‘Star Wars,’ the Original Series (Part Four): Changes in Altitude

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Star Wars: Episode IV Logo (dvdactive.com)
Star Wars — Episode IV: A New Hope Logo (dvdactive.com)

The “Hope” of the Hopeless

As the first film in the original series, Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) provides the basic introduction to this fantastic, at times slow-moving world of the future.

It’s creaky in spots (I’ll give you that), enlivened by the occasional fly-by or Imperial star cruiser roaring overhead. Yet despite the almost insurmountable obstacles the project faced in coming to the screen (see the judicious “making of” features on the latest Blu-ray/DVD re-releases), the finished work represents a huge leap forward — an allegorical jump into hyperspace, if you will — in the art of movie-making, an oftentimes lyrical ode to gee-whiz, can-do rugged individualism. (Reader Alert: Prior knowledge of the film’s plot may be required in order to follow the story outline below.)

After a brief skirmish on board a diplomatic ship — a fracas that ends before it even begins — we find ourselves on the outwardly lifeless desert planet of Tatooine. Mundane chores are the themes of the day as we are introduced to one of the saga’s chief protagonists: the restless Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), in this modern reinvention of the hero’s journey from classical mythology.

This was a deliberate choice on the part of its creator, writer, director, and producer, a visionary filmmaker named George Lucas. Deliberate in the sense that Lucas’ depiction of routine, commonplace occurrences of daily life would soon find themselves clashing with, and be far outweighed by, the necessities for survival (think Naked and Afraid with clothes on).

Consequently, the entire middle section of the movie drags — that is, up until the last third, where the ever-popular video game portion of the program happily takes over. A lively, fast-moving, and uninterrupted flight of programming fancy, this rapid-paced conclusion does, indeed, offer a new hope, a new outlook, and a new vision, at events that are still to come; a prescient and farsighted forecast into a technologically advanced future where all things are technically possible.

In line with this view, it’s only right that the first figures to be introduced onto the screen are the robotic butler C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and his little droid companion R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), with another Threepio unit (clad in silver, not gold casing) seen directly behind them. This is followed by the entrance of Rebel Forces in heavy duty helmets with enormous visors — ostensibly in the shape of makeshift, inverted chamber pots resting on their noggins.

Rebel Alliance preparing for battle (Star Wars -- Episode IV)
Rebel Alliance preparing for battle (Star Wars — Episode IV)

Imperial Storm Troopers burst in, and a fight ensues aboard Princess Leia’s flagship. The Rebels race down a long corridor, blasting away with their laser weapons as they go. As Artoo and Threepio cross the line of fire, we see the huge black frame and hear the heavy-breathing apparatus of the series’ main heavy, the formidable Darth Vader — voiced by James Earl Jones, body by Dave Prowse.

(Note to the wise: This entrance is repeated, in like manner, in Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, as Vader penetrates the Rebel’s hidden base on the ice planet Hoth.)

This leads to a quick shot of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) feeding Artoo the stolen plans for the dreaded Death Star, which the Galactic Empire has been building in outer space lo these many years.

An irate Darth Vader orders one of the Storm Trooper commanders to “tear the ship apart until you’ve found those plans and bring me the passengers! I want them alive!” Now, now! Temper, temper! We feel his pain and anger. It seems that underneath that Nazi-style helmet lies an emotionally-wasted, angst-driven Anakin Skywalker (or Starkiller, if you go by Lucas’ original intention for that surname).

This is hardly the manner in which a follower of the Dark Side should act, but then again we’re only at the beginning of the story. At this rudimentary stage, it makes perfect sense that Vader is not in complete control of his emotions; that will surely change as the saga deepens and develops. Besides, this initial outburst makes Vader’s character all the more potent, especially after he chokes the life out of one of the Rebels with his bare hand (his left to be exact, i.e., la sinistra = Italian for “sinister”). Vader casually tosses the dead Rebel aside. So much for the future value of one’s life!

Next, we hear the Princess Leia theme for the first time (courtesy of composer John Williams), but it doesn’t last long, as the princess herself is brought before Lord Vader to face the music. Leia insists she was on a diplomatic mission to Alderaan, her home planet, while Vader points an ominous, black-gloved finger at the girl and shouts, “You are part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor – take her away!”

Again, Vader’s voice soars to a crescendo of impotent rage and fury at the petite, five-foot-nothing Leia. Talk about a height advantage, this guy is impatience personified. I wonder how he would react if he knew that little Leia was, in reality, his own daughter! (Ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves …) The princess is banished forthwith to one of the Death Star’s many prison cells to be, how shall one put it, “interrogated.”

Paradox in Paradise

Artoo and Threepio in Tatooine (starwars.wikia.com)
Artoo and Threepio in Tatooine (starwars.wikia.com)

We revert back to the Tatooine Desert, where the blue sky contrasts with varying shades of red sand, a sight straight out of Sir David Lean’s epic Lawrence of Arabia (a model for Lucas’ vision). Artoo and Threepio have split up and gone their separate ways. With that, there’s a brief glimpse of Threepio shouting to a lone desert transport: “Hey! HEY!!” But instead of being rescued, he winds up inside the transport, a victim of his own insipidness.

This smacks of a similar incident in Lawrence of Arabia, where the title character and Farraj, one of his native servant boys, reach the Suez Canal. On the other side of the ridge, a British soldier shouts at them: “Who are you? WHO ARE YOU?” That soldier was none other than director Lean himself, in a brief bit. I seriously doubt that Lucas was the one who provided the voice of the guy in the desert yelling “Hey” (glad you asked: it was Anthony Daniels), but it’s a nice touch nonetheless.

Artoo happens to be held in the Jawas’ desert transport, where he meets up with other abducted droids, all rather bizarre looking. One of the captured robots reminds us of a walking gas pump, while another bears a startling resemblance to Pixar’s Wall-E (were you watching, John Lasseter?). It’s here that Artoo reunites with his old buddy, Threepio, who is overjoyed to see him.

The huge transport lumbers across the desert surface, slowly but surely, with the music mimicking that same lumbering quality. It could be a stand-in for Terry Gilliam’s gigantic traveling-circus wagon, last seen in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, but in point of fact it’s hard to predict what was on Gilliam’s mind at the time, it being entirely unpredictable at best.

At last, we are introduced to our hero Luke, a geeky, cheerful lad of post-adolescent age who’s stuck on his Uncle Owen (Phil Brown) and Aunt Beru’s (Shelagh Fraser) cheerless farm. This is where we hear the name “Biggs” mentioned, just before Luke takes the two droids back to his place for proper grooming. Audiences unfamiliar with the original script may be perplexed at the mention of his name, a character that doesn’t appear until the last 15 minutes of the picture and is promptly never heard from again.

Biggs Darklighter (listal.com)
Garrick Hagon as Biggs Darklighter (listal.com)

In case you were wondering, Biggs Darklighter (played by Garrick Hagon) is Luke’s childhood pal, recently returned from the Academy, wherever or whatever that is (it ain’t Starfleet, that I can assure you). According to established Star Wars movie lore, Lucas has stashed away Luke and Biggs’ scenes (along with those of their friends Deak, Camie, and Fixer) in an off-sight vault somewhere, possibly in area 51. The rumor this so-called “lost footage” would be someday “restored” in subsequent revivals of the saga has been lingering for well on three decades without substantiation.

It’s my learned opinion, fellow sci-fi fanatics, that if maverick filmmaker Mr. Lucas ever had plans to release this lost footage in the first place, he surely would have done so by now. Still, the rumor persists and continues to be one of those ongoing paradoxes associated with the series from time immemorial. Perhaps with the Disney Studio’s acquisition of the financially lucrative franchise we may yet be treated to this innocuous little side episode. Until then, let’s hope it’s worth the wait!

Uncle Ben’s Converted Lightsaber

"Help me, Obi-Wan." (hollywoodreporter.com)
“Help me, Obi-Wan.” (hollywoodreporter.com)

Meanwhile, after showing Luke the holographic message uploaded by Princess Leia, a suddenly impatient Artoo decides to go off on his own to seek out somebody called Obi-Wan Kenobi. “Now that’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time. A long time …” A smiling, bewigged Sir Alec Guinness plays a smiling, bewigged Old Ben, aka Obi-Wan. Ben unwittingly echoes the sentiments of the film’s focus in the aforementioned declaration, in a slogan that defines the very crux of the drama that will appear in every Star Wars manifestation hereinafter:

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away ….”

“I haven’t gone by the name Obi-Wan,” he tells the guileless Luke, “since, oh, before you were born.” That’s good to know! And we’ll be learning a heck of a lot more about this mysterious stranger in long-flowing robes in the flicks to come. Right now, Old Ben’s got his hands full with two pesky droids, the presence of trigger-happy Tusken Raiders (vicious walrus-like creatures), and an excitable teenager clamoring for adventure.

Soon the conversation gets around to Luke’s deceased father and Ben’s participation in the so-called Clone Wars as a (gasp!) Jedi Knight. As proof of his assertions, the old man hands Luke a lightsaber, claiming it once belonged to his old companion, Anakin Skywalker: “An elegant weapon for a more civilized time.” I’ll bet!

Just then, the dastardly appellation of Darth Vader gets thrown out as the malefactor responsible for the death of Luke’s pater. “Vader was seduced by the Dark Side of the Force,” Ben insists. Aha, now we’re getting somewhere! Ben tries to recruit the reluctant Luke into joining him on his quest, but the boy’s got troubles of his own — especially after he finds his aunt and uncle burned to crisp by the Galactic Storm Troopers (in a clear homage to John Ford’s classic Western, The Searchers).

The scene shifts to a conference room in the interior of the Death Star. To lend his feature an air of legitimacy, Lucas decided on casting British-born thespian Peter Cushing as the iniquitous Governor Grand Moff Tarkin. A bit worse for wear, the thin and wan Mr. Cushing still makes for a sinister villain. In a similar move, Lucas employed the talents of Cushing’s old friend and partner Christopher Lee, in Episodes II and III — two Hammer Horror veterans with a long and honorable lineage in filmdom.

"Your lack of faith is disturbing." (dvdactive.com)
“I find your lack of faith disturbing.” (dvdactive.com)

Prior to Darth Vader’s convincing display of telepathic powers (in response to Commander Motti’s putdown of the Sith Lord’s “sad devotion to that ancient religion”), Governor Tarkin is, for all intents and purposes, the featured bad guy. His commanding presence attempts to put order to the endless bickering carried on by his Galactic cohorts. Vader is loath to release the helpless commander, but does so nevertheless.

Not wanting to regurgitate every nook and cranny of the plot, we move on to an inserted scene with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Jabba the Hutt — or more correctly, a digitally enhanced Jabba (or “DEJ”) speaking in Huttese. To these eyes, there is something unreal about this CGI-created slug. British-born actor Ian McNeice, who portrayed the Baron Harkonnen in the Sci-Fi Channel’s excellent adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, was hired to stand in for the repugnant Hutt. This scene, while easily dispensable, does serve to explain why Jabba had it in for Solo: he owes him quite a lot of moola.

Also making his screen debut is the notorious bounty hunter Boba Fett, who is part of Jabba’s advance guard, to include the green-skinned creature known as Greedo, an aptly chosen moniker for such a loathsome smuggler. Greedo gets blown away by Han Solo in the Cantina Bar sequence at the Mos Eisley space port. What a way to go!

In the revised version of this sequence, Greedo is made to fire first, thus negating the effect of Solo’s wanting to gain the upper hand in their brief encounter. Hey, a smuggler’s got a right to protect himself, right? Think of it as an intergalactic re-creation of the “stand-your-ground” law.

 Victory is Its Own Reward!

All in all, in a comparison to the later trio of movies — Episodes I, II and III, to be exact — there’s a palpable realism and solidity to the early pictures that are most welcome here and completely missing further on; a feeling of sturdiness, of real physical structures surrounding the all-too human figures that no CGI-created atmosphere can beat or replicate.

When Luke’s old buddy Biggs re-emerges onscreen, his usefulness is made evident in vouching for his friend’s superior piloting skills. Once that business is out of the way, we’re off to outer space and video-game land, the first of many such happenstances. Let’s take a closer look at one of them: an earlier encounter that takes place aboard Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon spaceship.

Luke attempts to master the Jedi art of stretching out with one’s feelings by covering his sights with a helmet, while preventing a floating “seeker,” a chrome baseball-like automaton with built-in antennae, from hitting him with its blood-red laser beam. If this isn’t a precursor to virtual reality games (or a similar apparatus in the still-to-come Harry Potter series), I don’t know what is.

General Dodonna (2nd from right) in the briefing room (pyxurz.blogspot.com)
General Dodonna (2nd from right) in the briefing room (pyxurz.blogspot.com)

We fast-forward to Rebel Base Headquarters, where the leader of the group, General Dodonna. gives a mid-seventies reenactment of the Saint Crispin’s Day speech — you know the one, the rallying cry that Shakespeare’s Henry V gave his troops before the English victory over the French at Agincourt. Dodonna’s discourse, unfortunately, is not all that inspiring. In fact, it’s chock full of techno-babble. But he concludes it with the famous line, “And may the Force be with you,” which is certainly not the last time we’ll be hearing this popular catchphrase.

The good general does look incredibly like veteran filmmaker-actor John Huston. Incidentally, the fellow who played him, a guy named Alex McCrindle, even manages to capture “some” of Mr. Huston’s voice mannerisms and cadences, although the resemblance ends there. Perhaps it’s another of those “art imitates life” moments we hear so much about. We do know that Huston made his residence in western Ireland at the time of the Stars Wars shoot. In addition, outside of the desert sequences in Tunisia, the bulk of movie was shot at Pinewood Studios in the UK. If Huston wouldn’t come to the mountain … well, then, why not take the mountain somewhere else?

No matter, the speech has the desired effect of getting the journeyman star pilots to perform at their best. And, most important of all, both Luke and Han Solo are reunited at last and go on to save the day. Han even gets a chance to redeem himself in the eyes of his friend (and the gorgeously bedecked Princess Leia) in the Throne Room sequence. Ta-da!!!!

The Throne Room sequence (nydailynews.com)
The Throne Room sequence (nydailynews.com)

By the way, the additional scenes inserted by Lucas for the 1997 “Special Edition” re-release, in the digitally enhanced realm, add little to the film’s overall structure and content. On the contrary, these so-called “improvements” tend to favor the original uncluttered productions, which are parsecs removed from the upgraded versions.

If anything, they prove how much better the earlier films were as opposed to these bowdlerized and patently ersatz enhancements.

(To be continued)

End of Part Four

Transcript of dialogue from George Lucas’ original Star Wars screenplay was taken from the Public Version of same

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes    

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One thought on “‘Star Wars,’ the Original Series (Part Four): Changes in Altitude

    Feminism Through Cinema and Literature said:
    September 7, 2014 at 12:52 pm

    Great post

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