Revisiting the original Star Wars trilogy

When we talk about films that significantly influenced cinema, we generally mention classics like Citizen Kane and Rashomon. But the real big influences were surprise commercial hits such as The Jazz Singer, This is Cinerama, and, yes, the original Star Wars.

These influences, of course, weren’t always for the better. You could argue that Star Wars ruined Hollywood. More than 40 years later, the major studios still care little about anything but giant blockbusters, sequels to giant blockbusters, and groundbreaking special effects.

But that wouldn’t have happened if the original Star Wars trilogy hadn’t been so good. The first film, originally called Star Wars but eventually renamed A New Hope, was silly and extremely entertaining. The second, The Empire Strikes Back, takes the story into darker territory and makes the three heroes more complex people (which really isn’t saying all that much). The third, The Return of the Jedi, manages to balance between the lighter and darker aspects of the other two while heading towards a rousing happy ending.

Star Wars is not really science fiction. It’s sword-and-sorcery fantasy – Tolkien with a high-tech gloss. Consider the light saber. It’s ridiculous as both physics and as a usable weapon. But it blew my mind when I first saw it.

When you think about it, almost everything in Star Wars is ridiculous. But then, it’s not about logic.

George Lucas, the creator of the series, is also the near destroyer of the original Star Wars trilogy. Over the decades, George Lucas has digitally fiddled with the movie, adding new effects, and significantly changing a gun fight. According to Lucas, whatever is the most current Special Edition is the proper version of Star Wars. The originals no longer exist.

A lot of people, including me, prefer the original versions.

The good news: Star Wars fans have restored something close to the original version, referred to as the Despecialized Edition. I have a copy, and over this past weekend I indulged in watching it. It was my best Star Wars experience since I saw the trilogy at the UC Theatre in the early 90s.

Here’s what I think of the three films:

B+ Star Wars (AKA A New Hope)

The first Star Wars movie is the only one that works on its own, without a need for sequels or prequels. It introduces the main characters and provides a lot of excitement. Good and evil are clearly defined. Farm boy Luke Skywalker discovers he has a heritage and a destiny. Roguish space pirate Han Solo must learn that there’s more to fight for than himself. Princess Leia knows who she is what she must do from the start. And with CP3O and R2D2, we have a comic team of robots that could almost rival Laurel and Hardy. It’s just a big piece of fun.

A The Empire Strikes Back

The story turns darker and deeper in the middle chapter. The fight sequences are even more spectacular, but they have a real feeling of dread that’s absent in the first film. By keeping CP3O and R2D2 apart for much of the movie, the film tamps down on the comedy (although there’s a humorous romance bubbling up). With Lando, we have a character who may be a hero and may be a villain. And, of course, the climax has one of the biggest surprises in cinema history, leaving us to worry if Luke will go to the dark side.

A- Return of the Jedi

The final chapter of the trilogy manages to merge the fun of the first film and the darkness of the second. The first half hour gives us a fun subplot where a more mature, more confident Luke gets to buckle his swash. It climaxes with three simultaneous fights. One is so much fun you can ignore that it’s ridiculous, one that’s a revisit of the first film’s climax, and finally a moral struggle where the issue isn’t who can kill their enemies but who can master their emotions and turn away from violence. It closes with the happiest of endings.