There is no denying that the original Star Wars movie in 1977 forever changed the movie industry. The film presented some of the most groundbreaking special effects in film history, which are still very impressive today. Aside from that, Star Wars was a space opera that presented a thrilling story, a great cast of characters, a lot of exciting action, and a fascinating mythology that would lend itself to further development over the years. It's no wonder that the Star Wars film series has spanned a trilogy from 1977 to 1983, a prequel trilogy from 1999 to 2005, and now a seventh film in 2015 that I'm assuming would be the start of a third Star Wars trilogy.
I remember plenty of things related to the Star Wars films, including my favorite scenes from the series and happenings in my life at the time I watched these movies. I thought I'd take some time to share my fond memories of watching the six Star Wars movies, in light of the upcoming theatrical release of Star Wars - Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I hope my story can inspire you to look back on your Star Wars-related memories over the years and to keep the Force alive and well.
With that, here is my personal tale that takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. (OK, it actually starts 20 years ago in our own Milky Way galaxy, but you get the idea.)
Star Wars - Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)
Let me begin with a little background information. I was not yet born when the first Star Wars movie came out in 1977. Even as a kid, I barely had memories related to Star Wars. I once owned, probably as a gift from a relative, a kids belt with a Return of the Jedi buckle, but at the time, I had no idea what that title referred to. Years later, I would visit Disneyland and go on the Star Tours ride, which simulated a space flight guided by C-3PO and R2-D2 that ended up in the Death Star trench and other battle scenes from Star Wars, and even then, I still didn't know what Star Wars was. Then, in the 1990s, I saw a TV commercial for the Star Wars Trilogy being released on home video, with digital remastering by THX. That's when I finally had the vague idea of what Star Wars was. But I didn't watch those movies yet.
What eventually led me into the Star Wars universe was the excitement of another sci-fi action movie: Independence Day in 1996. That was really the first movie I saw in my life that was a science-fiction action-adventure with special effects creating eye-popping laser weaponry and thrilling aerial dogfights between humans and aliens. Once I saw that movie, I decided to find other similar movies. That was when I saw a trailer for the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition, with each of the three films re-released in theaters with new and improved scenes. At the time, I didn't want to wait for the theatrical re-release, so I rented the Star Wars films from my local video rental store and finally checked out what the hype was about.
Even as I watched the first Star Wars film from a VCR connected to a television screen, I was amazed. Here was a movie that presented a thrilling story and a great cast of characters in a visually breathtaking world. But it wasn't any movie with a great story, cast, and setting. This was a movie with incredibly stunning visual effects. I can never forget the sight of the Imperial Star Destroyer chasing the Rebel spaceship while shooting lasers, as well as the laser shootout between the Rebels and Imperial Stormtroopers. Later, I was even more impressed with the later gunfight scenes and the space flight scenes, especially the climactic battle at the Death Star. Oh, and the destruction of the planet Alderaan by the Death Star? That was also something.
Aside from that, I admired the mythology of the Force as explained by Obi-Wan Kenobi. That was when another light bulb went off in my head. For years, I would hear the phrase "may the Force be with you" uttered over the years, and I knew it was related to Star Wars. I just didn't know what that meant. But I finally did once I saw this movie. And I thought it was nice to have two sides to the Force: a light side and a dark side, with Obi-Wan Kenobi on the former and Darth Vader on the latter. Of course, I loved the characters of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo as well.
The other big thing I immediately loved about this Star Wars movie was the music. John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra have produced a masterpiece soundtrack, filled with great tunes to fit any setting and accompany any major scene. From the famous opening title theme to the end credits music, I just fall in love with it every time I hear it. I definitely had moments of excitement when I heard the fast-paced music for the scene where Luke and Han are shooting Imperial Fighters from turrets on the Millennium Falcon. The fun I had while watching the movie reached its peak here, and that carried over to the Death Star battle scene with even more spectacular music to go with it.
After watching the movie on video, I made a decision. I would go watch the 1997 Special Edition of Star Wars in a theater after all, though only that movie because I didn't want to waste money seeing the two sequels in theaters. When I saw Star Wars (later officially labeled as Episode IV: A New Hope) in a theater seat, I was in heaven. Yes, I saw the movie already, but the experience was wholly new. I finally understood what it was like for people older than me to have seen it in a theater back in 1977. I do remember that, in the audience I was in, some of the people seated were much older, meaning they wanted to relive the Star Wars theater experience while I was getting mine for the first time. Needless to say, it was awesome.
Aside from that, I loved the improvements of this version of Star Wars over the original, including a ring of fire added to the destruction of the Death Star and the restoration of a deleted scene in which Han Solo speaks with Jabba the Hutt about the issue of a lost shipment. The latter scene originally portrayed Jabba the Hutt as a human, but after Return of the Jedi, the character was conceived as a giant slug. Therefore, the special effects team had to draw a computer-generated Jabba over the original human Jabba, which worked fine until the part of the scene where Han Solo walks behind Jabba. The solution was simply yet brilliant: shift Han so that he appears to be stepping on Jabba's tail.
After this experience with the first Star Wars movie, I became a fan. Not a huge fan, like I am with the James Bond movies (which is truly my favorite movie series), but an excited one nonetheless. Besides buying the Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition on home video months later, I would also purchase the movie soundtrack to listen to the outstanding musical tunes over and over. And to top it off, I had bought the Star Wars: Behind the Magic, an interactive CD-ROM reference guide to the Star Wars trilogy developed by LucasArts. Basically, I had discovered the Force within me.
Star Wars - Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
The Empire Strikes Back was a movie that I didn't think highly of at first. What I had originally expected was a sequel that recreated the awesome swashbuckling action and fun of the first Star Wars movie. Instead, here was a movie that seemed to have less action and a lot more slow drama. But that feeling would eventually go away after subsequent viewings, because I would come to love the fact that this sequel doesn't repeat the first movie. It ventures into darker territory and provides a new perspective on familiar characters.
For instance, Luke Skywalker is no longer a farm boy thrust into exciting adventure. He is now a young man who is starting to find himself. When the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Luke to visit the Jedi master Yoda, Luke begins the real journey towards becoming a Jedi. Yes, he learned to wield a lightsaber and use the Force in the previous movie, but that was simply an introduction. Here, Luke is given the crash course. He gives up when trying to use the Force to get his starship out of the swamp. He also shows himself to be naive and unprepared when he impatiently decides to put his training on hiatus to save his friends and ultimately face Darth Vader. Overall, Luke is someone we fear for.
As for the friends Luke has to save, Princess Leia and Han Solo also appear quite different from three years earlier. This time, a love relationship forms between the two, and Han is frozen in carbonite. It really does look like the Empire is winning, as suggested by the title. Even C-3PO, as much as he is a source for comic relief, isn't immune to danger, as illustrated by the scene where he gets dismantled and Chewbacca scrambles to salvage all of the droid's parts.
But let's get back to Luke Skywalker. The highlight of the movie is undoubtedly the lightsaber duel between him and Darth Vader. The two never faced each other in the previous movie, but at that time, there really wasn't a compelling reason for such an encounter. Now there is one. Aside from the fact that Vader is holding Luke's friends hostage, there is a shocking connection between Luke and Vader. Now, I did not watch this movie back in 1980, but I can just imagine the gasps and cries coming from the audience after this huge plot twist, perhaps one of the greatest surprises ever in cinema, is unexpectedly revealed. And this occurs after a suspenseful lightsaber fight that ultimately cripples Luke.
I said before that the action seems more limited here. While that might be true, that doesn't mean there isn't any. For one thing, the battle scene in the beginning, where the Rebels are defending themselves against Imperial Walkers moving across a snowy landscape, is quite impressive. It's a nice contrast to the space battles seen before and a great example of venturing into new territory. The space chase through an asteroid field is equally exciting. And as always, John Williams and the London Symphony Orchestra have produced nice musical tracks to go with the action as well as the dramatic scenes.
Of the Star Wars movies so far, The Empire Strikes Back is definitely the one I would call the dramatic character-based entry. The action is great, but the more I think about it, the more I see that the character development is the core element of this movie. There is also some strong emotion with this one, whether it's heartbreak, shock, or fear. It just goes to show that no amount of action alone can make a great movie. Plot and characters are always essential, even in a movie like this one.
Star Wars - Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)
If the first Star Wars was a fun movie and The Empire Strikes Back was a dramatic movie, then Return of the Jedi would be sort of a hybrid of the two. You got some cuteness plus some dark scenes, and they're all mixed with more examples of creatively giving us new things to appreciate. In other words, the third Star Wars movie takes the best of the first two while still remaining fresh rather than stale.
Let's start with the cuteness. Obviously, this comes from the Ewoks, a race of teddy bear-like creatures that inhabit the moon of Endor without really interfering with the Empire that has a station producing a force field around their new Death Star. Because of the Empire's presence, a Rebel team led by Luke, Leia, and Han sneak onto the moon towards the shield-producing station. When Leia gets sidetracked, she encounters an Ewok, seemingly with a mix of caution and delightful curiosity. The creature doesn't look threatening at all, unlike the Jawas on Tatooine. Already, you know this movie is going to get kind of cutesy.
And it does. Just look at the climactic battle on Endor, which features not only Rebels and Imperials duking it out, but also Ewoks joining the side of good. While some Rebel blaster guns do their job, the Ewoks seem to be equally powerful with primitive weapons, like rocks flung from slings and logs swinging on ropes. Also adding to the comicness of this movie are the two-legged Imperial Walkers, which are like mechanical chickens compared to the four-legged elephant-like Walkers in The Empire Strikes Back.
But does that mean the climactic action of Return of the Jedi is anti-climactic? Far from it, because the action on Endor is not the only part of the climax. You also have a climactic space battle at the new Death Star. I remember seeing this movie in the mid-1990s and thinking this scene was cool. But when I watched the 1997 Special Edition, the same scene really blew me away, because many more spaceships are added to the shots. Suddenly, a handful of Imperial Fighters starting the action has swelled to a swarm for the 1997 version. The scene is exciting, not just because of what's going on but also because they cannot destroy the Death Star until the shield station below on Endor is destroyed first.
If you think that's a lot of action, there's one more climactic battle happening alongside the first two. Luke and Vader face off once again, but it's not exactly a duel Luke planned beforehand. That's because he understands who the real enemy is. Darth Vader is only a servant for the true leader of the Empire: Emperor Palpatine, played brilliantly by Ian McDiarmid. Palpatine is even scarier than Vader, partly because of the hideous face under a black robe and partly because he fully embraces the dark side of the Force. That and his ability to shoot lightning bolts from his fingers.
Really, the plot of Return of the Jedi serves one function: to lead all characters into the three simultaneous climactic action scenes. If you love Star Wars just for the action, you'll definitely consider this one to be the best. In fact, for a while, even this was my favorite Star Wars movie, though not by much above the two predecessors. I'm amazed that a second sequel in a film series could be at least as good as the first film. The reason: refusal to repeat without creating. Return of the Jedi is fresh because it introduces the Emperor, a partially-constructed Death Star rather than a complete one, Jabba the Hutt, a speeder bike chase through a forest (another action scene not done before, like the snow battle in The Empire Strikes Back), and the man behind Darth Vader's mask.
Lastly, I love how this movie wraps up the Star Wars saga, with freedom at last for all in the galaxy. The finale with all the heroes coming together and celebrating their victory against the Empire lifts my heart every time. At this point, I finally understood why the original three Star Wars movies are so beloved. They're exciting to watch and feature characters we care about, all in a mystical world far from our own realities. Of course, if you're like me, having watched the original trilogy in the late 1990s rather than in the 1980s, you would've also felt some anticipation for the next Star Wars movie. With Episode I: The Phantom Menace announced, I would find myself waiting for the prequel trilogy to deliver more of what I came to appreciate.
Star Wars - Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)
The best way to start talking about the first entry of the Star Wars prequel trilogy is by talking about its trailer. I remember my excitement about the trailer after seeing it. Not too long after diving into the original trilogy, here was a new Star Wars movie featuring Ewan MacGregor as a young Obi-Wan Kenobi, a dark Jedi with a double-ended lightsaber (which could arguably be called a "lightstaff"), a couple of new creatures, and other images that indicated the movie would not really rehash familiar images from the original trilogy. After seeing it, I told a friend at school about it, and his eyes lit up because he really wanted to see the trailer and didn't see it yet. Later, I would hear about Star wars fans who were crazy enough to pay for a ticket to see a movie, sit in the theater to watch the Star Wars trailer, and then leave without watching the movie they paid to see. I thought it was totally insane, but I also appreciated how Star Wars fans could crave for a new story in the series.
Now fast forward a couple of months. I did not see the movie on opening night or opening weekend, but I watched the local television news to hear from people who saw the movie first. Well, a lot of people were quite happy about it. At the same time, I remember one person who did not like the movie. Although that person appeared to be in the minority, I made a mental note of that comment because anything was possible. I could end up siding with that person, or joining the crowd that loved the movie. With that, I went into the movie with some expectations of an exciting movie while still being a bit wary.
In the end, I found myself torn between the two sides. I could see why some people did not like the movie and why others did. For me, I was struck by how different the movie looked and felt compared to the previous Star Wars movies. One big thing was that the whole story seemed too political. Basically, you got an invasion of the planet Naboo and some discussion about making that invasion legal, simultaneously with the formation of a plan to defend Naboo. When I think Star Wars, I don't think politics. It's true that the later Empire is a form of political rule that has occurred throughout human history, but I see the films as focusing on battles and exciting action, not political drama.
Another striking thing about this movie was its attempt to appeal to kids. The pod race that Anakin Skywalker participates in is a cool idea, but it doesn't quite fit the spirit of the earlier Star Wars films. It's one thing if the race was made more similar to a battle scene, but instead, it's purely a race that is mostly a distraction from the main story. And the other attempt to appeal to kids that has put off a lot of people is the inclusion of Jar Jar Binks. My first reaction was that this character is too silly to be in a Star Wars movie. A little humor and cuteness is OK, like with the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, but too much can be annoying. This is especially true when Jar Jar finds himself in the action of the climactic battle sequence, but is still a clumsy creature rather than one who succeeds by wit and skill.
This led to a big question I had about the movie. Why was it called The Phantom Menace when the story about Anakin's future as a Jedi and the presence of Darth Maul seem to be secondary to everything else? This was another reason I couldn't rate the movie too highly. The only references to the Force and the Jedi included the Jedi council meeting led by a younger Yoda, the explanation behind Anakin's Force (which was really weird, because the Force didn't previously have a scientific explanation), and the lightsaber battle near the end. Speaking of which, the lightsaber battle with Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi teaming up against Darth Maul is the highlight of the movie and is perhaps the one thing that saves this movie, though not by a whole lot.
Several years later, I had a discussion with a friend about the Star Wars movies. Like many Star Wars fans, he loved the original trilogy, but really got mad about Episode I: The Phantom Menace. And he made an interesting comment, too. If you look carefully, you will notice that George Lucas probably wasn't given 100% free reign with the original trilogy. He may have directed the original movie, but there could have been constraints as well. And the two sequels were directed by Irvin Kershner and Lawrence Kasdan, not George Lucas. Maybe, as my friend said, Lucas was never a great director to begin with, and the only reason the original trilogy was great was because other people were involved besides Lucas. But with Episode I, Lucas probably had greater, if not total, creative freedom.
In the end, I became aware of the possibility that the Star Wars series could go downhill. At the same time, I wanted to see how the saga played out, because I didn't want to skip Episodes II and III. I still had to know how the prequel and the original trilogies connected. I needed to see the evolution of the story and characters going from Episode I: The Phantom Menace to Episode IV: A New Hope. After all, every Star Wars fan had the same lingering question. How did the young boy known as Anakin Skywalker ultimately become the ruthless Darth Vader?
Star Wars - Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
I'll say it right now. Episode II is easily my least favorite entry in the Star Wars saga, and there was one thing that kind of predicted it. The first time I heard about the movie was when the title of the episode was announced: "Attack of the Clones." The next day, a friend of mine spent a lot of time joking about that title, because it sounded so lame. I could see why. It sounded so much like the name of a B-movie rather than a Star Wars movie. Something like "Rise of the Clones" might sound better, but what could I do? I wasn't part of the crew behind the movie.
Putting aside my observations of fans who still enjoyed the movie, let me tell you what I didn't like about the movie. The main thing was that Hayden Christensen was a dull actor and seemed like the wrong choice to play a young adult (or arguably, adolescent) Anakin Skywalker. His performance seemed like that of an amateurish student in an acting class rather than a pro or veteran who truly understands the art. Even in the scene where he avenges the death of his mother by attacking some Sand People, I could sense that the actor seemed to be somewhat holding back.
The worst part about the scenes with Anakin was the romance. Natalie Portman is back as Padme, whom Anakin is in love with. I still cannot forget the one awful scene where Anakin tries to kiss Padme. It was painful to watch because there is romantic music while Anakin approaches her, but when Padme finally refuses, the music cuts off, accompanied by the sound of a scratching record. That moment right there pretty much killed my interest in the movie. Some of the lines in the love scenes were written poorly as well, though they were a bit easier to stomach than the end of the attempted kiss.
After the movie, another friend complained that George Lucas ruined the Star Wars series with this movie. Thinking of that reminds me of other moments in the movie that were unimpressive. There's the scene where Anakin and Obi-Wan Kenobi are captured, and Obi-Wan chastises his pupil with a sarcastic remark ("Good job!"), which seemed to belong more to a sci-fi comedy than a Star Wars movie. There's also the plot involving the young Boba Fett (the bounty hunter first seen in The Empire Strikes Back) and the connection between his father Jango Fett and the Clone Wars, all of which are central to the saga's story arc but still something I found dull. It's not that the story was unnecessary. It simply didn't come across as memorable to me.
So is there anything good about Attack of the Clones? To be fair, yes, there are a few things. For the first time, we get to see Yoda in a lightsaber duel. Given his short height, Yoda's fighting style involves jumping around and whirling his weapon, so that he looks like a giant green ball whose moves are too fast to predict. As for Yoda's opponent, Count Dooku isn't exactly a forgettable villain, especially as he's played by the great (and late) Christopher Lee.
And let's not forget C-3PO and R2-D2. After all, you cannot have a Star Wars movie without those two lovable droids. I will say that 3PO's appearance in this one is amusing. He's not just standing around as other characters are doing their thing. In the climax, he gets himself into a droid factory and ends up having part of his body mixed with a droid built for battle. It's a funny sequence, and it didn't actually feel like it didn't belong in the movie. If anything, having such humor took my mind off the parts I didn't like.
Still, once the film ended, I neither looked back nor look forward. I just accepted the fact that the Star Wars series got ruined by the creator himself. That's not to say I wouldn't watch Episode III. At the time, I assumed that Episode III would not be good either, but I would still watch it just to finally see the connection between the prequel and original Star Wars trilogies.
Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
Despite my expectations that I would not care about Star Wars Episode III, I did find myself anticipating the movie in the days leading up to its theatrical release. For one thing, I learned that this movie would be darker than Episodes I and II, and I heard somewhere that director George Lucas was so emotional while watching the movie that he cried. Then I watched the latest episode of Ebert and Roeper where film critics Roger Ebert and Richard Roeper gave the movie "Two Thumbs Up," a very good sign in my opinion. It was such a good sign that a couple of friends agreed with me on that point, and we were all excited as we planned the days that we would individually see the movie.
Among my friends at the time, I was the last to see it, because I wanted to wait until Saturday rather than Friday. Even so, the 7:00 PM showing I wanted to go to was sold out, so I settled for the one that played between 10:30 and 11:00. That's OK, because I did bring a really good book to read while waiting in line for about three hours. In fact, I finished the book shortly before it was finally time to take our seats in the theater. I ended up sitting a couple of rows from the screen, but it wasn't uncomfortably close. If anything, my experience was more exciting than if I had sat closer to the back.
The beginning of the movie had plenty of exciting action, not to mention a lot more special effects. Never before has there been so many laser blasts from starships on screen at the same time. Pretty soon, I found myself forgiving Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker. The actor and his character were terrible in Episode II, but not in Episode III. Both the actor and the character showed maturity, such that I had no problems following his actions in the story. I ended up being engrossed by Anakin's love of Padme and also his vulnerability in being seduced by the dark side of the Force.
Speaking of which, Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine is great here. He was briefly seen earlier in the prequel trilogy as Senator Palpatine, and now in Episode III, he is Chancellor Palpatine, who then becomes Emperor Palpatine after he turns the Republic into an Empire. The transition from Chancellor to Emperor did send chills down my spine, because this was the character who would become the menacing villain of Return of the Jedi. Also, the fight scene between Palpatine and Yoda, engaging in a lightsaber duel and using the Force to hurl Republic chamber seats at each other. It was intense, because never before have we seen the Force used in such fierce fashion.
When the movie reached its climax, I held my breath. Anakin has gone so deep towards the dark side that Padme cries about losing the man she loves. At first, Anakin seems happy with an inflated ego, but once Obi-Wan Kenobi shows up, all bets are off. Anakin turns against Padme, then against Obi-Wan in the epic lightsaber duel we had all been waiting for. The two Jedi are swinging their weapons very quickly, using the Force against each other, and doing it all with the risk of falling to their death in hot lava.
What finally happens at the end was the reason why I officially decided that Revenge of the Sith was the best of the six Star Wars movies (yes, even better than Return of the Jedi): Anakin losing the duel and ending up in a horribly mutilated state, followed by Obi-Wan grieving for the young boy who was once innocent before changing for the worse. And when Anakin is left alone, I was on the brink of tears. I finally saw Darth Vader as a tragic figure who made the wrong choice, not necessarily an evil person who knew exactly what he was doing.
I left the movie theater at about 1:30 in the morning. Yet, the drive home wasn't all that eerie. Many others were leaving as well, and it was a Saturday night when nightlife was definitely alive. All I could think about was how this Star Wars movie made up for the first two movies of the prequel trilogy, and I thought it was a fine transition between the prequel and original trilogy. As I arrived home, I smiled and nodded. Even with a few bad entries in the Star Wars saga, the whole story is definitely something to remember. I would also be pleased about the fact that I read a very good book and watched a very good movie on the same night.
Star Wars - Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)
It's been a little over ten years since that memorable experience watching Episode III. Up until several months ago, I never really paid attention to Star Wars. I've seen all six films, and I had no interest in reading Star Wars novels or playing Star Wars video games. But then something unexpected happened: George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to the Walt Disney Company. It took time for me to get used to hearing Star Wars and Disney in the same sentence, especially when I saw an interesting picture on the Internet: a photo of Princess Leia, with a caption saying that she is officially a Disney princess. Then there was news that a seventh Star Wars movie would come out, presumably to start a new trilogy set after Episodes IV through VI.
Let me say this right now. Even as the movie is coming out in a little less than two months from now, I'm not feeling that unbearable anticipation as before. I'll still see the movie because I do want to see how the saga continues. But I'm not one of those people who analyzes every single news item, photo, and teaser as they become public. I'm just going to wait until the movie comes out, then watch it and put down my thoughts in a review. This is true even as I understand that Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill will return as Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker, respectively. (Oh, and don't forget Chewbacca.)
Still, whatever the plot is going to be and whoever the main characters are, I think it will be fun. Just from what little I've seen so far, I do predict that the movie will be a good one. I don't know if it'll be good enough that it's not bad or it'll be awesome like the best Star Wars films, but at least I'm not worried. The Star Wars movies have captured the hearts and minds of so many people from the start, and I'm sure director J.J. Abrams will gives us something that will continue that excitement for generations to come. The only question now is how much money it'll gross at the box office. It's going to be phenomenally huge for sure, but will it set new box office records? We'll see.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed my trip down memory lane with the first six Star Wars movies. Whether you are a die-hard fan who cannot wait to see Episode VII: The Force Awakens or a casual fan who is happy to watch each film just once, there is no doubt that there is something magical about Star Wars. Now let's wait a couple of weeks and experience more of that magic together. The Force is no doubt strong with all of us fans.
(Commentary originally published, with accompanying images, at http://www.anthonysfilmreview.com/Commentary/StarWarsRetrospective/A_Star_Wars_Retrospective.htm)