VHS Revival travels to a galaxy far, far away…
A long time ago . . . in a galaxy far, far away . . .
For me, and many others, that ‘long time ago’ was a childhood defined by the exploits of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and their dysfunctional group of androids, wookies, rapscallions and royalty. That single line also exemplifies the ‘Once Upon a Time’ introduction of many a fairy tale, as a young farm boy who dreams of joining the rebellion suddenly finds himself rescuing the princess and defeating the evil wizard. It’s far from original, the same story told to every generation of children, but it’s a wonderful tale that pulls in your inner child and gives him or her exactly what they want – thrills and spills in spades!
One thing that struck me whilst watching it for the first time with my eldest boy was how slow the film is during the earlier scenes. Yes, we’re greeted with the same sight that every ‘Star Wars’ film opens with: a Star Destroyer cutting the screen in two and a very early introduction to the evil Darth Vader, but once the droids escape the pace slows dramatically to concentrate on the character of Luke. To take the fairy tale analogy, he is the little boy who desperately wants to grow up and find adventure and George Lucas rightly gives us time to identify with him. His only companions have flown the nest, he spends his time picking up power converters, and his best friends, or at least the only company he can find, appear to be droids. That is until he meets a true father figure in Obi Wan Kenobi.
Having never known his father, it is easy to see how Luke could have warmed to Obi Wan with his tales of the Jedi and a physical link to the Princess, who he is convinced he is destined to rescue. In the school playground we all fought over who would be Han or Luke, but watching through adult eyes it is Obi Wan who is the beating heart of the film. It is he who is the ticket to Luke leaving Tatooine, who leads them to Han and the Millennium Falcon, who gets them off the Death Star by deactivating the tractor beam, and who ultimately becomes the driving force behind Luke’s success in destroying the Death Star.
That’s your uncle talking – Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi
It’s worth stating that there is a real irony in the fact that, alongside Lucas, Alec Guinness was one of the few who opted for a percentage of the box office rather than a flat fee while insisting that he did no publicity for the film. Being that it was the publicity, merchandising and word of mouth that contributed greatly to the film’s success, you have to admire that kind of foresight…the force was definitely with him!
It is in the space port of Mos Eisley where Episode 4 quite literally takes off, as our motley band of rebels board the Millennium Falcon and catapult headlong into the galaxy to deliver the plans for the Death Star. If Obi Wan is the beating heart of the film, then R2 is the legs! The droid is the most effective MacGuffin in cinema history. Usually a bomb, the contents of a briefcase, a file or a laptop, it is rare to see such a device have a personality, but essentially R2 is the briefcase, becoming part of the bomb in his role as navigator on Luke’s Yavin Interceptor.
Of course, every protagonist needs a great villain, and there are perhaps none greater than Darth Vader. The Empire bears an uncanny resemblance to the Nazis in terms of their dark grey uniforms and military appearance. The Stormtroopers are, essentially, Nazi soldiers – not necessarily evil themselves, but too weak to resist the will of the Empire, here represented by the Dark Side. In the same manner as Hitler, The Emperor has risen to prominence through his manipulation of the system and cult of the personality, and Darth Vader could be seen as being modelled on Heinrich Himmler, commander of the SS, the military organisation that carried out Hitler’s bidding and installed a regime of fear under which Hitler could flourish. In this case, the Death Star is the Final Solution in literal form, a symbol of the holocaust, with the ability to wipe out entire civilisations through destruction, or subdue entire civilisations through the fear of that destruction.
It’s certainly a dark analogy, but it was refreshing to see a villain in a family film who was genuinely ruthless and not a caricature. George Lucas had expressed a desire to obtain the rights to Flash Gordon and created Star Wars after failing in his aim, and so deciding to make his own version. Whereas ‘Ming the Merciless’ is most certainly a villain, when talking about the film adaptation, he is nowhere near as imposing as Vader. We can’t see his face – a horror movie trope of the masked villain, with a lack of features and emotion for maximum impact. He is tall, powerful and can, indeed does, kill a man without even having to touch him. Children love to be scared, so it’s no wonder he has become such an enduring villain.
Darth Vader – This will be a day long remembered. It has seen the end of Kenobi, it will soon see the end of the Rebellion.
There are also strong links to Samurai films and the formula of Star Wars, particularly the decision to introduce the main protagonists through C3PO and R2D2, which has been likened many times to Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress. The Force is not only portrayed as a magical energy, but also as a code to live by. The Jedi advocates of that code, by wielding majestic lightsabers and wearing hooded clothes, are likened to the legendary Samurai, who serve nobility – in this case Princess Leia – and protect their people. By siding with royalty and, ultimately, the rebel alliance against the Empire, they are acknowledging this link, becoming one with the people against the establishment.
It is easy to forget that Stars Wars wasn’t a big-budget film in the traditional sense. In fact, it was originally pitched as a low budget idea in the style of a Roger Corman flick. The final film came in at around $10million which, though perhaps not Corman’s idea of low-budget, was by no means massive. It was also seen as a bit of a risk with most major studios including, ironically as it turns out, Disney, who viewed Star Wars as an odd concept – old fashioned and not mainstream. It was 20th Century Fox who eventually gave Lucas $150,000 to write and direct, taking a cut of the merchandising and setting himself up for life.
I think what lies partly behind the success of the film is the reality of the world Lucas created in its design, and this was incredibly influential to the evolution of sci-fi. It is a universe that looks old, particularly in regard to the design of the rebels. Everything looks used, battered and war-torn, with the kind of machinery you might find in a scrapyard. Even the iconic Millennium Falcon is described as “a piece of junk”, and it’s a running joke that the ship is continually falling apart. Even our protagonists’ clothes are the equivalent of the old faithful leather jacket that you can’t bear to throw away, much like Starlord in ‘Guardians’. Contrast that with the ‘money’ of the Empire and their polished destroyers, gleaming interiors and pristine uniforms, and you can see a class system where the rich feed off the poor, acquiring more and more wealth to invest in vast infrastructure as the outer edges become tired and worn. Take a look at archive footage of the New Orleans hurricane to see how this kind of imagery and stark disparity between the haves and have nots translates to real life. This is a universe that is used, lived in and politicised in a way that our own is. You have to admire Lucas’ vision for achieving that.
These days sequels are the norm, and it was inevitable that there would be another Star Wars movie, but it must have felt odd seeing a new and original film that claimed to be Episode 4. Of course, we now know that it was intended as a double trilogy, and that Lucas felt the fourth instalment would be the easiest and cheapest to film. That audiences completely accepted the fact they were effectively joining a story halfway through without question suggests an astounding talent in storytelling, as well as unique cinematic show and tell. We don’t know Vader’s backstory, but that makes him all the more mysterious. We don’t know how the Emperor rose to power, but we know it is through insidious means. All of this allows us to fill in the blanks, which made it all the more frustrating that Lucas then felt the need to fill in those blanks on our behalf, with two atrocious prequels and an average one. It’s the reverse of horror movie lore, where what lies in your imagination is more frightening than anything that could be shown on screen.
Thankfully, we do still have the original trilogy, and you can rest assured that I won’t be going the way of Lucas and revisiting that treacherous second trilogy. Be that as it may, the next step in the Star Wars universe would set the bar for all fantasy sequels to follow. If it doesn’t get darker, if hope doesn’t turn to despair ahead of the final act, then it is not a successful trilogy. The forces of evil must always strike back, and strike back harder.