Luke (left), Leia (center), and Han (right) inside the Death Star (Image courtesy of The Guardian UK)
Many science-fiction films these days rely heavily on computer-generated imagery or more popularly abbreviated as CGI. We have certainly gained tremendous strides in technological advancement and a considerable amount of the effort was harnessed in creating films that defy the laws of physics and reality to the full extent. It is understandable, therefore, that an audience coming from the recent millennium, having been exposed to the dazzle of modern cinematic wizardry, would appreciate a film such as Star Wars less than that of, say, Avatar what with all of the latter’s cutting-edge technological prowess. But as film analyses go—or any form of art criticisms, for that matter—one should not take the movie out of the context of its time.
Star Wars was groundbreaking. Released in 1977, the movie from George Lucas was one of the trailblazers in movie special effects, utilizing miniatures and clever camera work to create a milieu that traversed galaxies and compressed the universe within the confines of the silver screen.
The story is set amidst a background of galactic civil war: The Rebel Alliance is gathering its might to rise up against the oppressive Galactic Empire. It opens with the abduction of a ship, which is revealed later to carry Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), a rebel leader, and two robots: C-3P0 and R2-D2. The Empire, along with the main antagonist Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones), is out to crush the Rebel Alliance and, having caught Leia, are determined to find their base. They plan to accomplish the task using their weapon Death Star, a massive moon-like ship that is capable of obliterating an entire planet. The main hero is then introduced to be Luke Skywalker, a desert farmer and floating-vehicle enthusiast, who happen to come across C-3PO and R2-D2 after the two robots were jettisoned from the abducted ship and subsequently captured by Jawa traders, a race of small, cloaked scavengers and tinkerers. Leia cleverly hid a distress hologram message, along with crucial information about the Death Star, in the memory of R2-D2, which must be delivered to Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness), probably the last remaining Jedi Knight, the order of lightsaber-wielding and Force-using defenders of galactic peace. The message beseeches Obi-Wan to help and to deliver the information in Alderaan, Leia’s home planet, which is later on used as the subject for the demonstration of Death Star’s destructive power. The adventure officially begins after Luke and Obi-Wan departed for Alderaan. Obi-Wan later hires smuggler Han Solo and Wookie, Chewbaca. The colorful team, on board Millennium Falcon, sets forth to Alderaan only to find it destroyed. They then are afterward captured by the Death Star and action ensues: laser-beams against laser-beams; Stormtroopers falling one by one; and finally rescuing Princess Leia and going to Yavin IV to hatch a plan to destroy the Death Star, which they managed to accomplish after exploiting its weakness.
The movie plays on the significant theme of good-versus-evil, morality and the inevitable triumph of the human spirit. The Force is very symbolic of human moral dichotomy. The Jedi Knights use the Force for good, manipulating its power to help the weak and to preserve peace. Darth Vader (as the term Sith was not introduced until the Phantom Menace) utilizes it for his selfish goals and acquires it from jealousy, fear and basically everything else consensually considered bad. Star Wars makes use of this rivalry to set the tone for the narrative and to provide a clear delineation between the antagonists and the protagonists, at least for the majority of the characters. The entire story revolves and maneuvers around this theme but the movie is also nuanced by adding moral uncertainty. Indeed, real life is not black and white; there is a subtle gradation, even on the issue of morality. And despite being larger than life and tackling themes on a galactic scale, the film’s use of Han Solo as a morally abstruse smuggler makes all the difference. Solo is the movie’s subtle grey area. In the midst of the battle between good and evil, there still exists one person whose loyalty remains nebulous—at least during the final moment when Solo decides to place his bets on the Alliance. Throughout the second half of the movie, Solo is portrayed as a lone wolf, someone who plays by his own rules. Yet even in real life, there will come a time when everyone must choose their side, and he resolves to side on the forces of good, eventually taking victory against the evil Empire.
It is clear that Star Wars is focused on expounding its theme using the overall story. The film fails on the area of character three-dimensionality. Save for Han Solo, the development of other characters are less emphasized. Leia, for instance, falls flat on giving a worthy emotion of distress and alarm when her planet was destroyed. The only fault of the movie is indeed on its reluctance to explore the facets of human character and to veer away from the dangers of one-dimensionality.
It is worth noting, however, that Star Wars is a space opera. As such, its story is told using characters, themes and settings on a large scale. Like soaps, the movie’s narrative is also open-ended; there is potential for exploring the characters more and the ending is intentionally obscured to give way to possibilities. The latter is evidenced by the escape of Darth Vader during the film’s denouement, which provides an opportunity for further storytelling (again demonstrated by several sequels and prequels). Lucas, in addition, openly admitted to being influenced by Kurosawa. Having also exposed myself to many of Kurosawa’s film (Seven Samurai, Rashomon and Sanjuro still remain on top of my list), the influence is noticeable. Yojimbo, for instance, centers on a character caught in the middle of a dangerous rift between rival crime families. Han Solo is the movie’s ronin only less fleshed out to give way to the overall narrative. Also, the film’s use of C-3PO and R2-D2 as comic relief mirrors Kurosawa’s Tahei and Matashichi in Hidden Fortress. Yet despite these influences, Star Wars manages to stand on its own and to make a mark in movie history as one of the most timeless pieces of science-fiction cinema.