Introduced by Matt
Star Wars (1977)
“Let the Wookiee win.”C-3PO, Star Wars
It’s always easy in retrospect to play post-structuralist, but for context, Star Wars is considered a crowd-rallying, post-Watergate and Vietnam War phoenix from the flames. It truly was a period of civil war in the USA, with gritty, cynical pictures mirroring the upset country’s social and political anxieties. Enter George Walton Lucas Jr., hot on the tail of ’60s-set, teen rock & roll, American as a hamburger stand, cruisin’ street racer comedy-drama, American Graffiti, which went on to bank $100 million worldwide, the black-bearded wonderboy set his bespectacled sights solely on his passion project—a galactic fairy tale in the vein of The Odyssey, Beowulf, and the legend of King Arthur, which sought to distil these archetypal works down into universal motifs. Morality tale, traditional ritualistic coming-of-age story, call it what you will—Star Wars draws on the common connections between myths, and the threads that tie disparate cultures together.
20th Century Fox’s main man, Alan Ladd, Jr. jumped at the chance to invest—not primarily in the project itself, but in the genius of Lucas. George had little to no commercial desires, but the hyper-driven filmmaker was fueled by a fervent need to retain control of his own source material, and allow no one to interfere. “It’s fun to make films for young people, and it’s a chance to make an impression on them,” Lucas once said, revealing his enduring, pure of heart motive, which shines through even today. What began as another 1930s-style space opera, taking cues from Robin Hood, Treasure Island, and most notably, Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, developed beyond measure when Lucas properly knuckled down and devoured the writings of Joseph Campbell (Occidental Mythology—The Masks of God, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, The Flight of the Wild Gander) to inject a sense of mythology and philosophy which deepened and enriched what could otherwise have been just another sci-fi schlocker. Star Wars fished from the shared pool of mythic archetypes including the idealistic, identifiable youth thrust into an adventure—Luke Skywalker née Starkiller, the swashbuckling scoundrel—Han, the damsel in distress—Leia, the wise old man—Ben, and the (arguably) comedic characters—R2 and Threepio. Later, Campbell was even brought in to check George’s work, and was quoted as saying, the best student he ever had was Lucas. George maintains most of the success of Star Wars stemmed from the sound psychological underpinning, and that people always react the same way to these stories, and likely always will.
“But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!”Luke Skywalker, Star Wars
I was mysteriously denied the joys of Star Wars as a boy—it somehow evaded me entirely. My village was a barren wasteland in terms of the ways of The Force. None of my mates—not even the slightly older kids or their big brothers had video copies, and being born in ’82—sandwiched between Empire and Jedi, by the time I reached the perfect age to actually be interested in the film and its sequels, it had sadly vanished from my sight and my grasp. I can only assume that the UK television rights were revoked in order to build expectations, and replenish a public desire to see the movies again in their upcoming remastered incarnations—or basterdisations. Therefore, I have a peculiar relationship with the original trilogy. They were films that were always out of reach, and when I finally did experience them, I was once again denied the original editions. Instead, they were all tainted with nineties CGI; reduced to reimaginings and suffered from retroactive tinkering that ultimately damaged them.
I did eventually see Star Wars at the pictures on its 1997 rerelease, aged 14, with my entire family in tow due to a massive Special Edition publicity push. Regrettably, it had been digitally tweaked—presumably to tidy up and add a uniformity to the originals to help them fall in line and suit the imminent prequel trilogy. At my secondary school, we all ate our body weight in Walkers crisps to get hold of the Star Wars “Tazos,” or “Pogs” as we called them—once again proving my stupidity has no bounds as I’m still not sure what they were actually for, and yet scoffed bags of Salt & Vinegar French Fries to amass a collection of daft, ultimately worthless discs. The first time I experienced The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi was on the subsequent triple VHS Special Edition. I saw Greedo shoot first, and witnessed a sarlacc tongue—I didn’t have the pleasure of hearing the “Yub Nub” song until decades later, and instead sat through Evar Orbus and His Galactic Jizz-Wailers’ (I know) and their dreadful, digitally-altered vocalist, Sy Snootles’s rendition of “Jedi Rocks”—it just doesn’t bear thinking about. I was robbed. If the originals are true beauties, then the Special Editions and beyond are once attractive people, now disastrously made over with ill-judged and unnecessary plastic surgery. I still have vivid memories of Lucas explaining away his redundant alterations, like the bit in Empire where you can accidentally see the background matte shot through the solid exterior cage of the X-wing as it circles the AT-AT.
The film itself is iconic from the off—the booming, cacophonous, vintage Fox logo, the sweet sight of the old frog-green Lucasfilm title, the simple, fairy tale beauty of, “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” that drum roll; that fanfare, and then the explosion of John Williams’ knockout score accompanying that instantly recognisable starlit yellow text crawl. George’s directorial decisions as far as coverage are pretty basic at times, and I do feel like he simplified many things on the day for the sake of just getting it done, which sometimes happily results in very clear, precise storytelling. Tatooine’s duel sun dreaminess, and the longings of Luke is an understated visual highlight, but plotwise there’s entirely too much dull, droid dialogue with Anthony Daniels’ intolerable C-3PO—a persnickety, gold robot, and R2-D2 fussing around and dawdling in the desert for far too long. By the time we reach Mos Eisley, though, the movie really starts to swing, and for 1977 anyway, the action is just about explosive and fast-paced enough.
“Stay on target!”Gold Five, Star Wars
There are caveats. It’s packed with crap comic relief—the main offender being Threepio—a bitchy, backstabbing, bitter, contrary character, whose every grating line is an infuriating self-pity party. The effects aren’t quite dialed in just yet—although I’m sure they were knockout in ’77. That never-ending, overhead Star Destroyer miniature must’ve felt like a cinematic crushing of the cranium, especially in theaters with those colorful laser blasts and rumbling sounds. Here, at least juxtaposed with Empire, a seriously lame meteor shower lets the side down, as do the dated dog fights albeit with wicked, screeching TIE fighters, and some of the cantina characters just look like extras with Hallowe’en masks on. Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure I spotted Greedo milling about moments after getting murdered—it may have been just another Rodian bloke that looked exactly like him, wearing literally all of his exact same clothes, but I doubt it. In addition, there is at least one seriously dodgy speeder shot where, as an easy fix, Vaseline was crudely smeared under the vehicle to make it appear as if it’s hovering.
We’re introduced to handsome smuggler, Han Solo and his copilot and walking carpet, “Chewie” the Wookiee, the regal, dignified Alec Guinness as Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Hammer man Peter Cushing as the hilariously named Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin. During the trash compactor sequence, Han gets very handsy and a bit grabby with a wet and nipply Leia Organa. As George Lucas once famously told Carrie Fisher, “There’s no underwear in space.” It gets dark at times—not Empire dark, but “Her Highnessness” is at the very least threatened with a big needle, the poor wee Jawas get roasted alive, and Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are also flame-grilled and turned into smoking skeletons by Imperial Stormtroopers. Luke’s references to the Death Star trench being “Just like Beggar’s Canyon back home,” and tales of “bull’s-eyeing womp rats in his T-16” inform us his whole life was preparing him for this moment. I can only imagine the riotous cheering in cinemas when the music swells, and Solo returns to Skywalker’s side in the Millennium Falcon to keep the TIE fighters off him so he can score his victorious shot and cripple the Imperial space station. Star Wars closes with a charming medal ceremony, beautifully-scored yet again by MVP, John Williams. It must be said, it’s my least favourite film of the trio—but all these years later, Star Wars still surrounds, penetrates, and binds us. Lucas, for all his flaws, was without doubt a visionary, and a true artist for seeing his work through, against all odds, and in the face of doubt from his closest filmmaking peers.
The bonus, end credits “Ruck Crew It Is” award goes to future Demme DP, Tak Fujimoto for his second unit photography. Also, please give it up for an unsung hero of the original trilogy, Ralph McQuarrie for his prescient concept art.
The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
“Do, or do not. There is no try.”Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back
As relayed in Kevin Smith’s Clerks, it’s the central, darkest chapter. “Empire had the better ending. I mean, Luke gets his hand cut off, finds out Vader’s his father, Han gets frozen and taken away by Boba Fett. It ends on such a down note. I mean, that’s what life is, a series of down endings.” Agree or disagree, it’s undoubtedly an ominous cliff-hanger, filled with trepidation and uncertainty. Lucas worked on his bulky story treatment for The Star Wars for about year, so not wanting to excise any crucial material, he made the decision to produce approximately the first act of his entire piece. Star Wars is essentially just that—Empire and Jedi would cover the rest. The Empire screenplay was penned by “the Queen of Space Opera,” Leigh Brackett—although she died before it was made, and Lawrence Kasdan—writer of Raiders of the Lost Ark, and writer/director of Body Heat the following year. Amid the usual jargon, Empire has its moments—the heart and humour of the, “I love you/I know” exchange is absent in the other episodes, although the reverse callback in Jedi is quite sweet. Focussing on a tight-knit circle of friends, all looking out for one another to aid the grand cause of defeating the evil Empire.
With so much at stake here, Darth Vader retains tremendous presence—perhaps more than ever, as the Emperor is yet to steal his diabolical thunder. From a still propulsive and resonant story by George Lucas, veteran helmer, Irvin Kershner (Eyes of Laura Mars) was tapped to direct—neatly, once upon a time, Kershner taught one of the seminars Lucas attended at USC, and whilst critiquing his early shorts was struck by the originality of the young man’s vision. How apt that the teacher becomes the student—although, based upon the bounding leap forward that is The Empire Strikes Back, I’d argue Kersh could teach Lucas a thing or two about the craft of directing, as he tends to skillfully move the camera when required to employ an additional emotional punch. The horizontal, vertical, and diagonal screen wipe transitions open and close like cinematic curtains, and the stellar sound design and score help with the heavy lifting.
Empire features one of the two finest lightsaber duels in the trilogy—arguably the best in terms of staging, however I personally prefer the brute force slam downs and reversal of power at the climax of Jedi, with Luke downing Vader and getting some severed hand payback. The action scenes far outweigh the original, and although Return of the Jedi gets a really bad rap, Empire also plays like a toy advert at times, whether it wants to or not—admittedly not quite to the degree of Jedi, but it’s certainly noticeable with the AT-AT Imperial Walkers, droids, the wampa, the tauntauns, X-wings, Boba Fett‘s memorable ship, and even that oval, woodlouse-shaped craft the Rebels use, all flooding back in the form of plastic action figures, vehicles, and playsets.
“Adventure, excitement—a Jedi craves not these things.”Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back
These movies were released three years apart, in ’77, ’80, and ’83 respectively, which allowed for natural, physical growth—aiding the visual development of characters—Luke especially, by cleverly having him scratched up by the wampa to explain away the scarred face Mark Hamill had acquired in a serious car crash. The chemistry—and at this point, borderline incestual, ancient Greek love triangle of the Luke, Leia, and Han dynamic showcases some enjoyable, sizzling sexual tension between Ford and Fisher as the scruffy-lookin’ nerf herder, and Her Highness, Princess Leia, but it never extends beyond a quickly broken up snog, and instead manifests itself as sulking, or reprimanding a Wookiee. Leia has more to do in Empire, and does so with a sense of self and authority. There are myriad bounty hunters—the crocodilian chap with the yellow trousers, and more obviously, Boba Fett, who at this point, still holds the frame with all the mystique and coolness that made him so intriguing, and a firm fan favorite in the first place. There are bizarre cameos abound, with Admiral headteacher Bronson from Grange Hill, General Donovan from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Fawlty Towers’ General Waldorf salad popping up periodically throughout.
There’s something to be said for separating the droids from the others. The clunky levity is diluted, their screen time is reduced—as is the tedium of the back-and-forth cross-cutting of the original. For me, this alone elevates Empire over Star Wars, as I truly appreciate the fact that the intolerable C-3PO is treated horribly throughout—he’s ignored, abused, maligned, pushed to one side, threatened verbally, met with sarcasm, completely dismissed, switched off, left silent and limp in a chair, dissed by Lando and fellow droids alike, and then gets carted around on Chewbacca’s back before being shot to bits and chucked onto a junk pile—where Star Wars‘ silly comic relief characters typically belong. It’s the closest he comes to death, and unfortunately it’s not quite close enough. We will sadly have to endure him for one more picture.
The original cockeyed Emperor looks rubbish, and has no gravitas or continuity with Jedi, so for once is an alteration that I can completely understand Lucas making. Generally speaking, if you can find the unaltered versions, you’ll probably notice that George Lucas has unintentionally made the modest eighties opticals seem both charming and welcome. A few hokey explosion plumes here and there are to be expected, and embraced at this point. The stop motion is a relief to see after the frankly mad and arbitrary additions made to the 1997 versions. Now, the rubbish severing of the wampa’s arm is acceptable, as is the jittery tauntaun keeling over. There are exceptions, however, as in three or four instances, the proximity and perspectives—like the quickness of the AT-AT approaching Luke—allegedly about to crush him, doesn’t quite work, but this may be due more to second unit, or effects department limitations rather than Kershner’s staging.
“Luminous beings are we—not this crude matter.”Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back
Shout-out to Phil Tippett’s animation, Norman Reynolds’ key production design, and another unsung hero, Ben Burtt, for his inventive and fascinating foley and sound design. As the kids say, “The Imperial March” cue is a banger. Another John Williams, MVP moment is when Luke’s X-wing starfighter is levitated from a Dagobah swamp by Yoda. I could’ve easily lived my whole life without witnessing a CGI Yoda brandish a lightsaber and do a backflip. To me, Empire beautifully carves out the entirety of Yoda’s arc—technically Jedi is the completion, with him taking his eternal nap and all, but here, Muppet-maestro, Sesame Street stalwart, and The Dark Crystal and Little Shop of Horrors honcho, Frank Oz performs as Yoda so satisfyingly, switching from a giggly, slapstick, rubber-faced sausage thief, to an all-knowing Jedi Master at the drop of Luke’s torch. The wee green fella goes from whacking R2 with his walking stick to dropping profundities—so much so, I believe somewhere within the Dagobah sequence lies the meaning of life.
Obviously, there’s Yoda’s sharp and forever quotable, “Do, or do not. There is no try,” but also, the ordeal of the hero and the inmost cave, as Joseph Campbell refers to them, each clearly unfurl here. A mystical energy known as “The Force,” represents the spiritual—the interconnection of all things. The power of meditation, tuning in, and tapping into that elusive concept—even as a heathen unbeliever like myself, is painted as possible. Anyone can understand and relate to the fact that once we start down a dark path, forever can it dominate our destiny. The simplistic credo of not giving in to hate is a powerful and everlasting message, and one I think we need to hear and be reminded of repeatedly. Defeating self-doubt, overcoming inner demons and our greatest fears, facing our past, unlearning what we have learned, responsibly claiming our destiny, embracing our shadow selves and accepting what we are capable of and may potentially become, so that we are fully prepared, and can knowledgeably fight against it—all the while excepting the possibility of it occurring should we stray too far from our purest path. The loaded image of Luke in the Vader mask, cracked open like a bad egg, is so symbiotically strong. It is in these scenes that the message, potency, power, and heart of Star Wars lies. They somehow play vague and earnest without coming off as preachy. If we don’t believe in something, we will fail. The broad applicability of this sentiment encourages us to transcend our potentially dark destinies. These are life lessons I’m forever relearning, and still attempt to abide by—and with every rewatch of the saga—this episode in particular, I’m reminded to strive to be a stronger, more enlightened individual.
Return of the Jedi (1983)
“You rebel scum.”Imperial Officer, Return of the Jedi
“All Jedi had was a bunch of Muppets,” Dante Hicks bemoaned. Perhaps, but who doesn’t like The Muppet Show? Besides, the puppets are tangible, and very welcome compared to anything these jokers knocked up on a computer a few years later. I never understood why geeks griped about the cuteness of Ewoks when the original movie’s Jawas were also dinky and adorable in their own peculiar way—and actually pretty similar in both their vocalisations and behavior. Moreover, lest we forget, these cuddly critters were fully prepared to roast Han on that spit, and cook up a pot of Solo gumbo. There is something daft about an entire Empire brought to its knees by small, furry creatures armed with sticks and stones, but there’s also something satisfying from a storytelling perspective about placing an object or duty so vitally important in the hands of an ostensibly insignificant someone such as an R2-D2, a Wicket the Ewok, or a (forgive me for mixing trilogies here) Frodo Baggins, who, in spite of their humble statuses were entrusted, and had the potential to, against all odds, undo evils and positively alter the course of events—to allow good to triumph over seemingly insurmountable wickedness.
My only fleeting recollection of seeing any of the Star Wars films on telly as a kid was one afternoon when the Stormtrooper speeder bike pursuit—hurtling through the trees on the forest moon of Endor from Return of the Jedi played out. I must’ve been busy with something or other as I just glanced at the telly momentarily whilst dashing through my living room, but when Star Wars fever resurfaced in ’97 and I received the video trilogy boxed set for Crimbo, Jedi was the first film I impatiently pushed into our VHS player. The entire opening alone might just tip it into the best of the bunch, with the entire gang uniting to spring Han from his frozen carbonite prison. From Jabba’s gross gathering with the funky Max Rebo band kicking out the jams, Jabba bopping about dancing, to the green slave girl getting gobbled up in the scary lair of the rancor, to the sacrificial pit of the sarlacc, and the objectification of a skinny Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, flashing some side bum flesh in that cheeky gold bikini, and single-handedly kickstarting innumerable male fantasies—to be fair, she actually has a lot of autonomy and plenty to do in this episode.
It’s some of the finest, and slickest action the trilogy has to offer, with what is essentially a toothy anus taking responsibility for the shittiest death of perhaps the coolest character when it comes to Boba Fett—he’s dead in my book. It’s the only film of the three that features our entire band of heroes, Lando is a good guy and actually acts unselfishly, Admiral “It’s a trap!” Ackbar does his thing, the female genitalia-faced chuckler, Nien Nunb has a laugh or three, and it’s the sole picture that showcases the Emperor in his final, menacing, cackling, pantomime villain form. There are new characters galore! The slobbering, green pig guards that everybody’s friend had as a toy but no one remembered actually buying themselves, the creepy, theatrical, Merrick-headed, “De wanna wanga. I will tak-oo to Jabba now” crony, Bib Fortuna—who my ol’ mate Dave Smith always misquoted as “Jabba wanker,” and now I can’t unhear it, the Capricorny, three-eyed goat head dude, that freaky, fat frog-dog barking at the door, the vile gangster, Jabba the Hutt smoking that green hookah shit—I think we all know what that’s supposed to be, and his dug-in, parasitic, rodenty, Fraggle Rock-alike, Salacious Crumb finding everything hilarious until he gets zapped. As a side note, if you keep your eyes peeled, the fella taking Han away looks a bit like Rick James.
“This bounty hunter is my kind of scum—fearless and inventive.”Jabba the Hutt, Return of the Jedi
I didn’t have many Star Wars figures, and as most of the ones I did own came into my possession via car boot sales, some were in less than tip-top shape. I recall reaching down and picking up what I thought was my Darth Vader’s missing leg, but it was in fact a big black slug. I believe I inexplicably had the action figure of the fat, tearful, rancor wrangler. What a strange, emotive inclusion to see a vilified creature treated as a pet. There’s another heartfelt moment akin to this later in Jedi where an Ewok discovers its mate has perished and doesn’t leave its side—it just mourns. Back to the rancor scene, and scaling issues aside—especially the hokey Twiglet in gob, rear projection shot, Harmy’s version is the best I’ve ever seen it. Yes, it’s still very obviously a miniature, but it plays far better than my 1997 VHS ever did.
The direction by Richard Marquand (Jagged Edge) is zesty and taut, with clever cross-cutting between Vader, Luke, and the Emperor, and the unfolding events on Endor with the deflector shield drama. In terms of strong imagery, there’s the touching unveiling of Vader, and one of my faves, the crackling, fizzing collision of red and green lightsabers right before the giddy, excited eyes of the Emperor. On a lighter note, the now famously applicable GIF of Han processing the information that Luke and Leia are in fact twins raised a belly laugh. Peculiarly, Return of the Jedi—formerly, for a while at least, Revenge of the Jedi, features Darth Vader’s most impressive introduction. Perhaps his myth had built to such a degree that any old intro wouldn’t cut it. The only way the Vader heel–face turn works at the climax of the picture is if they introduce a baddie beyond all measure, and that’s where the legitimately scary—particularly as a youngling, wrinkly, electric Emperor comes in. This closing chapter satisfyingly completes established arcs. Here, Vader’s good guy twist is complete—and to make it all that more commendable, it’s entirely in Jedi as Vader is still pure evil at the beginning of the film.
There are more gigantic, elaborate sets, and the costumes and art direction have improved beyond measure. The spacecraft, and detail of the miniatures is far superior, although several effects shots are directly replicated from earlier entries—the tractor beam pulling Vader’s ship into the Death Star, the colossal Star Destroyer passing overhead, also Luke and Leia’s Tarzan swing from the first film is echoed. As with many sequels, notably Evil Dead II, and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, it’s a lot of the same stuff, but done better. I mean, the entire Death Star II plot, which may spell certain doom for the small band of Rebels struggling to restore freedom to the galaxy? Again? All that aside, the intergalactic dogfights are fantastic, and by far the strongest of the three movies. The key to Jedi is the humanity of its drama. We’ve seen the Rebel Alliance blow up a Death Star before—admittedly the effects are a heap better six years later, but what really makes a difference is the Vader/Luke father/son story, and the redemptive arc of Star Wars‘ arch villain.
“I have a really bad feeling about this.”Han Solo, Return of the Jedi
A tight screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas lays out a clear plot after the initial attention-grabbing, action set pieces. Luke’s promised return to the Dagobah System, the completion of his training resting upon his inevitable confrontation with Vader, Yoda’s death, and the vital, expositional conversation with Obi-Wan regarding Anakin Skywalker, all set the ball rolling nicely, and economically. The chips are on the table, the chess pieces are all in place, and it’s time to just let the inevitable unfold. Everything’s a bit slicker. We all know the universe at this point. The audience knows who’s who, they know what’s at stake, and it’s just two hours and eleven minutes of watching that happen in a satisfying and fun way. If you don’t roll a tear at the end when Anakin (Sebastian Shaw underlined) returns as a kindly Force ghost alongside Yoda and Ben, and have a little “Yub Nub” singsong in Ewokese during the celebrations, then your heart is truly dead. “Luka-luka-lookah, luka-luka-lookah!”
Bonus end credits “Ruck Crew It Is” awards go to both assistant cameraman, David Fincher, and also effects cameraman and PTA cinematographer to be, Robert Elswitt.
Beaming a massive cheers to Petr “Harmy” Harmáček and his 2011 “Despecialized Edition” project for eliminating naughty George’s retroactive tinkering, allowing me to recreate the initial seventies and eighties theatrical experiences as best as I could from the comfort of home, in a high enough quality to recognize and appreciate the dazzling visual and sonic effects of the original versions, and bask in what I can only describe as their warm analogue effects, as opposed to the steely coldness of nineties CGI.
With that, I wish you a very happy annual Star Wars Day, and May the 4th be with you, always.
PS Hello, consumer—I mean valued listener/reader. If you wish to purchase any of our range of Star Wars related stuff including T-shirts, stickers, and posters, it’s all available at Devlin Does Drawing. We’re not going to tell you what to do—you must do what you feel is right, of course.
“Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?Princess Leia, Star Wars
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