; Darth Vader and Luke's father were both students of Obi-Wan Kenobi, a Jedi Master; Jedi —and Darth Vader— can tap into something called the Force to grant extrasensory powers.
- The Empire has built a new space station called the Death Star; agents of the Rebel Alliance, though, have stolen the schematic blueprints for the Death Star; the Emperor has tasked his henchman Darth Vader with retrieving those plans; Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan is involved with smuggling the plans.
That's it. We don't learn anything about the Galactic Republic. We don't learn anything about the Clone Wars. We don't see or learn anything about the Emperor, other than the fact that he exists. We don't learn what the Force is or why only some people can access it. We don't get any insight into who Darth Vader is aside from his connection to Obi-Wan. Instead, we see these events more or less how someone inside the story would see them—with incomplete information and a lot of priors.
Contrast that with the typical Save the Cat superhero film, which spends 1/3 of its 3 hour run time giving us lengthy origin stories for both hero and villain. Star Wars, by contrast, is briskly paced; the gaps create mystery that ponderous exposition leaves no space for.
Despite taking place right in the middle of a broader story, Star Wars is also a complete film. Lucas didn't know if he would get a chance to make the sequel, so Star Wars has a clear ending. It leaves room for a sequel, but it doesn't per se need one. The Death Star is gone; Darth Vader has been defeated; the Rebel Alliance has saved the Galaxy from a planet-destroying monster.
One of the key drivers for Star Wars' success —and its enduring legacy— are the film's aesthetics. This goes back to McQuarrie and his genius for character and industrial design. Everything from costumes to ship design to electronics to the hallways of the Death Star are absolutely perfect. The Outer Rim is suitably junky; aliens are convincingly nonhuman; Imperial spaces are perfectly crisp and sterile.
The film was made before CGI, so everything is costume and practical effects. Anything is possible with CGI, which unfortunately means designers are free to make things as overly complicated and stupid as they like. Not so Star Wars! Objects (mostly) obey realistic physics; beings move naturally, as if they are real; and industrials designs are mercifully pragmatic.
John Williams's superlative score plays another key role in establishing the mood, setting and overall vibe of Star Wars. I've seen the film so many times, and listened to the soundtrack on its own so many times, that I can basically replay the entire film by humming the score from start to finish. Every theme, every bit of incidental music, fits the narrative perfectly. Or rather, helps shape the narrative perfectly.
Speaking of which, Star Wars is perfectly paced—with just enough high-octane set pieces, pensive interludes and tension-building moments. But the real genius of Star Wars are the characters. Has there ever been an original film that established this many iconic characters in one fell swoop? Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan Kenobi, R2-D2, C-3PO, Darth Vader. I rest my case.
Only there's one more thing...no film in history has been so magical to so many people in such a paradigm-shattering way. This is it, friends. This is the perfect film.
POSTED BY: The G--purveyor of nerdliness, genre fanatic and Nerds of a Feather founder/administrator, since 2012.