Monday, January 18, 2016

Film Review: Star Wars

"Star Wars"
*** 1/2 (out of ****)

May the Force be with you!

George Lucas' "Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope" (1977) was one of my childhood favorites growing up. I didn't discover the "Star Wars Trilogy" until my teens. Like those that first saw the series, upon its theatrical release, I became obsessed with all things "Star Wars" and trying to unravel the mystery of the Force.

As the years passed I hadn't thought much about "Star Wars". I was initially excited when plans were announced by George Lucas that he was going to create a new trilogy, this time explaining the origins of Anakin Skywalker, as now I would be able to see a "Star Wars" movie in a theatre myself. I liked the movies more than the general public, which engaged in their usual over-reacting and condemned the new trilogy as  inferior to the original films.

After that time "Star Wars" had almost completely left my mind. It was an after thought. And then news was released Disney had bought the franchise from Mr. Lucas and a whole new series of movies were going to be released. Fans greatly anticipated the release of a new "Star Wars". The marketing was overwhelming. You couldn't escape "Star Wars". That of course brought back attention to the original movies. The new series of films would take place after "Return of the Jedi" (1983). And that is where I find myself. I have seen "The Force Awakens" (2015), thought it was a good movie but wanted to re-watch the original trilogy. For all the praise "The Force Awakens" has received, I remembered the original movies being much, much more enjoyable.

Watching "Star Wars" again I see my memory played tricks on me. I had to watch the movie twice to fully appreciate it. I had originally remembered "Star Wars" being a more emotional movie, creating a full background for the character Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), which is why I didn't like "The Force Awakens" as much as other movies. I felt we didn't get to know the characters. I now see Mr. Lucas doesn't nearly tell us enough about the characters he has created in this universal either.

"Stars Wars" essentially is a "B" movie but it has much better production values than any "B" movie you will have ever seen. Us old timers can see the influence of "Flash Gordon" (1936) and "Buck Rogers" (1939), rousing space adventures which placed characters in life and death situations, as movie audiences would return to theatres week after week to see if the heroes would escape. That I believe more than anything is supposed to be the magic of "Star Wars".

This movie is more about the adventure than the characters. There is minimal background provided. But that is besides the point. It is what the characters do. Their interaction with one another that makes the movie special. Watching "Star Wars" again, I could almost see this as a 1930s or 40s movie serial. The acting is nearly at the same level and the dialogue is only slightly better. Still the movie is fun with its blend of science-fiction, action, lighthearted humor and adventure.

We meet a young man named Luke Skywalker. He is a late teenager, eager to leave the home of his aunt (Shelagh Fraser) and uncle (Phil Brown) and attend an Academy, where most of his friends are. However, the uncle needs Luke to help him tend to their farm and promises Luke the following year he may leave.

On this particular day two droids; R2-D2 and C-3PO have escaped a spaceship in which Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) was aboard. She is the leader of a Rebel Alliance, which has stolen plans to the Death Star, a space station capable of destroying planets. It is the creation of the Galactic Empire. The Princess has inserted the plans as well as a secret message in R2-D2 with instructions for a Jedi Knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to help.

The droids have been kidnapped by Jawa traders and are sold to Luke's uncle. But R2-D2 is determined to reach Obi-Wan Kenobi, who lives on the same planet as Luke. Eventually Obi-Wan receives the message from R2-D2 and introduced to Luke, who's father, Anakin, was also a Jedi Knight and knew Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan, wanting to respect the wishes of the Princess, wants to help deliver the plans of the Death Star to the Rebel Alliance but requires the help of Luke Skywalker. And so our adventure begins.

There is not much of a plot to "Star Wars" but the movie is unrelenting in introducing us to new characters and creating fighting sequences. The plot is just enough to carry some level of importance but is merely a flimsy excuse to bring all these characters together.

Of all the actors in "Star Wars" it is Sir Alec Guinness who seems the most uncomfortable. One could imagine the reason Mr. Lucas would cast the famous actor would be because Sir Guinness would add respectability to the story. Sir Guinness, for younger audiences unaware, was a very distinguished English actor known for his roles in both comedies and dramatic films. In the years after the release of "Star Wars" Sir Guinness would admit his dislike for the character Obi-Wan Kenobi and resented the fact he became so strongly identified with the character. Sir Guinness feels this is all beneath him. The audience can clearly tell he is having trouble delivering the dialogue. Oddly enough Sir Guinness would received an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actor for his performance.

The actor who comes out looking the best is Harrison Ford as a hot-shot pilot Han Solo. It is the Han Solo character that most resembles a Buck Rogers type. He adds much of the lighthearted humor to the movie. He is the only male character that routinely engages in fighting sequences and has the screen presence of a hero.

Although the series would be centered on the Luke Skywalker character (were audiences aware this would be a trilogy in 1977?), Skywalker is the most bland of all the characters. There is nothing special about him. Luke Skywalker is surrounded by extraordinary people. He is a nobody at this point. He is learning the ways of the Force. He is not a great fighter either. He doesn't possess heroic qualities. That is why there is a sequence at the end of the movie where Skywalker  and other Rebel fighters try to destroy the Death Star. It is to help the audience see Skywalker as a hero. The movie had to allow him to accomplish something while every other character does something heroic.

But the real fun in watching "Star Wars" is to see George Lucas' imagination and the creation of all the creatures shown in the movie. The best scene is a sequence where Obi-Wan and Luke go to a dangerous meeting ground hoping to find a pilot. In this scene we see several scary looking aliens. How on earth did George Lucas create these characters?

Despite the lack of a strong plot the viewer also enjoys the action sequences and light saber flights. Just as one would watching "Flash Gordon". The movie creates one action scene after another in an attempt to draw the viewer into the story and make us care about the characters.

Upon its release "Star Wars" was at once a nostalgic throwback to early movie serials of the 1930s and a groundbreaking movie which has inspired sci-fi movies ever since. It was one of those rare critical and commercial darlings. At its time of release it was the highest grossing movie of all time (although when adjusted for inflation, no movie has grossed more than "Gone With the Wind" (1939) an amazing feat when you think about it) and would go on to earn 10 Academy Award nominations including best picture, director, screenplay and naturally visual effects.

Is "Star Wars" one of the greatest movies of all-time? Not really. But boy is it fun to watch. I really admire the spirit of the movie and where it draws its influence from. Even in 2016 I look at the movie and think it is a great visual feast. Based on its cultural impact and influence any serious movie lover has to see this movie as well as its sequels.

[Note: This review is a reaction to the original theatrical version released on VHS. I absolutely refuse to watch the "Special Edition" versions in which George Lucas added scenes and special effects.]