It’s not often that a movie bursts out of nowhere, captures the imagination of a generation and obliterates box office records like asteroids shot out of its path. When that same juggernaut changes filmmaking as we know it and leaves a permanent stamp on popular culture, you must be talking about writer-director George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope. Part fairytale, part comic book romp, Lucas’ masterpiece is the ultimate tale of good versus evil.
Naïve farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) wistfully dreams of something more for his future as he toils away at his uncle’s moisture farm on the desert planet of Tatooine. His friends have left him behind, gone off to fight in the rebellion against the Empire, whose dark grip of political oppression has been tightening throughout the galaxy.
But destiny comes calling when Luke stumbles upon a distress message tucked inside the workings of a newly-purchased droid. The ghostly hologram reveals an image of a beautiful young woman in peril. She is Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and is desperately seeking assistance from a mysterious man named Obi-Wan Kenobi. Young Luke is fascinated.
He finds local hermit Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness), assuming he might know Obi-Wan. Luke is amazed to discover the two men one in the same, and Kenobi is a former Jedi Knight who years ago fought against the Empire alongside Luke’s father.
Obi-Wan listens to Princess Leia’s message and resolves to help her, as long as Luke goes with him. At first Luke is unsure, suddenly not feeling up to the task. When he returns home to find his uncle and aunt slaughtered by the Empire, he has nothing left keeping him on Tatoonine. He will follow Obi-Wan and become a Jedi Knight like his father.
In the company of two squabbling yet faithful droids, Luke and Obi-Wan hire brash starship pilot Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his carpet-like Wookie companion. Aboard their rundown ship, they stumble directly into the path of the Empire’s moon-sized space station, the Death Star.
There they come face to face with armies of storm troopers in head to toe gleaming white armor, marching in lockstep. Bad turns to worse—their leader and jailor of Princess Leia is Obi-Wan’s old nemesis—Darth Vader (menacingly voiced by James Earl Jones.) The very fate of the universe is on the line as Luke must finally reach into his soul and find the strength to confront his destiny.
This movie is a pocket full of thrills told in a setting of wonder. Mammoth spaceships float on screen, crisscrossing paths against the backdrop of star-sprinkled blackness. Landspeeders defy gravity as they skim inches above the ground, traveling across the endless desert landscape. Aliens play music in the Mos Eisley cantina, entertaining a crowd of arresting-looking patrons from every part of the galaxy.
But it’s the action that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats. It’s arguable which is better—the lightening-fast cosmic dogfights or those tension-filled moments when the heroes creep throughout the Death Star, only just managing to elude capture. Regardless, Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope is so fast-paced, and such a fun joyride, it’s easy to overlook the masterfulness with which this piece of cinema history is woven together.
Lucas starts with a set of characters drawn from the well of past adventures. We bond with these characters because we already know them—the fresh-faced farm boy, the aged mentor, the fast-talking, handsome mercenary, the beautiful princess in peril, and of course, the evil villain—all staples of fiction.
These familiar characters occupy an all too familiar world. When the lights dim in the theater, the first thing audiences see on the screen are the tone-setting words, “A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away….”
But the political scenario Lucas depicts isn’t either. The Empire is an oppressive regime, recognizable from our own world. Soulless troops march in formation, achieving nothing but maintaining their stranglehold on power. But there’s hope. Can such a regime be brought down by the efforts of a few? It’s no accident Lucas selected relatively unknown actors (with the exception of Alec Guinness) to play these roles. They are “everymen.” Luke is a nobody from nowhere, and his friends are unlikely heroes as well—Davids against an all mighty Goliath—willing to risk their own lives to restore humanity. By rooting for them, we are also rooting for ourselves.
Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope planted the seeds for countless sequels and spinoffs, and has transitioned from a summer blockbuster into part of our modern ethos. Special effects may advance, audiences may become more savvy, and tastes may change, but the original Star Wars will unquestionably continue to stand the test of time.