Opinion

Why ‘Star Wars’ Still Stands Head and Shoulders Above Modern Blockbusters

George Lucas' 1977 blockbuster set the bar too high for Team Disney to match

It’s 2020, and for the time being, “Star Wars” is dead.

We continue to hear of Lucasfilm projects and rumors of Lucasfilm projects, but so far as anyone can tell, the damage has been done.

“The Rise of Skywalker” failed to patch together what little remained in director Rian Johnson’s wake following “The Last Jedi.” Until the infighting at Disney pans out, there’s not much to look forwards to beyond more “Mandalorian” episodes on Disney Plus.

The Mandalorian | Official Trailer | Disney+ | Streaming Nov. 12

That said, I’m not really here to give you the big sads any more than necessary. The real question is this — what is it we miss so much about the original movies?

Was the writing and presentation really that much better than blockbusters of today, or Lucasfilm’s own sequel trilogy? Do the pre-special edition effects really stand up more than four decades later?

The obvious answer is “yes,” but let’s be more specific.

During the lockdown I rewatched the original “Star Wars” trilogy (for the purposes of this essay I’ll be focusing on “A New Hope”). A few family members even joined me for the trip down memory lane.

These movies have gone through numerous changes since their release, some even before they left theaters. The most significant of which happened with the “Special Editions,” but what really gets people’s goat is that finding a decent quality version of the theatrical or original laserdisc versions in widescreen is almost impossible.

Top 10 Worst Star Wars Special Edition Changes

Fan editors have spent years trying to piece together the original three films in digital hi-res glory, but the last time anything close to that was released commercially was as part of the 2011 Blu-ray release. Suffice it to say, I’m familiar with both the Special Edition and Pre-Special Edition versions of the film, and I will mostly be referring to the film as it was when originally set loose on the world in 1977, not with the changes from ’97 onward.

In the interests of clarity (and originality) I’ll try not to retread the plot blow-for-blow, instead emphasizing what stands out most to me.

Let’s get started.

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977) Trailer #1 | Movieclips Classic Trailers

Firstly, “Star Wars” has one of the most famous opening shots in cinematic history. Everything from John William’s blasting fanfare, to the ships roaring overhead and the sprawling planet far below, effectively sets the stage.

The second thing that struck me on this viewing was how funny this sequence was. Being introduced to a film like this so young made it easier for jokes to go over my head, while still thinking that I’d absorbed everything there was to see.

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Looking at it years later, from a writer’s perspective, I got several chuckles out of things like R2-D2 and C-3PO slowly crossing a hallway through intense crossfire, or the moment when a blaster bolt cuts 3PO off, forcing him to seek cover with R2 in the escape pod.

Another interesting thing about this sequence is how it introduces us to the setting long before we meet our main protagonist. Sure, Princess Leia and Darth Vader are briefly introduced, but our main point of view characters here are R2-D2 and C-3PO, and both have important loads to carry for the audience.

C-3PO’s curiosity about R2’s mysterious mission helps ease in the new viewer, while on later rewatches I find myself empathizing more with R2. The droid knows what cards are in play and is constantly frustrated by 3PO’s skittishness.

Yes, I know starting in medias res isn’t the most original thing in the world, but it’s how this one develops as we go on that really makes it unique.

As I mentioned before, there’s an unusually long time between our opening and when we meet our protagonist.

Most films focus our empathy on the hero as the person who, like the audience, has everything about this strange new universe explained to him. “Star Wars” survives this transition partially on the merits of it’s spectacular, explodey hook, but it’s worth noting that this isn’t simply a matter of it being written that way.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A young farmboy and his droids, beginning their journey on Tatooine… #TBT

A post shared by Star Wars (@starwars) on

Scenes of Luke viewing the space battle through his super space binoculars and sharing the news with his friends were actually shot. I’m surprised they had the guts to cut it—it’s not the sort of thing that a studio boss would let slip off the scriptwriting checklist in 2020, at any rate.

As a result of that decision, it takes a full 17 minutes for Luke to enter the narrative, and we spend at least half of the intervening time with a character that literally cannot speak English (R2-D2).

As a very young kid, I found the sheer length rather annoying (at least on repeat viewings). However, I’ve grown into it over the years, and it does establish something rather important—”Star Wars” is an epic with action scenes, not an action movie with epic scenes.

I mean, the scenes are epic, but I mean in the old-school sense—it has more in common with “The Lord of the Rings” than “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” The point of view is shared around the way it would be in a history book, without committing absolutely to the hero’s point of view.

There’s a sense of mystery that drives those long minutes between the time our intrepid droid pair hit sand and the moment Aunt Beru calls Luke over to edge of their underground courtyard, introducing us to our lead.

“The Fellowship of the Ring” (the novel, which was published long before “Star Wars”) is known for having a similar sense of drag in the early chapters. These are a lot more appealing to older readers, who have a better appreciation for family politics and the humorous digs at English culture.

The way Tolkien eases you into the world of his story is one of the things that gives it staying power.

Lucas improves on Tolkien’s structure for the flash and glitz of the silver screen by opening with a splashy battle scene (something “The Fellowship of the Ring” does for its cinematic adaption as well). Once Lucas has your attention, he takes you on a brief travelogue of normal life on a backwater planet, eking bits of drama and humor from R2 and 3PO getting into a spat over directions and being kidnapped by desert Oompah-Loompas as voiced by Alvin and the Chipmunks played backwards.

Seriously, it’s easy to forget how funny these movies are.

After our introduction to Luke, the pace picks up, and we start to see the part of the plot that modern blockbusters have copied over and over again, where the hero first sets out on his journey. We’re introduced to Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness), the Mentor, Luke’s family is killed (suddenly I’m reminded that Peter Parker had an Uncle Ben—odd coincidence) and he gets into his first bar fight in the middle of trying to hire an interplanetary Uber.

STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE Clip - Rescuing The Princess (1977) George Lucas

Here I noticed another interesting thing—or more specifically, my mother recalled something her friend had told her back when they saw the film back in the ’70s (one of those side benefits of watching movies with other people).

This is the first time we see a lightsaber in action, and the fact that it cuts, rather than disintegrates, was an important clue to her that not all was as it seemed later on, when Vader appears to strike Kenobi down.

This is just good writing, but it’s also worth remembering that we live in a world reshaped by this franchise and how it changed cinema, not to mention sci-fi and fantasy in general. Beam weapons routinely disintegrated targets without a trace in films of this era (“Star Trek” had been around for nearly two decades).

The fact that neither blasters nor lightsabers have this effect is another example of “Star Wars” doing things in a grounded and believable way that ages fantastically.

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Speaking of Vader, around this point we’re taken back to the Imperial side of things, and some of the most glaring differences between this film and the trilogies that were to follow are seen.

But first, an excessive amount of context.

It’s been five years since “The Force Awakens” was released in theaters. At the time, the scene where Starkiller Base blows the New Republic capital out of the sky was seen as not just a plot point, but a rejection of the Prequel’s plodding political commentary.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer (Official)

Both fans and the filmmakers agreed that “Star Wars” needed more explosions, and more explosions is what we got. It’s hard for me to tell exactly how long it took for the implications to sour, but most of the reviewers and fans whose opinions I respect seem to have come to the conclusion that this was a mistake (not to mention that “less politics” would turn out to be the most ironic of the Sequels’ broken promises).

The First Order and The Resistance (two of the most generically trendy faction names I’ve ever heard in any entertainment medium, period), appear to exist in a sort of surreal fantasy universe, where tactical resources simply appear onscreen whenever they are needed.

Let me clarify that this isn’t a problem simply because it doesn’t pack in all the technical details and “lore” that I spent ungodly amounts of time memorizing as a kid. Any professional writer can tell you that tone and detail exist on a sliding scale, depending on the kind of story that the author wants to tell.

“Star Wars’” particular balance of detailed worldbuilding and swashbuckling drama is quite different from say, “Star Trek’s,” or a Jack Ryan movie, or even the “Flash Gordon” serials that inspired it.

What I’m trying to get at here is that the Sequel Trilogy’s “level of detail,” so to speak, is simply lower than the originals, with the presumed intention of giving the audience fewer complex ideas to juggle. However, rather than simplifying the audience’s intellectual load, the lack of defined information clashes with the grounded tone, leaving the viewer to struggle with vague or conflicting fragments of information.

The filmmakers and the audience simply don’t take the same things for granted, and this results in a confusing mess of a universe that seems to bend and warp like the background of an Instagram model’s selfie (let’s see how fast that reference ages).

What’s so maddening about this is that “A New Hope,” the film they were supposedly mirroring, has none of these problems. Watching Vader struggle to be taken seriously by the pompous Imperial High Command is not only informative, but directly related to Luke’s quest to become a Jedi.

It gives Vader’s famous Force Choke meaning outside of merely being a novel way to punish subordinates. Even Vader, in his own warped way, represents a truth that the Imperial regime wants kept hidden—that when the chips are down, the destiny of the universe is not measured by human computation.

Grasping this truth, letting destiny guide his aim, will be what sends Luke’s final shot home—and give us the crowd-pleasing finish that made this film successful beyond its financiers’ wildest dreams.

Speaking of which, let’s abruptly skip to the end and talk about the Death Star run.

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This is a very tightly written and straightforwards sequence, almost bare-bones by comparison to modern blockbusters—but it thrives on that simplicity, generating the tension and payoff that sort of sequence needs to be memorable.

It’s probably worth noting that the assembly cut of “Star Wars” was known for being confusing and bloated. Lucas collaborated with a team of three editors, including his then-wife, Marcia, reducing the number of Luke’s attack runs to one (there were two in the assembly cut), and raising the stakes by adding the Death Star countdown sequences with Tarkin.

As a result, we have a gripping, tightly written finale that pays off everything we’ve seen up to this point.

STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE Clip - Death Star Attack (1977) Mark Hamill

The main issues (if you want to call them that) are that Leia doesn’t have a whole lot to do, and Han Solo skips town for most of it—but there’s something about Luke suiting up to be a lowly fighter pilot (rather than graduating straight to Jedi Knight) that once again sets “Star Wars” apart from the modern Superhero mold.

Nobody cares that Luke just busted Princess Leia out of the Death Star.

He doesn’t get a special suit, either. His call sign is “Red 5,” not “Red Leader.” He doesn’t get to command any extras until everyone but he and the only two pilots he has any personal connection with are dead or scattered.

Even this stands out as an interesting twist—one of the things improved in the Special Edition was adding back Luke’s reunion with Biggs. Not only does it make his death hit harder, but it becomes far more interesting when Luke is saved earlier by Wedge (Red 2).

The story is reminding us subtly—everyone matters, not just the Chosen One. It suggests that each of these pilots we’ve had all of five seconds introduction to had their own journeys to this point, finding themselves on a suicide mission against impossible odds. You don’t have to feel too bad every time one of these red shirts gets shot out of the sky—but like any good truth, it’s there all the same, whether you feel it or not.

As a final twist, Luke doesn’t get to face Darth Vader mano-y-mano with the lightsaber he barely knows how to use. Instead, he’s saved by Han at the last minute, leaving him free to use the Force to take the final shot.

It’s not really a surprise at this point, but given how much marketing was dedicated to Luke using a lightsaber, he gets remarkably little screen time with it. Once again, this is ultimately a good thing, building up Luke and Vader’s confrontation in “The Empire Strikes Back.”

It’s also an example of how tight writing isn’t just good because it focuses on the best ideas in a story, but also leaves room for you to expand on that idea in the sequel—but that’s a story for another time.

When it comes to mass-media franchises, we live in the world “Star Wars” built. What truly boggles the mind is how those who aspire to its level of success seem to avoid imitating the core principles that sustained it.

“Star Wars” is an achievement of style, to be sure—but it is also an achievement of substance, if you know where to look.


John Fulton is the author of The Janitor Must Die, a novel about a custodian who fights aliens. John nurses an exceptional obsession with story design, including, but not limited to, blockbuster sci-fi, action, and fantasy. John does not refer to himself in the third person. Usually. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnTheFulton and Parler @John001.

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