Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Rewatching "Star Wars"

That "Star Wars" inspired a radio series called "I've never seen Star Wars" indicates that it is one of the cultural phenomenon which is expected to be near ubiquitous. Yet, there's another way to think about the film: that I've never really seen "StarWars." What I mean by this is that for those of us who were kids when the film came out and queued to see it at one of our provincial cinemas, uncomprehending parents in attendance, its almost impossible to think of "Star Wars" as just a film - without all the other stuff around it: the sequels; the prequels; the Star Wars Universe; LEGO Star Wars; the memorabilia etc. etc.

So when I saw "Star Wars" was on television on Sunday night (albeit under its "new" name "Episode IV: A New Hope") I watched it, not just as a film, but as the place where the franchise started, before all that other stuff. Ironically, of all the "Star Wars" movies its probably the one I've seen all the way through the least times. "Empire Strike Backs" I caught last year; "Return of the Jedi" I seemed to see every time it came on television; whilst the prequels I've somehow caught part of whenever I've had a nephew in the neighbourhood. Yet its probably a decade or more since I last saw "Star Wars" and I'm not even sure I'd ever seen the remastered versions - I'm pretty sure this one was one of those - there were a few bits I just didn't remember, unnecessary scenes mainly.

The film starts in familiar fashion, with that brilliant prologue, as the titles disappear into the screen - has ever a film been so recognisable through its typography? For this is a space movie set in the past - a future past, or past future. Before cyberpunk or steampunk there was "Star Wars" odd melding of nostalgia with technology. What surprised me was how little dialogue is in the first half hour of the film, and how little actors feature. For the first half hour or so we have stormtroopers, droids, spaceships, and various Muppet-like inhabitants of sandy Tatooine, with just a few seconds of Princess Leia, and then a few sparse scenes with Luke and his aunt and uncle. The start must have seemed strange in the extreme to those audiences in 1977, yet we are immediately into a piece of mythic storytelling - we have arrived mid-story - not just in the "Episode IV" but in the middle of an escape flight. Darth Vader's arrival on Leia's ship is an interruption, and she has the wherewithal to send her droids to finish her mission. For Leia is searching for Obi Wan Kenobi "the last" Jedi, who she feels will be able to do something with the plans of the Empire's new battle station, the ominous planet-sized Death Star.

The first words are from the camp hospitality robot C3P0, "We're doomed..." he says echoing Dad's Army - and one notices how many of the accents are English. The Empire's war council are dressed like the Nazi high command but speak in RP. There's some great storytelling in this first "Star Wars" movie. Little touches like the pod being released having no human life forms on it, gives a bit more time to R2D2 and C3P0. Yet the look of the film, nearly forty years on, is still impressive. There's a darkness about the interiors that is classic spaceship d├ęcor - not so different than Lucas's debut film THX-1138 or other 70s SF. It did for British TV SF like "Dr. Who". These were believable spaceships, live action monsters, rather than men in monster suits (though Chewbacca carries on that tradition), and, most impressive of all - the light sabres are still the coolest looking weapon you could ever have.

The cinematography throughout is great, but its also got that slow, clipped storytelling of so many great seventies movies, where scenes snap into the next one, yet there's a seamlessness to it that makes use of the big screen. TV this isn't. Part of the grandeur is in the detail. The monsters are still believable, but so are the human stars. Cleanshaven Luke and Han seem less dated than most heroes of that period, even if the first looks like a Lief Garrett at times. Its strange that Mark Hammill wasn't ever a bigger star: the camera loves him at times.

Part of this power is the operatic nature of the story, where John Williams' music comes into its own. There's a lovely bit, I noticed, when we first see Luke, not a big entrance, but just helping his uncle buy a couple of droids at the market, and there's the basic "Star Wars" theme played over the top, not the fully orchestrated one, but just the theme, indicating the appearance of someone special. Similarly, "the Force", that strange magical power that gives the Jedi its power is introduced so subtley as you hardly notice. We see Luke fighting with a training robot, and Han Solo ridicules the idea of such a thing. Yet if the film really works on a human level its because this "band of brothers/sisters" comes together to have an unbreakable bond. I remember the somewhat "will they? won't they?" between Luke and Leia, but its pretty chaste even here - whereas Han's libido is larger than life.

"Star Wars" gets by on big emotions, and big action scenes, but they are ably handled. Even slightly creaky machinations, such as the scenes when they are inside the "Death Star" are handled adeptly. I wondered why Obi Wan Kenobi says that if he is beaten he will come back stronger, and then he waits to let Luke see him beaten by Darth Vader. It is the passing on of the baton - this is their destiny.

Aware that their ship is bugged they nonetheless go on to the rebel base for a final showdown, luring the Death Star to them, having seen it already destroy one planet. This death or glory part of the story is exciting but feels a little overdone now - we've seen so many space flight movies with acts of derring do. Mind you, isn't the dropping of the bombs on the Death Star an echo of the Dambusters? Darth Vader lives to fight another day, but his character is hardly drawn here: yet its quite powerful when he first appears, not speaking but breathing raspily. We'll have to wait another five films before we see how Vader becomes Vader. It was better I think not to know.

Most of all, I was struck by the film being a standalone one. In the 70s sequels were just second rate cash ins, usually done at low cost and often without the cast of the original, trading on the name - but this film, though it already has a sense of its own mythical universe was stand alone for a few years. Lucas was waiting for technology to catch up, to enable the second and third films to take leaps forward in their spectacle, if not necessarily in their content. "Empire Strikes Back" is generally seen as the best of the bunch, though its always suffered because of being bookended by the films before and after. "Star Wars" I was remembered used to exist on its own without the universe that grew inevitably around its massive success. Its a wonderful movie.

No comments: