The Force is with independent producer Tom Reed, who provides us this powerful and perceptive breakdown of Star Wars: Episode 4 – A New Hope. This is Part One. We’ll post Part Two next Friday.
The impact that the release of the original Star Wars had on the movie business cannot be underestimated. For two decades it held the position as the top-grossing film of all time, and by a wide margin. It shattered the revenues earned by the former record holder (Jaws) and still holds 4th place in the list of all-time box office champions. It spawned one of the most successful film franchises in cinema history. It did far more than that: Star Wars became its own brand and literally became an empire of merchandising, spinoffs, and new media to an extent scarcely thought possible.
But it all started with this first film, a film that penetrated deep into popular culture and the American psyche for many reasons, not the least of which is the sophistication of its craft, starting with the script. The story is meticulously constructed, and though George Lucas drew from different models than the BS2, examining the film through “cat eyes” offers unique insight into why this movie resonates so deeply with audiences. Part of its primal appeal is the genre itself; it is perhaps the purest example in the annals of cinema of what Blake terms the Golden Fleece.
Year of Release: 1977
Written and Directed by: George Lucas
Opening Image (0:22): The film begins with what is probably the most famous title card in the movies: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” This is part of the set-up and in 10 short words establishes three things: time (ancient history), place (outer space), and a self-awareness of the storytelling tradition with the echo of “once upon a time.” The phrase instantly became part of the cultural lexicon. It also plays in silence, like the intake of breath we steal at the top of the roller coaster just before it plunges us headlong into an exciting adventure — which is exactly what happens on the cut to the first actual image, a shot of a field of stars as the title Star Wars explodes away from us accompanied by John Williams’ thunderous opening fanfare. Then we see the title crawl which gives us more set-up, more context, regarding the conflict between the evil galactic Empire and the Rebel Alliance, and moving from context to character and goal, it establishes the Death Star, its stolen plans, and Princess Leia’s mission to get them to her compatriots in hopes of saving her people.
Once the crawl ends, we pan down past a couple moons to reveal the looming horizon of a planet we hover above as a cacophonous space battle erupts around us and a small spaceship roars past pursued by a much larger spaceship that seems to go on forever, like an aircraft carrier chasing tug boat. This all happens literally in “the first shot,” before a single cut has happened, and a massive amount of information has been conveyed with potent cinematic power, particularly in the way the musical score and the sound effects coordinate with the image, and of course the visual effects which were groundbreaking at the time and still hold up impressively more than 30 years later. In its time this was undoubtedly the most spectacular, exciting, and immersive opening image in the history of film.
But from a Save the Cat! perspective, does it fulfill the requirements for an opening image? According to Blake, an opening image is the very first impression of what the film is going to be and should ideally communicate the mood, style, and tone of the story, its setting and genre (genre in the broadest sense, not necessarily the Snyderian sense, because that’s more specific and subtle and will be grasped later), and should also be a snapshot of the main character’s problem before the adventure begins. We may not know who the main character is yet (we’ve read about Princess Leia in the crawl — is it her?), but we’re instantly thrust headlong into the very heart of the problem — the Empire! — in a setting, genre, mood, style, and tone that’s immediately understandable and presented at the highest volume: this is all-out war across an epic canvas. It is high adventure space opera at a fever pitch. And the little guys appear to be losing. The thrill ride has begun.
Set-Up (2:35): The first characters we actually see are two robots, R2-D2 (Artoo) and C-3P0 (Threepio), on board the Rebel ship. Are they the main characters? We don’t know yet. For now they are helpless bystanders to a laser battle between the Rebel Forces and the Imperial boarding party. I’d like to highlight a seemingly inconsequential moment in the midst of this first sequence because it relates directly to a major structure step and a particular point I’d like to make about it: as a chaotic laser battle rages in a corridor on the Rebel ship, Artoo and Threepio pass between a spider web of criss-crossing laser blasts and are miraculously unharmed. For anyone who remembers seeing this film in the theatre, they’ll recall what an enormous laugh erupted from the audience at this wonderfully absurd moment, and it makes plain one of the primary functions of this droid duo, that of comic relief.
I think Blake would agree that this is also an example of the Fun & Games at the heart of the entire film, which I believe is more than a structure step, but is, at its best, an attitude embraced by the storyteller/filmmaker and carefully laced into a film’s DNA. Comedies, in fact, are ruled by a Fun & Games consciousness. But Blake applied the term more broadly when he said that Fun & Games answers the question, “Why did I come see this movie? What’s cool about it?” I’ll try to point out how Fun & Games is an integral part of the genetic code of Star Wars, not just in the sequence after Break into Two and before the Midpoint, but throughout the entire film, and is an essential component to its popular success.
Once the rebels are routed, the leader of the Imperial Forces makes his entrance, a towering black-clad figure, you know who: Darth Vader. The next cut reveals a feminine hand programming Artoo, and we all know who that is: Princess Leia. She is soon apprehended and brought into Vader’s custody, though the article he seeks — the stolen plans to the Death Star — have already left the ship via an escape pod carrying Artoo and Threepio that lands on the desert planet below. Once on the planet’s surface, Artoo and Threepio argue and part company. At this point in the story, we know that Artoo has been given an important mission by Leia, but still, an essential question remains unanswered: Who is the main character? Is it Leia? Artoo? Threepio? Or someone we haven’t met yet?
There is a significant difference between the script of Star Wars and the completed film, because the script introduces Luke Skywalker on page two, even before we meet Princess Leia, and there are several scenes with him before the droids enter his life. The film dares to take a more unconventional route, withholding Luke’s entrance until the relatively late 17:05 minute mark, and takes an even bolder step of using the characters of robots to bridge the narrative gap between Leia/the Rebel Alliance and Luke.
One of the reasons this succeeds so well is because the two robots are such engaging characters (their Abbott and Costello byplay is extremely humorous) and because Artoo is so enormously sympathetic with his cute, almost childlike computerized beeps and whistles, and so achingly vulnerable as he’s stalked and then captured by the Jawas. The Jawas, too, though threatening at first, also turn out to be pretty darn cute, and danger turns to amusement as we watch their antics, which I would also characterize as a kind of Fun & Games. But another narrative byproduct of delaying Luke’s entrance is that it allows Lucas to establish the overall story context as vividly and cinematically as possible before introducing us to the ordinary world of our hero-to-be. The storyteller/filmmaker orients us and makes us totally believe in the exotic world of “Lords” and “Princesses” and their android emissaries — this mythic galaxy of long ago and far away — before this rarified world of high adventure plummets into the lap of simple farm boy with big dreams.
Catalyst (21:09): “Help Me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” Blake describes the Catalyst as the moment where life changes. It is the telegram announcing that the “before” world is no more and change is underway. One thing that’s quite noticeable about Star Wars is how explicit and unmistakable the major structure steps are, in addition to falling exactly where and when they should. The Jawas sell Artoo and Threepio to Luke’s Uncle Owen, which is the first stage of the catalyst, though at first it appears that Artoo may be left behind. It’s only through fate, or luck (or F & G!) that the R2 unit Owen initially buys literally blows its lid such that Artoo, after Luke’s prompting, can take its place. Luke literally gets to “save the droid.”
Later, while cleaning Artoo, Luke accidentally activates a holographic transmission that Princess Leia had recorded of herself just before she was captured, though he only sees the last piece of it, the literal call for help. Captivated by Leia’s projected image, Luke mutters, “Who is she? She’s beautiful…” He wants to learn more and help her if he can, but we also know he’s completely enamored with her. Luke removes Artoo’s restraining bolt, but the little droid refuses to play back the complete transmission because “it’s a private message for Obi-Wan Kenobi.” Just then, Luke is called away.
Stasis = Death (23:33): At supper, Luke mentions Obi-Wan Kenobi to his Uncle and Aunt, a name that appears to worry them. Uncle Owen remarks, “That wizard is just a crazy old man.” Lucas has lain in another layer of high adventure; along with Lords and Princesses, we now have reference to “a Wizard.” Luke reveals his desire to speed up his application process so he can attend “the Academy” next year, but this is opposed by Owen, who needs his help on the farm for one more season. Luke, realizing he will get neither full disclosure nor freedom to pursue his goals, leaves the table in frustration. He watches the sunset, clearly feeling trapped by duty and lack of understanding, as a plaintive orchestration of “Luke’s Theme” plays on the soundtrack.
This is as clear of a depiction of “Stasis equals Death” as you can get, especially since his Aunt had only moments before said to her husband, “He’s just not a farmer, Owen. He has too much of his father in him.” Luke not only has dreams of a more meaningful life, but apparently has a genetic predisposition to seek it out. One might call that destiny. This is conveyed in a very powerful image/moment of a twin sunset, and I would argue that choosing to have a twin sunset, instead of an ordinary single-sun sunset, is also a kind of Fun & Games. F & G isn’t simply confined to what’s fun, or funny; to repeat, it’s also about what’s cool, particularly when the coolness is totally in synch with the premise and context. A binary star sunset is cool, and makes the image/moment more memorable and powerful.
Returning inside, Luke learns from Threepio that Artoo has escaped, which is another catalyst in the form of a new problem forcing Luke to act. Luke fears how his uncle will react when he finds out Luke is responsible for Artoo’s disappearance (“I’m gonna get it!” he worries aloud to Threepio), which is another aspect of his oppressed life as farmhand (Stasis = Death and Six Things That Need Fixing). Luke also remarks to Threepio, “That little droid is going to cause me a lot of trouble.” Considering how closely Luke and Artoo will bond before the end (Artoo will actually save Luke’s life during the final Death Star battle by putting out the fire on his flaming X-Wing Fighter), this is F & G in the form of irony (though we don’t recognize it as such yet). Irony, by the way, is almost always a kind of F & G.
B Story (29:39): The next morning Luke and Threepio catch up with Artoo but are ambushed and attacked by the Sand People. The attackers are scared off by the fiercesome sound of an approaching creature. This sound is merely a wizard’s trick, as the creature turns out to be Old Ben Kenobi, aka Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Blake says the B Sory starts on page 30, and at the 30:05 minute mark of the film, Old Ben pulls back his hood, revealing his kindly face for the first time, and says hello to Artoo. Five seconds late, perhaps, but I’m inclined to cut Lucas a break. Ben, Luke,and the droids retreat to Ben’s desert dwelling where Luke learns essential backstory: that his father was not only the “best star pilot in the galaxy and a cunning warrior,” but also a Jedi Knight along with Ben (another layer of high adventure appears in the story fabric: ”knights”). Jedi Knights use arcane weapons called Light Sabers, and Ben gives one to Luke, one he had been safeguarding, a gift from Luke’s father. If Fun & Games is inclusive of what’s cool, then the Light Saber, both conceptually and how it is depicted on film — its design, its sound, its whole vibe — is F & G of the highest order.
Ben goes on to explain that many years before another young Jedi named Darth Vader betrayed and murdered Luke’s father. Blake is very clear that the B Story concerns the primary love story, or the ‘helper story,’ where the helper, whether Lover or Mentor, pushes the hero to learn the spiritual lesson that the story is really about. It’s where the theme is openly discussed and delivered, and the theme concerns the inner development — the emotional and spiritual development — of the protagonist. In Star Wars, the B Story is clearly the relationship between Ben and Luke, and once again, the structure step is unmistakable. Its spiritual aspect is also explicit, as Ben explains that “The Force” — an energy field that binds the galaxy together — is what gives a Jedi his power.
The B Story in Star Wars is about Luke’s transformation from Farm Boy to Jedi Knight as he learns to use The Force. He must also learn to face his own dark side, and how he copes with the need for revenge for the murder of his family — his father and his Aunt and Uncle — is an essential part of that. It’s all laid out here, very carefully, clearly, and efficiently, and gives us the key to understanding the genre. The Golden Fleece story, according to Blake, is a journey the hero takes with a team that seeks a prize that is primal, such as home, success, recognition, freedom, a birthright, or self-actualization. All of these apply to Luke. Star Wars is in fact an Epic Fleece where the prize sought by all is nothing short of saving the story world from a fate worse than death.
Debate (35:06): Artoo plays back the whole of Princess Leia’s transmission where she begs Ben to deliver the stolen plans to the Death Star, safely downloaded into Artoo, to her father on Alderaan. Perhaps careful analysis will reveal an exploitable weakness, though this is only a hope. Okay, let’s talk Fun & Games. First of all, the hologram message itself is incredibly cool, absolutely startling in 1977. Secondly, and more of a story point, is that it suddenly appears that our little Artoo is the most important thing in the entire galaxy, both to the Empire and the Rebel Alliance. Finally, Princess Leia sent Artoo to Ben, so Ben is not simply “Old Ben” Kenobi, or even “Obi-Wan” Kenobi — he is “General Kenobi,” veteran of the Clone Wars, and so must be far more than the kindly old man we so far perceive him to be. In a word, he must be incredibly cool. F & G!
Ben turns to Luke and says with a twinkle in his eye, “You must learn the ways of the Force if you’re to come with me to Alderaan.” Borrowing a page from The Hero’s Journey, this is the Call to Adventure encountered by the hero. But the hero refuses the call, which is what most often happens during the debate stage. Luke has no intention of going to Alderaan. As attracted as he is to the Princess, and intrigued as he is by Ben and The Force, his willingness to help is thwarted by his sense of obligation to his foster parents and his fear of the unknown. He’s still thinking like a farm boy. Ben replies philosophically, “You must do what you think is right, of course.”
We move from Luke’s internal debate to another debate that takes place on the Death Star concerning the stolen plans, the power of the Rebel Alliance, and whether or not they pose a threat. The commander of the Imperial Fleet believes that the Empire is vulnerable, but the commander of the Death Star believes otherwise. Vader reminds them all that the power of the Death Star is insignificant to the power of The Force. He’s mocked by the Death Star commander for this, but demonstrates his “sorcerer’s ways” by choking the man by merely lifting his finger (cool F & G, followed by Vader’s wry F & G line — “I find your lack of faith…disturbing…”). The debate ends as Vader promises to deliver the stolen plans soon, in addition to the location of the secret Rebel Base, and Governor Tarkin lays out the plan of crushing the Rebellion once and for all by using the Death Star to destroy the planet upon which it is located.
This scene is a rebuttal to Luke’s internal debate because it shows the audience that Luke is foolish to hesitate; the stakes are too high. This is undoubtedly how Ben feels, but he’s wise enough to allow Luke to come to his own decision, which happens in the very next scene when they discover the Jawas have been decimated by Imperial Stormtroopers. Luke realizes the Empire is after Artoo, and so would have discovered to whom the Jawas sold the droids. He races back to the farm and finds it destroyed and his Aunt and Uncle murdered. He returns to Ben and says, “I want to come with you to Alderaan. I want to learn the ways of The Force and become a Jedi like my father.” This explicitly ends the debate, explicitly states the B Story goal, and explicitly ends Act I.
Break into Two (42:26): Blake describes Act Two as the “upside-down funhouse mirror” of Act One. That’s usually a very helpful way of looking at it, especially if Act One has been confined to the “ordinary thesis world” of the hero to which the “antithesis world” of Act Two is a response. However, in Star Wars, much of Act One has already taken place in the antithesis world. In fact, this is a story about how the big, bad antithesis world comes crashing into the tiny and isolated thesis world of the hero and yanks him into the world of dangerous adventure.
Another way of describing Act Two is “The Realm of the Opponent,”where he/it/they have all the power and advantages and our hero appears utterly outmatched. That’s what happens in Star Wars when Luke chooses to accompany Ben to Alderaan. And, Lucas, in characteristic fashion, announces this structure step in the very next scene, where Ben says to Luke, “Mos Eisley Spaceport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. We must be cautious.” In other words, we’re entering the Realm of the Opponent. Welcome to Act Two. [Side note: in a way, Luke enters the "upside-down world of The Force" the moment he meets Ben and hears about his father, the history of Jedi Knights, and the world of storybook high adventure that actually exists. However, it is not until his internal debate is resolved that he can freely choose to step through the looking glass. "Break into Two" can just as easily be called "Choose Act Two," and Luke does not choose to move forward until after he returns to Ben at minute 42:00. This may seem late -- 12 to 15 pages too late according to conventional thinking. However, it’s important to remember that Luke’s story doesn’t begin until minute 17:00, and the script interval between 17:00 and 42:00 is exactly 25 pages; the perfect length for Act I.]
Fun & Games (42:35): The Fun & Games begin immediately at the Stormtrooper roadblock. The number one priority for the entire Empire is to find the two droids who escaped from the Rebel Ship. It’s nearly analogous to Sauron seeking the One Ring. And yet, Ben uses The Force on the checkpoint guard to pass through quite easily. This is our first glimpse of Ben’s power, and the demonstration is subtle, elegant, cool, and fun. In a word, it is playful. And playfulness is one of the primary ingredients of F & G. Whenever you’re in an audience and you perceive the artist at play, you can bet it’s the power of F & G put consciously to use. Next, we enter the Cantina bar, and Fun & Games explodes into the story! The place is a menagerie of hilarious and frightening alien creatures, and there’s an alien jazz band playing hot music on stage! This is explicit Fun & Games. Moments before, Ben had said to Luke “this place can be a little rough,” which is a F & G comparison between the cantina and a wild west saloon. It also quickly proves true as Luke gets harassed by a ruffian, and when Ben can’t settle the matter peaceably (his first inclination), he’s forced into using his Light Saber. Seconds later there’s a bloody, dismembered arm lying on the floor and everyone at the bar suddenly gives Ben and Luke a respectfully wide berth. Fun-and-Games coolness!
Ben and Luke meet Han Solo and Chewbacca and make a deal for passage to Alderaan on Han’s space freighter the Millennium Falcon. Han himself is a F & G character; a smuggler, trickster, rogue, and Luke immediately dislikes him, or at least feels competitive. Han brings out a fiery side of Luke and their antagonistic relationship is a F & G dynamic. When Stormtroopers arrive and are directed to Han’s table, Ben and Luke have mysteriously disappeared, apparently making a sleight-of-hand exit by virtue of The Force. It is never explained, and that’s part of the F & G. But it’s not over; Han is cornered by Greedo, a bounty hunter, but slyly shoots his way out of his predicament, tossing a coin on the bar with the F & G exit line, “Sorry about the mess.”
On the Death Star, Vader reports to Governor Tarkin that Leia’s resistance to the mind probe “is considerable” (this makes her cool). But when Tarkin is told that the Death Star is fully operational, he has an idea of “another form of persuasion.” He tells the commander to set his course for Alderaan. Lucas the storyteller is reveling in Tarkin’s dastardliness. In addition, we know that Ben and Luke are headed to Alderaan, which puts them on a collision course with the Death Star. Here again, the storyteller embraces a F & G playfulness as he ramps up tension by placing two trains on the same track headed straight for each other.
Back on Tatooine, Stormtroopers attack the Millennium Falcon and there’s a quick laser fight before it blasts off, and now the Fun & Games are about the chase, and the spectacular special effects, as the Imperial Star Cruisers try to cut off our heroes’ escape. As their deflector shields give out and the Imperial star ships bear down, it looks likely they’ll be captured, until they make the jump to light speed. And this effect, so simple, really, looking out through the cockpit windows at the stars elongating, and then suddenly — poof — the Millennium Falcon disappears as the camera tilts in the backwash — was, in 1977, on the big screen — absolutely electrifying. An ultimate F & G flourish to a terrific F & G sequence.
On the Death Star, Tarkin demonstrates its destructive power by destroying Alderaan, F & G villainy and F & G filmmaking in terms of how the event is designed and rendered, and then it’s F & G storytelling as the destruction of Alderaan is tied directly to Ben, who immediately feels a great disturbance in The Force. Though terribly sad, it makes Ben cooler than ever. Ben instructs Luke in Light Saber technique, and Han mocks them: “Hoaky religions and ancient weapons are no match for a good blaster at your side, kid.” That sums up Han’s skeptical, irreverent attitude. He doesn’t believe in The Force, which gives him an oppositional point of view regarding the B Story. Meanwhile, Artoo plays Holochess with Chewie (literally, a game), and since Chewie is likely to be an unpredictable loser, Threepio counsels Artoo with a new strategy: “Let the Wookie win.” F & G.
The final beat before the Midpoint has to do with Luke sparring with the remote wearing a blast shield over his eyes. Ben tells him to “stretch out with your feelings,” and this apparently works as Luke successfully parries three blasts in a row, though Han calls it luck. Ben tells Luke that he has taken his first step into a larger world. Luke, with Ben’s guidance, is accessing his untapped potential — he has stepped into the transformation machine that’s at the heart of all good storytelling. He is metamorphosing into something greater — and this is the true Promise of the Premise of Star Wars.
TO BE CONTINUED… in next week’s blog.