To understate the case, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was a bit of a hit when it was released in 1977. I missed the initial craze, and if memory serves, first saw this film on T.V., then later on VHS. As a child, I had a great time watching it with the family as it was an exciting combination of lightsaber duels, blaster shootouts, and spaceship dogfights. What else could a kid want in a movie? Naturally, as time went by, my tastes changed and until a few months ago, I hadn't seen A New Hope in years. Watching it again after so long gave me a chance to assess it as an adult, and deliberate on its strengths and weaknesses. Note: this is a review of the original version; I've never seen the updated cuts. So, let's start with the positives, of which there are quite a few. To begin with, it's exactly what I loved as a child: a fun, exciting, good guys vs. bad guys shoot 'em up. This is, and always will be, a great "popcorn" flick.
Also, whatever failings George Lucas has- and there are many- he did really well casting this movie. Mark Hamill is convincing as the young, immature Luke Skywalker who is frustrated- and occasionally whiny- about being stuck on the family farm when he dreams of being in space. Carrie Fischer holds her own as the gun-toting Princess Leia despite the unfortunate hairdo, and Alec Guinness lends some class to the production as Obi-Wan Kenobi (although he apparently despised the experience). But these three on their own couldn't carry the film... too much goody-goodness to keep interest up. There are, in my opinion, two characters who are responsible for the success of Star Wars. The first of these is Harrison Ford's Han Solo: smuggler, cynic, and all-around rogue. He balances out Luke's wide-eyed enthusiasm, Leia's fervent idealism, and Kenobi's nobility with his outsized, "me first" personality. Solo is neither idealistic nor noble, and the only enthusiasm he has is for his own self interest. He is the salt to counteract the overabundance of sweet that we have from the other main characters.
The other character who contributes greatly to the success of Star Wars is Darth Vader. A movie can rise- or fall- on the strength of its villain. From the moment near the start of the film, when the Sith Lord comes striding down the hall of the conquered rebel ship, to the ominous strains of John Williams' amazing score, it is obvious that Vader is a baddie to be reckoned with.
This impression is reinforced moments later when, in James Earl Jones' deep menacing tones, he questions the ship's captain, crushing his windpipe when the man refuses to tell him what he wants to know. From the start, we know that Vader is evil, ruthless, and powerful: a great villain.
There are, of course, a few things that don't work so well in my opinion, most of them involving the inconsistency of "The Force". As I said in an earlier post, the force has never held a lot of interest for me, other than as a plot device. I'm more interested in characters and their stories. But the force suffers from the same problem that the Prime Directive does in Star Trek... it's frequently what the plot needs it to be, rather than abiding by earlier rules or statements made about it. Let's ignore everything said about it in the prequels... in fact, let's just ignore the prequels altogether. We're told in A New Hope that the lightsaber is a more elegant weapon from a more civilized age. Then, in the cantina scene, Kenobi uses it to hack a guy's arm off when he hassles Luke. I'm not complaining- it's a great scene- but how is this more elegant or civilized than shooting him would be? And since the "good side" of the force is supposed to be used for defense only, wouldn't it have been less violent (and less attention getting) to just mind-choke the guy into submission, rather than maim him in the middle of the crowded eatery?
Which brings me to the scene which has always irritated me: the death of Obi-Wan Kenobi. What an anticlimactic letdown. It would be one thing if aging, rusty Ben Kenobi couldn't beat mechanically rebuilt Vader, but he doesn't even try. He engages in a few half-hearted parries with Vader, then turns his lightsaber off and lets his old apprentice kill him. What the dickens?! He was more ruthless with the drunk in the cantina than he is with Darth Vader, scourge of the galaxy. And it's not as though Luke and the others had already escaped- they hadn't even made it onto the ship yet. Wouldn't it have made more sense to keep fighting Vader, to keep him distracted, and maybe have the chance to kill him? How is a disembodied voice going to be more helpful than the actual physical presence of a skilled and experienced fighter? This is silly and senseless- even more so when you consider the upcoming battle against the Death Star. Just think how much help Kenobi, a Jedi Knight experienced general from the Clone Wars, could have been in this attack. But instead he settles for being an invisible cheerleader for Luke. Again, this would be acceptable if he had been legitimately defeated by Vader, but he let himself be killed. How does this make any sense? Kenobi tells Vader that if he kills him, he'll become unbelievably powerful, but when are we ever given any proof of this, at any point in the trilogy? I personally think this was a waste of his character.
In conclusion, I'd say that Star Wars: A New Hope is a successful adventure film, which provides a fun ride from start to finish. It also successfully introduces characters who are left with lots of room to grow and develop in the next movies. It's not a perfect film; in my opinion it suffers from an unclear vision of what the force is supposed to be, and therefore from an uneven application of it. While it's not a movie I would ever choose to put on and watch when alone, I still harbour a nostalgic affection for it, and had a great time in January watching it with a crowd of friends and family. And I look forward to watching it with some of my young nephews and nieces when they see it for the first time- I'm sure they'll enjoy it as much as I did as a child.