Jaws (1976) invented the blockbuster, but Star Wars (1977 – aka Star Wars: A New Hope as of the 1981 theatrical re-release) invented pop culture. It’s hard to go back and rewatch A New Hope for critical purposes simply because it’s difficult to separate the film from the phenomenon. I’m not just talking about the Star Wars phenomenon either, but the modern studio film phenomenon in general: franchising, sequel hype, plot speculation cum social action, and of course, merchandising. Without George Lucas’s pulpy soft-remake of Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress (1958), film would not occupy the same place in the zeitgeist as it does today.
Looking back on all of the Campbellian ethos that bedrocks A New Hope, it’s easy to see how Lucas revealed the perfect formula for box-office gold. Drawing from Kurosawa’s work, Flash Gordon films, adventure serials of the ‘30s and ‘40s and WWII dogfight footage, Star Wars stands as a medley of mid-century ‘schlock’ and awe. Yet even after forty years, A New Hope is all-at-once refreshing and familiar, establishing a fantastic world using the piecemeal industry of our own while simultaneously weaving a celestial fairy-tale aimed at our sympathies for storytelling. We are a species of narrative – homo narrans, as a particularly poetic professor of mine used to say – and Star Wars understands this perhaps better than any other movie.
I got ahold of Harmy’s Despecialized Edition for this rewatch, and although I’ve seen A New Hope at least two-dozen times, this was the first time I saw the ‘original’ (or at least as close to the ‘original’ as we’ll ever get) cut. There’s an element of fable to the meta-Star Wars saga; a series of beloved films remastered and re-edited thrice at the behest of their increasingly beguiled creator, only to be un-mastered by a determined cabal of purists. Harmy’s is a great watch. Gone are the glabrous CGI inserts of Dewbacks and womp rats in the establishing shots of Mos Eisley, Han blessedly shoots first, Luke’s lightsaber is more white than blue, and without the uncanny juxtaposition of mid-aughts CGI with late-70s practicals that plagued the 2005 remasters of my childhood, the film feels more cohesive than ever. Many sequences in the other original trilogy films are vastly improved by the CGI additives, but nothing in A New Hope ever needed re-touching, and seeing these images in their original composition is an absolute joy.
It’s staggering to consider that the special effects in A New Hope are more believable than anything in the prequels. Let the recent push for practical effects in Rogue One (2016) and The Force Awakens (2015) demonstrate the power of physical set design. Despite the obvious puppetry and modeling on display, there is a tactile weight to everything in A New Hope. The Millennium Falcon is all carpentry and chaff, the stormtroopers are clad in hefty plastic and spandex, the sets are meticulously crafted out of a eratz mix of garbage and polypropylene. Star Wars has a mien of DIY passion that could have only been achieved by the American New Wave filmmakers of the mid-’70s. In our modern age of Maker spaces and crafty social channels, something about Star Wars feels approachable – as if we too, possessed only of dreams and reappropriated electrical parts from Micro Center, could make history.
The story is a beat-for-beat rehash of the Hero’s Journey – Luke Skywalker even famously graced one edition of Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces (1949). Star Wars hits all of the narrative beats that resonate with us on a primal level; the call to adventure, the refusal of the call, the meeting with the mentor, the apotheosis of the hero. The characters are the very stuff of archetypes but they perform their roles with genuine gusto. The Death Star rescue is still as thrilling and tense as ever, with Academy Award winning editor Marcia Lucas expertly cross-cutting between her husband’s separated protagonists to heighten the tension. Luke’s gradual discovery of his attunement to the Force is well-plotted, Leia’s gumption and leadership skills are on full display from the outset (thanks mostly to rewrites and improvisations done by the late Carrie Fisher herself, who understood at age 19 more about crafting an empowered female character than George Lucas ever could), and Han Solo is Han Solo, feathery-haired space stud.
It’s fun and exciting and hell, honestly, you can watch this movie sans headphones on a packed L train at 7:30 AM and still have a good time. If you even fucking think you can find any non-snobbish, unpretentious reason to impeach A New Hope, we are going to war in the DMs. (Maybe not sans headphones, John Williams’s score is instrumental to the success of Star Wars).
It’s worth noting that there are few instances of camp in the original Star Wars. It’s pulpy, but not campy, which is to say that Star Wars takes itself seriously. These films are fun, but the world in which they take place is real, at least for as long as you sit enraptured beneath the screen. Perhaps it’s this genuine commitment to world-building that inspired legions of fans and authors to build out an entire Expanded Universe for the franchise, replete with games and comic books and bloated book series. Either way, it makes for a captivating experience.
I’ll wrap up by touching on perhaps my absolute favorite element of A New Hope, indeed perhaps my favorite element of the Star Wars saga: lore. George Lucas and concept designer Ralph McQuarrie made it apparent that they wanted to create a “lived-in” sci-fi fantasy, i.e. a world unlike the sparkly chrome Flash Gordon pomp of their youth. Lucas instructed his sets to be made from proto-industrial remnants of our world: car parts and circuit boards and all the other assorted detritus of 1970s modernia. Heralded as a Vietnam War-allegory even upon its release, Star Wars stresses the oppressive machinery of a galaxy far, far away, and how that machinery lends itself to corruption and facism. Spirituality and humanism, in the form of the Force, holds truer power than all the cybernetic samurai-Sith and targeting computers combined.
Lucas made sure his protagonists believed in something, a something that only existed in the world he created. The Force was a part of the galaxy before Lucas’s cameras ever rolled. His is a realm on the brink of death, in which magic and hope have nearly been exterminated by a xenophobic war machine twisted with evil and ruled by propaganda. Star Wars is as heady as it is accessible, possessed of its own philosophy but begging to be understood by ours. It is our Hero’s Journey, the Hero’s Journey for the lib-kids of imperialist America, in an age where we need to believe more than ever that downtrodden hopefuls could rise in revolt against the regimes that bind us. It is pure American entertainment. It is pure American ethos. It is the kind of thing Lucas’s American Graffiti kids would have blinded themselves with in the suburbs. A New Hope has become emblematic of film as we know it because, for the talented artists who once hedged their bets on a glorified B-movie about space princesses and star-flung farm-boys, A New Hope is film as they changed it.
A New Hope is an indispensable and lasting example of triumphant American cinema. It is indeed derivative, but only in the name of drawing on the ancient storytelling traditions that stir the heart and capture the imagination. Aside from some minor flaws in performance and consistency, Star Wars is one of the most enjoyable film experiences to have ever screened. See it once, twice, a dozen times, and then again for good measure.