The AFI Top 100 Films: Star Wars (#15)

Entertainment 150Star Wars (1977)
Starring Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher
Written and Directed by George Lucas

What could I say about this movie that hasn’t been said before? The impact of this space fantasy epic can’t really be understated. It provided a template for science fiction movies to follow for a long time to come, and the universe first seen here is still alive and passionately followed today, over 35 years after its release. An entire generation of geeks (myself included) know all about the exploits of Luke Skywalker and his cohorts; the story of the Galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance has nearly reached the level of modern myth.

A long long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away there was a band of rebels fighting an evil Empire that had nearly total control over a vast galactic civilization filled with thousands of sentient species numbering in the trillions of souls. A confluence of events brought young farmer Luke Skywalker (Hamill) into the conflict, pairing him with an old recluse who belonged to an ancient and mystical order, a princess and leader of the rebel organization, a selfish mercenary and his tall, furry alien co-pilot. Together, they discovered the Empire’s new weapon of terrible power — capable of destroying entire planets in one shot — and worked to destroy it, turning the tide of the fight towards the rebels for the first time.

Everyone knows this story, and most of us know how this story came to be. Or at least, we’ve heard apocryphal versions of it. When we think of Star Wars we tend to think of the entire trilogy of films as a single work, but most of the really iconic stuff is yet to come. Luke’s battle with Darth Vader doesn’t happen until The Empire Strikes Back, and Vader’s redemption doesn’t come until the final film, Return of the Jedi. Both are excellent in their own right, but let’s take a look at the original movie on its own terms. Star Wars as a standalone story is actually fun to pick apart; there’s a lot of interesting stuff there.

I’m sure this has been mentioned elsewhere, but Luke really isn’t the main character of the story. He doesn’t appear until about 30 minutes in, and he doesn’t have an arc to speak of. He doesn’t grow or change through his experiences. He starts out as a young farm-hand itching to get off of his planet and have cool adventures in space, and that’s precisely what happens. He’s taught to be a Jedi, uses his newfound understanding of the Universe to beat the bad guys, and goes home. Nothing to it! There’s not much in the way of personal stakes there. Han Solo, on the other hand…

When we meet Han, it’s in a wretched hive of scum and villainy; he’s willing to con just about anyone to get out ahead of any meeting he’s in, and he doesn’t join Obi-Wan and Luke for any reason other than payment. It’s a real struggle for him to stick with the gang when things get tough. At least on the surface, he’s only into the idea of getting paid. Gradually, however, he comes to value the relationships he’s formed over the course of the movie and even comes back to join in the rebel’s final, desperate fight. It’s a completely selfless act that signifies deep and lasting character growth. Even though Luke is hailed as the hero and gets the final shot that takes down the Death Star, Han is the person who allows that to happen. Han’s the true protagonist of Star Wars here, and Luke is more of a catalyst for his journey.

The story, overall, is relatively simple, but that’s not where the magic is. George Lucas has a fairly good grasp of the film’s structure and pacing, so he hits all of the beats he needs to exactly when he needs to hit them. Besides that, the movie simply LOOKS gorgeous, and it treats us to a science-fiction landscape that’s still unique to this day. The settings look fantastic yet lived-in, really grounding the world and enabling us to get invested in it. Everything looks real, functional. The tech — light-years beyond anything we could have dreamed at the time — looks beaten up and sometimes barely works.

Even today it’s difficult to find a movie — especially a science fiction film — that blends the fantastic and the mundane quite that well. I think that’s one of the reasons Joss Whedon’s Firefly is so beloved — it manages to make a fantastic universe that feels….used. And that makes us all the more excited for it, because it’s easier for us to imagine living there, eating the food, drinking exotic alcohols, feeling the heat and dust and fabric we use to protect ourselves from it. Lucas managed to create a movie that encourages our imagination to fill the world beyond the screen. That’s the lightning in a bottle Star Wars captured.

It’s by no means a perfect movie, but it’s a vastly entertaining one. Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill have a great chemistry together, and it’s enough for us to overlook the many shortcomings in the script and direction. It’s easy to see Star Wars as the skeleton on which an entire universe was fleshed out, and that’s largely true. But taking a moment to appreciate the construction of the foundation is a worthy exercise just the same.

4 thoughts on “The AFI Top 100 Films: Star Wars (#15)

  1. I’m gonna take issue with one of your points: that Luke isn’t the main character. You say, “He doesn’t appear until about 30 minutes in, and he doesn’t have an arc to speak of. He doesn’t grow or change through his experiences.” By scene listing, Luke is introduced in scene 8; Han doesn’t appear until scene 19. So using time of appearance doesn’t help your argument. But let’s talk about his arc.

    “He starts out as a young farm-hand itching to get off of his planet and have cool adventures in space, and that’s precisely what happens. He’s taught to be a Jedi, uses his newfound understanding of the Universe to beat the bad guys, and goes home. Nothing to it! There’s not much in the way of personal stakes there.”

    Skip ahead to one of the pivotal scenes of the movie, which isn’t played that way: Luke preparing for the assault on the Death Star while Han prepares to leave:

    HAN: That’s right, yeah! I got some old debts I’ve got to pay off with
    this stuff. Even if I didn’t, you don’t think I’d be fool enough to
    stick around here, do you? Why don’t you come with us? You’re pretty
    good in a fight. I could use you.

    LUKE: (getting angry) Come on! Why don’t you take a look around? You
    know what’s about to happen, what they’re up against. They could use a
    good pilot like you. You’re turning your back on them.

    What Han is offering Luke is exactly what he wanted at the beginning of the movie: a chance to get out and have space battles. Yes, Luke is interested in the Rebellion and early on says he “hate[s] the Empire.” But he mostly wants to get out and fight because HE is bored and all his friends are going (there is some stuff about the Empire that’s in the original draft of the script, with Biggs, but it’s very generically hating the Empire).

    Han doesn’t change that much. He values friendship–his relationship with Chewie makes that obvious. So when he’s come to consider Luke a friend, he comes back to rescue him in his own daring (and probably least risky–hiding until the last minute and then exploding out of the sky) way.

    He serves as a foil to Luke’s self-interest. Luke sees Han as the extreme of where his whiny self-absorption is trending, and it pushes him to become a person who stands up to Han as he couldn’t stand up to his uncle or Obi-Wan, to recognize that what Han offers is not the way he wants to live. It allows him to nurture those tendencies of doing the right thing that he’s always had.

    I will say that I think neither character changes a lot. But Luke does become more cognizant of the world around him and how much bigger it is than just a place to have battles.

  2. Malin, I feel like your argument is compromised a little bit by the fact that nebulous journeying around the galaxy in an old smuggler ship doesn’t offer what Luke was looking for all along — whereas “a chance to get out and have space battles is EXACTLY what Luke is getting as a pilot for the rebellion.

    1. “You’re pretty good in a fight. I could use you.” If that isn’t an invitation to have space battles, I’m not sure how much more clearly he could have phrased it. “Hey, Luke, want to come with me and have space battles,” maybe. In fact, that was probably Lucas’s original dialogue.

      1. (Also, Luke doesn’t reply, “Nah man, that sounds boring.” He says, “You know what’s about to happen, what they’re up against.”)

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