It’s been over a quarter century since George Lucas (THX 1138, American Graffiti) first shared Star Wars with millions of awestruck moviegoers in the late spring of 1977. Both the director and the studio executives at 20th Century Fox thought they’d have a modestly successful sci-fi fantasy film with “just okay” box office receipts.
Instead, bucking their logic and lowered expectations, Star Wars became not only the biggest hit of its time, but it also launched both a multi-movie series and a huge merchandising/multimedia “empire” that made millions for the shy, unassuming USC film school graduate from Modesto, California.
Star Wars (later renamed Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope) begins with one of the most stunning opening scenes in movie history: After the 20th Century Fox Fanfare and a moment of silence for the “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away” card, the Star Wars logo appears with the opening chord of composer John Williams’ now famous “Main Theme” – which serves as accompaniment to a title crawl that sets the stage for a battle between good and evil. “It is a period of civil war,” and Rebels have united to challenge the evil Galactic Empire.
From a hidden base in the Outer Rim, the Rebel fleet has won its first victory against Imperial forces. In the heat of battle, Rebel agents have discovered the secret plans for the Death Star, a huge space station with a planet-killing super laser. Now those plans are in the hands of Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), and her starship carries her back to her home world of Alderaan with a huge Imperial Star Destroyer in hot pursuit.
It is the very climax of this pursuit that starts Star Wars: A New Hope with that indelible first scene of a small Rebel blockade runner being pursued by the huge wedge shaped Star Destroyer. The Blockade Runner is tractored into the Star Destroyer’s ventral docking bay, and after a short and furious battle, Imperial troops led by Lord Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones) overrun the ship’s defenses and capture Princess Leia.
But wait! Just as the battle is ending, C-3PO and R2-D2, a pair of droids who are a comedic pair along the lines of Laurel and Hardy, have evaded capture and left the captured Rebel ship aboard a small escape pod. Below them lies the desert planet Tatooine, with its twin suns, small farming settlements, and two persons whose destiny was inextricably linked decades before.
The first of these two that the droids will encounter is young moisture farmer Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a restless teenager who yearns for adventure and excitement beyond the confines of his Uncle Owen’s (Phil Brown) struggling farm. With good mechanical skills (he modified his landspeeder on his own) and natural flying skills, Luke wants to follow his friend Biggs and enter the Imperial Space Academy.
But Owen and his wife Beru (the late Sheelagh Fraser) fear that Luke’s dreams are much too dangerous, and Owen does everything possible to stall his nephew’s ambitions. At first glance, one might think Owen is just a stubborn man, but when Beru points out that “Luke’s just not a farmer, Owen. He has too much of his father in him,” his earnest gaze and simple reply (“That’s what I’m afraid of.”) hint at things yet to come.
The other person of great import to the struggle between Empire and Rebellion is Ben Kenobi (Sir Alec Guinness), an old hermit who lives beyond the Western Dune Sea. Considered by the locals to be a “crazy old wizard,” he keeps to himself in a Spartan hut carved into the face of a cliff. But looks can be deceiving, for as Luke discovers when “Ben” rescues him from a band of Tusken Raiders, Kenobi was once the legendary Jedi Knight and General Obi-Wan Kenobi.
When Obi-Wan hands him an old lightsaber, Luke also discovers that his father had not really been a navigator on a space freighter, but had fought alongside Kenobi in the Clone Wars as a Jedi Knight. “A cunning warrior” and “the best starpilot in the galaxy,” Skywalker the elder had been betrayed and murdered by a young former pupil of Obi-Wan’s named Darth Vader.
After watching a holorecording of Princess Leia’s plea for help, Kenobi then attempts to enlist Luke to take the droids to Alderaan with secret plans vital to the Rebellion, Luke hesitates. He wants to leave Tatooine, yes, but he feels an obligation to his aunt and uncle.
Alas, the long arm of the Empire has reached Owen and Beru first. Having tracked the robots to the jawas who had sold them to Luke’s guardians, stormtroopers have slain the couple and orphaned Luke. Now, fate – or the Force – has taken a hand, and Luke Skywalker vows that he wants to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi.
Star Wars’ second half, starting with the fateful meeting in the now famous Mos Eisley cantina with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and culminating with the climactic space battle over the Death Star, is a fast-paced chain of cliffhangers intended to be an homage to the cheesy-but-thrilling movie serials of the Thirties and Forties.
Will the Rebels get past the detention cell? Will the droids stop the trash compactor in time? Will Darth Vader face off against his former Master? Will Han Solo and Chewbacca go off to pay Jabba the Hutt, or will they save Luke during the last attack run down the Death Star trench?
Lucas’ clever mix of various movie genres (Westerns, gangster films, sword-and-sorcery, and war movies), his pioneering advances in special effects, and John Williams’ Academy Award-winning score are just a few reasons why movie audiences embraced Star Wars in such a manner that it became a part of American culture. It’s not perfect and it’s hokey, yes, but it allowed many of us to forget (for two hours, anyway) all the troubles of the world.
A New Hope: The DVD: Although the 2004 DVD edition of Episode IV: A New Hope is essentially the same as the 1997 Special Edition re-release, there are a few tweaks Lucas added, mostly cosmetic changes to the additional material created for the controversial 20th Anniversary re-release. For instance, the scene where Greedo shoots first at Han Solo in the Mos Eisley Cantina is still there, but it looks less jerky and added on than it does on the Widescreen VHS edition.
Also, the CGI Jabba generated for the restored confrontation between the Hutt crime lord and Han looks a bit more like he does in both Episode VI: Return of the Jedi and the prequel Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Finally, the only onscreen English-language labeling (on the tractor beam control unit aboard the Death Star) has been replaced by glyphs in a Star Wars written language.
Glitch Report: As good as the DVD’s content is, there appears to be a widespread glitch in this disc. When a viewer selects the Audio Commentary feature on the A New Hope disc or the English 2.0 Dolby audio track, the “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….” card suddenly switches from English to Spanish then back to English, then freezes at the 24-second mark. I’ve experienced this on not one but two DVD players, and I’ve heard some of my friends griping about similar issues.