Audiences all over the world were stunned and left speechless as Luke made that last impossible shot for the core of the Death Star. The target was incredibly small, Darth Vader has just eliminated the wingmen behind him, and everything seemed lost. But just as all things seemed to be at an absolute loss, Han swoops in with the Millennium Falcon, knocks Vader out of the way, and Obi Wan contacts Luke with the power of the force, telling him to trust his instincts. It is not surprising to imagine the world’s first viewers of Star Wars to have found themselves cheering and applauding as the Death Star exploded into tiny little bits.
More than the story, more the acting, Star Wars was an ambitious film, by an ambitious director. Lucas fought the system of large film studios by going solo, declaring full ownership of the film (and future sequels), and by going forward with a movie that changed the way the world envisioned science fiction. Sure, there are plenty of criticisms about George Lucas’ decisions about the prequel trilogy (and the handling of the re-release of the original trilogy), but he still gets credit for doing so much for the industry as a whole.
It Could Have Been Flash Gordon
Any die-hard Star Wars fan would tell you: Lucas originally wanted to do a Flash Gordon movie. But the license for Flash was not accessible to George –so he decided to make his own movie. Of course, he still borrowed plenty of elements (like the scrolling text, the scene transitions with smooth swipes, the Cloud City, among other things). But this is not to say that Star Wars was not an entirely original concept (sure, some elements were borrowed), but the rest came from Lucas’ own ingenuity.
Using a mishmash of camera-trickery, props, costumes, matte paintings, rotoscoping, and an eye for detail that few directors had, Star Wars gave us a world of giant Imperial Cruisers, high speed X-Wing Fighters, Lightsabers that could block and deflect laser beams, holographic video messages, seedy bars filled with aliens, and autonomous robots with plenty of character. Yes, in this day and age, it is hard to imagine the production of Star Wars without employing the use of computer generated images.
Beyond the SFX
While Star Wars certainly wowed its audiences with its excellent use of special effects, the film also established many important scenes that would later become iconic in modern culture. The most obvious is the menacing and intimidating Sith Lord, Darth Vader. The entirety of the Imperial Army was designed to mimic the presence of the Nazis –down to the uniform designs. Even Vader’s helm was inspired by the pith helmets used by German soldiers. Vader himself was a figure of authority and fear –even amongst other Imperials. As a master of the “dark side of the force”, he did not hesitate to use his powers against anyone who stood in his way, ally or not.
Obi Wan Kenobi was the exact opposite of Vader. He projected himself with the aura of a wise old uncle, but he also gave the look of a man who has survived countless trials. It is through his initial guidance that Luke learns of the power of the force, and his use of the Jedi mind trick against Storm Troopers on Tatooine (“these are not the droids you are looking for”), has been given tribute and homage to in a variety of modern media. But more than anything else, Obi Wan showed us all a contrast to Vader’s use of the force: what you can achieve through threat and coercion can also be achieved with a more peaceful solution.
Luke Skywalker is your average guy turned hero. The young man works hard labor and lives in a remote planet in the system –he is ‘simple minded’ but is special enough to have a talent: good piloting skills and a bit of know-how with machinery. If you want a flat basic lead character that anyone can relate to, you cannot go wrong with Luke. It is easy for the audience to project themselves into Luke’s shoes: and when he is told by Obi Wan that he is meant for so much more, the viewers latch on even further. After all, how many of us wish we could escape the daily grind of everyday life?
Building the Excitement
When Empire Strikes Back came out in 1980, everyone was still high on the fever brought about by the first film, and everyone just wanted to have more of the same. Still, the myth of “bad sequels” still hung in the air –and some critics predicted that the sequel would not be as good. And boy, were they wrong.
Episode V was all about Vader and the Emperor kicking ass and taking names. After suffering a massive defeat, the Empire decides to remind the universe why they currently rule the galaxy –because they have the power to do so. The movie opens with Luke and the rest of the Rebel Alliance being forced to flee from their hidden base on Hoth –yes, Vader evens the score within the first 15 minutes of the second film. But the whooping does not end there; before the film ends, Han is frozen in Carbonite, Leia is forced to escape on the Falcon, Luke loses a hand, and Vader gets to deliver a line that twists the story in such a memorable way that even people who have never watched Star Wars know about it: “I am your father”.
It was surprising that Empire Strikes Back ended in the way it did. After the feel good “all heroes get awarded” scene of A New Hope, seeing our heroes lost and scattered hardly painted a picture that moviegoers expected –and yet the movie is considered to be the best in the trilogy. And that cliffhanger of an ending did not get an immediate resolution either; it would be more than a year before Return of the Jedi finally hit the theaters.
The appearance of Yoda in Empire was something that helped balance the feel of the story. Sure, Luke still had plenty to go through in terms of training, and leaving to face Vader prematurely was hardly the wisest action –but Yoda also triggered the growth which Luke’s character needed badly.
When young Skywalker appears in ROTJ, he introduces himself to Jabba the Hutt as a Jedi. And this pretty much spells the pace of the rest of the movie. Within the first quarter of the film, Luke quickly dispatches a Rancor, Leia saves Han (and kills Jabba), and Boba Fett takes a dive into the gaping mouth of the Sarlacc. All of which was made possible by Luke’s renewed inner strength and his mastery of the force.
While the second movie was all about setting the stage, the final installment of the original trilogy is all about bringing things to a close. Luke’s main goal in this movie is less that of an accidental hero: he sets off to find Vader and bring him back to the dark side. Han stops being the hotshot mercenary/smuggler and takes his role in the Rebel Alliance more seriously. These may be the same characters as the first movie, but their personalities have changed and grown over the course of the films –and this is what the audience quickly latches on to.
Of course, it is hard to talk about Return of the Jedi without bringing up the Ewoks. Aside from the fact that feels as if George Lucas decided to take an entire race worthy of the Muppets cast into the film, it also mirrors an important social concept: nature struggling against the cold progress of machines. ROTJ featured the Empires giant vehicles of war being destroyed by rudimentary traps. Masked soldiers armed with beam rifles being shot down with bows and slings. As a race, the Ewoks were cute and something that kids enjoyed seeing. Their place in the war against the empire, however, echoed concerns of the viewers with regards to the economy of the movie’s launch.
Coming to a Close
The movie’s ending is one of the most memorable and important scenes in the entire trilogy: After a fierce fight, Luke is able to literally disarm Vader. Palpatine, the Emperor, attempts to lure Luke into joining the dark side, and offers all the benefits that come with it –but first, Luke must kill Vader.
As expected of the hero that he is, Luke refuses, stating that his goal is to bring his father back. At this moment, Palpatine realizes that Luke has managed to undo all his work in corrupting Anakin. Unable to accept this, the Emperor attempts to kill Luke himself, an attempt that is ultimately stopped by Anakin.
Darth Vader, the most menacing figure in the entire Star Wars series, ends the greatest threat in by ensuring the death of the Emperor and saving his son. In the end, it is not Luke who defeats the Emperor, but Anakin (and many would say that Anakin has fulfilled the prophecy that it is he that would bring balance to the force). While Anakin does not survive from his injuries –he finds himself saved through the actions of Luke. This scene is so memorable that it manages to outshine the epic space battle just happening outside the reconstructed Death Star (where Luke, Vader, and the Emperor was).
While the pacing, cinematography, special effects, and overall delivery of the original Star Wars trilogy is obviously outdated, the core of the story and the events that unfold remain as some of the most inspiring tales ever to be told with plenty of star wars games spawning from the films that reveal further plots and story lines on both the dark and light sides.