Last summer, I went to California. It was a huge vacation in many ways. It was a vacation that I aimed to go on after getting my first paying job. I was saving nearly all of my paychecks for this trip. As the summer began, I found out that I was going to get to go to California on a family vacation. That sent me over the roof, I literally did a celebration in the men's bathroom at the restaurant we were eating at when I found that out. So, this trip took place during the last days of June. It was my first time ever flying on a plane, my first time traveling to a place other than the southeastern region of the USA, my first time traveling to the west coast, my first time visiting California, my first time being in the Pacific time zone, and my first time staying in two cities for more than one night on a vacation. We ended up spending three nights in San Francisco before traveling by rental car to spend a week in Los Angeles. I could go on about how I loved Los Angeles and spend a great detail about being at the Spider-Man: Homecoming premiere.
But right now, I want to talk about my time in San Francisco. I arrived right after midnight in that time zone, immediately took an Uber to the hotel to check in, fell asleep after getting into our room, and woke up to officially explore the city. San Francisco is a magnificent place. Even better in real life than it is in pictures and writing. The city's designed on slanted land, the roads are mostly upward and downward, the weather's uncharacteristically chilly for a summer day in June, especially by California's standards, the water's breathtaking, the architecture's magnificent, and the atmosphere's friendly and convenient. On the first day, we did the bus tour to check out the hot spots. The next day, we did actual visits to those hot spots for a real experience. As someone that likes to purchase CDs, DVDs, and Blu-rays on a consistent basis, visiting the Amoeba Music store on Haight-Ashbury was like walking into the perfect treasure chest for me. It was huge enough to hold every album and movie for purchase. Most of the brick-and-mortar entertainment stores have come and gone in most cities, especially where I'm from, so you'd have to find them in the most popular cities in the country, and that location did not disappoint. It actually exceeded my expectations. I ended up taking longer than me or my family anticipated in Amoeba Music. I even took longer in Amoeba Music than any other similar brick-and-mortar entertainment store at home. What basically kept me in that store turned out to be a VHS tape deal, where you can buy two tapes and get another two for free. It took me so long because I was trying to figure out the right combo. I knew which three to immediately get, but I needed to figure out the fourth one. Eventually, I was able to get the deal after finding the combo to get. That experience revived my interest in VHS tapes six years after last using a VCR. I enjoy the heck out of watching the classics on higher quality formats like DVD, Blu-ray, and digital video. Yet, VHS tapes provided a sentimental value that always stuck with me. Even with the problems that I occurred with it over the years, it still held a special place inside me. By the time I walked into Amoeba Music, VHS tapes and VCRs were long gone, so I was glad to at least have those tapes as collector's items. Little did I realize that my brother-in-law had a VCR that he owns and placed in the guest room when he and my sister bought a house together about a month after we got home from California. So after they got settled in, I finally popped in those tapes and had a fun VHS watch party by myself. Now that I have a VCR of my own installed in my house on the only TV that it can hook up to, I can watch those tapes whenever I want to instead of waiting on a chance to visit their home. Today, I'm covering the tape that is responsible for my long stay in that store and my commitment to getting that VHS deal: Star Wars.
Yes, that movie. The 1977 game-changing space opera blockbuster directed by George Lucas. The first film in a franchise that continues to control the landscape of pop culture to this day. The funny thing is that in the past, I had nothing to really say about it before. I've had an odd relationship with the franchise. I've loved it, I've fallen out of the fanbase just because of the fans, movies, and shows that try to squeeze in a reference every chance they got, which got on my nerves because it was too annoyingly stereotypical (Believe me, you would too after you watched Fanboys). I've gotten back into the fanbase, simply because the movies are still good. I've eventually considered myself a casual fan after realizing how toxic the die-hard fans are, when they not only obsess over the films, but complain about the negative aspects in the films like it was a very big deal. But even with that, I felt that a review was pointless, because it is what it is. You knew what I was going to say about it. But then, the trip happened, and it just wasn't the movie itself on VHS. It was the original theatrical cut on VHS. You see, I was exposed to just the special edition cuts and every edit after that. While I'm aware of the changes that occurred which sets off the die-hard fans even by the thought of it, I tried to be fair about it, because it was just part of a movie. Even though I've never seen how it looked in the original cut, the fact is that it's just a minor detail alteration that doesn't completely change the story.
I do feel bothered whenever George Lucas is too hard-headed to not only restore the original movies to its original quality, but also keep making changes to the story, but I understand why. He's become more of a visually-skilled filmmaker than a storytelling director. He's wanted to keep up with the times and always goes above and beyond to become the innovator that comes up with these ideas before anyone else does. Sometimes, that is a gift, but it has become a curse that gets in the way of his overall talent. He has even tried to use tricks that would've derailed this movie, but the crew members intervened. Sometimes you have to listen to the people below you. I've even learned that myself as a filmmaker. While that did help him out in the long run, I feel that he thinks he can still do better with his films that have already been put out. Thus, it's probably why he did the Special Editions to make it look like a film made in contemporary times. He has since gone on to state that the original cuts of the films no longer exist in the best quality possible for a true remastering. What he hasn't realized yet is that the original cuts do exist. Perhaps it's very difficult to get access to the Despecialized Editions that were done without the authorization of Lucasfilm, but there are also still the VHS copies floating around that were released before the Special Edition cuts. Thankfully, I found that copy at a reasonable price when I did. So, today, I'm going to review the first Star Wars movie, referred to as Episode IV: A New Hope, in the original form on VHS, the form that you guys would probably want me to watch it in.
Now, the story, you probably know by now. It's pretty much a doozy to describe. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is held captive by Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones). She sends two androids, C-3PO and R2D2, in an escape pod en route to Tatooine with a message for Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), requesting for urgent help. It's important to note that if you're watching the franchise in timeline order, this movie takes place after the end of the 2016 standalone prequel, Rogue One, after Leia receives the instructions for destroying the Death Star. After they arrive on Tatooine, the two iconic androids are discovered by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). After viewing the message, he meets up with Kenobi and sets forth the plan to rescue Leia and destroying the Death Star. The sequence of the story from beginning to end is constantly compelling. Each scene has you invested in following along with the story. You easily pick up on what's going on, and you remain captivated throughout. It's a hero's journey that's straight-forward, but perfected. It follows the template to a tee and adds its own take. Besides, who wouldn't want to see a space adventure about rescuing a princess from an evil empire? The dialogue is truly the first of its own kind. It takes a Shakespearian approach and stylizes the phrasing to a form that is understanding, original and representative of its own movie. The story also does a top-notch execution of its exposition, explaining what's happened before with the Clone Wars, Kenobi's experience with Luke's father, a betrayal that shook the Jedi alliance, and the cautions of Darth Vader's powers. All of this would, of course, be clarified further in the sequels and later displayed in the prequels. But for the first movie in a franchise, it covers it very well, giving away what it needs to at the time and not overdoing it later on.
The acting is very good. It's not Oscar-level performing, but it's pretty great for a sci-fi flick. Each actor adapts to their character and the setting that each character is written into. Mark Hamill lays down the standard for the reluctant hero as Luke Skywalker. My only nitpick is with his facial expression shot as he discovers his home, as well as his uncle and aunt, are destroyed by Empire forces while he's away. He does play into the situation appropriately, but I do feel that Lucas drew it out a few seconds too long. Not to be outdone by Luke, Harrison Ford plays iconically into his role as the rebellious ally Han Solo. He understood what Lucas expected out of his character and tapped into it with the perfect amount of charisma. With each scene, Han Solo steals certain scenes of the film without completely taking it over. Alec Guinness, who ironically voiced his disapproval of the movie after its release, delivers as the old mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi. He supplies what Luke needs to know about the Force, as well as what he doesn't know about the Galactic Empire. He makes sure that our main protagonist knows what he needs to know in order to take down the dark side. Even when he gets killed in his duel with Darth Vader, he makes sure that Luke's watching and gives him a look that lets him know that it's all on him now and he has to put those lessons to good use. Then, you get to Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. She rounds out the trinity of this Jedi team alongside Ford and Hamill. She plays the role of the damsel-in-distress, but also acts independent when forced to take action. Also, the voice actors for our non-human characters are as equally compelling. James Earl Jones delivers the perfect intimidating tone as Darth Vader, following along with physical performer David Prowse's actions inside the legendary costume. Anthony Daniels reflects how a droid would talk like if it had an English-speaking voice as C-3PO. Kenny Baker does the role of R2D2 as more than a droid at half-height with only short robot sounds. And, of course, you can't overlook Peter Mayhew's growls as Chewbacca. Each of the actors transform the simple stereotypes of their characters and lay down a new groundwork for every character in those types to come.
Now we have to go into the production value, and this is where I really have to analyze the effects from the late 70's in comparison to the 19 edits that followed. When you're dealing with visual effects in a science fiction movie from 1977, which came before the age of computers and CGI effects, not everything's going to hold up well. The landscape shots look better on the special cuts than in the original, thanks to added detail. You can often see the outline of hovering vehicles and gadgets from the green-screen effect. Sometimes, you can notice the framing of the shots masking the reality that the vehicles aren't actually floating. And not to mention, there are a few other things that couldn't be perfectly realized in post-production at the time. In those ways, George Lucas's decision to make those updated edits are justified. As all the other movies in its vein received graceful remasterings, he was probably way too embarrassed by how his effects from the original cut came out in higher quality. That can happen sometimes, which can make the movie feel very dated, and he hated that happening to a film that everyone loved. On the flip side, there are some special effects and production elements that do keep its charm and would probably hold up well if (and I do mean "if") the original cut does ever get remastered in 4K. The laser beams fired from the guns are pretty cool. The cinematography captures some good framing. The costumes for the creatures and androids don't lose any youth. And above all, the capture of the setting remains astonishing. It did win an Oscar for Production Design, so there's no need to mess with that. Some effects aren't going to always hold up well over time, but with a movie like Star Wars, you can forgive them for that, because it was being innovative and trying things that are brand new to film. It's kind of like watching The Thief of Bagdad from 1940. Its production value's aged, but it is good for a time period where no one's tried these tricks before. Now, for the Han vs. Greedo scene at the cantina, both takes have their advantages and disadvantages. In the original cut, Han fires first at Greedo, immediately killing him before he can fire back. However, while we do see shots signaling that Han shot him, we don't see a shot of Han actually firing his gun. It almost looks like he exploded when it actually happens. Now, I do admit that the edit from the 1997 Special Edition doesn't work, simply because Greedo doesn't even retaliate, let alone fire first. It's a small addition that makes no sense. I do, however, like the way it's done in the 2004 DVD and the 2011 Blu-ray. Greedo still fires, but it's edited so close to each other to make it look like they both shot at the same time, and Greedo just had lousy aim. It makes a lot more sense and is a lot closer to how it happened in the original cut than the 1997 edit did. In all honestly, the overall worst that I can say about the changes in the 1997 Special Edition cuts and afterwards is that they weren't truly necessary. They don't really make that much of a difference, add nothing to anything, and leave you wondering why they did that in the first place. Some changes were probably warranted, but not all of them. In no way do these added details anger me, and after you really think about the time period and what they truly do in the film, it shouldn't anger you that much either.
So, to summarize, this movie's great, but you already knew that. George Lucas may not be the brightest bulb in a lamp with more than one, but he set out on a goal to change the landscape of filmmaking forever with Star Wars, and he ended up getting it right the first time. The story perfects the art of the Hero's Journey template, The performances follow the character archetypes without feeling stale and redundant, and the production value truly thought outside the box, finding new ways to display a setting that's already familiar. All of that made Star Wars so special to everyone back then, and it's why it still continues to resonate over 40 years later. Watching the original cut on VHS made me appreciate this movie a lot more now than I did back then. Sure, I'm not going to say that it's the absolute best thing to ever happen in movie history. Heck, I'll admit Close Encounters of the Third Kind, directed by George Lucas's equivalent, Steven Spielberg, did science-fiction storytelling and overall moviemaking a lot better in that same year. But the first Star Wars movie is true to the praise that it has received, and I can watch either cut of it with equal enjoyment.
Recommendation: The highest of recommendations.
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