There are films we all associate with our childhood. If, like me, you were born in the 1980s and did most of your growing up during the 1990s, these are most probably the ones you watched so many times that the tape inside the VHS cassette - either bought or, just as likely, recorded off one of four TV channels - began to wear out. Whilst franchises regularly aim for four (or more) entries in current mainstream cinema, during the closing decades of the 20th Century three was definitely the magic number, with firm favourites from my adolescence including the Indiana Jones and Back To The Future trilogies.
Despite this, Star Wars as a franchise never featured in my formative film experiences. Even when the much-anticipated first instalment of the prequel trilogy landed in 1999, I remember taking my seat in the cinema alongside friends of a similar age wondering what all the fuss was about. Where they had clearly had the mania surrounding Star Wars passed down to them from older relatives - most likely those who had experienced it first hand during the original trilogy's release in the late '70s and early '80s - my knowledge of the franchise was largely limited to the references which have continually pervaded pop culture.
As such, approaching a series so iconic in its mythology and with a fandom so utterly devoted as Star Wars, with absolutely no sense of personal nostalgia, feels a bit like picking apart the narrative structure and dramatic impact of the games someone else used to play as a child. The impending return to a galaxy far, far away with the release of Episode VII: The Force Awakens this year nonetheless seemed like a good reason to finally fill in this personal cinematic blind spot. One further note: rather than faffing about with attempts at tracking down the closest thing to the original releases, I opted for the Blu-ray editions and did my best to ignore the perpetual tinkering that has gone on in the intervening decades.
It's not hard to see how Episode IV: A New Hope captured the imagination of millions of young cinema goers back when it was simply called Star Wars. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is the archetypal youth out to prove himself and seek adventure, something which he soon finds himself thrown into head first. For those looking for a less clean cut action man to root for there's Han Solo (Harrison Ford), a chancer who writer and director George Lucas ensures stays firmly on the side of good even when acting in his own interests. Balancing matters out for the female contingent of the audience is Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), who can handle both herself and a weapon and has no problem standing up to tyrannical power and cruelty in the form of Darth Vader (David Prowse, voiced by James Earl Jones).
On the surface at least, A New Hope continually presents a classic adventure in structure and execution. But there are also enough elements within Lucas' consistently good opening film that, when subjected to closer scrutiny, prevent it from ever becoming anything more than that. The second half is much more satisfying than the first, with Lucas loading the closing hour with much more action, leaving the opening sixty minutes feeling somewhat lacking in comparison.
Whilst some of this is made up for through the deft introduction of a great deal of lore largely through Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), other points that attempt to build character and emotion fall through. The murder of Luke's Uncle Owen (Phil Brown) and Aunt Beru (Shelagh Fraser) is a prime example: both characters lack the development to make their deaths resonate, in turn stifling the emotional arc of Luke. Lucas has further trouble handling emotion elsewhere with Leia, undermining the important early decision to make the character more than a simple damsel in distress. The entire scene showing the destruction of Alderaan, for example, is seriously bungled in terms of Leia's characterisation, making her seem both weak and easily manipulated in a manner that contradicts what is shown elsewhere.
There are other plot points here and there which feel somewhat clumsy - C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2's (Kenny Baker) easy escape from Imperial forces early on becomes more problematic the further you get into the Star Wars universe. Nonetheless, there's still more than enough within A New Hope to make it enjoyable throughout, although it seems fair to say that it's iconic status was almost certainly cemented at least in part by the consistently superior Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back.
The middle entry into the original trilogy is where Star Wars truly hits its stride in cinematic terms. From the opening act on Hoth, Empire feels more epic in scope, more engrossing in its exploration of the fictional universe and more finely crafted on screen. This is a film containing some expertly realised images from director Irvin Kershner; shots of Darth Vader within his meditation pod are some of the most striking seen anywhere in the trilogy. The action - from the battle sequence which closes out the opening act, to the climactic lightsaber battle between Luke and Vader - is consistently more skilfully executed and far more exciting than anything A New Hope has to offer.
Perhaps most importantly of all, Vader is credibly stepped up from his effective yet undeniably subsidiary role as the heavy of Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) to the series' primary antagonist. The groundwork laid in A New Hope is certainly important, with the restraint in which Vader is used for much of the first film building up a pleasing enigma around the character; but it's in Empire that Vader irrefutably takes his place as one of cinema's greatest ever villains.
Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan's script takes the same adventure structure as that seen in the first film but utilises it more effectively, with the middle act used superbly to build character and deepen the mythology introduced in Lucas' original film. The decision to separate Luke from the rest of the group during his tutelage under Yoda (Frank Oz) works wonders, enabling the hero to undergo some much-needed development after being made to seem somewhat useless during the Hoth scenes, whilst Han and Leia's relationship is advanced pleasingly within their parallel plot thread.
There are problems within Kershner's sequel, however, the most prominent being its overall feeling of existing as the middle of a larger story. The reason for this of course is that that's exactly what Empire is, but as with a great many sequels there are elements throughout that hold this back from feeling like a satisfying complete narrative in its own right. The very ending in particular feels too abrupt and unfulfilling, with a few too many elements cheaply left hanging to make sure everyone returns for the final part of the trilogy. It's not enough to stop Empire from standing tall as an excellent piece of cinema, but it does mean it never arrives at perfection.
Whilst Empire bears some of the problematic hallmarks of a mid-trilogy film, Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi is in many ways the quintessential second sequel. When considering Jedi's problems, many are still content to boil them down to a single word: Ewoks. However, this is both overly simplistic and somewhat skewed in its perspective. The Ewoks themselves aren't the problem really, rather the length of time spent with them where very little of consequence actually happens.
The same narrative structure seen since A New Hope is used once more, which again is not an issue in itself, but a factor that makes Jedi's lack of new ideas all the more apparent. The action sequences are solid, but fail to offer much that hasn't been seen done better in the previous two films. The fact that the driving force behind the narrative throughout the second and third acts is a mission to once again destroy a Death Star feels uninspired, and the decision to simply make it bigger than that defeated during the events of the first film is simply lazy.
These examples are sympomatic of Jedi's overarching fault: it simply doesn't offer enough that's new or different. After the big reveal regarding Luke's parentage at the end of Empire, the final film in the trilogy has one clear goal of bringing the hero back together with his estranged father for their ultimate confrontation. That director Richard Marquand takes almost two hours to get there when what he has to offer could have been put across in half that time ultimately makes Jedi the weakest of the three films.
That said, there is plenty here which does entertain. The opening act set within Jabba The Hutt's palace, whilst a little overindulgent here and there, is consistently enjoyable. Luke and Vader's final battle also delivers - perhaps not to the same levels as their iconic duel in Empire, but certainly enough to round off the trilogy's central story on a high.
Of course, Star Wars has now taken up such an immovable position in popular culture, as well as being adored by millions, that everything I've written here is likely to be of little consequence to you if you've grown up with the trilogy. Would I hold any or indeed all of these films in any higher regard had I first experienced them as a child? It's a question impossible to answer. But whilst my critique of Episodes IV, V and VI is almost certainly less exultant - and my opinion more tempered - than that of countless dedicated fans, I can fully appreciate why these films have successfully embedded themselves into the psyche of so many who will undoubtedly love and revisit the adventures they depict for the rest of their lives.
|Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope|
|Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back|
|Star Wars Episode VI: Return Of The Jedi|