Wednesday, June 22, 2016

STAR WARS (1977) - *****

Rated PG for sci-fi violence and brief mild language
Running time: 121 min.
Release date: May 25, 1977

Movies were intended to entertain an audience; there are so many movies that fail to penetrate through to the viewer's core. The audience wants to be able to connect with the images on display before their eyes. Director George Lucas has accomplished that previously with his film about kids and hot rods, American Graffiti, back in 1973. Now, with Star Wars, Lucas has taken that connection much further. He's taken it to a galaxy far....far away; and the result is a film that has transcended time and place while setting the bar for science fiction films to almost unreachable heights.

The first thing we see is the movie's title hurled at the screen accompanied by a booming orchestra led by conductor John Williams. The film's theme is indeed grand, while the written story crawls up the screen, providing the audience with some background on what they are about to see. The crawling story gives way to an expansive amount of stars. Hurtling through these stars is a ship hurriedly trying to escape the clutches of a much, much larger ship, as the hull of this larger ship fills the screen endlessly. This is the first of many moments that will leave the viewer's jaw on the floor. Aboard the smaller craft are android companions C-3PO and R2-D2. C-3PO is worried that they are all doomed, while R2-D2 is provided a secret mission by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). R2-D2 convinces C-3PO to escape in a pod with him to the nearest planet, Tatooine. Reluctantly, C-3PO follows. The relationship between these two robotic characters provides some of the lighter moments in the film. 

The ship is raided by Imperial stormtroopers, led by Darth Vader (David Prowse). Vader is an imposing character, clad in black, the color of evil. His breathing sounds like he may have health issues, but it is one of the more sinister character traits in modern movies. Throughout the film, he alternates between militaristic oppressor and evil sorcerer, practicing in The Force. Mentioned throughout the film, The Force is a mystical energy that can be used for both good and evil, depending on the practitioner. Darth Vader captivates every scene he is in with his menacing voice, commanding presence and sheer evil surrounding him. He takes Leia hostage as Vader and his troops head back to the Death Star, a large round space station that resembles a moon but contains the power to destroy entire planets. This is something that the commander, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing), is all too eager to demonstrate. Leia is tortured for information on the whereabouts of stolen Death Star plans, while the two droids land on the desert surface of Tatooine. Their escape pod attracted the attention of the Empire, and they send stormtroopers down to conduct a search.

Meanwhile, down on Tatooine, we meet all sorts of various species of alien lifeforms in this amazing world. There are droid merchants, the Jawas, dwarf-like hooded creatures that roam the desert in their huge trawler, stopping by the scattered farms selling their ill-gotten wares. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his uncle Owen (Phil Brown) end up purchasing C-3PO and R2-D2, who had been kidnapped upon their arrival by these creatures. Luke is an earnest, naive young man who dreams of being a fighter pilot, while his uncle wants to keep him on the farm out of the way of all that nonsense. Luke learns that R2-D2 has a secret message for someone named Obi-Wan Kenobi, recorded by Princess Leia. Luke knows a "Ben" Kenobi and wonders if it's the same man. R2-D2 goes off on his own to find Obi-Wan, with Luke chasing after him. He encounters the Sand People, a primitive race of alien, who attack him. He is saved by old Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness), who Luke learns is the same man of Obi-Wan. Obi-Wan studies Leia's message, as she states that he is her only hope. We get a backstory involving Obi-Wan being a teacher of The Force for Luke's father before he was killed by Darth Vader. Circumstances abound and Luke finds himself joining Obi-Wan in a mission to the planet Alderaan to assist Leia. 

One of the more enjoyable and wonderful scenes in Star Wars is the Mos Eisley cantina scene. It comes across as an Old West-style saloon with all sorts of unsavory characters, or as Obi-Wan calls it, "a wretched hive of scum and villainy". We meet Han Solo (Harrison Ford), in hock with a gangster and needing money fast, and his tall, woolly companion, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). They agree to fly Luke and Obi-Wan to Alderaan with the promise of a pay-off in return. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan begins to train Luke in the ways of The Force, telling him such things as reaching out with his feelings. Our heroes encounter the Death Star and get reeled in by the tractor beam, unable to escape. So paths cross and Luke and company learn that Leia is aboard and is in need of rescue. Obi-Wan and Darth Vader appear destined to meet, the former master and his pupil, now turned to evil. We get a swashbuckling lightsaber duel, the sounds and lights of which are captivating. 

The final scene is of rebel fighter pilots careening through the trenches of the Death Star, searching for that one weak spot that will bring the Empire's prized weapon to ruin, and denting the plans of evil. A masterstroke of technical brilliance and frenzied pacing, this scene is also quite memorable.

For one Luke Skywalker, it is a journey that saw him as a wild-eyed and dreamy farmboy to the best fighter pilot in the galaxy. For Han Solo, it's about putting aside selfish desires and doing what is right. For Darth Vader, it's about bringing the good guys to their knees. George Lucas' screenplay, in combination with his expertly crafted directing, tells a story from beginning to end in a traditional narrative. We meet many characters along the way, each one simply drawn with backstories that are simply told. Alec Guinness brings an aged dignity to the film, while Harrison Ford brings a cynical wit to the role of Han Solo. Mark Hamill's sincerity with the role of Luke came through, as he was a thoroughly innocent bystander to this intergalactic clash, but then logically became one of its star players. Portraying a princess, Carrie Fisher carried herself with dignity but also showed a splash of energy. 

The special effects brought to life by Lucas complement the film, rather than dominate it. Lucas is content with letting the story run its course, which was the wise choice to make. However, the effects are nothing short of brilliant and groundbreaking. Using models and sets, Lucas creates a convincing universe that envelops all the action unfolding on the screen. The audience is sucked into this world, which doesn't appear to have any seams. There may be a couple of plot inconsistencies, therefore the film is not a perfect one, but this is just picking nits. The film is wholly entertaining from beginning to end, with a story told in a logical narrative. Star Wars is the greatest sci-fi epic of all time and the special effects template that countless other films would aspire to.

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