Star Wars IV: A New Hope (United States, 1977)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When one examines the roster of the tens of thousands of motion pictures produced since the late 1800s, not many stand out as trailblazers. One of the few inarguable members of that select cadre is George Lucas' soaring 1977 space opera, Star Wars (or, as it has since become known, Star Wars: A New Hope). Not only is this film a rousing adventure, but, upon its initial release, it revived science fiction as a viable movie medium, and, most importantly, began a special effects revolution that is still going on. Industrial Lights and Magic, the premiere special effects house of the '80s and '90s, was born as a result of Star Wars, and its manifest contributions to the industry have included everything from making the Starship Enterprise fly to breathing life into the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park. It's impossible to estimate the full ramifications of Star Wars, but that single movie has surely influenced much about the making and marketing of motion pictures over the last two decades.

When Star Wars was first released on the Wednesday before Memorial Day in 1977, it arrived in theaters with good reviews and excellent advance word. It didn't take long for it to become a phenomenon (although, admittedly, 1997's publicity for the Special Edition dwarfs that of the original 1977 release). It was a true family film -- perfect for kids and parents, a throwback to the space serials of the past and a look ahead to what the future might hold. Adults appreciated Lucas' masterful, magical movie-making. Children loved all the strange creatures. Suddenly, Star Wars was everywhere; there were bed sheets, lunch boxes, trading cards, action figures, comic books, picture books, posters, records, and just about anything else you could imagine.

The Star Wars fad, such as it was, lasted into the early '80s, and the original film received two additional theatrical runs. Then it was on to the small screen. But watching the movie on videotape, which has been the exclusive viewing experience of just about anyone under the age of twenty, isn't the same as seeing it in a packed theater. Now, however, with the advent of the original movie's twentieth anniversary and the promise of new films in another two years, Star Wars is as hot as it has ever been. Those predicting anything less than a financial windfall for the Special Edition don't have the world's pulse.

Every year, a handful of movies are re-released to commemorate an anniversary. All of these feature new, clean prints. Some have re-mixed soundtracks. A few, such as Lawrence of Arabia, Vertigo, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, have been painstakingly restored. But Lucas wanted more than this for Star Wars. He didn't just want to re-create the original theatrical experience, he wanted to improve upon it. So, in addition to cleaning up the print and re-mixing the soundtrack into a digital format, he has used state-of-the- art special effects to change the film's look. This includes adding more than four minutes of never- before-seen footage. And, while the new scenes don't appreciably improve the movie, they're fun to see, especially for anyone who has memorized every detail from the original. More importantly, although the newer, flashier effects subtly alter the Star Wars experience, they do not degrade it.

By now, the heroes -- Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels), and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) -- are household names. Equally well-known are the villains - - Governor Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and, of course, the Dark Lord of the Sith, Darth Vader (David Prowse; voice courtesy of the inimitable James Earl Jones). These characters, familiar types with enough unique personality traits to brand them as individuals, have become so universally recognized that the mere mention of their names almost anywhere in the world will spur a reaction.

Another thing that's instantly recognizable about Star Wars is its music. When George Lucas first approached John Williams for an epic score, little did he imagine that the result would sell millions of copies and spawn a disco-era radio hit. Few motion picture themes are as well- known and often-played as that of Star Wars. Even the music from E.T., the current highest-grossing film, doesn't leap as readily to mind. Williams' evocative, grandiose score provides the perfect compliment to the Star Wars visual experience.

At its heart, Star Wars is about Luke's quest to join the battle against evil. He doesn't want to be just another bystander while the struggle for freedom goes on all around him -- he wants to be a participant. And, when two droids carrying a secret message from a beautiful rebel princess fall into his hands, his chance arrives. Amidst of the dunes of Luke's home planet of Tatooine, the young man meets the aging Jedi Knight, Obi-Wan Kenobi, who teaches of the mysterious Force, a mystical energy field that binds together all things in the universe. Obi-Wan convinces Luke to join the droids and him on a mission to rescue the princess. Accompanied by a cynical smuggler, Han Solo, and his first mate, the hairy Chewbacca, the odd little group blasts off into space with agents of the corrupt Galactic Empire in pursuit. Their destination: the dreaded Imperial Death Star, a confrontation with the evil Darth Vader, and motion picture immortality.

Star Wars borrows from numerous sources, but the most obvious inspirations are the serialized adventures of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, Arthurian legends, Greek mythology, and Akira Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress. There are also multiple nods to Westerns and the dogfights of World War II movies. But, like all great craftsmen, Lucas has managed to fashion this material in a manner that not only honors the original sources, but makes it uniquely his own. Hacks rip off other movies; artists synthesize and pay homage to their inspirations. Compare Independence Day to Star Wars and the difference will become apparent.

During its original period of theatrical release, Star Wars' special effects were described as everything from "eye popping" to "mind blowing". And, indeed, for their time, they were. (Keep in mind that King Kong's rather cheesy visuals had won the Academy Award just two months before Star Wars was released.) In fact, they're not bad even by today's standards. But "not bad" wasn't good enough for Lucas, and his vision of what they should have been fills the screen in the Special Edition. This is most notable during three key sequences: Luke and Ben's entry into the city of Mos Eisley, Han's heretofore unseen hanger bay meeting with Jabba the Hut, and the final attack on the Death Star. However, in scenes both with and without effects improvements, Star Wars is just as compelling and invigorating a movie experience today as it was when it first came out, and the new stuff blends in seamlessly with the old.

Since 1977, there have been many science fiction movies, but none has managed to equal Star Wars' blend of adventure, likable characters, and epic storytelling. Like some indefatigable King of the Hill, it stands alone and triumphant, regardless of the many imitators that assail its position. As is true of Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and Gone with the Wind, Star Wars will endure long after its creators are gone. And watching this new edition today is like coming home after a long journey and finding everything just as you remember it -- if not better.

Star Wars IV: A New Hope (United States, 1977)

Director: George Lucas
Cast: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, Peter
Screenplay: George Lucas
Cinematography: Gilbert Taylor
Music: John Williams
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Ranked #55 in Berardinelli's Top 100
Run Time: 2:09
U.S. Release Date: 1977-05-25
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1