Fun with Franchises: Final Thoughts on Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
All right… we’ve watched the film, talked about it, had fun with it, and then we went and listed our favorite images from the film yesterday. Now all that’s left is to finish up with what we actually thought about the film as a whole.
This is our space to go over what we liked and didn’t like about each film we watch for Fun with Franchises. We talk about specific things as we get to them during the articles, and we’ll mention our general thoughts during them, but we don’t really ever get to sit and do broad strokes during the articles. So this is why we do these Final Thoughts. We get to take a step back and talk about the films as a whole, rather than discussing specific scenes or images. We’ll talk about how we felt about the film, how we liked it as a film, how we liked it as a member of its franchise, and where we think it falls within that franchise.
Again, it’s not very complicated, but it is a place to find out what we actually thought about certain movies, since, while we’re having fun with them in the articles, it may get difficult to tell sometimes. Because we’ll just rip things to shreds for fun, even if we love them.
So here are our final thoughts on Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope:
This is a tricky one because this is an important, nostalgic film to me. Under harsh scrutiny (the only kind allowed in these articles) it doesn’t do all that well. There’s the poor acting, the shoddy execution, and — it must be said — the deplorable writing. I’m glad we did this franchise immediately after Harry Potter, because that has put things into perspective.
After watching The Sorceror’s Stone for the first time as an adult, I was blown away by the awfulness. I thought it looked pretty weak, the acting was horrible (kids) and Rowling’s writing was second-rate at best. I don’t feel any particular bond to the franchise, so I let that film have it with both barrels. Mike’s response was more measured. He basically said that in spite of all the quantifiable issues with the film, its endearing qualities and the nostalgia surrounding it prevented him from really disliking it. I had to respect that, because at some point we all have to accept that no matter how much we love something, it will inevitably have its foibles. I like The World is Not Enough more than it deserves because Bond has always been my favorite franchise and that was the installment that came out when I turned 10. To some extent, these things just get a bit of a pass in spite of their [sometimes glaring] problems.
There are some things that I think are actually good here. First and foremost, Lucas is (or was) a visual genius. Mike’s a screenwriter, so he can focus more on that than I can. My eyes mostly work, though, which is why I’m able to appreciate film as a visual medium. I can say that without reservation that these films would be worthless as books; the reason they work as well as they do is that they look really good. So many of the Harry Potter shots we did were based on characters and actions going on within the shot, as opposed to the sheer beauty of those shots. With this first film, we’ve got almost nothing of people. In fact, get the people out of these shots so we can enjoy the special effects and the shot setups and the colors.
The story is crazily simple, which is kind of good. As we’ll see when we get to the prequels, Lucas doesn’t do all that well with convoluted plot design. He struggled enough with the dialogue and the execution (like showing us the Death Star too early, which Mike suggests), but at the most basic level we have a character to follow on a journey with some interesting things happening around him. The film is broken into three pretty distinct parts that follow the conventions of storytelling: 1) establishment on Tantive IV/Tatooine, meeting Luke, Obi Wan and Han; 2) being trapped on the Death Star, rescuing Leia, the showdown between Vader and Obi Wan; 3) escape from the Death Star, assembling the attack, destroying the Death Star — catharsis. This is a sci-fi movie…it’s not rocket science.
It’s a small thing, but I love how we hear things mentioned that aren’t referenced to later or explained fully. It’s one of the cleverer ways of making your universe seem more real and expansive. Hollywood has this issue about feeding you plot points early on with really obvious exposition. Remember in Prometheus when they had that scene to show off the medical pod at the beginning? They go, “Wow, this is incredible! It can do all this stuff and it’s super rare! Anyway, moving on…” And you’re sitting there thinking, “Seriously, guys? Think that might serve a purpose later on? Thanks.” The more you hear mentioned but not fully explained (providing it doesn’t factor into the plot, of course), the bigger your universe feels. That’s the contradiction of the new trilogy; we’re told about a lot of new and random stuff but it almost always gets explained, which limits the size of the universe’s periphery that you’re able to perceive. It always bugged me that in Harry Potter we never really hear about foreign wizards, which makes you wonder eventually — does this story go beyond England? So when I hear someone mention the Spice Mines of Kessel, that’s just some random place that we know exists but doesn’t necessarily pertain to the story. There’s more to this universe than just what’s being discussed in front of us. It adds to the mystery.
Speaking frankly, it’s amazing that the film turned out as good as it did. It had the fantastic visuals and one of the most epic scores imaginable, but Lucas went through so many drafts of the story that it seems like sheer luck that they wound up with this. In fact, when you go back and look at basically every story that Lucas has had his hand in, it’s gone this way. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade took years to focus. Its first iteration was a Poltergeist ripoff set entirely in a haunted castle, but Spielberg told him to stuff it. I’m sure I’ll get into this in more detail during our final thoughts for the franchise, but my opinion of Lucas is that he’s a GREAT guy to have around while you’re making a film — as long as you don’t give him any control of any non-visual details. ILM is brilliant, and the man himself used to have a fantastic sense of visual filmmaking. We’ll get an idea of what happens when someone else handles the script and direction and Lucas is left to do visual stuff in the next film.
But yeah, I still really like this movie. Second favorite in the franchise.
My Final Thoughts:
I have a very love/hate relationship with this movie. In case you couldn’t tell already.
On the one hand, I enjoy it as a movie and like watching it. (Not often, but once in a while.) It’s Star Wars and it’s iconic, and there are some great ideas here.
On the other hand — the writing is awful, the characters are barely developed, and now that I’ve watched the films closely (and was almost unable to, given how little complexity there actually was to them), it makes me upset about the amount of opportunities Lucas had to make this film better and completely missed out on for whatever reason.
The dialogue is generic, bordering on laughable, most of the characters are two-dimensional, and at most are two-and-a-half dimensional for a half a second, and a lot of what keeps me invested in this movie is due to the visuals.
I think my love/hate has to do with how simple the actual plot of the movie is. On the one hand, I kind of like that it’s slow moving and not much happens, especially for a franchise movie. I like when they don’t rush into action sequence after action sequence (like the prequels do, though I’ll admit still not as much as most modern action movies do). But on the other hand, that really only works well when you have interesting character stuff going on with it. Here — and I’ve said this a lot, so this should come as a surprise to nobody — I feel like all of the characters are just conduits for the plot. I don’t feel any kind of vested emotional interest until the end of the next movie. (The rest is vested narrative interest.)
I can’t explain it. Because on paper — the story works. Empire, Rebels. Rebels steal plans for ultimate weapon, which can turn the tide of the fighting. The two robots rush to take it to a somewhat neutral party, who is really the only person they can trust to deliver the plans into the right hands. They (the robots) fall into the wrong hands and end up being sold to Luke. Luke ends up meeting Obi-Wan, who realizes that Luke is important in some way. He takes Luke with him. This decision is sealed when the Empire kills Luke’s family. They go hire a pilot to take them to this planet. By the time they get there, the planet is destroyed and they get pulled into this space station. And so on and so forth.
The plot itself is really fucking good. I’m not denying that. That’s why, no matter how many problems I have with this movie, and the other movies of the trilogy, I’ll always like it. My main problem will always come back to Lucas being a bad writer and not fully taking advantage of the material he had in his head. I really think that he should have stuck to just figuring out the story and leaving actual writers to flesh out the details and connect the dots. I think the reason I will never fully turn on this movie is that I can see the plot and have the ability to make tighter knots around the loose ones that Lucas ties. I just really wish he had tied them better.
I feel like they had a bunch more opportunities to expand on Han’s character in this movie. I love the idea that he’s this western archetype — a cocky smuggler who goes around, hanging in bars, basically doing illegal shit, but is good enough to not get caught. I like that he’s supposed to be a loner, and I like that he’s got this price on his head for something he’s done earlier. I wish we had more scenes developing that and really making him interesting. (And I’m not talking about the Jabba scene he added in later. I like the idea of that scene, but the awful CGI and clunky inclusion ruins the pacing of the story.) In a way, those scenes are there, but I just don’t feel them. Because Lucas cannot write real people. He can just write characters, and he can’t get any kind of emotion out of a scene. He’s heavily reliant on visuals and score to cover his ass. And somehow, that works.
In fact, take away John Williams’s music and this entire franchise is not that great.
My point there is — I feel like we could have used more character scenes, and more importantly, better-written character scenes. I think Han could have been fleshed out better, Luke could have been fleshed out a little more or at least been given a more solid role in this film. Since he’s mostly just along for the ride until the end, when he magically has the right skill at the right time to help out. I feel like we should have had a couple of scenes in between where he’s like, “Why am I here? What is my purpose in all of this? Why did I stick my head up and not just stay a farmer and have everything be simple?” Because otherwise, he doesn’t really have a fully formed character arc. It’s not even that difficult a fix, either. It’s not gonna detract from the overall plot. It takes a total of like, a minute, plus a few lines here and there throughout other scenes.
The two other things (that I can remember. There may even be more) that I feel Lucas really missed the boat on — the Death Star. I said it in the opening title crawl, and Colin seemed to agree with me that it would have made the movie better — I don’t understand why he wasted the reveal of the Death Star so early. I think he could have kept it mysterious, as just an “ultimate weapon,” kept all the scenes set on it interior, so we think it’s just another Empire ship, and then when we get to the, “That’s no moon” moment – we’re totally with the characters and everything makes sense. And you get that moment of, “Holy fuck, this is bad.” Like it’s supposed to be. Honestly, had he done that, I’d have forgiven all the character stuff that we didn’t get. That, to me, is a perfect example of Lucas storytelling. He sets out all the pieces in front of you and tells the story, when all he needs to do is keep just a few of them in his back pocket and it makes the whole story better.
It’s kind of like, if a movie — or a book, even — starts with an entire list of all the characters in it and who plays them, or if it’s a book, what their roles are. Like Shakespeare, almost. At the front, he lists who the players are, and generally, their roles. So at that point, you’re basically just watching them enact a story. Meanwhile, take the movie version — if you don’t introduce your characters or list all the actors in it, then when someone big does show up, it’s a big deal. If you don’t tell your audience that Marlon Brando is Colonel Kurtz and he shows up as Colonel Kurtz, it’s kind of a big deal. Or even just on an elemental reveal level. Why would you deprive an audience of that, especially since the Death Star has played almost no part in the film before this? It literally has one scene that matters with it, and you can actually push that to happen just before / at the same time the Falcon arrives where Alderaan is supposed to be, so you get the, “That’s no moon,” and see them destroy a planet with it at the same time. And then it pulls them in and you, as an audience member, are going, “This isn’t good,” since they are no longer in control of anything that’s about to happen.
Lucas just sets out his Death Star and moves the story around and has the stuff play out in front of you. It’s like he’s not interested in storytelling at all but just wants to show you shit. I could say that it’s about giving you as much of the universe as possible, and doing it like an oral history or whatever, but… we all saw Jedi, and we all saw the prequels — that’s not true. You don’t have muppets and poopie jokes if that’s your end goal.
The other thing that really bugs me about this movie — he doesn’t tell you ANYTHING about Obi-Wan. It’s really fucking annoying. You hear “Obi-Wan Kenobi” a bunch of times before you meet him, which is a great way to introduce a character. It worked for Colonel Kurtz — it sure as shit worked for Harry Lime (which, to me, is the greatest character introduction in the history of cinema). But then, when we meet Obi-Wan, he just sort of sits there pensively and says, “You must come with me.” (Quite literally too. Remember that scene? He sits there for a good ten seconds before saying it.) Not once does he explain why Luke must come with him, which could be fine, since you want to save the, “He’s your father” reveal until later and all that. But we don’t even get a sense of what Obi-Wan is thinking otherwise.
I said in the articles that the whole situation would have been so much better if Obi-Wan, upon encountering Luke, immediately realized the course of events that would unfold and knew he was going to his death. And he decides, on the way out, to train Luke and get him ready to face his father. And he spends the middle of the movie training Luke to be a Jedi and Luke keeps wondering why Obi-Wan is doing this, since it’s this whole lost religion thing, and no one does it anymore, and it seems strange, and Obi-Wan refuses to tell him why, but drops hints about what’s going to happen. And then they get to the ship, and Obi-Wan splits up from them to keep Luke safe and ends up facing Vader. And then there’s the moment where he looks over at Luke and smirks and realizes — “I got him.” And there, we see that he chooses the right moment to die, because now Luke is set on becoming a Jedi and this whole father/son thing that happens over the next two movies is set to play itself out. And he could even say this to Vader. How it’s already greater than the two of them, and how he can’t stop what’s going to happen or whatever. But instead, Obi-Wan just spouts philosophical nonsense without explaining it, sits and thinks about things without telling us what he’s thinking about, and literally spends about five scenes walking from one side of the hallway to another, looking around for a second and continuing on. If you take thirty seconds to add some character depth, the whole thing becomes so much better.
So that’s the reason I love and hate this movie at the same time. It’s a really fucking good movie, but for some reason, Lucas is just unable to take such easy and obvious routes to make it better. That’s why I say that the whole of this movie is greater than the some of its parts. Since it’s a good movie, but it’s in spite of its writer and director. (Though, I will admit — the direction on this movie is really fucking good. The sets look great, I love the wide shots, the cinematography is astounding — it’s a really great-looking movie. Colin said the same thing — he’s a really great visual filmmaker. It’s just the writing that detracts from it.)
Everything you need is right there to make a truly great movie — I’m talking great in the public sense and the actual, “Man, this is a great movie” sense. I think, for this one, the scale tips too heavily in the “public” sense. In terms of pure cinema, this is just a really good movie. I think this movie is good, the next movie is great, and the third movie falls apart before we can really get a sense of what happens. And yet, from everything that went into this film, and all the problems it had, and all the problems it still has, and still almost has — this should have been nothing short of an unmitigated disaster. So the fact that it’s still a really good movie is a major blessing.
Though, you know what? I think the overall story of this movie is better than the other two. Which again comes back to my love/hate thing, since everything about this movie works except the writing. It’s such a shame, too. Since all it does it get me thinking about “what if?” All the other movies really don’t have that perfect storm working for it. Every other one has a lot of problems on top of the writing. And I’m including Empire in that. For reasons I will get to when we get there.
But, since it is what it is — I’ll still always really like this movie. So there’s that.
And it’ll still always amaze me how such a flawed franchise can still be loved this much. Since this is the major franchise. This is it. No franchise has so firmly entrenched itself into our culture as this has. And it’s pretty amazing. And I think that speaks to a lot about what the franchise actually is — a lot of great ideas and really awesome things that we can all reference and enjoy, but when you get to it as movies, there are some real problems there. So it’s hard to separate universe from pure film construction, and since I am more about film construction more than I am about this universe, I find myself unable to love this movie as much as I want to, given how great the ideas in it are and how great the story is. (And just so we’re clear, as much as I want to means — as much as other people love this movie. The way people rate this movie on IMDB. Instead this is just one of my top ten from the year it came out, in the pack with a lot of other top tens that don’t really crack my favorite… I don’t know… 200 movies.)
But hey — can’t love ’em all. So I’m cool with just liking it a lot.
And seriously — John Williams is really why this works. We all know it.
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Tomorrow we start Empire.
(See the rest of the Fun with Franchises articles here.)