#2 in my Ranking of the Star Wars franchise.
It’s amazing how this movie still works as well as it does. I think there are two main components to the original Star Wars‘s success as a film. The first is Lucas’ embrace of Joseph Campbell’s model of mythic storytelling. He utilizes the archetypes Campbell built so cleanly and the narrative structure so clearly that the core story of the film resonates easily with audiences. The second is how the story gets integrated into the largely implied larger universe of Star Wars.
The core story of Luke Skywalker leaving his out of the way farm to follow a space wizard on an adventure with a clear villain and large stakes is complete in this one film. If there had never been another Star Wars movie, it would still work as a rip-roaring space opera, but there’s such detail in the edges of the frame. We sees dozens of aliens speaking completely unintelligible alien languages and the characters pass through them without batting an eye. There’s talk of an Empire (established well as an antagonistic force), but also of a Senate, the Old Republic, gangsters like Jabba, and more. They never overtake the story, instead they function as window dressing that allows for the audience’s imagination to run wild and try to fill in gaps. They’re not narrative gaps, so the story flows well, they’re universe gaps that don’t negatively affect the storytelling but invite audience participation in lesser details.
That’s something that’s been lost recently. Instead of focusing on the one story and telling it with detailing the edges to excite, the core stories get sacrificed in order to try and establish new storylines that could continue in future sequels.
The key to this in Star Wars is the famed cantina scene. Up until that point, we’ve seen mostly humans with androids. There have been Jawas and Sandpeople, but they were localized to this one alien planet, Tatooine. What we see in the cantina is a cross section of aliens from across the galaxy. They all look different and sound different. It’s opening up the universe of the movie in one single scene that sparks the imagination. We’ve felt like we were in a rather typical techno fantasy up to that point, but the cantina just bursts open the possibilities.
Not to imply that these are the only two reasons for Star Wars‘s artistic success. There are other factors. The movie is pretty much perfectly cast. Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Peter Cushing, Carrie Fisher, and Alec Guinness all embody their archetypical roles snugly. Hamill feels very much like the wide-eyed farm boy. Ford is the scoundrel. Cushing is the evil general. Fisher is the smart and tough princess. Guinness is the wizened old man. They play off each other really well, creating a sense of comradery that’s hard to deny.
John Williams’ score also deserves a strong mention. It’s one of the great scores with themes like the Binary Sunset that embody both melancholy desire and hope at the same time. His action beats are more than mere percussion, they still utilize themes in exciting ways that help compliment the action on screen perfectly.
There needs to be mention of the editing as well. By all accounts, Lucas’s then wife Marcia saved the final battle. The original script and first edit by another editor fell flat in the original rough cut. Marcia was brought in and spent eight weeks retooling tens of thousands of feet of film to create the danger, excitement, tension, and explosion of relief at the resolution. It’s a special effects showcase for sure, but it’s more of a triumph of superior editing skills more than anything else. The battle over the Death Star is one of the great action special effects sequences ever made (even more than 40 years later) because we’ve invested in our archetypal characters and the craft of how the scene is put together draws in the audience.
While the movie may be about space wizards and magic, it contains enough universal human touches (as a proxy from Campbell’s narrative theories) while utilizing the filmic craft to its fullest potential. Star Wars is a triumph of popular entertainment. It’s a simple story, well told, with enough on the edges to further excite the imagination.
Netflix Rating: 5/5
Quality Rating: 4/4