"A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away..."
The stating of this famous opening text to one of the seminal blockbusters of all time has become somewhat of a cliche throughout the decades. But it really is the perfect way to begin talking about "Star Wars" (later appended with Episode IV: A New Hope). Many have pondered how literal this statement is meant to be taken: In which galaxy does this story take place? How many light-years away is it from our Milky Way? Exactly how long ago was this? The truth of the matter is, all of this is immaterial: Mark Hamill (who plays Luke Skywalker) himself said in an early interview at the time of the film's release that this is really just a substitute for "once upon a time", making the world of "Star Wars" really analogous to the sorts of fictional worlds in such works as "The Wizard of Oz"(which is often cited as one of the many influences for "Star Wars").
In other words, "Star Wars" is really a fairy tale that takes place in its own, imaginative world. It is a myth for the modern day, and although the film is nearly forty years old, it has proven to stand the test of time and is still the essential myth of the past few generations, just as works like The Odyssey and The Iliad were to the classical Greeks.
The plot of "Star Wars" revolves around a naive young man named Luke Skywalker (Hamill), who, after a lifetime of longing for adventure and purpose beyond his simple farm life, is suddenly dragged right into the heat of the conflict between the evil Galactic Empire and the zealous Rebel Alliance. Along the way, Luke befriends two bumbling droids, a wise old sage, a cocky freighter pilot (and his furry copilot), and a strong-willed princess over the course of a fast paced ride of unprecedented events in a conflict of good vs. evil.
Now "Star Wars" is indeed a myth as stated earlier, but it is certainly a plethora of many others things simultaneously: one need only watch the entirety of this first film in order to be able to distinguish such varied influences as the western genre, Akira Kurosawa, and (of course) serialized space opera, all coming together in the perfect blend of pop entertainment, fully realized and entertaining characters, and an admirable amount of depth as far as the mythology and spirituality present. Let's first talk about the aesthetic influences: upon watching this movie, it quickly becomes clear within the opening sequence that what "Star Wars" brings to the table visually is a style that is instantly unique, memorable, and full of personality. If you have had the privilege of having seen the film upon its original release, then you may have been able to notice how this film in particular exemplifies many of the visual cues of the classic "Flash Gordon" or "Buck Rogers" serials (i.e. the black-masked villain, the odd-looking uniforms, the hero in a space setting, etc.).
What ultimately makes this visual style work so well and what makes "Star Wars" so instantly recognizable is not just the fact that it pays homage to so many things at once, but also the fact that it was such a technological breakthrough at the time that it brought these concepts of space operas, samurai movies, quasi-western tropes, etc. together into something that transcends all of these things and becomes its own distinct, modern (at the time) take on the space adventure serial, while being so much more at an emotional and even spiritual level. As far as the characters are concerned, they are all iconic.
What stands out to me about the characters as they are in this particular film is the diversity of different personalities and characters types that we have. For example, in the bottom-most picture we see the main players, the "good guys," if you will. In this group we have the optimistic young protagonist; his arrogant, somewhat selfish counterpart in Han Solo (Harrison Ford) who is a pure cowboy; a furry, pragmatic creature (Chewbacca) who I feel helps give the piece a sort of "blue collar" feel; the poised yet independent princess (Carrie Fisher); and the two bumbling, comic relief droids who feel almost out of place in the proceedings, but in a way that makes them welcome characters in terms of the amount of sheer personality they inject into the film.
There is a very ragtag feel to this immediate cast; just looking at them, they feel like the perfect group to go on an upbeat, old fashioned adventure with. What actually stood out to me upon my most recent viewing of this movie was, surprisingly, the role of the droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels): he is the most prominently comic relief character in the film, but upon watching this movie again recently I noticed just how big of a presence he is in this particular film, as I believe he is in almost a majority of the scenes. Although he is usually pushed to the side to an extent and self-doubts himself ("I'm only an interpreter, I'm not very good at telling stories;" a moment we may very well return to by my "Return of the Jedi" review), in this particular film he seems to be less comic and ironic and actually more of a soothing presence trying to help out and whom the characters really care for (i.e. the scenes where Luke repairs him and when he hopes for R2-D2's safe return before the Battle of Yavin). I'm not completely sure why this stood out to me so much this time, possibly because he seems like more of a comic relief character in the other two Original films and he really adds a lot of the personality in this first film, as he and R2 serve as the sort of wandering fools who just stumble upon these great events. I will move on now, but I believe I will return to what I perceive as a sort of character arc for 3PO as the trilogy progresses.
Then there is the infamous Darth Vader, who has quite possibly become more ingrained within the pop culture psyche than any other element in the iconic franchise. His role and demeanor in this first "Star Wars" film, however, is quite different than in the other films (although I argue that each film of the original trilogy actually focuses on a different aspect of Darth Vader's character). In this film, Vader's character aspect that is keyed in on is that of the powerful yet mostly mysterious outcast who serves not as the main villain of the piece but as more of a lackey to Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing). Although more of a sign of the evolution of filmmaking technology than anything else, I think it is noteworthy to point out that Vader's modulated voice in this film has much less of the deep clarity that distinguished him as an imposing menace in the other two films, which makes him seem less like the kind of villain who gives out all the intimidating orders and more like an odd aberration who is here to complete a specific job. In my view, the villain in this film is not necessarily one specific person, but rather it is the Empire itself: we do not see and do not know anything about the Emperor yet, and the aforementioned Tarkin is more of an extension or arm of the Empire's oppressive will, with Vader as his colleague (and one we have much more to learn about). We learn, in a few different scenes, that Vader follows the "ancient religion" of the Jedi, with the power of the Force which allows him to choke people (note: this is the only "Star Wars" film in which the Jedi/Force are identified as "religion," and also note that the term "Sith" is never used here). This all begs into question, in the context of this first film: who is this mysterious guy in the black suit, and what is the strange, terrifying religion that he follows? We know nothing else about him at this point (an effective quality) other than that he was a pupil of the Jedi Obi-Wan Kenobi.
And this brings us to the other most interesting character, Obi-Wan himself (Alec Guinness). I could have included him as part of the "main cast of good guys," but that would not quite do him justice as a character. To me he plays a similar role as Darth Vader in this film but on the other side; he represents the mystery of the mystical Force which Luke is just beginning to only slightly understand. His first appearance is very memorable, as he appears as a hooded hermit (he is even earlier described as a "crazy wizard" by Luke's uncle Owen), driving off the sand people, with John Williams's magical musical cues telling us that this old man is not all that he appears to be as he removes his hood. He instantly brings a sense of gravitas and wisdom to a film that is otherwise about a conflict and the details of an imaginative world, helping to set Luke on the course of his coming-of-age journey (which one could argue is completed at the end of this film, if we look at this as a standalone). While everyone else around him is worried about how to fix the hyper-drive of the Millennium Falcon or how to get out of the Death Star, Obi-Wan always seems to have his focus on the bigger picture, the Force, and passing on the necessary knowledge and wisdom to the next generation. The above-pictured duel between Obi-Wan and Vader is a great moment for a number of reasons: it is the long-awaited meeting between the student and the master, it is a demonstration of an ancient and elegant art of fighting, it is a scene filled with dramatic tension, and it, most importantly, is a catalyst for setting up the next generation of Jedi as Luke watches it. Obi-Wan's presence never leaves the film, however, as his disembodied voice guides Luke to "run!", and also helps Luke to remember the importance of the Force over machines in the final battle.
In short, although this is ultimately a pretty simple film on the surface, there is really a lot going on here that carries much dramatic and mythological weight. Although you could watch the first "Star Wars" simply for the breathtaking special effects, the space battles, and the lightsaber duels, it has so much more to it than that, and it is essentially only a setup movie. After all of this, I still never even talked about the Mos Eisley Cantina scene, probably the one scene in the entire film that best demonstrates the amount of pure imaginative detail packed into each frame of this movie that makes each insignificant moment full of implications for a much larger world that you can discuss for hours with fellow nerds or just your friends or relatives.
Also, the Battle of Yavin (the film's climax), adds even more dimension, showing us even more of a sense of the ragtag nature of the Rebels as they participate in what is essentially a wild dogfight in space. I suppose I don't have a whole lot to say about that scene other than the fact that it is excellently filmed and filled with dramatic tension and iconic movie moments, but I just felt like I should at least mention it as it literally is just as iconic a part of this film as any of the quasi-spiritual mumbo jumbo I talked about earlier.
Now I know you've already seen the original "Star Wars" at least a dozen times, but go ahead and watch it again. Also, don't think that just because I called it "Star Wars" and not "A New Hope" that this means I'm an original trilogy purist or anything; far from it, as I love all six "Star Wars" movies and plan on reviewing them all in honor of the week of May the 4th. I simply liked to call it "Star Wars" for the purpose of this review, since, as I hope you've gathered by now, I like to watch these movies with the mindset of watching them for the first time, as I believe that is the right way to watch them. Of course, I think the prequels add important context that I personally think enhances the saga, but I still like looking at these films from a historical perspective in terms of when and how they were original made and released. With that being said, go watch the original "Star Wars" with the eyes of a child, as if you are watching it for the first time. It's probably the exact teaching that Obi-Wan Kenobi would have given you.