GOOD BUT NOT GREAT: Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977)

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (USA, 1977)
Directed by George Lucas
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness

IMDb Top 250: #16 (20/10/12)

Trying to imagine filmmaking without Star Wars is like trying to imagine pop music without The Beatles: it simply isn't possible. The proliferation of Star Wars into every conceivable corner of our culture makes discussions of its legacy either pointless or severely tainted by the weight of history. But just as The Beatles were capable of writing bad songs (quite a lot of them, in fact), so we shouldn't blindly praise Star Wars simply in light of what it's left behind. While there is much in A New Hope to appreciate and enjoy, it's hardly as perfect as has been claimed.
The worst question that any journalist can ask a filmmaker is: "Did you know this film was going be a success?". The answer is always no, because filmmaking is a profoundly risky business: productions get delayed or shut down, people fall out or suffer injuries, and finances can fall through at any time. In the case of Star Wars, Lucas was even more uncertain that his pet project would ever get made. Despite the success of American Graffiti, the film was turned down by both Universal and United Artists, both of whom had excellent track records with nurturing new talent.
The production of A New Hope (originally just called Star Wars) was beset by many problems. Lucas quarrelled with his cinematographer Gilbert Taylor, who shot Dr. Strangelove and The Omen: Taylor rejected many of Lucas' lighting decisions and resented said director's desire to control every aspect of the production. There were frequent prop and costume malfunctions, as the newly-formed Industrial Light and Magic struggled to keep pace with all the ground-breaking special effects shots. The crew looked down on Lucas for his inexperience and for making what they saw as a "children's film". And the cast objected to both Lucas' vague direction and the script, with Harrison Ford remarking: "George, you can type this shit, but you can't say it!"
At this point you'd have every right to start making comments about how Lucas had the last laugh. You could equally point out the irony of studios laughing off his offers for merchandising to tie in with the film, considering that most contemporary blockbusters now come with some form of commercial tie-in. In fact, when you look at Star Wars outside of its status as a cultural phenomenon, you begin to realise how the criticisms of cast and crew all had some degree of validity.
A large part of the success of Star Wars lies in the huge technical leaps that it made. In the 1970s popular science fiction was dominated by TV shows and films whose capacity for exploring ideas far outstripped their visual creativity. Doctor Who, Blake's 7, Star Trek and Logan's Run - all were interesting and ideas-driven, but also ropey, cheesy, ponderous or naff (Star Trek at its worst being guilty of all these).
Star Wars shifted the goalposts for audience expectations of what a 'sci-fi' film looked like. Its aesthetics felt novel to audiences who had grown used to not hearing noise in space after 2001, and who were genuinely engrossed by the impressive model shots and the lightsaber battles. The film ushered in an age in which technical brilliance became as highly valued as narrative substance. It did so with such speed that Logan's Run all but vanished shortly after its release.
Because of this emphasis on technical brilliance, or surface rather than substance, we should resist referring to any Star Wars film as 'science fiction'. Science fiction is primarily a genre of ideas, in which outer space is used to explore inner space, and strange planets or exciting gadgets are a means to explore moral and social themes. Star Wars is a space fantasy or space opera, an epic story of good vs. evil with its roots in westerns and comic strips, as I pointed out in my Phantom Menace review. The success of Jaws and Star Wars not only cemented the summer blockbuster, it made it possible for B-movie material to be made with A-movie budgets.
The influence of various B-movie genres on Star Wars is plain to see in the archetypal characters. Luke Skywalker is the fresh-faced hero, who starts out being pretty incompetent but eventually grows into someone who can genuinely look up to. Han Solo is essentially a cowboy in space: he walks like he's wearing six-shooters, is dressed like a cowboy in black, is incredibly cocky, and shoots first and asks questions later (yes, shoots first - we'll get to that). We also have a princess or damsel-in-distress (Princess Leia) and a couple of evil overlords, with Peter Cushing in creepy Hammer mode and Darth Vader being based on Klytus from Flash Gordon.
The performances are what lift Star Wars out of generic convention, though they work for several different reasons. Some of the performers, like Carrie Fisher, stand out because they bring out the wit of the story in a way that their characters normally wouldn't do. Some, like Mark Hamill, have little room for manoeuvre but seem natural enough for us to feel at home with them. The best performances, however, come from the actors who either genuinely get their archetype or appear to be 'in on the joke'. Harrison Ford is note-perfect because he understands the rogue character, while Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness both seem conscious of how silly it all is.
I've been quoted in several places as saying that Flash Gordon is better than Star Wars, and here's why. Both are from the sillier end of science fiction and fantasy, with broadly drawn characters, clear divides between good and evil, and an emphasis on spectacle rather than character development per se. The difference is that Flash Gordon openly acknowledges its ridiculous nature, and embraces it. It laughs at its plot inconsistencies, camp action and ripe dialogue, and encourages us to laugh with it.
Star Wars is cut from more or less the same cloth, and is still pretty light on its feet. But rather than acknowledge the silly nature of its plot or the contrivances therein, it is more po-faced and either ignores its problems or denies that they exist. This is what critics meant when they accused the film of infantilisation: passing off the relatively childlike and playful as serious, nuanced and complicated. It's also the reason why the series never reached the heights of Indiana Jones, another series based on ripe source material, in which the silliness reigned supreme and everything benefited from it.
When you attempt to cut through the mythology, you realise there's a lot of stuff in Star Wars that doesn't make sense. During the scene in the garbage smasher, Luke is dragged underwater - and yet his electronic com-link still works when he tries to contact C-3PO. Darth Vader's defeat is a big deus ex machina, with Han Solo coming back for no real reason and interrupting a scene that would have been more satisfying without him. And that's not including the unnecessary pirouetting during the lightsaber battle, or our heroes never being hit by hundreds of Storm Troopers.
Being someone who grew up with the Special Editions, I should address the 'Han Shot First' controversy. In the original cut, Han shoots Gredo unprovoked in the bar, while in the Special Edition, Gredo shoots first, missing Han at point blank range: Han is digitally 'shuffled' out of the way and shoots Gredo in self-defence. Not only is the 'shuffle' really obvious, the change makes no sense. Han is an unloveable rogue, who at this point in the story arc only thinks about saving his own skin - he would shoot Gredo to get away from him. It's as stupidly nonsensical as Steven Spielberg removing all the army's guns in the re-release of E.T., though he at least had the decency to go back on this decision.
Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope remains a game-changer in mainstream filmmaking, whose influence is still writ large, for better or worse, over popular sci-fi. Its effects are ultimately far more ground-breaking than either the story or the way that it's told, and it's not as enjoyable as Flash Gordon or Indiana Jones, both of whom are more at ease with their source material. But it's still pretty fun in its own right, boasting memorable characters and a number of good action scenes. Whatever its narrative limitations, it's still a force to be reckoned with.