Light-Sabers Up! Episode IV: A New Hope
This is the first in a series of reviews I’ll be writing for each of the live-action theatrical Star Wars films. I’ll be reviewing the films in release order in order to give the proper historical context for each film. I’ll also be grading and ranking each film as I go.
Everyone knows the story of Star Wars, and almost everyone has seen it, so to many the idea that it one of the most important film in modern cinema history might be taken for granted. What isn’t as obvious is just how close it came to not being what it is – the singular blockbuster film that set in motion the last 40 years of cinema.
As a concept, Star Wars was almost exclusively the work of George Lucas – he wrote and directed the film, the last one he would serve double-duty on until the Star Wars prequels. With a basic story rooted in Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and a classical score composed by John Williams (perhaps the most important film score in history), the film followed a recognizable formula, providing a sense of comfort to the new and strange world – a “used future” set in another galaxy in the distant past, a singular Force connecting all living things, and an evil Empire trying to solidify its rule. However, it took a collaborative work with editors Paul Hirsch and Lucas’s then-wife Marcia as well as composer John Williams and the visual geniuses at Industrial Light & Magic to truly trim the masterpiece we know today.
As a film, Star Wars holds up incredibly well, especially if you watch the unaltered original film. Having watched both the original edition and the “special edition” re-release, the original stands out as far superior, in part because of its meticulous editing. Rocket Jump’s excellent video “How Star Wars was saved in the edit” goes into depth on this, but the gist of it is in production, Star Wars was on the brink of disaster – the film was slow-paced and bloated. Edits drastically improved the film’s structure, particularly in the film’s final trench run sequence. In a clever bit of editing, the film was modified to provide the ticking clock element of the imminent destruction of the rebel base – an element that, remarkably, was not in the original cut. This new addition added the incredible tension in the final act, as fighter after fighter is picked off until only Luke is left to finish the run.
Star Wars isn’t a perfect film – no film is. As the first film in the saga, some things don’t quite hold up – half the characters pronounce “Leia” as “Leah”, the lightsaber fight is quite tame even by the standards of the original trilogy, and some of the dialogue can seem a tad off. But this hardly harms the film, which remains as exciting as it was 40 years ago – if anything it adds to the charm. The film’s editing, score, and acting are all phenomenal. Even with all the minor imperfections, Star Wars remains the archetypical blockbuster film – not a perfect film, but the perfect film for the blockbuster age.
Of course, any discussion of the original Star Wars trilogy is incomplete without discussion of the Special Editions. Having watched both the original edition and the “special edition” Blu-ray release, the original stands out as far superior, in part because of its meticulous editing. The CGI additions into the film generally stand out poorly against the incredible practical and model effects, and the added scenes, while interesting relics, are just that – relics. Even the best of these new scenes – the short reunion between Luke and his friend Biggs – is simply the ending of a story that was wisely aborted in editing. The worst addition by far is the Jabba the Hutt scene, which was rightfully cut for being redundant. The Special Editions, while an interesting experiment, mostly detracts from the excellent film, but regardless of how you see it, both versions are still very watchable. I would recommend seeking out the original cut, however, either in the Laserdisc releases, the rare DVD transfer (regrettably presented in non-anamorphic widescreen), Harmy’s Despecialized Editions, or the newest version, 4K77.
The original Star Wars opens my rankings at an A+ grade. As a bit of a spoiler, it’s not my favorite film in the saga – but it’s right up there with the best of the bunch.
Star Wars saga ranking:
- Star Wars – A+