With the release of The Force Awakens almost upon us, we take a look back at the three films that started it all
Asking many Star Wars fans whether the original trilogy holds up or not is likely akin to asking them if they have any affection for the firstborn child.
It is - understandably - difficult for many viewers to look back at the films now with a cold, critical eye. The first three Star Wars films have become almost inseparably tangled with childhood nostalgia and everything (good and bad) that has attached itself to the franchise name over the years.
Here’s the thing though: removed from all that, the Star Wars films are just films - (proudly) silly space operas made within the Hollywood studio system. Stories and testimonies from during the production indicate it was as much luck as anything else that saw Lucas’ little passion project become the phenomenon it did.
With The Force Awakens mere days away, let us attempt to take a fair, balanced look back at the films that started it all. Can they still elicit that sense of childhood awe? Do they have any value for those few adults who have somehow managed to avoid the series over the last few decades? Cue the fanfare, and start the text crawl…
Nothing to see here folks. Nothing to see here.
The first Star Wars film feels like it’s held together with duct tape (given the budget, it possibly was). It’s one of the most bizarrely paced classic films around - relentless and strangely sluggish at the same time, it constantly pushes forward but often fails to give moments, images and characters the weight or attention they deserve.
In retrospect, even the famous moments fall relatively flat - their consequences haphazardly rushed through in favour of getting back to the simple but over-busy plot. It contains, for example, one of the more understated genocides in cinema history (Alderaan: #NeverForget).
For all the ire George Lucas receives over the prequel trilogies, many of their very same flaws are evident here. The script has no shortage of iconic, quotable lines - “you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy” is a personal favourite - but is also full of exceptionally clunky exposition and conversations.
Spare a thought for the actors who were asked to recite some of the nonsense here; Alec Guinness certainly had criticisms of the script, which were recorded in a letter he wrote to his friend Anne Kaufman: "New rubbish dialogue reaches me every other day on wadges of pink paper — and none of it makes my character clear or even bearable". Indeed, the acting is very much a mixed bag overall. The respectable likes of Guinness and Peter Cushing often had much stronger material to work with than they had here. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher struggle to lend much life to their relatively shallow characters.
It’s Harrison Ford who fits best with the material - his Han Solo proving a charismatic but uniquely prickly action hero (especially when he shoots first). Anthony Daniels too stands out - C3PO is irritating at times, but is in no way lacking in character. And of course total respect to Peter Mayhew, Kenny Baker, and all those who gave it their all without ever showing their faces.
All that aside, there is no doubting you’d struggle to find a film quite as iconic as Star Wars. The amount of unforgettable imagery, recognisable lines and inspired ideas still has the power to surprise. I don’t need to say anything about John Williams’ wonderful score. Some of the practical effects - and please, track down an original, pre-special edition release if you can - remain as impressive as ever, even if others show their age. The final Death Star assault is and always will be one of the great sci-fi setpieces. Lucas’ film-making abilities are not always as stellar as one would hope, but his ideas rarely fail to come across.
One thing that does stand out is how much more effective the film is when the characters stay quiet. The Mos Eisley Cantina sequence is great because we get these potently fleeting images of all manner of creepy, peculiar and wonderful aliens - all the more intriguing because we only end up seeing a shot or two of them. No surprise even the most ancillary of characters have spawned volumes of fan fiction.
Not everything about Star Wars holds up, but perhaps its greatest success was in laying down the essential foundation for greater things to come…
As a contrary youngster, I would have always argued A New Hope was the best of the Star Wars films. But on this revisit, after quite a few years, it turns out everybody else was right: The Empire Strikes Back is very much the droid you are looking for.
Empire takes everything to another level. The narrative is far more character driven, and better for it - the relationships solidify, the characters mature and the drama overall feels far more human (apart from the aliens and robots, of course). There’s genuine chemistry this time - the Han Solo and Princess Leia relationship doesn’t offer many great insights, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch.
Luke’s story is much more engaging here, and with enough intriguing moral and dramatic complications for it to rise above your bog-standard hero’s journey. There’s far less time spent over-explaining plans, politics and motivations. The running time is around the same, but it feels altogether grander and less rushed.
George Lucas handed over direction and scripting duties here, and it shows. Granted, some of it is thanks to the much healthier budget the production team had to work with. But director Irvin Kershner and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan (with some assistance from Lucas) acquit themselves very well indeed. The film is mostly broken into a number of relatively standalone sections - Hoth, Dagobah, the asteroid field, Cloud City - but they all work well together too. Crucially, there’s tension, build-up and plenty of time reserved for every major setpiece and story development. Darth Vader in particular becomes a truly intimidating presence here. Yes, the freshly introduced Imperial March does plenty of the heavy lifting in that respect, but you won’t hear me complaining.
While the first film unquestionably has its beautiful moments - like the ‘binary sunset’ - Empire is a far more visually robust and exciting film. It boasts, for example, by far the most visceral lightsaber duel of the entire series. The stunning lighting, shadows and smoke effects that are used during Luke and Vader’s iconic battle give it that extra punch.
There are plenty of other things to love here too: Yoda is a delight, the production design is inspired, Billy Dee William’s Lando Calrissian proves a welcome addition, and another nicely complicated ally for Luke and the gang. It’s overall a darker, more surprising film, even beyond Darth Vader’s famous four word confession. Empire Strikes Back is, for now at least, peak Star Wars.
Following up on the darkest entry in the series, the Star Wars franchise ended up going almost the opposite direction, with a film that could perhaps would have been more accurately titled as The Super Star Wars Family Critter Hour.
That’s simplistic: there still is some great stuff in here (and it’s longer than an hour), but there’s also a disorientating level of goofiness. The extended Jabba’s palace sequence seems to be at least partially designed to fit in as many weird and wacky puppets and creatures as possible. Some of the designs are memorable, but too many are overly cartoonish. Even for a franchise that had previously given us absurd creations such as Yoda, the sheer volume of slapstick comedy here surprises. It all reaches a natural culmination with the introduction of the Ewoks - the much-maligned furry woodland critters who play a major part in the second half of the film.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with a sense of fun, and there is definitely some enjoyment to be had when the Ewoks decide to become a gang of guerilla rebels. But the sheer amount of it leads to a strange, uneven tone overall - the more dramatic stuff feeling at least a little undermined when placed alongside all the silliness. The truly bizarre extended Ewok death scene feels like it has crashed in from a different film entirely.
The film too lacks the focused, sharp plotting and writing of its predecessor. The final Luke / Vader / Emperor showdown drags on far too long, and the motivations are too loose to lend it the dramatic weight it deserves. It’s not quite as exposition heavy as the first film, but also lacks the exciting flow of Empire. And there’s a sense of treading old ground, too: more trips to Dagobah & Tatooine, another Death Star, another unexpected family connection.
While Return of the Jedi’s reputation as the weakest of the trilogy is well deserved, there is enough there to make it worthwhile. The action, for the most part, is great, with the Endor speeder bike chase among the finest five minutes of the franchise. There’s a neat dynamic between the epic action in the skies above Endor and the smaller skirmishes on the forest moon itself.
We also finally get to see Luke Skywalker the Jedi Master, and while he’s not exactly an invincible hero - he relies on help to get him out of almost every major encounter here, including from Vader himself - it is great to see his character develop over the three films (it helps that he, and most of the lead cast, look like they’ve aged around a decade in the three years between the second and third films).
In closing, it’s not difficult to look at these three films with critical eyes and still see what has made them so enduringly popular. The near constant flow of iconic characters, quotes, images, action, special effects etc. still impresses, and illustrate just how much of an impact these films have had on the pop culture landscape. However, they’re very human films too: full of imperfections, missteps and odd contradictions, big and small.
Perhaps at its best, however, Star Wars actually benefits from that very same sense of humanity (albeit with robots, Wookies and Hutts included): removed from all the hype and hyperbole, these are simply the thrilling adventures of a group of unforgettable heroes and villains in a galaxy far, far away. See you very soon for the next chapter...