Harrison Ford

MOVIE REVIEW: Star Wars (1977)

STAR WARS – Original theatrical (1977) version
As released on the 2006 Lucasfilm Limited Edition DVD

Directed by George Lucas

In 1977 my parents took me to see Star Wars for the first time, like millions of other kids my age.  By the end of the year, terms like “The Force” and “Millennium Falcon” were commonly spoken among children like secret code, while remaining merely gibberish to their teachers.  Because of the availability of cool action figures and vehicles by Kenner, Star Wars became much more than a mere movie.  Its world building potential meant that kids were using the characters and settings to make their own adventures.  It became…forever.  A part of culture.  The image of Darth Vader will be found by future archaeologists the same as ours today find carvings Apollo and Zeus.

We memorized this movie.  Lines like “It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us; it binds the galaxy together.”  We could recite them with perfect cadence and intonation, albeit an octave high.  But we didn’t understand all the words we were saying, or what it really meant.

Reviewing this movie is like revisiting an old friend to reminisce about the good times.


For the most authentic Star Wars re-watching experience, the 2006 Lucasfilm double DVD edition provides the theatrical version most of us grew up with and knew by heart.  There was no A New Hope, no episode number.  We saw Star Wars three times in the theatres.  After that, everyone had to wait for TV broadcasts or video rental if you wanted to watch Star Wars.  Except back then, there were only “fullscreen” tapes available for rental at the local store.  For many years, we completely forgot about certain alien creatures that were cropped out for home video!  This DVD is a reminder of those times, and how lucky we are today to have so many viewing options available.  (Including a new 2019 Disney+ version of the film. I say “Maclunkey!”)

When he conceived Star Wars, George Lucas had plenty of backstory sketched out.  He assumed he only had one shot at making it, and so chose what he felt was the best and most exciting part of the overall story.  In a way, Star Wars always had a leg up on everything that came later for that reason.  The origin story of the farmer boy that leaves home to save the world is a setup taken from classic lore, and put on screen in an original way by turning it into a space fantasy.  With the benefit of hindsight, could it even lose?

Actually yes — if the special effects weren’t as convincing as they are.  Those artists took Ralph McQuarrie’s crucial conceptual art and turned drawings into filmable 3D objects that look worn, used and real.  Using bits of plastic battleship model kids and parts taken from cameras, a universe that looked as real as the world we live in was created.  Then they innovated further using blue screens and skill, creating dynamic space battles that surpassed anything we’d seen before.  One key innovation was the idea to choreograph the space battles based on actual World War II dogfight footage.

Sir Alec Guinness (Ben Kenobi) and Peter Cushing (Tarkin) were the two most recognizable stars to the parents in the audience, but Harrison Ford was an up-and-comer who impressed everyone that loved George Lucas’ other coming-of-age story, American Graffiti.  Even though Cushing and Guinness had no idea what their dialogue was really about, they turned in incredible character performances.  The hero trio of Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher were perfectly tuned.  Meanwhile, Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker provided the roles of perspective for the film.  Indeed, Lucas said that only C-3P0 and R2-D2 witnessed the events of the entire saga.  Finally, Peter Mayhew and David Prowse provided the physical acting necessary for the roles of Chewbacca and Darth Vader.  These performances were topped off with sound effects by Ben Burtt and a brilliant Vader voiceover by James Earl Jones.

Lucas has been mocked in his later years for getting terribly wooden performances out of great actors in the prequel trilogy.  When he was young, making Star Wars, he was different.  His direction is alive and he gets spontaneous feeling performances from the entire cast.  Whatever he was doing in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, he was a different director in 1977.  Of course, much credit must also be given to the editors who carved this movie out of the celluloid.  Yet none of that would have had the same impact without the groundbreaking score by John Williams.  Williams is so important to the entire saga that he composed the scores to all nine films.

In other words, Star Wars is all but a perfect film.  On its own, without any sequels or prequels, it was already one of the best things ever, and what kid could resist that?  On a technical level, it’s a masterpiece achievement.  All this contained within a simple, engaging story drawing upon the tenets of classic mythology.  Consciously it’s blowing your mind, and subconsciously it’s tugging at your Jungian psyche.

The best part about watching the 1977 theatrical version of Star Wars is simply the ease of slipping into that world and really believing it.  When the 1997 special editions hit, the effects may have been improved, but awkwardly jarring additions were made:  The insertion of jerkily-moving Dewbacks.  An extended entry into Mos Eisley with distractingly fake looking Rontos.  A poorly-edited reimaginging of the Greedo faceoff.  And of course, Jabba the Hutt himself, perhaps the most hideous of all the additions due to the extremely primitive animation of the 1990s.  The rest of the changes, such as a restored Biggs Darklighter scene and an improved Death Star battle, are not so bad.  Incidentally, there is nothing wrong with the Death Star battle as it was in ’77.  The problem is that every time an addition is made in every reissue of a Star Wars film, it takes you right out of the movie and into reality once again.


Further Observations

When you pull the focus back and look at Star Wars in a greater context, more insight and meaning can be wrenched from the stone.  Both in terms of cultural impact, and how it relates to the Skywalker Saga as a whole, we can look deeper into this film and enjoy it even more.

One thing we appreciated a little bit as kids, but I really admire today, is the amount of sheer labour that went into making Star Wars.  It’s so much easier to appreciate in this original unrestored version.  If you can see the line between matte painting and live set, you realize:  oh my God, all of that big portion of the screen is actually a set!  And that matte painting is really, really good!  The amount of work to do both, and match them as close as they did is quite impressive without the aid of a computer.  Also, observe techniques used to make shots more dynamic.  The Falcon flying, for example.  The actual model isn’t moving much, but the starfield behind it is.  That makes it look as if it is really burning some rubber.

Here’s something to think about.  One of the biggest action set pieces of this movie involved Luke and Leia swinging across a chasm from a rope.  It blew everyone’s brain, that huge looking vertical shaft with the retracted bridges.  The Stormtroopers are coming at them from two directions, as Luke takes his leap of faith.  While in 1977 we also saw the male and female lead together as a team with possible romantic foreshadowing, today the scene actually has more meaning.  Now, it is the children of Anakin Skywalker finally united after two decades of separation.  The New Hopes.  It’s actually a pretty heavy moment in the whole saga when you think on what that means.  Obi-Wan and Yoda hid those children away as babies in the hopes that one day, they would take over the fight.  The moment we see them swinging across the chasm, we realize that dream has been realized.  From whiny space brat to brave hero in two hours.  It’s also clear from her courage and familiarity with a blaster that Leia is a “Force” to be reckoned with too.

Children loved the adventures but didn’t fully appreciate what Luke was experiencing.  You can feel that Uncle Owen tried, but wasn’t the father figure that Luke wanted.  Then Luke loses the only parents he ever had, his aunt and uncle, and is whisked off-planet for the first time in his life by a new father figure, Ben Kenobi.  In addition he’s told a bombshell of a truth (with a hidden lie):  his real father wasn’t a navigator on a spice freighter.  His uncle had been lying to him his entire life about who his father really was:  a Jedi knight, who fought in a “damn fool idealistic crusade” called the Clone Wars.  He then learns, in a second revelation, that the universe itself is more than it seems, and that an all powerful Force is behind everything.  And then he loses that father figure almost immediately after!  Today that would send most of us into months of therapy, but Luke soldiers on and picks up on this Jedi stuff pretty quickly!  In the end battle, he is forced into a leadership position when Red Leader is shot down by Darth Vader.  “We’re going in, we’re going in full throttle,” he says to the remaining squad.  His older best friend and role model Biggs is on board, and so is hot shot pilot Wedge.  “Right with you boss,” he says without hesitation.

A weighty moment is the final (corporeal) meeting of Darth Vader and Obi-Wan Kenobi.  A physically imposing David Prowse in the Vader costume has the presence necessary to convey the anger behind the words:  “Your powers are weak, old man.”  You can almost hear the voice of Hayden Christensen from the Episode III Vader behind the voice of James Earl Jones.  The hate, as he now calls the man he once knew as “master” by the epithet “old man”.  It was always a foregone conclusion who would win this battle, but we children were amazed when Old Ben disappeared before our very eyes.  And what did those final words of his really mean?  “If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”  Surely a disembodied voice was not the “more powerful” that Ben was referring to?  This is something that the oft-criticized sequel trilogy finally delivered and expanded upon, where the prequels did not.  In episodes VIII and IX, we learn that powerful Jedi spirits can even interact with the physical world, and join with the living to defeat the ultimate evil.  In this way, Obi-Wan Kenobi has a role in concluding the nine-story arc of the Saga (even utilizing the voices of Sir Alec Guinness and Ewan McGregor).

Another minor tie to the sequel trilogy is Han Solo’s offering to Luke Skywalker to come with him instead of joining the Rebellion on their “suicide” mission.  The only other person we see him offer to “job” to is Rey in Episode VII.  Any viewing of any Star Wars movie is always enriched by watching other Star Wars movies.  Last week I watched Rogue One.  Since that standalone film was designed to add backstory and blend the saga together even more tightly with the original movie, watching it adds richness and foundation to the original.  Knowing what happened to the previous Red Five, for example.  All the films have this ability to amplify the others.

Though dense with unfamiliar terms, throwaway dialogue built worlds.  The Kessel Run, for example, spawned half of the movie Solo.  Some of the most iconic lines in the whole original film were throwaways:  “You fought in the Clone Wars?”  Apparently so, when he was known as “General Kenobi”!  We didn’t learn a damn thing more about the Clone Wars until Episode II, released a quarter century later.  And so watching the prequels and even the animated Clone Wars series adds depth to the experience.  When Luke asks “How did my father die?” you see the hesitation on his face before Obi-Wan lies to Luke.  In that hesitation lies all the prequels and animated series.  The line about the Clone Wars planted the seed for pretty much everything about the prequels.  The only difference was that as kids, we assumed the clones were the bad guys not the good guys.  (Well, I guess they were both but we won’t delve further here.)

The quality and success of Star Wars were both necessary to launch a thousand imitations.  As kids we became familiar with the concept of “knock offs” pretty quickly.  Battlestar Galactica seemed like a B-level Star Wars.  You could even buy knock off toys at the store like glow-in-the-dark “space swords”.  For the real thing, there could be no substitute.  We were able to prolong and expand our love of the movie with the Kenner action figure line, the Marvel comics, the John Williams soundtrack records, and even “The Story of Star Wars” on vinyl.  This really gave kids a canvas to use their imaginations.  Today, some of the kids that played with Star Wars toys in a sandbox are making their visions real in official spinoff shows like The Mandalorian, that hearken back to what we liked about Star Wars in old ’77.


Conclusion

If you really want to recreate the authentic 1977 Star Wars experience, you won’t find it on your Disney+.  Even hardened cynics must concede that Disney has done some cool stuff with Star Wars recently, but if they really wanted to do something “Force”-ful, they could reissue the ’77 cut one more time.  If they never do, the 2006 DVD is always out there.  There’s nothing better than the real thing.

6/5 stars

DVD REVIEW: Blade Runner (1982) – Tribute to Rutger Hauer by Holen MaGroin

Guest review by Holen MaGroin


BLADE RUNNER (1982, 2007 Ultimate DVD edition, Warner Bros.)

Directed by Ridley Scott

The first time I saw Blade Runner, I was unimpressed. I didn’t believe it to be a bad film, but it inspired nothing inside me. However, something about it burrowed into my mind. It could have been the inspirational aesthetic, the cryptic atmosphere, or something operating deeper in my subconscious. Something I couldn’t place my finger on. Whatever it was, I had an undeniable desire to see the film again. When I acted upon that impulse, I fell in love with it. All the emotion and humanity that had eluded me on the initial viewing became elucidated the second time around. Since then, I’ve viewed the film many times. Each of my viewings reveals more secrets and offers new interpretations to this alluringly ambiguous picture.

I’m not entirely certain why Blade Runner went over my head the first time. If I had to speculate, I’d guess that my mind was so overwhelmed by the sheer visual spectacle, that I had a difficult time focusing on the movie behind it. After becoming accustomed to the astonishing world in which the story resides, it became clear to me that much more than just the design was awe-inspiring. Underneath the electronic digital exterior was a human pulse, one that beat the strongest in the characters that weren’t even human. It poses the existential question of the definition of life, and makes us wonder who should have the authority to define it.

The events take place in the future world of November 2019. Earth has become an overcrowded, polluted, and commercialized urban environment. The Tyrell Corporation manufactures synthetic human beings known as replicants. They are just as intelligent as their creators, while also possessing superior physical abilities. They’re used off-world for slave labor, and are forbidden on Earth. Deckard is a blade runner, the best there’s ever been. His job is to take out stray replicants, a process described by the euphemism ‘retiring’.

 

When we’re introduced to Deckard, it’s clear we’re observing a broken man. He lacks purpose, and hides his feelings of worthlessness behind alcohol and a bitter attitude. Having quit his job as a blade runner, he drifts around going through the motions. He’s living a very shallow existence, numbed by whiskey, afraid to feel, and terrified of self-reflection. He’s called in to do one last job, and does so only after being threatened by his old boss, Bryant. Six replicants escaped an off-world colony, and four made it to Earth with their lives. They’ve travelled to Earth in an attempt to extend their lives, which have been set to approximately four years. Their leader is the tactical and ruthless Roy Batty, an imposing figure played by the recently departed Rutger Hauer (R.I.P.). Deckard’s job is to retire them, as they are considered a threat to the public.

Despite being artificial, these four replicants are the most compelling characters in the film. They possess real emotions, and you can’t help but empathize with their plight for life. Their methods may be cutthroat, but understandable given the abhorrent treatment they’ve received at the hands of humans. Not excusable, but understandable. Roy is the most viscous, yet he is also the one we learn to care for the most. The other three want more life only because of their fear of death. Unlike his companions, Roy is a pensive philosopher that questions the nature of his existence, and sees the artificial manipulation of his life expectancy as an injustice perpetrated by Tyrell, his creator.

Contrarily, Deckard is a classic noir archetype inserted into a science fiction world as a way of contrasting him with his supposedly ‘less than human’ targets. He has no raison d’être, no philosophy, he simply exists. The very machines he’s been commissioned to destroy contain more human characteristics than he does. He has learned to detach himself from his emotions because somewhere inside he knows that his job is immoral. As the film progresses, it’s a truth that he finds harder and harder to deny.

His path to realization begins when he visits Tyrell at the onset of his case. While there he meets the beautiful replicant Rachel and is immediately captivated by her. Rachel isn’t initially aware that she is a replicant, as she is part of a new generation that has been fitted with memory implants. She’s rather sterile and distant at first, but ironically becomes more emotional as she comes to accept the fact that she is indeed a synthetic human being. This coincides with Deckard’s own increased feelings of guilt and empathy towards these machines as he approaches the completion of his job. Both characters struggle with the concept of humanity in a dehumanizing urban environment, falling in love as they relate to each other’s fear and uncertainty.

Meanwhile, Roy and the seductive Pris manipulate genetic designer J.F. Sebastian into leading them to Tyrell. Sebastian is afflicted with a disease that accelerates aging, allowing him to relate to and take pity on the replicants and their limited lifespan. Roy and Sebastian visit Tyrell during the dead of night, under the pretense of a chess game. Roy’s patience has been rewarded. He is finally able to face his creator. His resentment towards Tyrell for manipulating his lifespan culminates in the line “I want more life, fucker.” The profanity underscores the pent up rage. It’s an emotional slip for the previously silver-tongued devil, and a subtle hint for his surprising climactic decision at the end of the film. When Tyrell informs Roy that there is no way to extend his lifespan, he disposes of his creator and Sebastian.

Deckard learns of the deaths of Tyrell and Sebastian on his radio, and decides to check out Sebastian’s place. What follows is the infamous final confrontation between Deckard and Roy. Deckard offers absolutely no challenge to Roy. Roy’s methodical killings of before are replaced by a sadistic playfulness. Driven past the point of caring upon the realization of his inevitable mortality, he plays cat and mouse with Deckard. In the middle of their game Roy’s hand begins to seize up; his time has come. Deckard attempts to jump from one building to the next to escape, but doesn’t go the distance, grasping the edge hanging precariously high above the ground. Roy catches up to him and easily makes the jump to the next building, standing above Deckard as his fingers slip. But just as Deckard’s grip fails, Roy grasps Deckard’s arm and hoists him up onto the building, saving his life.

In this moment Roy realizes that the most human gesture he can make before death is forgiveness. Saving Deckard even after he killed all his companions was an act of mercy and forgiveness that made his final deed a human one. Roy has reached the stage of acceptance, and ponders in his death soliloquy that once someone dies, all of their memories are lost. All their experience is gone forever. As he puts it, “All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in the rain.” An immortal line written by Rutger Hauer himself, it fixes an image to the human fear that we won’t have a legacy, and that all we’ve learned and experienced will be lost forever. Roy believes that with the loss of his experiences, humans will remain ignorant of the nature of replicant life, and that humans will continue to view them as objects to be used instead of living creatures. As he dies peacefully, a dove ascends out of the oppressive city. The shot seems to suggest that Roy does have a soul, and the dove symbolizes something pure and innocent. Roy has redeemed himself by saving Deckard, and his purified spirit ascends to heaven.

Blade Runner is a pensive film. It takes its time unravelling to give the viewer a chance to think along with it. It’s about a man that learns to embrace his humanity from the very machines he’s expected to kill. He even falls in love with one. It makes us wonder what truly constitutes life, and what value a life has after it’s gone and forgotten. Blade Runner is moody, stylized, and very open to interpretation. It’s certainly not a film for everyone, but for the people that enjoy when movies offer more questions than answers, there are few that have done it better.

5/5 replicants

Version Guide

There are five distinct cuts of Blade Runner available on Blu-ray, so I figured I’d do a quick version guide and offer my opinion on the best version of the film (it’s not the Final Cut).

  • Work print (1982) – The original work print shown to test audiences. It is a few minutes shorter than the other cuts, which are practically all the same length. It contains different opening credits, and one instance of voice over narration during Roy’s death scene different than the one heard in the theatrical cuts.
  • U.S. Theatrical Cut (1982) – Voice over narration was added that elaborates on certain plot points and offers background information. This version also contains a happier ending.
  • International Theatrical Cut (1982) – Identical to the U.S. Theatrical cut, only it has a few instances of unedited violence.
  • Director’s Cut (1992) – This version removes all voice over narration, and the happier ending. It also inserts a unicorn dream that heavily suggests that Deckard is a replicant. This version doesn’t contain the extra violence.
  • The Final Cut (2007) – Everything in this cut is cleaned up. The visuals, the sound, etc. Visible wires were removed from the flying cars, and an obvious stunt double’s face was digitally replaced with the actress’s face. Includes a longer unicorn dream, no narration, Roy apologizing to Sebastian before killing him, a different background for the dove shot, the violence from the international cut, and green color grading. Roy also says “I want more life, father.” This is the only version besides the work print where he says father instead of fucker.

My favorite (short version): The director’s cut.

My favorite (long version): The green color grading of The Final Cut is awful. It buries the spectacular world and neon colors in a gross green. Using CGI to replace a face and cover up wires is also a bit too revisionist for my tastes as well. I also think the assertion that Deckard is a replicant ruins the theme of the movie. Therefore, I don’t like the unicorn dream. I also don’t like Roy apologizing to Sebastian, it’s out of character. And father just isn’t as powerful as fucker, even with the God complex connotations. As for the theatrical cuts, the narration isn’t all that awful in my eyes (it’s performed pretty badly), but it is a better film without it. It has some interesting background information, but it ruins some of the ambiguity. I do like that the theatrical cut doesn’t push the idea that Deckard is a replicant, because it’s missing the unicorn dream. The happy ending is inconsistent with the movie’s tone though. So my ideal version would be the international theatrical cut without the narration, and without the happy ending. But since we don’t have that cut, my preferred version is the director’s cut, with the international cut coming in a very close second. You should watch both of those cuts just to get the full experience. I switch back and forth depending on my mood.

This review is dedicated to Rutger Hauer. Thanks for the films, man. We’ll miss you.