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At the heart of the Star Wars cultural phenomenon is a movie. It's a fairly simple, entertaining movie that launched one of the most successful franchises of all time. The story is easy to understand, therefore as universal as it gets. A young kid with his mentor and a hired hand stop a seemingly insurmountable force and save a beautiful princess along the way. As with all stories as simple as that, it's all about the way you tell it. And what a way 33-year-old director George Lucas told it.
The original Star Wars, or as we know it today - A New Hope, is a true melting pot of cinema. There's a dash of Flash Gordon serial, Akira Kurosawa samurai pictures and a bit of John Ford Western. If Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather introduced a new kind of gangster movie and if Steven Spielberg's Jaws introduced a new kind of monster horror film, then Star Wars was a new kind of science fiction film. All the staples of old science fiction films were gone, replaced with what you'd expect from an earth-bound Western.
The story starts in media res, with the audience thrown in the middle of a “Galactic Civil War” in which a small band of rebels are fighting a military dictatorship called the Empire. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is on her way to deliver some secret message when Darth Vader and his Star Destroyer begin chasing her. The long shot of the Star Destroyer has been parodied numerous times (most successfully in Spaceballs, of course), but it does serve a purpose. It shows just how massive the Empire is compared to this little group of rebels. Leia puts the message in R2-D2 who, along with C-3PO, land on the planet below, a desert world called Tattooine and have to get the message to Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness).
Moving at breakneck speed, Lucas introduces us to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), whose uncle buys the droids. Along our way to the Empire's Death Star with Luke, we meet Kenobi, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca, a pair of mercenaries who take our heroes to the station to rescue Leia.
One of the best aspects of Star Wars that keeps it so fresh is that we actually want to be or be with these characters. However, the film – in fact, the entire franchise – has never been known for acting. In fact, out of six films and several Oscar nominations, the only performance to ever earn an acting nomination is Alec Guiness' exquisite, stately supporting performance as Obi-Wan. However, while Mark Hamill might be criticized as coming off as just a whiny kid, that moment when he sees the charred bodies of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru has given me chills thanks to his performance. Obviously, the swelling John Williams score doesn't hurt either.
Lucas was also very economical with Star Wars. The original version, minus the Jabba the Hutt scene (also known as the “pause button”), runs under two hours. The entire Battle of Yavin at the end of the film runs less than 15 minutes. Can you imagine an action film running under two hours today? (If you ask me, that's one thing that some of the Marvel films like Iron-Man and Captain America: The First Avenger get right.)
By the way, if you can get through the trench run without sweating, you've got a problem. It's a master stroke of editing. Even if you know the end, the tension Lucas builds up is incredible.
The Star Wars franchise may have taken a beating over the years thanks to Lucas' own mistakes (1997 Special Edition, the prequels, 2004 DVD changes, 2011 Blu-ray changes), but I believe the original film is Hollywood popcorn adventure at its best. No matter what other changes he makes, the original Star Wars will always be the best.
Star Wars won six Oscars and was nominated for four more, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay. All three of those awards went to Woody Allen for Annie Hall.
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