For the first time in quite a while, my wife Sandi and I re-watched Star Wars: A New Hope (aka the REAL “first Star Wars movie”) last night. Certain aspects of it still hold up despite the passage of 40 years (!!!!!!!!!!) as of this coming summer. Other aspects really do not.
For starters, this is a textbook example of a movie saved in the editing room and post-production process. Remove the iconic soundtrack, sound effects, editing, and visual innovations, and this film would collapse into a clump of silliness. The younger performers are more or less dreadful; Carrie Fisher salvages her role with sheer attitude, but Chloë Grace Moretz  she ain’t. Mark Hamill’s the best of the three, but he’s clearly struggling with a badly written role in what had to have felt like a thankless job. Harrison Ford is cringeworthy; it’s hard, rewatching this movie, to believe that this role made him a star. The veteran actors come across far better, especially the Sirs Cushing and Guinness, plus James Earl Jones and – oddly enough – Anthony Daniels and Peter Mayhew, who did a lot with very little material; their professionalism anchors the film, but it’s not hard to see why Sir Alec, in particular, considered this movie an embarrassment. The writing is downright horrible, saved largely by a few strong performances that feature an often sardonic self-awareness of the absurdity of it all, combined with a dedication to make the best of a bad situation. Really, this was a kids’ movie that happened to say the right things at the right time, the right way, to resonate with adults as well.
A New Hope‘s real gems, however, still shine: Its soundtrack remains magnificent, a perfect encapsulation of the epic wonder and spectacle that Lucas wanted to convey. The production design, as familiar as it has become, retains its iconic flavor; a lesser effort would have doomed the film. The sound effects convey their primal shiver, and the fact that the model-work looks far better – even now – than the downright awful CGI inserts that Lucas painted all over his masterpiece in later years  attests to the skills of the camera, pyro, and model-making crews.
The biggest virtue this movie has, though, and the one which sets it apart from other SF movies of its era, is its deep-universe weirdness. For despite the pulp-action tropes, the setting of Star Wars exudes an enticing sense of the uncanny. The film is loaded with odd bits that hint at a larger universe: the mouse robots, the half-heard lines, the unexplained references to alien concepts, the weird writing and evocative names, the giant skeleton and the bizarre robots… it all feels like an especially vivid dream, and that sensation grants Star Wars a sophistication that its story lacks. Few genre movies, then or now, capture the illusion of depth as well as the first Star Wars does. Even more than its rousing message of triumph over odds, that is, I think, the element that keeps people coming back for more.
Frankly, I’m sick and tired of seeing folks grouse about the newest Star Wars movies – Rogue One and The Force Awakens. By every measure of film-making craft, they’re both vastly superior to the first trilogy, and leave the CGI atrocities of the second trilogy bleeding pixels in a corner on the floor. People kvetching about plot-holes and character development in Rogue One and TFA either have not watched ANH, Empire or – gods help us! – fucking Return of the Jedi in a very long time, or else remain so spellbound by the effects those movies had on them as kids that they can’t see past how goddamned BAD those movies (Empire excepted) really are as films. By the standards of the Star Wars series, Rogue One and Force Awakens are among the very best of the lot, worthy additions to an epic series.
I still appreciate the original Star Wars despite it flaws. It changed the art and industry of filmmaking (for better and worse), and retains a mythic power well out of proportion with its weaknesses. I suspect that what many folks are searching for in the newer Star Wars films is a return to wondrous innocence and the vast possibilities that first Star Wars film unveiled. Sadly, that ain’t gonna happen again. It’s not 1977, Star Wars is a cultural touchstone, and although a film like Rogue One can bring us elements of that saga that we’ve never seen before (a potential that I, for one, feel it did admirably), there’s no way to recreate that first blare of trumpets in a realm that, once alien, now seems so familiar.
Which means, of course, that we creators can, and must, create new canvases for our imagination, and approach our possibilities – regardless of our flaws – with that eternal attitude of A New Hope.
* – Until-recently-teenage actress known for her action-movie roles, who brings an impressive emotional complexity to her characters.
** – Jumping fucktoads, George, what were you THINKING? The Jabba footage is especially rank, giving Harrison Ford ample opportunity to shit all over his star cred while emoting badly at a vanished human who’s been glossed over by a CGI space-slug too fakey for a SYFY original movie. Especially considering that Lucas used ILM to “enhance” his “special editions” years after Jurassic Park, The Abyss, and Terminator 2: Judgement Day revolutionized CGI and brought the technique toward its present form, the additions to ANH are inexplicably bad.