Thursday, November 19, 2015

'Star Wars' is cinematic comfort food: A lifelong fan finally reviews the 1977 film

How do I review a film I've seen multiple times over the last 38 years? How does this lifelong "Star Wars" fan tackle the movie that made me into the fanboy and action-movie lover I am today?

There's no easy way to critically look at "Star Wars." And after all these years, it's even more difficult to be brief in reviewing such an influential film.
I'm proud to say I still own a poster of this iconic
art by Tim Hildebrandt -- even as beat up as it is.

The easiest thing for me to say is it's the cinematic form of comfort food. No matter how long or short of a time it's been since the last time I watched it, "Star Wars" is a pleasure and I feel good after the movie-watching experience.

There's a reason I watched it the night before my birthday -- and then again four days later when I was stressed and down. "Star Wars" is the first film I watched to "break in" my first-ever HD flatscreen TV -- followed by back-to-back viewings of "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi."

I could recite many of the lines in "Star Wars" whenever I watch it. But I don't; I respect George Lucas' opus too much to do it — even if I watch it by myself.

(What other films do I also consider the cinematic equivalent of comfort food? In no certain order: The "Lethal Weapon" series (especially Nos. 2 and 4), "Die Hard," "The Avengers," the original "Iron Man" and its first sequel, "Men in Black," "Batman Begins," "The Dark Knight," "Captain America: The First Avenger," "... Winter Soldier," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" and even the original "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.")

Simply put, "Star Wars" is nothing less than movie magic.

First of all, I simply adore all the protagonists.

C-3PO and R2-D2 — one of the greatest dynamic duos in any genre — carry the film for the first 17 minutes until we are introduced to Luke Skywalker. The original Big Three -- Luke, Han and Leia -- don't even appear onscreen together until exactly an hour after Hamill's Skywalker takes ownership of the droids.

That's the sign of an enthralling movie when aside from extended cameos from Princess Leia and Darth Vader, two droids have you fall in love with the universe during the the slowest paced part of the film. ("Star Wars" picks up momentum by the time Skywalker and Threepio have to track down Artoo in the Dune Sea; onward from Leia's rescue, Lucas doesn't let go.)

Enough can't be said about the chemistry among Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher (whose Princess Leia is a great role model for feminism in action movies). Without what they bring to their characters, I highly doubt "Star Wars" would have been such a phenomenon.

Skywalker, Han Solo and Leia emobody great archetypes.

Skywalker is the pure-of-heart, but naive young man whose destiny influences the rest of the story. Solo, as crusty, cynical, world-weary and seemingly self absorbed as he is, has a heart of gold. How can not love the cocky smuggler who tells Leia he's "not in it for your rebellion," but ends up helping Luke save the day? Leia might seem like the damsel in distress, but she's so much more. (Just read my last op-ed, will ya?!)  Fisher's take-no-crap Leia sets the precedent for subsequent female leads and/or co-stars in action flicks being full of spirit and not entirely reliant on her male counterparts.

Throw in the lovable but tough Chewbacca, the Abbott and Costello/ying-and-ying squabbling between the bickering doomsayer Threepio ("I forget how much I hate space travel") and "mouthy" Artoo and top it all off with Vader's menace and mysterious backstory (but like Wolverine's origin, was it better left untold?) and what a cast of memorable characters Lucas has created!

Don't forget the memorable lines, inspiring special effects and John Williams' unforgettable score and character themes.

There's heart in "Star Wars."

And more than a bit of theology and borrowed imagery from World War II movies and Westerns.

Have you ever stopped to consider that the Mos Eisley cantina scene is something straight out of a Western. It's an extended homage to bar scenes.

The shoot-out here features a once mighty yet still wise warrior (Obi-Wan Kenobi played with great power in an astonishingly subtle performance by Sir Alec Guinness) breaking up Skywalker being bullied -- and amputating an arm -- with a lightsaber. Such quick and decisive action quiets the entire bar, whose clients rapidly return to their drinks and conversations. (Just one example of Guinness' brilliant acting is the expression he delivers after whipping out his lightsaber; it's as if he says: "Will there be any more problems? ... I didn't think so.")

Come to find out Solo has a bounty on his head. And he has to shoot a bounty hunter before taking Kenobi and Skywalker on a paid voyage (masterfully negotiated by Kenobi, whom Solo regularly but respectfully calls "the old man).

Is it any wonder Kenobi says Mos Eisley is a place where "you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy"?

The intergalactic battle between the X-Wing and TIE fighters is straight out WWII melodramas and serials.

Kenobi's fateful lightsaber battle with Darth Vader is nothing less than variation of Western showdowns between the Old West law (Kenobi) and the big baddie; it's just in the hallway of a massive space station instead of the dirty streets of a small town.

It's also the final battle between the good guy and villain. Kenobi's "white hat" and gun are swapped out for a blue lightsaber and Vader, the (partial) man in black yielding a red lightsaber.

Lucas puts a couple massive spins on the Western clich├ęs.

For one, young Kenobi was the teacher of Vader, first assigned to be Anakin Skywalker's Jedi Padawan after Kenobi's master, Qui-Gon Jinn, is slain at the end of "Episode I - The Phantom Menace." By "Episode II - Attack of the Clones," Kenobi and Skywalker's relationship is strained. And in "Episode III - Revenge of the Sith," the young Jedi Knight is seduced into the following the Dark Side of the Force by Chancellor Palpatine's promises of keeping his wife alive.

Granted, 1977 audiences didn't know any of this, but the modern fans who have seen the 1999-2005 prequel trilogy can see how Kenobi shares the truth about Skywalker/Vader's fate with his son, Luke.

It's interesting how when Luke mentions his father, Kenobi is sentimental about the elder Skywalker. Guinness' Kenobi smiles at the memories of his "good friend." He decides to tell Luke that Vader "killed" his father — instead of the brutal truth that Kenobi was left with no choice but slaughter the headstrong Vader/Skywalker at the end of a no-holds barred, lengthy lightsaber duel.

While it's safe to say, the older Kenobi puts a spin on Vader's fate, he isn't inaccurate about what happened to Skywalker. He's right in saying Vader "was a pupil of mine until he turned to evil" and Skywalker "helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi Knights."

Vader, just before the Death Star duel, adds weight to his complex master-student relationship with Kenobi when he boldly declares: "We meet again, at last. The circle is now complete. When I left you, I was but the learner; now I am the master."

"Only a master of evil, Darth," Kenobi says.

The Jedi Master warns Vader "if you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine."

Thanks to another bit of subtle expressions by Guinness, he gives a sideways glance to Luke Skywalker, the young man from Tatooine who ultimately will be responsible for bringing his father back from the Dark Side.

"A New Hope," indeed. Grade: A

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