“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” comes at the very beginning of a film that would revolutionize how films are made going forward by way of special effects and simultaneously reinventing the science fiction genre as a whole. What was known upon release in May 1977 simply as Star Wars which is now referred to as Star Wars: Episode 4 – A New Hope is a generational film, one that transcends genre and can be used as an entry point for a now saga sized franchise spanning comics, books, video games, tv shows and films with no end in sight.
Written and directed by George Lucas (American Graffiti), the original space opera to this day hasn’t lost any of its magic. Following the 10-word sentence that transports the viewer to the unexplored galaxy, the “crawl” suggests that A New Hope is the 4th chapter of this yet to be told story. With his screenplay, Lucas never once alienates the viewer with alluding to events that happened in this world that hasn’t been seen before. And it’s the introduction to the human characters, droids and various alien species alike that are easy to follow when act 1 gets underway.
Opening in the vacuum of space, the atmosphere is immediately established. The galaxy is split into a civil war. On one side is the rebel alliance who have stolen devastating plans outlining the destruction of a space station known as the “Death Star”. On their tails is the tyrant galactic empire who will burn the galaxy to ash to destroy the rebel scum and recover the plans. Disguised as a diplomat on a peaceful journey, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), one of the leaders of the rebellion is quickly intercepted by Darth Vader (played by David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones) and his star destroyer in an attempt to recover the stolen plans.
It’s here in the opening sequence that Darth Vader becomes a household name as one of the best villains in film history. James Earl Jones’s deep and intimidating voice paired with David Prowse’s stature make for a terrifying foe to go up against. And for the majority of the film, Vader and the empire have the upper hand, their power is too suffocating to be fought but as the title suggests, hope can be found in the most unexpected places.
After the tense opening of storm troopers and Vader infiltrating Leia’s cruiser, she hides the death star plans in an Astromech droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) to deliver the plans to Leia’s father on her home planet of Alderaan. Leia enlists the assistance of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), known as Old Ben Kenobi and a reclusive wizard with magic powers by R2 and his accompanying protocol droid C-3PO’s (Anthony Daniels) new owner Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Hired to deliver the plans to Alderaan by Obi-Wan and Luke is a smuggler by the name of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his trusty Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).
Along the way we are introduced to the prospect of there being a great war known as the clone wars that many like Obi-Wan took part in. It’s also learned through the introductions between characters that Obi-Wan knew, served and fought alongside Luke’s father who remains a total mystery throughout the 121-minute runtime. With all the sprinkles of information, its Lucas creating a desirable yet dense mythology, ripe to be explored.
Among the ensemble, Harrison Ford’s suave arrogance balances out the quiet confidence of Mark Hamill. The pair are nothing without Carrie Fisher’s watchful and critical maternal eye.
By today’s standards, the mix of special and practical effects that were all created by Industrial Light and Magic, ILM for short, a company founded by Luca, still hold up. From matte paintings to miniatures to the use of computer-generated images, it’s the effects that truly make Star Wars feel real, expansive and uncharted. Of course, some of the technology is outdated but for the era that Star Wars released in, ILM set a standard for how films would be made. For one, the explosions no matter how big or small are breathtaking with each display of fire power. And then there are the character designs – providing infinite possibilities for alien species with their own languages, home planets and motivations for belonging in this galaxy.
Among its groundbreaking technical achievements, the single most important aspect that has elevated Star Wars can be credited to the iconic score by composer John Williams. No other piece of music can instantly transport its viewer onto the planet of Tatooine or put us right in the shoes of Luke Skywalker as he gazes into the distance with 2 suns as the backdrop of his daydream. Capturing these beautiful landscapes is cinematographer Gilbert Taylor who brings out the beauty of these new planets as something familiar and recognizable.
Lucas trusts us to get on board with a 4th chapter of an untold story right away. He does so with a buildup of tension throughout the climactic moments during the few battles that play out. While rebel pilots are targeting the weakness in the death star, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) is inching closer and closer to the rebel base located on the planet Yavin. Quick edits capture the urgency from both sides to complete the mission. One person can shift the tide of the war and control for the galaxy with the right maneuver.
There is no doubt how influential Star Wars has been to the film industry however, A New Hope is not without its own influences making up its DNA. Lucas’s love of classic cars are the inspiration of each ship, the most recognizable being Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon (a ship that completed the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs). More prominent are Japanese samurai films and westerns give a make-up to how Jedi Knights fight along with the invisible “Force” that surrounds all beings. Kurosawa’s influence can be found within every frame of A New Hope.
Just nine short years prior, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is but another example of George Lucas taking what has been done before and simultaneously paying homage to the genre and tweaking it for the better.
Several themes bring A New Hope from the stars down to a more grounded level. Themes of hope, imperialism, bravery and courage are spotted easily but it’s the hits of political intrigue that leaves the most to be desired. Without saying more Lucas as a screenwriter does more for the world building than what plays out on screen with lines of dialogue.
Star Wars, despite its more basic premise is full of nuance around every corner of the galaxy and though it may be aimed at a younger audience , Lucas’s film casts a wide net that can be easily enjoyed by everyone, no matter how young or old. Lucas creates a likable appeal from all its characters. A strong ensemble of mostly unknowns create these larger-than-life personas that are forever linked to one another. Technically brilliant from all aspects like sound design, costume and production design and visually pleasing, Star Wars is an iconic accomplishment of cinema that will never expire from its themes to its overall message.
Screenplay By: George Lucas
Directed By: George Lucas
Music By: John Williams
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinness, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, James Earl Jones
Where to Watch: Disney Plus
Edited By: Paul Hirsh, Marcia Lucas & Richard Chew
Release Date: May 25, 1977
Running Time: 2 Hours 1 Minutes
Rotten Tomatoes Score: 93%