It takes a special franchise to rise from mere entertainment to the point of true cultural institution, but since its inception in 1977, Star Wars has been at the pinnacle of western pop culture. Even if you’ve never seen it, you know about it. And with the saga’s return to the big screen this year for Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and subsequent movies to come each year, it will only continue set itself apart from its contemporaries. It is so ingrained into our society that every May the 4th, people across the world celebrate everything Star Wars. And while it hasn’t quite reached the level of a public holiday, the fever in which its fans interact with the franchise is symbolic of the impact pop culture can have on a person and a community.
So in celebration of May the 4th, it seemed only fitting to go back to the original movie, the one which started it all, and try and understand why the movie revolutionised pop culture like it did.
It’s hard to look at A New Hope without the influence and memories of all of the other movies, toys, games and cartoons that have followed it. Even those who might watch it now for the first time will likely enter it with plenty of foundational knowledge. Vader is as recognisable as Mickey Mouse, and his relationship with Luke doesn’t carry any of the weight it did when the sequel came out. But in rewatching it (for the millionth time) it is possible to look through the ingrained emotional connection to the franchise and see clues as to its initial charm.
Star Wars, especially after decades of material and fandom, is an immense and complicated fantasy, but the brilliance of Episode IV is that for the grandeur of what is to come, the world presented to us is never too much too fast. And for all of the questionable story and filmmaking decisions George Lucas would make, the first Star Wars is a great example of how to introduce people to a fantasy setting. Take Tatooine for example, where C-3PO and R2D2 initially land. We’re not bombarded with information and pointless exposition, but instead the information is fed to the audience slowly and purposefully. It starts off as a desolate environment, but slowly the droids begin to come into contact with the Jawa’s, and then the human characters like Luke and his Uncle Owen. We eventually see the parts that are more populated like Mos Eisley, but the world-building is done as an experience, not as a list of things we need to know.
We aren’t explicitly told that the Jawa’s are nomadic traders, but we can figure that out. We don’t need to know of the dangers like the Krayt dragon, but we see its large ominous skeleton early on, and then see how the Sand People react to its call. It doesn’t direectly fuel the story, but it fuels the worldbuilding. And with that we can organically construct the world and the people who inhabit it. People like those found in Mos Eisley. And while Obi-Wan/Ben Kenobi forewarns Luke, and by association the viewer, of what to expect there, it isn’t necessary. The Cantina scene is brilliantly executed, and words aren’t needed to convey the tone. The lively music, the bustling alien conversations and reactions to events all combine to fill the scene with tonness of atmosphere. Even without some fairly substantial events that happen there (the introduction of Han and Chewie, and the debate of who shot first) the Cantina would be fondly remembered.
This type of storytelling, through feeling, visuals and impressions, is something that exists throughout the whole movie. The very first scene, where the Tantive IV is being chased by the Star Destroyer, is the perfect way to throw the audience into the world. Even now, with technology that dates the then cutting edge effects, the impact of that opening scene can still resonate. Why? Because the impression goes beyond the technology.
That’s an area the Prequel Trilogy lacked at times. It was capable of that same awe inspiring visuals and impressions (the opening to Revenge of the Sith, while overstuffed, captures that same scope), but it was too keen to play with the updated technology. The opening to A New Hope isn’t impressive because of the details, but in the execution. It’s a trait the Original Trilogy was masterful at. The Battle of Hoth is legendary for a reason, but there’s never too much going on.
The climax of A New Hope does this well too. Compare the ending to The Phantom Menace, and you’ll see the importance of its simplicity. In the Death Star attack, we have one main objective: Destroy the Death Star before it can reach the Rebel base. The main characters have clearly defined but connected roles, and they switch between those key characters within the pace of the event. One succinct focus with rising tension and a rewarding payoff. The Phantom Menace however tried to intertwine the lightsaber duel between Maul and Kenobi/Qui-Gon, Jar Jar commanding the Gungans in a fight with the droid army, Padme’s charge on the headquarters, and Anakin’s inadvertent dogfight in space.
That’s four different and loosely connected event pathways that break up the ebbs and flows of each mission’s story, with a lot of action that feels needless and secondary to the key plot points. The payoff is there, but in asking you to cheer across four different events at once there’s less reward in each individual success, especially when some efforts feel less important despite the attempt to build the tension. And that’s ignoring the fact at least half of the primary characters in those events have questionable levels of popularity among the fans.
A New Hope succeeds in a lot of ways because of its simplicity. There’s a lot of depth to the world and its story (especially when you connect it with the rest of the franchise) but the movie’s plot is simple. It is the classic heroes journey. Much of the focus is a rescue the princess/damsel in distress, which is followed by a siege on the fortress that ties in with the story’s progression and doesn’t feel tacked on. Han, Luke, Leia, Obi-Wan and Vader are all archetypal characters, and Luke as the main protagonist is designed to act as the audience avatar for information to be passed along, but has enough of a character so as to be distinctive rather than bland. Luke doesn’t even appear until sixteen and a half minutes in, but it doesn’t matter. The movie knows it will win you over by drawing you into its world, and then keep you there with its lovable band of misfits, and the chemistry between the stars is as important as their lines.
That greater world is hinted at as well, providing payoffs for fans as they continue to watch (or otherwise lead to points of retconning and contention). We hear multiple references to Luke’s father, but they work just as much for basic characterisation as they do foreshadowing. Even before we learned of Luke’s true parentage, we can form an idea as to who Luke is. And the talk of the Clone Wars and the Jedi culture paints a grand historical picture that continues to build the world of Star Wars. If we only cared about the characters and core story, then the expanded universe wouldn’t have achieved the success it did, and people wouldn’t continue to clamour for more. George Lucas managed to craft a universe that was compelling, that demanded fans to dive further down the rabbit’s hole. It’s just sometimes it managed to sell a character well enough fans wanted more of that person as well as the world (like Boba Fett, who is another example of storytelling through feel and atmosphere rather than words).
I could go on about A New Hope, and for all of the positives I could speak about Episode IV there’s probably twice as much I could say about the one that followed it, The Empire Strikes Back. And while I’ll undoubtedly do just that in the future, it felt fitting on May 4th to appreciate the movie that started it all. Yes it relied on a lot of new technology at the time, but if that was its crutch to success then it never would have retained its cultural dominance as the same effects that wowed in 1977 look dated and obvious in 2015. It told a grand story through simple means, but did so with atmosphere. The visual concepts, the John Williams score, the easy to identify with ensemble that managed to feel special.
The original Star Wars is an achievement, and it is easy to appreciate the juggernaut of a franchise that spawned from it. The series has plenty of flaws, but its imperfection only serves to solidify the intense connection. The people you love can do things you wish they wouldn’t, it doesn’t change the fact you love them. And Greedo shooting first doesn’t change the fact that you can’t help but smile when Vader chokes Admiral Motti for questioning the power of the Force.