Thursday, 13 October 2011
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Alec Guinness
By Alan Bacchus
I can’t believe it either. I’ve been running this blog for almost 5 years and this is the first time I’m discussing Star Wars. While the mixed results of the three newest films and the general over-analysis of the entire Star Wars world threatened to tarnish the reputation of this film, the original 1977 Star Wars is still a magnificent piece of entertainment - it's simply untouchable. Back then it was a risky venture for George Lucas, who, like a true artist, threw caution to the wind for the sake of his vision – that is, a popcorn movie space opera told with the deep emotional resonance of classical mythology, but with the gleeful attitude of the hokey sci-fi serials of the '50s.
Sure, the elaborate costumes, creatures, special effects and cool lightsabers command our attention, but let’s not look past the stunning visual design and visual compositions from Lucas’s superb cinematic eye. Back then George Lucas was an inspired filmmaker. His previous two pictures, THX 1138 and American Graffiti, were stylistically and aesthetically different, but both were pinnacles of perfection with regard to composition. To clarify, by composition I mean the placement of the camera to frame a shot and the arrangement of characters, background, props and other set decorations within that shot to convey meaning and emotion. Whatever deficiencies Lucas has with dialogue and directing actors he makes up for in pathos, emotion and drama within his frames.
In Star Wars, his compositions are David Lean-epic. The opening shot, of course, which starts on the small passenger ship, slowly revealing the gargantuan Imperial destroyer chasing them down echoes Stanley Kubrick’s epic reveal of his spaceship in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But in Star Wars, the juxtaposition of the tiny rebel ship against the giant ship behind it conveys the good vs. evil battle that will rage on for the entire series.
This expression of theme through composition returns at the midpoint of the film when Han Solo’s Millennium Falcon gets sucked into the Death Star by the tractor beam. Lucas uses a David and Goliath metaphor with the enormous gaping mouth of the Death Star over and above the tiny Falcon slowly creeping into the frame.
Another one of my favourite scenes is the Obi Wan/Darth Vader lightsaber fight. It's a monumental battle of jedis and old rivals from years past in one final dual. The fight plays out in a frame-within-a-frame against the magnificent backdrop of the Death Star docking bay. While the actual choreography of action is rudimentary compared to the later battles in the subsequent movies, the stakes and drama of the battle complemented by Lucas's superb composition and direction of the scene equal anything else in the series.
On the pristine and unbelievably perfect Blu-ray transfers, Lucas's magnificent use of light within his frames sparkles as much as any of the recent movies. The interior design of the Death Star, for instance, is filled with source lights embedded into the walls, roof and floor. And the reflective surfaces of Darth Vader’s helmet or the shiny Death Star flooring are no accident either. This is production value and polish (literally) from what was a comparative medium-to-low budget made to look many times more expensive than it was.
And lastly, the lightsabers themselves, which we take for granted now because they're so ingrained in our popular culture, must have been monumentally cool when seen on the big screen for the first time. The bright red and blue glowing swords are still mesmerizing to watch on screen no matter when they’re used.
The ability and courage of George Lucas to boldly stand his real actors up against enlarged puppets and other outrageous Halloween-style costuming with complete seriousness can not be taken for granted. Under anyone else's watch, other than say Mr. Spielberg, who was also at the top of his game then, Star Wars would likely have been a complete failure. Thank God it wasn’t.
Star Wars is available on Blu-ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment.