The year was 1977, and a curious little movie that was shot in Britain – full of silly outfits, dense dialogue, and miniature models of spaceships – was about to change the face of cinema forever. From a production budget of just $11 million, a blockbuster multimedia franchise was born that would influence pop culture on a fundamental level.
People queued around the block to get a look at George Lucas’s truly game-changing movie Star Wars, which only got the subheading A New Hope in 1979, and empty boxes were sold – quite literally – on the promise of toys to come. The film’s initial release made $503,015,849 at the global box office, but it would take some sort of Jedi mathematician to work out just how much dosh the iconic film has made since then.
Looking back at the film now, it’s incredible how little information audiences had going into it (unless you read the novelization, which came out six months before in 1976): the now-iconic opening crawl establishes that a galactic civil war is being waged between an evil Empire and plucky band of freedom fighters, and then the film chucks you straight into it, forcing viewers to work out the rest as they went along. The iconic opening shot of a Star Destroyer chasing the Tantive IV, followed by a quick clash between shiny-suited Stormtroopers and hat-wearing Rebels does a marvellous job of explaining the status quo, as the oppressive Empire wiped out the weaker resistance fighters.
With modern eyes, it’s an interesting experience to watch A New Hope after witnessing no less than five live-action cinematic prequels for it – the controversial Prequel Trilogy and the more recent double whammy of Solo: A Star Wars Story and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, the latter of which went to particularly impressive lengths to set the stage for A New Hope’s opening scene. Nowadays, you can’t help but think of silly little questions raised by all the prequels. For example, why did Darth Vader get a lot less agile in the space of less than a day? The Darth Vader of the Original Trilogy is much slower than the killing machine who features in Rogue One‘s most famous scene. Did he stub his toe shortly after Rogue One’s closing scene?
Even with years of fandom nitpicks to contend with, A New Hope still stands up very well as a key chapter in the Star Wars saga. As Luke Skywalker watches the opening moments of Princess Leia’s message with C-3PO and R2-D2, hearing the call to adventure for the first time, John Williams’ score swells up and it’s hard to keep the emotions at bay. And seeing Uncle Owen, Aunt Beru, and “Old Ben” all alluding darkly to Luke’s father, there’s a certain sort of fan-pleasing glee to be had.
A New Hope also holds up well as a film in its own right, and it’s easy to see why audiences of the time were so taken with it – the space battles look like nothing else from the ‘70s, the planets are intriguingly unusual, and there’s something just impossibly cool about Jedi powers and snazzy lightsabers. There’s a universal battle of good versus evil to cling onto. Who wouldn’t want to queue around the block to witness this amazing new universe?
It’s impressive, looking back now, just how much of the Star Wars canon was established here. Although you could accuse of Lucas of making up certain things later on, this really does feel like a middle-ish chapter in a much larger story: the Jedi are all but wiped out, the long-ago conflicts of the Clone Wars are referenced, Obi-Wan reminisces about “a more civilized age,” and Luke’s father’s story is left tantalizingly untold.
The actors, set dressers, costume designers, model makers, and everyone else involved did a truly great job of visualizing Lucas’ ideas, which must have sounded utterly silly to pretty much everyone prior to Star Wars‘ release date. And despite all these wacky elements, Lucas manages to tell a surprisingly simple “hero’s journey” narrative about a young man stepping into a larger world and thrust into a galaxy-saving conflict against the truly menacing forces of Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin, and the mysterious Emperor.
Let’s take a minute, too, to fully appreciate the masterful feat of filmmaking that makes up the film’s third act. During the Rebels’ assault on the Death Star, the action cuts between so many different things: various actors are sitting in X-wing and TIE Fighter rigs and shouting things. There must be hundreds of shots of model spaceships flying around and smashing into things/ There are scenes within the Death Star interior, scenes within the Rebel base, and there’s even the little moment within the Millenium Falcon. And let’s not forget all of the special effects shots and little explosions. To shoot all those elements and edit them together in such a way that it would not just make sense but also be thrilling… well, it’s nothing short of pure movie magic, and it’s given this film such enduring appeal.
All things considered, A New Hope was both a very fun film in its own right and a top-notch piece of world-building. It made possible absolutely everything that Star Wars has done since, as well as standing very well on its own two feet. Lucas gets a bad rep in some circles these days, but nobody else had this idea and nobody else would’ve pulled it off in the same way. And while The Empire Strikes Back is most people’s go-to favorite from the Original Trilogy, none of this wonderful Star Wars stuff would’ve happened without A New Hope’s incredible groundwork.
Best lightsaber bit: Although it looks positively quaint by modern lightsaber dueling standards, it’s got to be the rematch-with-much-less-flipping between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader. One slow rotation from Alec Guinness is the fanciest move that you get, but it’s still an iconic bout between two beloved characters, and it’s charged with a lot of extra meaning now that we’ve watched the Prequels. It’s a bit odd that Obi-Wan never calls Anakin by name, though.
Best non-lightsaber bit: There’s a reason why Luke and Obi-Wan’s trip to the Mos Eisley Cantina remains a fan-favorite scene in the franchise at large. This is the moment when viewers realized just how weird and wonderful this galaxy is, with horned devils and yeti-like beings all sharing the same shady boozer. It’s a slight cheat for this section – since Obi-Wan does get his lightsaber out to chop off a dude’s arm – but we couldn’t resist singing this scene’s praises. As well as introducing Han and Chewie and setting the tone nicely for the galaxy’s unruly underbelly, this scene also gave us that truly unforgettable piece of Cantina music.
Note: we watched one of the older cuts that didn’t have Greedo saying “Maclunkey” in it.
Jedi wisdom: Obi-Wan’s explanation of the Force feels particularly hokey – “It surrounds us and penetrates us… it binds the galaxy together” – as is his instruction for Luke to reach out with his feelings during the training-against-a-remote scene aboard the Millennium Falcon. No wonder Han isn’t convinced by any of it. However, the wisest thing that Obi-Wan says in A New Hope might be this: “Who’s the more foolish – the fool or the fool who follows him?”
Rules of the Force: Obi-Wan shows off a Jedi mind trick on the streets of Mos Eisley, and later we see Luke trusting in the Force to send his proton torpedoes flying into the Death Star’s weak spot. Also, when you watch these films in narrative order, you really notice that Obi-Wan was the first Jedi on-screen to disappear upon the moment of his death and continue on as a disembodied voice – it’s a skill he picked up between trilogies.
Who has a bad feeling about this? You get two for the price of one here – Luke says the famous line when he first sees the Death Star, and Han Solo repeats it during the trash compactor scene. It all turned out alright in the second instance, though, and Han remembered the experience so fondly that he later encouraged Finn to chuck Captain Phasma in Starkiller Base’s equivalent rubbish crusher.
Galactic stop-offs: We start in space before hopping down to Tatooine to pick up Obi-Wan, Luke, Han, and Chewie. They’re meant to go to Alderaan, but the planet is blown up before they can get there. They end up in the Death Star’s innards instead, before escaping to the Rebel hideout on the moon Yavin IV – the same base that popped up in Rogue One. The final battle takes place in the skies above Yavin.
Who wins? Although Obi-Wan carks it and Darth Vader gets away, it ends up being a resounding victory for the goodies. The aforementioned Death Star trench run – powered by the tension of Yavin IV potentially being destroyed with Princess Leia on it – ends with our heroes blowing up the deadly space station and earning themselves a swanky medal ceremony. It remains quite funny that only Luke and Han got medals in the final scene, though. (Chewie got his almost 40 years later.)