We're a list society. From Casey Kasem and the American Top 40 to 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die to BOP's very own Best Horror Films (one of our most popular features ever), people love to talk about lists. They love to debate the merits of the "winners" and bemoan the exclusions, and start the whole process again when a new list captures pop culture fancy.
AFInity: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
By Kim Hollis
August 14, 2009
Perhaps one of the best-known, most widely discussed lists is the American Film Institute's 100 Years... 100 Movies. A non-profit organization known for its efforts at film restoration and screen education, the AFI list of the 100 best American movies was chosen by 1,500 leaders in the movie industry and announced in its first version in 1998. Since then, the 100 Years... 100 Movies list has proven to be so popular that the AFI came forth with a 10th anniversary edition in 2007, along with other series such as 100 Heroes and Villains, 100 Musicals, 100 Laughs and 100 Thrills.
In addition to talking about which films are deserving of being on the list and bitterly shaking our fists because a beloved film was left out, we also love to brag about the number of movies we've seen. As I was looking over the 100 Years... 100 Movies list recently, I realized that I've seen 47 - less than half. As a lover of film and writer/editor for a movie site, this seemed like a wrong that needed to remedied. And so an idea was born. I would watch all 100 movies on the 2007 10th Anniversary list - some of them for the first time in as much as 20 or more years - and ponder their relevance, worthiness and influence on today's film industry. With luck, I'll even discover a few new favorites along the way.
#13: Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope
As I watched Star Wars for what is probably the 15th time in my life, I found myself taking a little nostalgia trip. I truly feel a little sadness for anyone who wasn't alive in 1977, when Star Wars was released into theaters. Sure, summer blockbusters are old hat now. Every studio hangs its hat on some effects-driven monstrosity that is intended to drive revenue into the stratosphere. But back then, it was still quite novel. Jaws had opened the door in 1975, but Star Wars...well, Star Wars was something singular.
Put together on a budget of $11 million, Star Wars (and we called it Star Wars then. No colon or hyphenate names. No episodes. It was Star Wars, plain and simple.) went on over time to amass a stunning $798 million worldwide. That's enough to put it ahead of such modern flicks as Spider-Man 2, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and Transformers.
I'm not even sure how I can properly impress upon people who didn't experience it how much of a phenomenon the film was. Star Wars was everywhere. There were toys galore - and kids really, really wanted them. I had various types of Luke and Leia action figures, from smaller sizes on up to full-size dolls. There were novelizations of the film that filled bookshelves. There were posters, there were lunchboxes, there were T-shirts and there were novelty record albums. There was even a Christmas special, poorly remembered though it may be. I was taking dance lessons at the time, and one of my numbers in the annual dance recital was set to Star Wars music and featured a group with light sabers and a group that was meant to resemble C-3PO (it was a huge hit with the crowd). I'm not sure there's ever been a cultural touchstone like this film.
And yet, I feel a lot of ambivalence about the film and its lasting impact. I think there's much to appreciate, but I also believe it's led to some negative developments in cinema as well as in science fiction in general. As for the movie itself, for every awesome thing it does, there's a little bit of awfulness to be found. It's clear that I'm not the only person who feels this way, either. Every time we write about the Star Wars franchise on this site, our mailbox fills up with passionate feedback that either denigrates the series or lauds it with praise.
For this reason, I tried to watch Star Wars with fresh eyes, admittedly a difficult task. I can't help but bring my preconceived notions along with me, not to mention the taint that has been left by the prequels. Since I'm so divided on the film, I'm going to specifically look at what Star Wars does well as well as its failures, and ultimately, its impact on pop culture and worthiness of being on the AFI 100 Years... 100 Movies list.
The Bad Stuff
So far, the movies on the AFI list that I've watched have been, for the most part, timeless. You're not required to know anything about the era from which they came, because it's completely possible to enjoy them in their own right. Sure, a little history might add some perspective to certain themes and elements, but generally, I've been extremely impressed at the fact that the movies selected for the list have held up so well over the years.
I can't really say the same for Star Wars. Admittedly, that's somewhat a danger of any film that relies heavily on special effects. Newer, better things are bound to come along as advances are made in technology. Even so, Star Wars does feel like a relic (which, of course, makes me older than a relic). The effects are downright silly throughout much of the film, and that can make it hard to put the necessary weight to scenes like the destruction of Alderaan or the explosion of the Death Star. Yes, this is a function of time, but I'll bet that something like Titanic doesn't seem similarly hokey in 20 years. I try to imagine someone watching this for the first time, and I have to think they would wonder what all the fuss is about. After all, the effects in the new Robert Rodriguez kid flick look just as good.
Speaking of hokey, the acting in Star Wars is just as much a problem as it is in all the films of the series, which is to say that it's generally pretty bad (there are some exceptions, which I'll get to later). Since he's in the lead role, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker takes the brunt of the criticism, but I'm not really sure that the issue is the acting so much as I believe that director George Lucas has a tough time eliciting strong performances from inexperienced players. Carrie Fisher is similarly rough around the edges, and even Harrison Ford doesn't have the polish that he would develop in later films. But this trio is still head and shoulders above the minor supporting players, whose line delivery varies between flat and uninterested to melodramatic and over-the-top.
Probably the most egregious, glaring problem with Star Wars, though, is that it's just plain boring for much of the film. I found my mind wandering frequently as I watched the movie, thinking to myself, "Hey, when is that one part I like going to get here?" It turns out that those parts happen to be in The Empire Strikes Back instead, because they never materialized while I was watching Star Wars. Sure, there's a lot of action and plenty of shiny things onscreen, but it's all a bit empty when you realize that there's just not that much going on, really. Part of the problem is that Han Solo doesn't appear until about 45 minutes into the film, and since he's the character I like best, I always feel like the movie is treading water until he arrives.
Star Was is effectively a place-setter for what's to come, and that's okay (other movies, notably The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, do the same thing); but if you're looking at it as a stand-alone film, it suffers in that regard.
The Good Stuff
I mentioned the bad acting before, but I can't bemoan the rough-around-the-edges performances of the less experienced newbies without lauding those of the veterans. Alec Guinness lends Star Wars some credibility; he gives Obi-Wan Kenobi a real air of mystery and impresses us as someone who is clever and two steps ahead of his opposition. Another fine old-time actor, Peter Cushing, is dastardly and cruel in his role as Grand Moff Tarkin. It helps that he truly looks the part of an insidious, unflinching villain, but it's not like he hadn't played the hero in the past (he's one of the past Doctors in Doctor Who and portrayed Sherlock Holmes on a number of occasions).
Although I don't love Carrie Fisher in the role, I do think that the character of Princess Leia is brilliantly written. It would have been very simple to make her nothing more than a damsel in distress - and that was sort of how I mistakenly remembered her in Star Wars - but instead she's whip smart, super savvy and plays a key role in not only her own rescue but also in dealing a blow to the Empire. More of these qualities come out in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, but the table is being set very early to make her a strong female character, and I respect that.
With regard to that sort of table setting, Star Wars does a magnificent job. I realize I mentioned I'd watch the film as if it was brand new, but it's awfully difficult to do when you know all of the big revelations that will come in the future. We get some small inklings that Darth Vader was once a good guy, and the fact that Luke's uncle worries that his nephew will one day be "just like his father" as a deeper impact. It feels like Lucas had a definite direction he wanted his series to take, and he does a fine job of building a universe that would continue through another five films.
One part of that universe is of the most iconic villains ever to appear onscreen. Darth Vader is really quite terrifying, if you let yourself think about it a lot. He towers over everyone else in his all black attire, breathing through an apparatus that makes his voice deep and unmistakable. He can kill a man simply by making a motion with his hand, and his ability to swing a lightsaber is practically unparalleled. He performs these sinister acts in the service of the Empire, and it's hard to believe that he's fully behind it since he ought to be powerful enough to lead on his own. He might not be as demented as The Joker (a character who would later be voiced by Hamill on a number of occasions) or as brilliant as Hannibal Lecter, but he is relentless and not bound by any particular moral code (he gave that up when he turned to the Dark Side).
It might be the little touches that I like best in Star Wars, though. I'm a huge fan of the Cantina scene, with the awesome band and the gruff dude who tells Luke, "He doesn't like you." A lot of the creatures that populate the film are wonderful - the Bantha looks great, and I'll always remember that it's probably a good idea to just let wookies win any games I play with them. And then there's the music, which might be as much of a character in the movies as Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. John Williams has always had an amazing talent for creating memorable hooks that are ideally suited to the movies they accompany. Star Wars is probably his most recognizable work and rightfully so. There's something a little spine-tingling when his brass fanfare opens the film. It still feels fresh today.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem contends in a 1998 Village Voice article that "It's now a commonplace in film criticism that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg together brought to a crashing halt the most progressive and interesting decade in American film since the '30s." I can't necessarily argue the point. The 1970s were full of creative, game-changing films that today might only be embraced by an art house audience if they were to get a greenlight. Certainly, the mentality that there needs to be a big money earner every single week has evolved from the box office performance of Star Wars and its ilk.
It's also my belief that the landscape for science fiction changed with the mass market appeal of Star Wars. One might think that this would mean that it made the genre more accessible, but in fact, I'd posit that if anything, it allowed these types of books and movies to stagnate, with little real exploration of boundaries. Think about every single book you see in the science fiction section of a Borders or a Barnes & Noble. Don't all the covers look exactly the same? Aren't the stories all depressingly similar sounding? I think the audience has certain expectations to be met - much like readers of romance novels, and it's far easier to play it safe and easy. Star Wars was the proof of what a mass audience wants, and the money is in appealing to this mass audience.
But even with those reservations, I still think that Star Wars' impact is so lasting and significant that it's undeniably one of the most important movies ever released. It demonstrated how to create a product that appeals to a wide-ranging demographic - and not necessarily an original product, as it owes much to Flash Gordon, Frank Herbert, Gene Roddenberry, Stanley Kubrick and even The Wizard of Oz. George Lucas was simply a savant when it came to repackaging ideas and presenting them as something new and original, in a story that is just as much soap opera as it is science fiction. Cinema has never been the same, and for that reason alone, this is a film that deserves its high positioning on the AFI list.
Ultimately, I think back to how much my nine-year-old self loved Star Wars (and The Empire Strikes Back). I gleefully returned to the theater again and again to see the space opera played out on the big screen. I begged for Star Wars toys, and eventually (maybe a year or two later), I started watching a little show called Doctor Who because I thought maybe there was something to this space creature stuff. I realize that in the end, Star Wars movies are for kids. If kids love them, then Lucas has achieved everything. If the prequels failed and were huge disappointments to those of us who saw the original Star Wars movies so many years ago, perhaps it was because we didn't watch them with our nine-year-old eyes and brain. It's a little sad that we lose that piece of ourselves that becomes enraptured by such stuff.
Kim's AFInity Project Big Board