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'Star Wars' review: Still thrilling nearly 40 years after its 1977 release

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Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

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Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope” (1977)

Also known as “Star Wars”

Directed by George Lucas

Written by George Lucas (with additional material by Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck)

Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing, Dave Prowse, James Earl Jones (voice of Darth Vader), Peter Mayhew, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker

“Star Wars” is fun, it’s exciting, it’s inspirational, and people respond to that. It's what they want. - George Lucas

After the phenomenal success of 1973’s “American Graffiti,” George Lucas went on to make “Star Wars,” a space-fantasy film which made him one of Hollywood’s most successful filmmakers in history.

Set “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” “Star Wars” is the story of a young farm boy named Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who leaves his home planet of Tatooine and goes on a daring mission to rescue Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from the dark forces of the Galactic Empire. Along the way, he discovers that his destiny lies along a path that takes him away from a remote desert world and into the midst of a galactic civil war.

In his hero’s journey, Luke is aided by an aged Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), the roguish space pirate Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca the Wookiee (Peter Mayhew), and two droids, C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). Together, this unlikely band of Rebels will infiltrate the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the Death Star, thus challenging Imperial forces led by Lord Darth Vader (Dave Prowse, voice of James Earl Jones) and Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing).

Based loosely on Akira Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” and taking elements from film genres such as war movies, Westerns, and gangster films, “Star Wars" is Lucas’s attempt to create a myth for modern times. Lucas essentially marries the style and tone of 1930s serials to universal themes found in Greek mythology, European legends such as “Beowulf” and Japanese stories about samurai warriors.

An Unexpected “Force” Rises

Today, “Star Wars” is known as “Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope” and is part of a larger saga made up of six existing films and a Sequel Trilogy that is currently in production. It’s also the keystone of a huge multimedia franchise that includes novels, comic books, video games, and TV series such as “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” and “Star Wars: Rebels.”

Back in May of 1977, however, “Star Wars” was what reluctant execs at 20th Century Fox dismissively referred to as “that space movie.” No one, not even its young writer-director, expected “Star Wars” to be more than a modestly-successful summer movie. The best expectations that Fox’s board of directors had for “Star Wars” were that it would earn back the $9 million investment during its theatrical run .

To everyone’s surprise, not only did “Star Wars” outperform “The Other Side of Midnight,” the studio's pick as its major summer movie for 1977, it also became the biggest box office hit of its time, earning over $250 million by the end of its long initial theatrical run. Further re-releases in 1979, 1981 (when it was renamed “Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope”) and 1982 made the movie even more financially successful. It earned a total of $460 million in North America and a further $310 million worldwide.

Old-School Fun: The Magic of “Star Wars”

The film’s success can’t be explained by the cleverness of its screenplay or the gee-whiz factor of its special effects. “Star Wars” is, in essence, a more sophisticated version of the “Flash Gordon” serials that Lucas watched on television when he was growing up in 1950s Modesto, California. The tone of the dialogue, after all, is closer to that found in comic books than in the works of Shakespeare, often delivered in exclamatory phrases.

[Princess Leia has been captured and brought to Vader]

Princess Leia Organa: [smirking] Darth Vader. Only you could be so bold. The Imperial Senate will not sit still for this. When they hear you've attacked a diplomatic —

Darth Vader: Don't act so surprised, Your Highness. You weren't on any mercy mission this time. Several transmissions were beamed to this ship by Rebel spies. I want to know what happened to the plans they sent you.

Leia: I don't know what you're talking about. I am a member of the Imperial Senate on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan.

Vader: You are a part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor! [to Stormtroopers] Take her away!

Daine Jir: [to Vader after Stormtroopers escort her away] Holding her is dangerous. If word of this gets out, it could generate sympathy for the Rebellion in the Senate.

Vader: I have traced the Rebel spies to her. Now she is my only link to finding their secret base.

Jir: She'll die before she'll tell you anything.

Vader: Leave that to me. Send a distress signal, and inform the Senate that all on board were killed.

Nahdonnis Praji: Lord Vader, the battle station plans are not aboard this ship, and no transmissions were made. An escape pod was jettisoned during the fighting. No life forms were on board.

Vader: She must have hidden the plans in the escape pod. Send a detachment down to retrieve them; see to it personally, Commander. There'll be no one to stop us this time!

"Star Wars": A 1977 Version of a 1930s Serial

The acting in “Star Wars” also reflects the film’s origins as a modernized 1930s serial. The best performance comes from veteran actor Alec Guinness, who plays Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi with a balanced mix of warmth as Luke’s father-figure and the gravitas one expects from a once-legendary galactic hero.

The younger actors (Hamill, Fisher, and Ford) do well as Luke, Leia, and Han, but Lucas, along with uncredited script doctors Gloria Katz and Willard Huyck) give them dialogue that is witty but also comic book-style:

Ben Kenobi: Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.

Luke Skywalker: You mean it controls your actions?

Kenobi: Partially, but it also obeys your commands.

[Luke gets shot by the remote.]

Han Solo: [laughs] Hokey religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.

Skywalker: You don't believe in the Force, do you?

Solo: Kid, I've flown from one side of this galaxy to the other. I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything to make me believe there's one all-powerful Force controlling everything. There's no mystical energy field that controls my destiny. [Kenobi smiles] Anyway, it's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.

The special effects in the original theatrical version were good for their time, but they had certain limits due to the state of the trade in the mid-1970s. The weaknesses, such as visible “mattes” in composite images and reused footage, are cleverly disguised by good editing techniques.

The only flawless element of “Star Wars” is the musical score by composer John Williams. Written in the style of 19th Century Romantic symphonies, Williams’ score uses thematic leitmotivs to musically represent specific characters and even abstract concepts such as the Force. The familiarity of Williams’ old-school symphonic music anchors the audience emotionally to the otherworldly situations in “Star Wars.” Williams won the Academy Award (his third) for Best Original Score, one of the six Oscars earned for technical categories.

What makes “Star Wars” such a cultural force to be reckoned with is its old-fashioned approach to storytelling. Made at a time when cynical anti-heroes and even gangsters were huge audience draws, “Star Wars” was cheerfully retro in spirit. The forces of good and evil are clearly identifiable; Darth Vader’s black outfit was topped with a skull-like breath mask and a helmet patterned after those used by the Nazis, while Luke, Leia, and Han wore outfits that visually branded them as heroes.

Essentially, though, the element that made “Star Wars” what it is today is that it’s a fun movie to watch. It’s corny, even derivative, but it’s a thrilling two-hour trip to a galaxy filled with heroes, villains, and aliens from a thousand worlds.

Blu-ray/DVD Availability

“Star Wars” is currently available in the 2011 and 2013 Blu-ray/DVD box sets which contain the Original Trilogy. These include the “Star Wars: The Complete Saga” six-film set featuring the six Episodes released by 20th Century Fox before the Walt Disney Company’s purchase of Lucasfilm Limited. Earlier DVD editions from 2004, 2006, and 2008 are no longer in print, but may be found on eBay and other third-party sellers on Amazon Marketplace.

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