When I was four years old, my family went to the drive-in theater in my home town of Ottawa. Just saying that I went to a drive-in dates me, I realize, but wait ’til you hear what movie we were going to see. It was some science fiction movie that I guess my parents had heard about and thought my brother and I might like. It was called Star Wars.
Back when Star Wars was just Star Wars
You may wonder at my inconsistent use of italics, but I know what I’m doing. Star Wars is the name of the multi-billion dollar franchise that grew out of the original film. Star Wars is what that film was actually called on its release date of May 25, 1977. Nobody, especially creator George Lucas, had any idea of the cultural colossus had been unleashed – but everybody headed to the theaters and drive-ins to find out.
It was the first movie I ever saw on the big screen and it kind of shaped my entire worldview. Good versus evil; friends sticking together; courage against overwhelming odds; stirring musical soundtracks; and, of course, everything is cooler if it’s in space!
It’s hard to quantify how much of an impact a film like that can have on a four-year-old with an overactive imagination… Or do I have an overactive imagination because of Star Wars? Difficult to say. But there’s no doubting that I was completely blown away by the adventure of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Chewbacca and that loveable droid duo, R2-D2 and C-3PO.
So I’m going to try and write an objective movie review, but I’m the first to admit that it’s going to be hard.
The story of Star Wars
Just in case you don’t know, here’s a quick synopsis of the film’s plot.
The galaxy is in a civil war. A brave Rebellion against the Galactic Empire is trying to escape with stolen plans for the Empire’s newest weapon, the Death Star. Darth Vader is working to quell the Rebellion and he hunts Rebel leader Princess Leia to the desert planet Tatooine. He captures her, but her two droids, R2-D2 and C-3PO, escape to Tatooine, where they eventually fall into the hands of a young farm boy named Luke Skywalker.
Luke, with his wise friend and Jedi Knight Ben Kenobi, sets out to rescue the beautiful princess, but their new droids are being hunted by Imperial forces desperate to get the plans back. Luke and Ben hire smugglers Han Solo and Chewbacca to take them to safety aboard the Millennium Falcon, but the unlikely heroes find themselves captured aboard the Death Star itself.
Realizing that Princess Leia is aboard the station, Luke, Han and Chewie rescue her while Ben Kenobi heads out to face down his former pupil, Darth Vader. A series of exciting adventures unfold, climaxing with Obi-Wan and Darth Vader dueling with lightsabers while the rest of our heroes escape in the Millennium Falcon, battle Imperial TIE fighters and finally reach the secret base of the Rebel Alliance.
But danger approaches, as Vader’s Imperial forces have tracked the Falcon. Desperate to stop the Galactic Empire, Luke Skywalker joins a small band of Rebel pilots who attack the station, trying to hit its one weak spot that was revealed by the stolen plans. The battle seems lost, when the Falcon suddenly arrives to clear a path for Luke, who delivers the killing shot. The Death Star is destroyed, Vader barely escapes, our heroes get medals and the galaxy is saved. Huzzah!
The initial response to Star Wars
My mum says that my brother and I, when we first saw the film, didn’t blink for two hours. And that sounds like a pretty typical response for most movie-goers in the summer of 1977. Star Wars was an instant hit, smashing box office records. Expanding on its original limited release, Star Wars spread to theaters around the world and stayed in general circulation for six months – in some theatres it stayed for over a year. My family went to see it at the drive-in again during the summer of 1978, which made me think that it was perfectly natural to go and see the same film in theatres every summer.
Think about that. Think about all the amazing, blockbuster, smash-hit movies you’ve seen in your life. Schindler’s List. Titanic. Avengers Endgame. Even Avatar. None of them came back to theatres a year later for an encore summer. Star Wars was a stunning box office success.
Were there detractors at the time? Of course. Read some of the professional reviews from 1977 and it’s clear that not everyone was in love with this sci-fi adventure. It was often compared to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (which was released a decade earlier – but there was nothing else to compare it to!) and was widely considered to have come up short intellectually. Some critics considered science fiction to be a silly genre not worthy of serious review, and other critics claimed that Star Wars wasn’t even sci-fi at all – but some sort of shameless space fantasy.
So I’m not going to pretend that Star Wars was universally loved. But I’ll make the argument that it was about as close to universally loved as any film can hope to be. Many critics praised it and the sheer volume of movie-goers who lined up again and again to watch the epic battle of the brave Rebellion against the Galactic Empire speaks for itself.
Star Wars (the franchise) is so much a part of popular culture today that it’s easy to take for granted, and even ridicule because it’s been copied so many times that it can almost seem derivative of itself. But of all the movies with a 1977 release date, how many can you name today? And how many have you actually seen?
The cast of Star Wars
Nobody had high expectations for this action-adventure film, but industry experts did take note when Peter Cushing, OBE, and Sir Alec Guinness were cast. Both actors were widely respected for their decades of films and no doubt the 20th Century Fox studio executives hoped that these master thespians could bring some gravitas to this silliness. And full credit to them both – they delivered in spades.
But the real surprise of Star Wars was the quality of its young leads. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Anthony Daniels were all unknowns, but they each delivered a superb performance to create iconic characters. Star Wars has been criticized for its awkward dialog and sometimes absurd plotting, but the film’s stars wrestled that dialog and pushed through the absurdities with such energy that it all seemed perfectly natural and fun.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
Imagine my childhood reaction when I first heard that Star Wars was actually the fourth episode in the saga: Wait… what? Did I miss something? Are there other Star Wars movies that were made before 1977?
Of course not, but when George Lucas realized what a smash hit he had on his hands, he immediately turned his prodigious creative mind toward expanding the story. The Star Wars saga was born, and the original movie was renamed Episode IV: A New Hope, with a whole backstory surrounding Vader and Kenobi taking shadowy form. But the next instalment of the films was Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. George Lucas and his team at the rapidly expanding Lucasfilm proved to the world that they were just getting started.
Ever since then, it’s been technically correct to refer to the original move as A New Hope, but honestly few members of that 1977 audience ever do. To us, Star Wars is still Star Wars – we’ll only call it A New Hope if we’re discussing which of the 9 movies is the best (which we do, often).
How good a movie is Star Wars Episode IV?
Whatever we call it – Star Wars, Star Wars Episode IV, A New Hope – this film consistently evokes a passionate response from its audience. It’s been around for over forty years now – on the big screen, on video and through streaming services – so it’s hard to know what to compare it to. Is it fair to put a 1977 film alongside the big-budget, big-sound, big-SFX movies of 2021? And how do we separate Star Wars Episode IV from everything in the Star Wars saga that’s come since? Does this movie have too much baggage to review objectively? Possibly. But I’m going to examine it in three ways.
Star Wars in 1977
If we compare Star Wars to the films it was released alongside, we can safely say that it was excellent. What it lacked in suspenseful plotting or gripping character arcs it made up for in sheer spectacle. It was a certain kind of movie – an escapist, action-packed, fun-filled, family-friendly adventure. And in this role I believe that it excelled. The round-the-block line-ups and 6-12 month residences in cinemas suggest that most people agree.
Star Wars today
But how well has it aged? There are some films that were beloved in their time but are almost unwatchable today, either for culturally insensitive aspects or just the vast differences in how films are made. By the production standards of the 2020’s Star Wars does look a bit dated, with its huge computer panels, hard switches and costume styles. But honestly, it still holds up pretty well. It looks dated, but not painfully so, and the pacing keeps us moving forward briskly so we don’t fixate on this or that cheesy effect.
And the fundamental story of Star Wars still appeals. Writer / director George Lucas was very intentional in his exploration of the hero’s journey and has been open about the inspiration he takes from Joseph Campbell. Luke Skywalker wanting to rescue the beautiful princess may sound old-fashioned – even sexist – today, but it speaks to a deep need in our psyche for heroes. Conversely, the Empire working to quell the Rebellion is an idea that still resonates today in a society where generations of systemic oppression are coming to light. Each one of us can interpret the battle between the Galactic Empire, Luke Skywalker and his friends as it suits us.
Star Wars: the next generation
Nope, not a typo. I’m referring to the next generation of fans and how they react when they first see that galaxy far, far away. I realize that kids can enter Star Wars through many paths today – some first saw Phantom Menace, some The Force Awakens, and many came in through animated streaming shows like Clone Wars, Rebels or Resistance. For my kids, though, I made sure that they were introduced to the galaxy exactly like I was: via Star Wars Episode IV.
My two boys were 4 and 5 when I sat them down to watch the film on our TV. It was the new version of the movie, of course, with improved special effects and that questionable Jabba scene. I didn’t say anything other than I had a movie I thought they’d like, then pressed play and sat back. I had to read the opening crawl out loud (just like my mum did back in 1977) but then I shut my mouth and watched my kids.
From the opening scene when that star destroyer rolls in, they were absolutely spellbound. The whole sci-fi world, the characters, the story – everything. They loved the droid duo R2-D2 and C-3PO. They warmed to Luke and Ben. They were nervous about Vader. They didn’t understand all the fuss about Leia, but they accepted her as a cool addition to the heroic team. And when the credits finally rolled I glanced down at my 5-year-old, holding my breath.
And he, still staring at the screen, whispered, “That was a good movie.”
Yes! I had successfully passed along my view of the world to my children. My work as a father was complete.
(Until I made them watch Empire a week later. My youngest ran out of the room crying during the cave on Dagobah and my eldest fled in tears during the duel on Cloud City. But that’s another story.)
But I feel confident saying that Star Wars (in whatever version) still appeals decades after it was originally released. That’s a sign of quality.
The legacy of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
We can compare box office success – including the re-release of the original trilogy to cinemas in the late 1990’s (again, what other movie does that?) – or critical reviews, or number of awards won, or size of fanbases, or whatever. By any measure, that quirky movie by an up-and-coming writer / director named Lucas impacted the way films were made like few others.
I was just a kid, so I can’t really appreciate what a big deal Star Wars was in its day, but from what I understand May 25, 1977 changed the movie industry forever. There had never been a film like Star Wars before then – but there were certainly plenty afterward. Science fiction suddenly went mainstream, and any blockbuster needed to be loaded with visual effects and sweeping soundtracks. An entire generation of young men and women approached their roles as writer, director, composer or special effects master with a fresh perspective: just watch any action film from the 1980’s, then compare it to the typical action film of the 1970’s, and you can see the influence of Star Wars (Episode IV).
Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford and Anthony Daniels became household names, and even if Harrison Ford was the only one to step beyond his role as Han Solo into true stardom, all of them have enjoyed popularity and success in their careers. The idea of the Jedi has become so popular that some folks are even trying to develop it into a real belief system, and while most fans don’t go that far, there is a certain religious-like fervor whenever the next movie or streaming TV show is announced.
Star Wars was a fantastic movie in its day. It’s aged surprisingly well and it still appeals to a third generation of fans as the saga grows. I call that a win.