Sunday, April 18, 2010
Star Wars Marathon: Episode IV
Star Wars Epiosde IV: A New Hope (1977, George Lucas)
Picking up a couple of decades after the events of Episode III, the galaxy is now governed by the ruthless dictatorship that is the Galactic Empire. Hoping to overthrow the regime is what the Rebel Alliance, who, rumour has it, is gaining popularity in the Senate. At the moment, the Allliance’s first priority is to bring about the destruction of the Empire’s most feared weapon, the Death Star (a battle station that is quite literally in the shape of the sphere and that can blow up planets with a single shot of its powerful laser ray). When Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) star cruiser is viciously attacked at the beginning of the film, she hides the blue prints of the Death Star inside a familiar robot, R2D2, and sends him off to Tatooine where he along with BFF C3PO will come in contact with another recognizable, if now much older, character, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), but not before fate has them meet young Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil). An adventure begins.
This is the most straightforward episode in the series thus far. If one were to boil down the plot synopsis down to the most basis of elements found in Episode IV (something I never do well, forgive me), it would be ‘young farm boy rescue princess from clutches of evil Empire and becomes a wartime hero for the crusading Rebel Alliance. With Episode IV, Lucas attempts to offer a purer swashbuckling adventure with charismatic characters , witty dialogue and plenty of action to boot, all of this equipped with a brisk pace. Gone are the political debates that characterised many scenes in some of the first few films, gone is the ambiguity in the leading man, gone is the darker mood of the previous instalments for which most of the protagonists failed to make it out alive. One might also say gone are the intricate and complex computer effects of the first three films, but there is an obvious and logical reason for that. Still, George Lucas made do with what he had at the time and I’d say he pulled off a pretty good job, save for a few awkward moments. Episode IV is a fully realized universe, if a very different looking one from what we’ve seen up until now.
The simplicity in the setting of Episode IV is an adequate one for the purposes of the film’s story. Rather than having the villains come from within the ranks of the protagonists, the villains are already set up and the protagonists merely have to go after them. Having not watched this one in a few years, I had forgotten how rapidly it moves along. The movie was over before I knew it. It many ways this is a tremendous strength, but it also exposed some weaknesses at times. For the most part, I was entertained by what I saw and Lucas always kept throwing a new setting or new hurdles towards the heroes every few minutes or so, which certainly kept grabbing my attention. On the other hand, the brisk pace made some moments actually feel rushed, such as when Luke discovers that his aunt and uncle have been burned to a crisp by Stormtroopers. I always feel as if he gets over that loss rather quickly. The only section of the movie for which the pacing is affected by a sluggishness is near the beginning when R2D2 and C3PO are crossing the deserts plains of Tatooine and are eventually purchased by the Luke and his uncle for the farming season. It’s difficult to point my finger on the exact reason, but that 5-10 minute span feels a lot slower than the rest of the movie and not very interesting.
Oddly enough, another passage of the film that has always irked me is the climax. I’ve heaped on a lot of praise for the climaxes in the first three films, so perhaps it was just bound to happen that I’d be dissatisfied with one of them at some point, and here we are. I should point out that I like the stakes presented for the climax, that is, the need for the Rebel Alliance to destroy the ‘technological terror’ that is the Death Star’ before the latter has in plain sight the moon on which the Alliance has taken refuge. It is essentially a race against the clock, always a fun and rousing way to add an element of suspense into an action sequence. No, it is more with the setup and presentation of the climax that I have a bone to pick. Up until that point the film, despite owning the smallest budget in the franchise, had done a more than admirable job at creating a lot out of perhaps not so much. However, the exterior shots of the Death Star during the climax look very, very cheap. I don’t mean that in the ‘ah shucks, it’s an old movie and they did what they could back then’ sense. It just looks cheap. There is the question of Darth Vader’s mini squadron who hunt down the Rebel star ships. Are they equipped with stealth or something? How come nobody is going after them? Worse still, all the Rebel pilots keep claiming that they can’t see them. Suddenly, presto! They’re behind me again! Finally there is the issue of the Death Star’s weak link. Really? One long, straight corridor which reaches into the space station’s inner core? That’s a pretty silly way to build a Death Star if you ask me, which evidently you are if you’re reading this review.
At risk of pouring on too much negativity on a film I said I enjoyed only moments ago, I should reveal my general dislike for Mark Hamill. I’ve never felt that he was a capable actor. A bit wooden at times and a bit too forceful at other, Hamil is not an actor I feel can deliver a genuine performance. I will admit as much that he was better in Episode IV than I had recollected, but only once he is united with some of the more charismatic and lively performers in the franchise, namely, Harrison Ford (as Han Solo) and Carrie Fisher. Somehow that trio works quite well together. The banter they share is witty and comical. They are a group of people who under any other circumstances would have ripped each other’s heads off but at the moment are forced to band together and make it out of the Death Star alive. Yes, there is something about near death experiences that bring out the best in all of us. It is a tremendous bonding experience after all. In all seriousness however, Hamil does work reasonably well off Fisher and Ford, but in the early goings of the film he falls rather flat unfortunately. I don’t mean that as a knock against Alec Guinness however, who was one of the finest British actors to ever grace the stage and screen. His Obi-Wan is an intelligent mixture of maturity, elderly wisdom, with a little kick of gun ho attitude to boot, even though he isn’t as quick on his feat as he used to be. But he also much quieter than the rest of the cast, meaning Hamil has to carry his share of the load in the earlier scenes, which I don’t think he does very well. With Ford and Fisher, both of which are clearly having tons of fun in the role, he can sort of melt into the boiling pot of lively and rambunctious energy. Speaking of wit, energy and funny line delivery, I had almost forgotten how funny the scenes with Luke, Leia and Han running around inside the Death Star were. The first few films made appalling attempts at humour with the atrocity that was Jar Jar Binks and even C3PO in Episode II, but nothing ever quite made the cut in my opinion. The prison cell and trash compactor sequences in Episode IV are absolutely hysterical. How or why I had forgotten the entertainment value of those 10-15 minutes I do not know, but by golly are they ever funny.
As was the case in Episode II and III, there is a supporting character that stole the show over the leading man. Han Solo as played by Harrison Ford is a joy to watch. Cocky, funny, quick to make rash decisions, cool...the list can go on and on. In his later years, Ford has earned the reputation of being a bit of a wooden actor, but anyone who wants to see the man give a performance with a lot of spunk need only watch this movie. There is a reason why most people want to be Han Solo and not Luke Skywalker. Sure, manipulating the Force and learning to become a jedi sounds swell, but you can be a great anti-hero instead. Why not?
The one character whom we might have expected to see a lot of but in fact don’t is Darth Vader. After the rousing downfall of Anakin Skywalker in the previous chapter, Vader takes a bit of a backseat in Episode IV. Don’t get me wrong. When on screen his presence is felt, sometimes in very pronounced fashion, such as in the ‘I find your lack of faith disturbing’ scene, but is an Imperial general, General Tarkin, played with the appropriate iciness by Peter Cushing, who is calling the shots this time around. Even emperor Palpatine is nowhere to be found, although he is briefly mentioned at one point. Vader may be but the watchdog, but he is of the most intimidating sort. Of course, with only a black mask to show to the galaxy, it is the voice of the character that must carry the weight of the character. Hiring James Earl Jones was an inspired choice. The actor’s voice is pitch perfect for the role, lending not only authority but dare I say a certain amount of class to villain. I only say this because I love Earl Jones’ articulation. It’s very precise and sharp.
Something Lucas does exceptionally well in Episode IV is give his galaxy a lot of life. He is excellent at filling scenes with great extras and small speaking roles. Some of my favourite scenes are the ones for which plenty of alien costumes were created or several small bit actors were given some lines of dialogue. Any mention of aliens certainly conjures up the Mos Eisley cantina scene. There are so many fantastic creatures to look in that bar, some of which look fearful, others more comical, but let it be known that the art and costume design apartment put a lot of cleverness and work into bringing that bar to life for the movie. Another one of my favourite moments is the conference room scene in the Death Star, during which two Imperial general bicker about the strengths and weaknesses of their battle station. I like it for two reasons, the first being the two actors involved, both of which memorable performances. The second reason is that it gives a certain dynamic to the Galactic Empire. There aren’t just a bunch of faceless soldiers and generals, all joined together as one entity. I enjoy the notion of inner rivalries and bickering from within the ranks. There are even some brief moments when we can hear some Stormtroopers talk amongst each other and there again, it adds a bit of flavour to the villains and by extension the universe that Lucas has created.
For those watching the films for the first time, Episode IV can easily feel like a downgrade from some of the previous chapters in the series. It certainly looks older and more cheap and some of the action scenes aren’t as dynamic as what we’ve seen thus far in the marathon. But it is very difficult to ignore the charm found in the performances of Alec Guinness, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. Darth Vader, while playing second fiddle to General Tarkin, is a pretty cool villain. A lot of the exchanges between our heroes are wildly funny (even though they don’t like each other much at first) and much of the film moves along at a breakneck pace. Personally, I also like how this film works as a standalone picture. It has a beginning and an end. Had Lucas decided not to make any sequels, we still would have been left with a fine film in its own right, not one chapter in an incomplete saga. It doesn’t have a great climax, Mark Hamill is a bit whiny and too forceful in his dialogue at times and I’m not the biggest C3PO fan, but those criticisms are not enough to take away from my enjoyment of the film. For the first time in this marathon we witness a decrease in score, but that doesn’t mean we have a bad film on our hands. Anyone who still hasn’t checked out the original Star Wars should do so now.
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