It feels weird to be halfway through a re-watch of movies and yet somehow be at the beginning of the creation. But, such is the beauty(?) of prequels. The funny thing is, as a kid born in 1984, I never had to live in a world where Star Wars wasn’t totally and completely in the zeitgeist. I pretty much knew all of the key moments long before I ever saw the movies. Hell, they did a parody of A New Hope on Muppet Babies with characters like Luke Froghopper and Gon Zolo. Animal Vader also showed up. I’ve now seen the 1977 (or 1997, or 2007) film probably 20+ times and every time I watch it, I’m just as delighted.
While I think we can pretty much universally agree that The Empire Strikes Back is a better film, I think there’s something perfect about A New Hope. It’s simple yet effective; it gives everybody just enough of a glimpse at a richer universe without bogging it down. George Lucas famously didn’t know if he was ever going to get to make more of his lengthy sci-fi saga, so he moved the Death Star, which was to be the finale of the third movie, to the first one. While it makes Return of the Jedi slightly less interesting, it makes A New Hope completely engaging.
Since the prequels came out, and documentaries about the legacy and inspirations of Star Wars were shown all over the place, I’d known that Lucas based a large portion of the plot of Star Wars (cuz that’s all it was called in 1977) on Akira Kurosawa‘s 1958 film, The Hidden Fortress, with Obi-Wan, Princess Leia, R2-D2, and C-3PO all being based on characters from it. I only just watched The Hidden Fortress for the first time about a year ago, and, yup! They’re very similar. Star Wars is also famous for being, beat for beat, the “Hero’s Journey” as laid out by scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell. I didn’t know that when I first saw the movie either, but now it’s pretty much all I can see.
And, it was also based on those old Saturday morning space serials like Flash Gordon or Commando Cody. Something I never really noticed about A New Hope is that you can pretty much demarcate each of the mini-adventures in the movie like an episode of a serial: the droids escaping the Rebel cruiser; the journey in the desert; meeting Luke Skywalker; meeting Obi-Wan in the desert; etc. etc. It even gets more distinct once the heroes leave Tatooine, having to escape the Empire, train with a lightsaber, get tractor-beamed, save the princess, endure a garbage smasher, etc. The movie feels very episodic in the best way possible; there’s always something new and different to see.
Okay, so what are the reasons A New Hope works so well? From a strictly storytelling perspective, it has to do with siding with heroes immediately. We spend the first 20 minutes or so with R2 and 3PO, and get to see the effects of the Rebellion and the long reach of the Empire through the eyes of simple droids (one of the best holdovers from The Hidden Fortress, which has two comical peasants as POV characters). When we finally meet Luke Skywalker, he’s given a tremendous close-up. There’s no question this is the hero of the movie at that point, and we get to watch his disappointment at not getting to join the Academy again, his worry that he’ll never leave his uncle’s farm, and the fact that he seems very young and untested. He looks out on the binary sunset of Tatooine and everybody can relate.
Luke meets Ben and learns about this amazing world of adventure, with stories of knights and spaceflight and everything awesome, but he refuses to join the old wizard. This is the classic moment of doubt in a heroes life, which is followed by the sacrifice (Owen and Beru) which makes him accept the call. Almost immediately, he’s a fish-out-of-water, at the nutty cantina with all those crazy characters. It’s weird and dangerous, and Luke almost gets killed if not for Obi-Wan, which is a chance for us to see what a badass this old guy is.
I hadn’t noticed before this last time watching, but Han Solo is actually the last of the main characters we meet in this movie. Chewbacca is introduced mere moments prior to Han. He easily could have just been an ancillary character, but we get to stick with Han during his encounter with Greedo, which lets us know what kind of guy he is: he’s greedy, he’s a pirate, he’s quick with a pistol, and he’s got no truck for anyone but himself, his ship, and his Wookiee partner. Han’s also got a journey in this movie, and it’s just as valid as Luke’s.
A New Hope gives us not only Luke’s story, which is very by-the-book (literally; Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces), but also Han Solo’s, an antihero who becomes a true hero. These are universal stories, if you’ll pardon the pun. But Lucas also gave us a Princess – the archetypal damsel in these types of myths – and makes her not only strong, but take-charge and extremely capable. It’s so satisfying to see her berate Solo for being reckless, or be openly defiant to Grand Moff Tarkin. She also famously never misses when she shoots a blaster; she’s the anti-stormtrooper.
There’s a reason this movie is so beloved, and yes a lot of it has to do with the special effects, which are still really great even in special edition, CGI-added versions. But beyond that, it’s the fact that it creates a massive and rich universe of characters, aliens, planets, and spaceships and still tells a story that’s both fun and endlessly relatable. And it’s funny! The prequels attempted humor in puerile and hokey ways, while the dialogue between the three leads on the Death Star is sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. Han Solo asking how the guy on the other end of the comm is doing is classic. All the stuff in the garbage-smasher is hysterical. It allows us to know the characters and like them through interaction and not just being told we need to like them.
There’s one thing I’m going to say about A New Hope in retrospect to the prequels, and it’s that so much of what Obi-Wan says to Luke in his hut no longer makes any sense. Most of the stories he tells about Anakin and he being friends don’t hold water with what we’ve seen; he openly lies about a lot of things that were retconned in Eps V and VI but still are pretty questionable, including being secretive about the relationship between Vader and Anakin. He also apparently just up and lies about knowing who R2-D2 and C-3PO are. For A New Hope to truly make sense, the prequels can’t be canon.
Anyway, that little bit of irritability aside, and a little bit more aimed at some of the sillier changes made during the special editions, A New Hope is the perfect adventure film. There are stories of the arduous and hellish editing process on the movie, but in the end it all seems to have paid off in spades. It’s become such an institution at this point that, like me, many don’t even know of a planet Earth before Star Wars.
But as good as it is, if the next one had been a bit naff, then we’d probably never be talking about it. Luckily, The Empire Strikes Back is the opposite of naff, and I’m super stoked to get to talk about it next time.
Images: Lucasfilm, 20th Century Fox
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Boy howdy, he loves him some Star Wars. Follow him on Twitter and talk about it!