Star Wars Episode IV: The Really, Really Stupid Empire

A New Hope was originally released in 1977. As The Force Awakens looms, it takes a moment to sink in that Star Wars, as a franchise, has existed for nearly forty years. None of it, however, would exist without A New Hope, so in some ways it is hard to cast a more critical eye on the movie that started it all. It is easy to be more forgiving of the soap-opera-ish nature of it, while many are critical of this same feeling in the prequels. The effects can’t come close to even what they were able to do in The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, but it just wouldn’t be here without the original. It was- and in many ways, still is- a landmark in science fiction and storytelling, and has fueled the creativity of countless artists for decades since. Despite preceding the first of the prequels by more than twenty years, watching it after watching episodes I-III, it is really amazing how well Lucas was able to tie the two trilogies together. A New Hope remains a groundbreaking, poignant, thrilling space adventure some thirty-eight years later, and is an effective bridge into the second Star Wars trilogy.

The film opens over a desert planet (Tatooine), with a star destroyer in pursuit of the Tantive IV, a ship that audiences should now be familiar with since the end of Revenge of the Sith. Coming from the prequels, there are a lot of little moments at the top of this film that really tie back into episode III nicely. Namely, the opening shot of C3P0, who should be instantly recognizable, since he spoke the final line of dialogue in Sith aboard this very ship. The droids are jettisoned to the surface of Tatooine in an escape pod, but we never know exactly which planet it is in Hope, so their arrival at the Skywalker homestead should actually be a nice ‘AHA!’ moment for first-time viewers watching chronologically.

936full-star-wars--episode-iv----a-new-hope-posterThe script for A New Hope really needs to be taken to task for ignorant moments, however, such as the escape pod being jettisoned. Droids are relatively commonplace throughout the galaxy, so why would it be a shock that an escape pod would be empty? The original trilogy is actually rife with this kind of writing. The rebellion ultimately succeeds not because of their own strength or cunning, but because of the ineptitude of the Empire, which completely dumps all over the development given to Palpatine in the prequels as an evil mastermind. How on Endor did the Empire ever seize control of the entire galaxy with the kind of ineptitude that they’re showing here? It is even worse in the context of the prequels given that there was an entire war fought twenty or so years ago that involved droid armies. Scripts written like this are just lazy, inventing ways for antagonists to be stupid instead of just making intelligent protagonists.

On the subject of the script, why does the Empire answer to the Senate? Empire and Emperor imply a central power structure. Ignoring the prequels here completely, how on Yavin IV does Leia’s threat to Vader even hold any ground? As we’ve already seen in the brief opening minutes of this film, the Empire is militaristic in nature and has vast starships under their command with armored stormtroopers. What power could the Imperial Senate possibly have? Leia’s threat implies that the Senate could or would actually do something; what? The film never gives us an answer as it is quickly disbanded, with the only question about it being “How will the emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?” A bureaucracy is a non-elected body of officials. This means that the members of the Imperial Senate are appointed, not elected, and it doesn’t seem likely that a body of officials appointed by the Emperor (who else?) would do a damn thing about anything that the Empire does, given the fact that the Empire is Empire-ing on behalf of the Emperor. In the context of the prequels this makes even less sense, because we know that the Galactic Senate of the Republic has its members appointed (or at least we can infer this much from Padme and Anakin’s conversations in episode II). The whole thing just smacks of laziness. Sure, it’s a way for the Empire to show its overconfidence in its reliance on the Death Star, but again, it is simply lazy.

The droids that should have never reached the surface end up getting captured by Jawas and reunited almost immediately, since the beginning of this film is needlessly dragged out. Frankly, it’d been more engaging to watch if the two droids had stuck together and were captured together after a journey through the desert during which they bickered incessantly. One thing that A New Hope is that its predecessors and even the prequels are not is slow. That’s not necessarily bad, in places, and really helps the development of our main characters at times. However, here, the film wastes time cutting between the two droids who get captured by the same creatures anyway and are thrust back into the mix of things together.

Inevitably the film plods its way to the Lars ranch, which is where we land on ways that the prequels ruined the originals #001. Owen Lars needs a few new droids to help with the moisture harvest, so when the Jawas come rolling by with a protocol droid, Owen writes the droid off since he has no use for a protocol droid, even though he owned the same droid and it worked on the farm he owns now! The droids are purchased and R2 quickly disappears, set on his mission to find Obi-Wan Kenobi and deliver the stolen plans of the Death Star. Speaking of R2, a question lingers from the prequel trilogy: if only 3P0 had his memory wiped, why doesn’t R2 ever say anything about anything that happened in the prequels, up to and including the fact that yes, 3P0 worked on this farm and that Skywalker sounds like an awfully familiar name since he spent a lot of time with another Skywalker some time back. R2 is pretty chatty throughout the OT, and he’s a robot and one would assume his memory systems would still retain the information, so why doesn’t this droid just start running his mouth first chance he gets about everything he’s privy to, such as the fall of the Republic?

Meanwhile, back on the Death Star, the Imperial Senate has been dissolved by the emperor, because apparently it’s hard to come up with new material for a puppet show after a couple decades or something. The battlestation will now control the galaxy through fear, which is pretty Empire-y stuff for an Empire to do. Vader, meanwhile, reminds the admirals and commanders present that their giant space ball of death is no match for the power of the force, which they scoff at. Although, choking and all, they’re kind of right. Why the hell doesn’t Vader- or Palpatine, for that matter- use the force to, errr, find the rebel base? The easy answer, of course, is that the concept of the force hadn’t been fully fleshed out by the time Lucas finished writing the script for A New Hope, but take Leia for an example. They subject her to a mind probe, but Vader makes no attempt to persuade her to give up any information with the force, something that one could easily infer is something the force could do, given its ability to manipulate people. Now, she’s obviously very strong-minded, but are all rebels strong-minded? Couldn’t nab anyone else that was on that ship and “force” them into giving up any information?

It is easy to see where in the prequels Lucas mirrored some of Luke’s characteristics onto Anakin. He is impulsive, he is whiny, and most of all, he is impatient. It is easy to see Lucas’ weakness as a director of actors in this film, since Hamill is night and day in Empire and Jedi compared to this. Then again, Carrie Fisher turns in her best performance of the entire trilogy in this film, having little to do in Empire outside of the romantic subplot and turning the stage-y, soap-opera-y acting up to 11 in Jedi. They are made better by the effortless charisma of Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, who- like Liam Neeson in Menace– simply turns it on and never looks back. Throw in the legendary Sir Alec Guinness, who turns in a great performance in the film despite his hatred of the material, and it’s easy to see why the OT cast is so revered. They simply have a better rapport than the PT cast does. The in terms of the better trilogy, the OT is better for that reason and because the scripts are much tighter. It is no surprise that the best of the saga, Empire, was neither directed by nor written by Lucas (he gets a “story by” credit). So when he meddles in the OT and makes “updates” to it- like adding in silly creatures in Mos Eisley that it doesn’t need or dialogue that doesn’t need to be added- it is largely to their detriment with minimal exception.

This is never worse than the confrontation between Greedo and Han Solo, and the infamous “who shot first” scene. In the original, Greedo never actually fires a shot; Han shoots him before he gets the chance, but there is little doubt he was actually going to do so. In the ’97 special editions, the trilogy got an absurd update, with Han being dragged dramatically to the side for an opening salvo from Greedo and returning fire. As of the Blu-Ray release, they’ve done away with the shoddy effects work and simply make Greedo fire a shot that misses Han wide right, while he fires simultaneously. This is essentially as good as this scene will ever get, as thematically it restores the original intent- that being that Han Solo is essentially a scoundrel who will take someone down when he needs to or is threatened by them.

A New Hope has a dreadfully slow pace at times on Tatooine, so needless additions to this film hurt it the most here, and nowhere is this more apparent than the cut scene with Jabba the Hutt which was added back into the film in the special edition run. The dialogue can be cut and pasted from the Greedo scene since it says exactly the same thing. One way to grind the film to a screeching halt is to make sure it is as redundant as possible. The film finally gets started when the Millennium Falcon blasts off and leaves Mos Eisley, even though- wait, why the hell do Imperial troops start shooting at the ship? Some bi-pedal elephant-looking dude reports, errr, something to the stormtroopers, and their response is to go open fire on it? If they were still looking for the droids- the logical conclusion- haven’t their orders up to this point been to recover the stolen Death Star plans? And how do they even know the elephant guy even knows what he’s talking about in the first place? Is the elephant guy somehow aware of the Death Star plans being stored inside of R2?

A major problem in this film is ways that the prequels ruined the originals #002: lightsabers aren’t “ancient weapons.” Being a Jedi isn’t an “ancient religion.” Even forgiving the prequels (as they only made this issue more glaring), it still doesn’t make sense only in the context of this script. We learn from Obi-Wan that Jedi knights fought in the Clone Wars and that Vader helped the Empire hunt down and destroy the Jedi. Watching this film as the first in the saga, one can reasonably suggest Vader is middle-aged at most, making the Clone Wars a pretty recent event in history (thirty years or so). Either the Emperor engaged in the most active information-cleansing campaign in the galaxy to eliminate the Jedi from any and all records, or people in the galaxy have absurdly short memories or both. Han Solo specifically is a smuggler whom we can surmise has been active for some time prior to the start of this film- he knows what a Jedi knight is. Again, the prequels exacerbated this plot hole with dozens (if not hundreds) of Jedi running around all over the place (not to mention Chewbacca being best pals with Yoda), but it is a cheap attempt to add more mystique to the idea of the force. Luke might be forgiven for not knowing what is going on (which works and makes him the vehicle by which the audience learns about all of these things in the galaxy), but the whole mess is just poorly written.

The film feels much better once the Falcon leaves Tatooine and once the Empire destroys Alderaan, which is such a great moment. Not great in the sense that hundreds of millions of people die, but in the fact that they bloody well did it. To make a truly despicable and effective villain, it’s not enough to see them threaten people or society or what have you, they need to truly attack it. They need to immolate an entire planet and its population. The only thing that might’ve helped this along even more is some surface shots on Alderaan as the Death Star attacks, with the laser coming in and things and people exploding. It could’ve been a much more violent affair, which would’ve made the Empire seem even worse, since as a simple laser shooting out and taking out the planet it is at least a little sterile. There are a couple extra degrees of separation.

Ways that the prequels ruined the originals #003: Why is Tarkin not aware of the fact that the Emperor is a Sith lord? To posit that Vader is the “last of their religion” is absurdly false. This script gives no indication of who the Emperor is outside of leader of the Empire, but with the revelations in the prequels, this seems really stupid on his part. Unless the Emperor is still actively engaged in hiding his true identity as a Sith lord from an Empire that he has full and complete control of.

The Falcon’s arrival on the Death Star sees a great injection of tension in this film for the first time, beginning with the shootout in the detention room and continuing to the hallway. Although the number of sensors/cameras/etc that they shoot off the wall is extremely excessive. How many of these things does the Empire need in one room? More, after a great rescue scene and shootout, they end up in a garbage compactor where they’re attacked by Meg Griffin. Not really, but honestly, the Family Guy Star Wars special made this scene better than the dreck that actually remains in the film. Why is this one-eyed fat-tentacled monster swimming around in a garbage compactor on an artificial space station? Does it eat trash? Why would there be a chute leading into a garbage compactor that they had to shoot open in the first place that looked like every other panel in the hallway? It was a cheap attempt on Lucas’ part to add more tension after the shootout, but it falls completely flat. Never mind the fact that it is very cheaply resolved with “it let me go and disappeared.” The closing walls aren’t much better, but they’re worlds better than the trash monster.

His name isn’t “Darth,” Obi-Wan. We learn later in the OT that Vader is actually Anakin Skywalker, so the prequels can’t even be blamed for this. Again, the easy answer is that Lucas hadn’t fleshed any of the rest of this out when A New Hope was made, but it seems rather silly after the rest of the OT and especially given their relationship and development in the prequels. One could make a backwards argument that Obi-Wan refuses to call him Anakin because of his turn to the Dark Side, but even still, his name is Vader, not Darth. That, and the Obi-Wan in the prequel trilogy would’ve called him Anakin. Lucas was so dead-set on tinkering with the trilogy in the special edition, why didn’t they just dub over Kenobi’s line to make him say Anakin? Some changes are worth making, George.

Vader takes a gamble that letting the Millennium Falcon go will lead the Empire back to the rebel base, and he turns out to be correct. The Death Star heads for Yavin and moves into orbit around the planet to approach the moon on the far side that holds the ba- wait a minute, what? Why the hell don’t they just destroy Yavin? Can the Death Star not destroy a gas giant? Pretty sure the resulting explosion would’ve taken out the moon as well, and if not, it would’ve made the shot a hell of a lot easier. There’s already precedent for Tarkin being willing to up and destroy a planet inhabited by hundreds of millions of people just because he wants to prove a point, so their response to finding the rebel base on the other side of an uninhabited gas giant is to wait some 30+ minutes so they can give the rebels time to organize a counter-attack with the Death Star plans that they know they are in possession of. As earlier noted, this is why the rebellion succeeds. Not because they have any decisive master plan or because they outwit the Empire or anything, but because the Empire is literally made too stupid to succeed. Yes, Tarkin’s arrogance is what compels him not to leave the Death Star even when made aware of a potential danger, but this is the stamp on the death of the rebellion. It is why Vader is a much better villain in Empire by contrast, because he doesn’t make these kinds of ignorant decisions that are really just poor writing. Everything can’t be chocked up to the arrogance of the villain, at some point, they have to stop making really stupid decisions.

Speaking of bad writing, why doesn’t Han ever use his reward? He is clearly seen loading it onto the Millennium Falcon before the assault on the Death Star begins, but even after the rebel victory, it just… sits there? What happened to it? Han Solo still has a sizeable bounty on his head from Jabba the Hutt, but after the rebel victory, they just decide to throw Jabba the bird and take off? This ends up being one of those unresolved plot points that ends up getting picked up in Empire, because Han needs a reason to get captured by Jabba the Hutt in that film. One surmises that Han’s reward was used to cover the cost of the banquet after the coronation that ended the film, but alas, we’ll never know.

The rebel fleet (with many added rebel ships thanks to Lucas and his tinkering, thank you George) moves to attack the Death Star since it’s too stupid to fire on the planet. After analyzing the plans, they realize that they can skim along a trench and launch torpedoes into an exhaust port that is only two meters wide. Vader and numerous Imperial pilots bring out TIE fighters to stop the rebel assault, and the entire script flips, because holy lord is the rebel plan stupid. It’s understandable that the Y-Wings wouldn’t see the attack coming, necessarily, but why is the rebel plan to just keep going forward even when you’re getting gunned down from behind? It’s almost painful to watch. Why are there no ships covering the attack run from outside of the trench? Why doesn’t one of the ships on said attack run break off and destroy the engaging fighters? Not only does it fail once, it fails twice, and they still try it again! Moreover, Luke’s attack run would have failed as well had Han not come to save the day. Or, more simply put, if Han hadn’t covered him! Yes, the attack is dangerous for a thousand different reasons and the chance of failure is high. So why would there be no ships covering the attack group in the event that they came under fire from enemy ships?

Nevertheless, Luke manages to fire the volley into the Death Star that causes it to instantaneously explode, because literally the entire station would explode at the exact same time even though it’s the size of a small moon. The original trilogy ends on a wonderful and triumphant note, with the rebels victorious over their far less intelligent opponents and with Darth Vader spiraling out into the endlessness of space. My language has been quite critical of A New Hope and its failings, because they are many and it is important to note, especially in the context of the prequels, that it is as flawed as any of the prequels are. Yet it manages to capture the imaginations of almost any who view it, and despite how much more primitive it looks compared to the prequels it has an absolutely undeniable magic about it. Its cast is brilliant and its effects pioneered the breakthroughs that led to the sequels that look and sound ten thousand times better than it. It is a testament to the fact that all it takes is one stroke of genius, one incredible creative spark to launch an empire. The legacy of Star Wars started before me and it’ll outlast me and everyone else who might be reading. Long may it endure, and may the force be with you. Seven out of ten lightsabers.

by Nicholas Haskins

Other Reviews: Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI, Episode VII
I’ll be releasing reviews of all six episodes of the Star Wars saga in the run-up to Episode VII this December and are teaming with the great guys over at http://www.battlefrontforums.com/. Look for our next review coming soon!

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