Retrospective | ‘A New Hope’ Changed Movies Forever, And Itself Continues to Change
Last year, I watched all 33-and-counting Godzilla feature films ahead of the release of Godzilla: King of the Monsters. This year, I’ve undertaken a programming schedule that is much more manageable in scope, but even closer to my heart. This is The Road to ‘Rise of Skywalker’ Rewatch!
Previously: ‘Rogue One’ Was Star Wars’ Most Egalitarian Chapter
At last, in Star Wars’ byzantine ordering scheme, we arrive at the “beginning”: Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope, the film that launched a phenomenon.
As the Star Wars franchise has grown in all directions around it, this movie has been continuously recontextualized in a number of ways. First, there’s the simple matter of its relationship to popular culture. Everything that I have to imagine once felt fresh, alien, and novel about it inevitably became familiar, even hokey, with each new variety show spoof sketch, and every additional movie directed by someone who grew up compulsively wearing out their videotape copy.
Additionally, the Star Wars project has continued to fill in the working logic of its own universe, and to paint in its lore such that even specific line readings in this movie take on altered meanings. Most famously, of course, is The Empire Strikes Back’s revelation that Darth Vader, the occult henchman of this movie’s actual primary villain (regal fascist Grand Moff Tarkin) is, in fact, Luke Skywalker’s father. Consider how Alec Guinness’s initially hesitant delivery, as Obi-Wan recounts his memories of Luke’s dad, would have played in 1977 versus how it does now. A video on YouTube that’s garnered nearly 4.5 million views as of this writing, titled Obi-Wan has PTSD, does a nice job of visualizing how the simple bit of exposition between young Luke and the old hermit now plays, after everything else which has added context and in some cases outright contradicted Obi-Wan’s sanitized explanation.
There’s a third factor to be considered, which is that this movie has been subject to continuous and controversial tinkering and re-editing ever since it was first released, such that there is no single definitive version of the movie at all. Just this week, the Disney+ streaming service launched with new 4K versions of the classic Star Wars films, and sure enough, in addition to totally revamped color timing, the movie’s cantina shootout with Han Solo and Greedo has been slightly changed again, for what by my count is the fifth version of the sequence — the 1977 “Han shoots Greedo in cold blood” version, the 1997 “Greedo shoots first” version, the 2004 DVD release “Greedo shoots first, but just barely” version, the 2011 Blu-Ray “Han and Greedo shoot simultaneously” version, and now the 2019 Disney+“Maclunkey!” version, wherein Greedo gets in a final Huttese epithet (he’s actually saying ma klounkee, basically Huttese for “Hasta la vista”) before being deep-fried by Han’s blaster in a puff of smoke. No, I don’t really get it either, but apparently this was another alteration from George Lucas prior to the 2012 Disney acquisition, dating back to when the film was getting a 4K remaster, for an intended 3D theatrical re-release that never materialized.
Because of all three factors, I choose to think of the object of this article not as one movie, but two. The first is Star Wars, a groundbreaking fantasy movie that was a smash-hit in 1977 and would later spawn a franchise, but which remains perhaps best thought of as a stand-alone work in Hollywood history. This movie’s runtime was, and will always remain, 121 minutes. This movie has been essentially out of print since 1997, although impressive black market fan preservation efforts exist. The second work, then, is Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope, one part of the much larger Star Wars canon as we know it today. This film didn’t really exist until that enumerated subtitle, “A New Hope,” was added to Star Wars’ opening scroll for its 1981 theatrical re-release. At that point, this second movie came into being, one that was a kind of remix of the earlier work. Unlike Star Wars, A New Hope is a living document, subject to both continuous subtle alteration by its masters, but also constant reinterpretation by its audience, as the body of work that informs its fiction continues to evolve. Its runtime might be described as, “a tentative 125 minutes.”
Try to wipe your mind of everything familiar about Star Wars. Imagine it’s the spring of 1977: Jimmy Carter has just been sworn in. America is strung out on quaaludes and coke, feeling slightly regretful about sleeping with their coworker’s spouse at that key party last month, but still thinking the fondue was pretty great.
Into this world, where Nixon has shat on the grave of your already-buried innocence, God died long ago, and the only panacea for oil crisis-era malaise is an underpowered carbureted engine mated to an 8-track warbling out sub-Carpenters soft rock, Star Wars is at once the right thing at the right time, and yet somehow totally unexpected.
At least, that’s my understanding. After all, I was born in 1989. The story of Star Wars hitting the scene is myth to me, as much as the legend of Luke Skywalker is to Rey and Finn.
It’s funny how “serious people” — adults, educated folks, people who had grown up with an impermeable wall between High Art and Low Art — seem to have regarded this sudden phenomenon with a distant bemusement. In the clip above, a reporter ends a segment in which he astutely traces Star Wars’ roots to old-fashioned Western genre pictures by dismissing it as “escapist entertainment, pure and simple, with no moral or message.” How the morals or messages of a movie simple enough for children to understand went over his head, I can’t fathom — except, of course, that in 1977, it was almost mandatory for a “serious person” to couch any analysis of popular entertainment like Star Wars with some kind of distanced minimizing. It’s like an insecure alpha male prefacing any complement of another guy with a terse, “no homo.”
Perhaps the most revolutionary thing Star Wars ever did, then, was to teach a generation of children that you could have your cake and eat it, too: that you could craft something that was both engaging popular entertainment and a delivery vessel for thematic content that wasn’t just weighty, but quietly revolutionary. There ought to be no mistaking this movie’s fantasy-lensed indictment of America’s military-industrial complex, its criticism of an obsession with industry over a healthy respect for the natural world, or its flirtation with Eastern spirituality that predates Americans’ casual acceptance of yoga and mindfulness therapy. (There’s a lot of hippie woo-woo here, in the whole “feel the Force” angle.)
If Star Wars had not been such a blockbuster — if it had instead done unremarkable business, like the 1980 Flash Gordon adaptation it inspired — it would almost certainly today be remembered as a goofy underground cult classic. Film buffs would get high and stay up for bleary midnight revival screenings. They’d go bananas for it and its frequent cinematic allusions — its marriage of Akira Kurosawa samurai tales to 2001-esque Kubric science fiction spectacle and Sergio Leone Westerns. Its elevating, transportive Romantic score courtesy of John Williams would also be regarded as a bit of “where in the hell did that come from?” raw creative force.
In some ways, well…“cheapened” isn’t quite the right word, but Star Wars has been subsumed by Star Wars, sans-italics, in the four decades since its release. It’s now given both the credit and the blame for everything that came after, and all its innovations seem more obvious and more pretentious than they really are. If you love Star Wars, Star Wars is a nigh-holy text beyond reproach. If you don’t understand Star Wars, and if you don’t get fantasy/SF/comic book stuff generally, and if you bemoan the domination of Marvel and the Disney corporate machine at the box office today, you probably blame Star Wars for killing New Hollywood and replacing it with decades of commercial dreck aimed at children and dumb people. But Star Wars was nominated for Best Picture at the 50th Academy Awards. A year earlier, the idea of a space fantasy starring a tin man, a bunch of monsters, and Debbie Reynold’s teenage daughter being a serious contender against something like Annie Hall was inconceivable. Star Wars changed everything, and there would be no going back.
Like a long-suffering protocol droid, dinged and refurbished over and over again, A New Hope is still getting fresh parts nearly a half-century after it was first assembled. Disney+’s newly-public 4K remaster ditches the garish, bleedy colors of the Lowry digital intermediate created before the original trilogy’s DVD release fifteen years ago. Everything looks more Seventies, but also refreshingly clear and unmuddied. With its gauzy photography and fuzzy set audio, there’s no mistaking A New Hope for a younger movie, and like an aging actor who’s had a little too much work done, you can’t help but notice the parts that are conspicuously doctored. It’s a movie where old-fashioned optical composites and hand-painted mattes sit unconvincingly alongside dated 1990s CGI (and some CGI that still holds up in a Jurassic Park kind of way). Likewise, the audio track is an unusual combination of old, analog dialog recordings with state-of-the-art THX sound effects and directional trickery. A New Hope doesn’t come from any one era, it’s a work in progress with each additional re-release, for better or worse.
But what remains totally timeless about Episode IV, besides its universal archetypes and doofy charisma, its balance of bleak SF and fairy tale wonder, or its film-buff credibility, is its evident creative impulse. This is the sixth movie in our chronological rewatch, and it’s staggering to think about all the stuff which fills the preceding five entries that, in fact, originated in this one cash-strapped little vintage movie! Compared to the bigger budgets and advanced VFX tools of some of the other chapters, it’s wild how much this movie is able to use the power of suggestion and great production design to sell you on its world. Prior to Lucas’ film, I think 2001 might have the only futuristic vision in a movie that I could really believe while watching. The insides of the original Enterprise always looked like a soundstage (until Star Trek: The Motion Picture, which was Paramount’s answer to this), as did the utopian mall-city of Logan’s Run. But the Death Star of A New Hope never feels like a London studio. It’s out there in deep space, somewhere, and all the buttons on all the control panels do something important.
Even small things, like the way the cantina bartender throws out Threepio with evident prejudice, coats the world not just in science fiction, but social science fiction. (This would retroactively be explained in a short story as his parents having been killed by Confederate droids during the Clone Wars.) The Stormtroopers ride saurian Dewbacks on Tatooine instead of using Imperial tech because the Empire’s bureaucracy didn’t requisition the right stuff for the crushingly hot environment, and it was cheaper to hire local beasts of burden. At least that was Lucas’ thinking, though it never goes explained in the movie. It doesn’t need to be; you are meant to experience a sense of cultural alienation, like the movie is being made for an audience more familiar with this world and its ways than you are.
But what was once mysterious is now a thoroughly-canonized springboard for over 150,000 database entries on Wookieepedia. Ultimately, the real Special Edition isn’t comprised of upgraded audio-visuals; it’s all the ways in which Star Wars has re-written Star Wars by association. And that unique feat would have happened whether George Lucas had ever gone back into the edit bay or not.
And if you liked this, check out my video essay on the Galaxy Far, Far Away, Let’s Get Drunk and Talk About ‘Star Wars’: