Here’s Part Two of independent producer Tom Reed’s powerful and perceptive breakdown of Star Wars: Episode 4 – A New Hope.
THE SAGA CONTINUES…Midpoint(63:05): Blake describes the Midpoint as either an “up beat/false victory” where the Hero thinks he has succeeded, or a “down beat/false defeat” where there’s a significant set-back. At the Midpoint of Star Wars, three very bad things happen in quick succession. First, Tarkin discovers that Leia lied about the location of the Rebel Base and gives the order to “Terminate her! Immediately!” Bad news for Leia, and a threatening time clock triggered (as Blake points out so often happens here). Second, the Millennium Falcon comes out of hyperspace to discover that Alderaan has been destroyed, which not only confirms Ben’s worst fears, but also renders impossible the goal to deliver Artoo to Leia’s father (mission failure); and third, their ship is caught in a tractor beam and sucked into the Death Star! Stakes raised!
Getting pulled towards the Death Star is the beat pointed out by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (quite consciously used by Lucas as a storytelling model) as “Approaching the Inmost Cave.” That’s another way of saying we’re entering the special world of the Opponent, his/her domain and home turf. Luke says, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” an example of “stretching out with his feelings” all on his own (which in a single line subtly advances the B Story). Han responds in the way you’d expect an action hero: “They won’t take me without a fight,” and Chewie gives out a worried bellow, presumably the Wookie equivalent to “You got that right!” Fortunately, Ben is with them, and the Force takes many guises, including enhanced powers of deception. “There are alternatives to fighting,” he says, and we know whatever plan he has will buy them some time.
As we near the Death Star, we get a sense of its enormous size for the first time. The realm of the Opponent is one of massive scale that dwarfs humankind, both the exterior and the interiors, which have a space age architectural fascistic quality that would have made Albert Speer drool. We also get a sense of how regimented, fortified, and militarized this world is. It is also a world virtually without color, dominated by monochromatic blacks and whites. Lucas shoots it with wide, static, symmetrical, stationary shots that emphasize the structured horizontals and looming verticals of the Empire. This visually references, in a highly conscious way, both Nazism and Japanese formalism. A kind of filmmaker F & G.
Bad Guys Close In (66:50): Once the Falcon arrives in the hangar, Vader gives the order to check every part of the ship. He also says, significantly, “I sense something. A presence I’ve not felt since…” We assume he means Ben, since Ben revealed to Luke that Vader was a pupil of his, and this draws a parallel between the two and foreshadows a confrontation. But since Vader is too important to hang around for the humdrum task of scanning the ship, he exits. Or maybe he just has to go to the bathroom?
More Fun and Games (67:11): It’s revealed that the Heroes “smuggled themselves” in Han’s secret compartments. They lure Stormtroopers on board, subdue them, and disguise themselves in their armored uniforms, then attack and countermand the hangar control room. Dawning a disguise is a kind of “transformation,” but playful in nature, even when the context is dangerous, as it is here. And so begins an extended sequence that alternates between Bad Guys Closing In and Fun & Games as the team splits into three. Artoo plugs into the computer network and locates the tractor beam and Ben tells them that he will deactivate it, but he must go alone.
Theme Stated (66:50): Luke wants to accompany Ben, but Ben tells him that “your destiny lies along a different path than mine.” Ben tasks Luke to stay and watch over the droids, for the good of all. And then, before leaving, he tells Luke, “The Force will be with you. Always.” This is the theme stated, explicitly. Remember that the theme almost always concerns the B Story, which is about the Hero’s spiritual journey. The B Story of Star Wars is Luke’s transformation from Farm Boy to Jedi Knight as he learns to use The Force. Ben’s exit line is a thematic benediction, a blessing, that addresses that journey, bolsters Luke’s confidence, and foreshadows the climax.
More Fun and Games (70:15): “Where did you dig up that old fossil?” remarks Han sardonically, undercutting the earnestness and maintaining the antagonism between him and Luke. But before their argument can escalate, there’s a new development: Artoo has located Leia, and Luke immediately wants to rescue her. Han resists but Luke appeals to Han’s mercenary greed. The promise of a reward puts Han into action, and they’re off on a new mission, continuing their daring (and playful) deception. But because this is an environment that dwarfs the human elements, and is so rigorously militarized that helmet-clad Stormtroopers are everywhere, this gambit seems as plausible as it is exciting.
Threepio asks what they should do if they’re discovered, and Luke and Han answer flippantly, “Lock the doors” and “Hope they don’t have blasters.” Threepio, quite understandably, answers, “That isn’t very reassuring.” As he does this, he rests his arm on Artoo’s head, and the tableau he and his dwarf-like counterpart make, as Artoo whistles is undoubtedly comic. A burlesque. “The Traveling Droids.”
The next cut is perhaps the most obvious example of the Fun & Games consciousness of the entire film. Much like the moment in the first reel, when Artoo and Threepio pass between the laser fire unscathed, it is seemingly inconsequential. It’s actually more glaringly inconsequential than the first example, because back on the Rebel Ship there was a vague sense of establishing geography and moving the droids into proximity to Leia. But this moment has absolutely zero story consequence — that is, if you define story consequence strictly as that which advances the plot.
However, there are cases of beats with story value that do not advance the plot, and in some rare cases, they’re actually more important than advancing the plot. In my view, this is one of those cases. Earlier, in one of the establishing shots of the corridors of the Death Star, we first saw, scurrying between the feet of Stormtroopers, what looked like a robotic mouse, or Mousebot. We have no idea what they are, or what they’re for. It’s never explained. They’re just part of the texture of this world. However, when we next see our trio of Heroes walking the corridors in their disguises, they come upon one of these Mousebots. Chewie suddenly roars at it and the poor little Mousebot, apparently scared out of its mind, backs up and scurries away in terror. Once it’s gone, Chewie chortles and shrugs, evidently enjoying the outcome.
In the theatre, this moment was unquestionably the biggest laugh in Star Wars. I remember it vividly, watching the movie with a thousand people. It was literally uproarious. And on subsequent viewings in the summer of 1977, even when I knew what was coming, I laughed just as hard, though I had absolutely no understanding why. But now I believe I do. Of course, it’s amusing — the little Mousebot squealing as it runs away. It also comes out of the blue and has a casual improvisational quality to it (even though it couldn’t have been wholly improvised, because this Mousebot had to be thought of, designed, made, put there, and this scene staged), and it involves a creature that is inherently cute, a quality it shares in common with Artoo and the Jawas. Even here, in the context of the Death Star, vulnerability and guilelessness exist in a tiny creature, which somehow humanizes this cold story world. But most importantly, this moment is unmistakably and manifestly Fun & Games!
Lucas is quoted as describing part of what he was after in Star Wars was an “effervescent giddiness” and this moment typifies that intention. Few filmmakers would have thought of it, and far fewer would have included it even if they had the footage to work with. It lasts 13 seconds and so it’s a very easy cut to make. But Lucas knew its story value, even though it had nothing to do with the plot. It was and is an essential aspect of the “entertainment.” It’s a brilliant moment of comic relief.
More Fun and Games / Bad Guys Close In (72:42 – 79:05): Tension resumes at the elevator bank, and as their deception seems to be working, there’s another casually comic moment as Luke mutters to Han, “I can’t see a thing in this helmet.” So human, so relatable. And it helps orient us, too, reminding that our heroes are inside that Stormtrooper armor, since we can’t see their faces.
We next see Ben, making his way along corridors undetected, and from him we cut to Vader (Bad Guys Close In) who suddenly seems to sense something. The music helps us understand that. This is F & G coolness, for sure. Seeing The Force emerging, even in such a subtle way, is immensely engaging, and it’s another example of Lucas the storyteller putting two trains on a collision course.
Arriving in the detention block, Fun & Games emerges again with Luke’s very first line, “Prisoner transfer from cell block 1138.” This is F & G in the form of an in-joke, Lucas referencing his first feature (and his USC thesis project) THX-1138, something he had already done in American Graffiti with John Milner’s Deuce Coupe license plate that read “THX 138.” Playfulness is unmistakably present, even here on an extremely subtle level. The deception continues until armed guards approach Chewie, who strikes one, and yet the deception continues as Han shouts, “Look out, he’s loose!” as if he’s a real prisoner, and he uses that moment to shoot at some of the Cell Block Guards. A laser fight ensues that our heroes win, then Han initiates another deception via intercom, as he humorously improvises (humorously because he’s not very good at it) an explanation for the fight to unseen superiors, until out of frustration he shoots the intercom.
Luke finds Leia, and her first line is humorous: “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?” Leia’s default setting is sarcasm, even when she’s awakened from a nap, awaiting termination. She typifies coolness under pressure. But the energy shifts, along with the music, when he announces, “My name is Luke Skywalker, I’m here to rescue you. I’ve got your Artoo Unit. I’m here with Ben Kenobi!” That gets her to her feet and out of the cell in a hurry. This is a New Hope indeed.
But Bad Guys Close In as we cut to Vader telling Tarkin that he has felt the presence of Obi-Wan Kenobi, and we’re reminded that Ben is Vader’s “old master.” Tarkin is informed of an emergency in Leia’s cell block and puts all stations on alert, telling Vader that Kenobi must not escape. “Escape is not his plan. I must face him, alone.” The collision course is spelled out. But the next cut shows Ben with Light Saber in hand. He’s ready, almost as if he could hear them (maybe he did?), and that’s totally cool.
In the cell block, Stormtroopers attack and trap our Heroes. The very first exchange between Leia and Han sets the tone for their F & G antagonistic flirtation: Leia: “Looks like you managed to cut off our only escape route.” Han: “Maybe you’d like it back in your cell, your highness?!” Their relationship is dueling sarcasm, and it will escalate till almost the end of the film. But a new element, a secret weapon/ace in the hole of sorts, is revealed: Luke has a com-link and communicates with Threepio, discovering that there’s no other way in or out of the cell block and that all other information on their level is restricted. The secret weapon nature of this communication isn’t immediately evident, but the fact that Luke’s group now has access to privileged Death Star information enhances their power. As for the droids, there’s a knock on the control room door, and it appears the Bad Guys Are Closing In on them, too — though they’ll also employ playful deception to get out of their predicament.
More F & G in the midst of the cell block battle as Leia takes charge and blows a hole in the wall, saying to Han, “Into the garbage chute, flyboy,” and jumps in. This is a huge reversal for the better and it expresses both Leia’s competence, problem-solving ability, and leadership (i.e., her coolness) with a touch of comedic flair. Comedic flair continues as Chewie ducks his head in, recoils, and Han yells, “I don’t care what you smell” and gives Chewie a kick in the butt and in he goes, leaving Han and Luke to fight the gathering Stormtroopers alone. Even in this desperate situation, Han quips to Luke about Leia, “Wonderful girl! Either I’m going to kill her or I’m beginning to like her!” Luke jumps in, followed by Han, who gives a cowboy “Whoop!” as he falls, and lands, apparently far below, in the garbage heap.
Bad Guys Close In (79:06): If being sucked into the Death Star was the “Hero’s approach to the Inmost Cave,” then the garbage masher is the inmost cave of the inmost cave, the very bowels of the Death Star. The belly of the beast. And it’s almost plausible that Stormtroopers wouldn’t immediately follow them, or quickly locate and apprehend them through the access door. I say “almost” because this is the one story beat that requires willfull suspension of disbelief, at least from my adult perspective of today, but certainly not my experience as a teen audience member upon first viewing. At the time I was so caught up in the adventure at hand, and so gripped with tension — so totally involved — I never questioned it. I doubt many did.
And anyway, there’s no time, because suddenly Bad Guys Close In again with the appearance of a one-eyed water snake creature that attacks Luke! But then he’s miraculously released, which is good, we think, until we discover that it’s because the creature perceived the commencement of “masher mode” as we have a case of “Bad Walls” Closing In. But Luke has his com-link, and at the last moment Artoo shuts down the compactor and opens the door, so the secret weapon is deployed. As Luke, Leia, Han, and Chewie let out celebratory screams, Threepio misinterprets the sounds as their death throes. An F & G flourish to end the “escape from Hades.”
Ben uses The Force to maneuver the corridors of the Death Star unseen and successfully disengages the tractor beam as Luke and his group shed their disguises and make their way back to Millennium Falcon. As Bad Stormtoopers Close In from all sides, the Heroes respond with Fun & Games, first when Han recklessly charges a platoon of foes, and then when Luke & Leia swing together across a retracted bridge as the music soars. This moment is a revisitation of the promise of the premise of Star Wars — Luke’s rise to heroic Jedi Knight status — in a mode that evokes swashbuckling tales of Arthurian romance. He even gets a kiss for luck just before he “saves the Princess.” Blake said Fun & Games was where the “trailer moments” are found; it’s what you put on the poster to sell the story. That swing across the bridge typifies this. It’s an iconic image/moment.
But still, Bad Guys Are Closing In all over the place as Vader waits for Ben, RED light saber extended. And this begins another sequence that’s yet another page out of Arthurian romance (and samurai films): the sword fight — but reinvented for the sci-fi setting as a duel of laser light. F-and-effing-G! And a key line delivered by Ben to Vader: “If you strike me down I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” Hmmmm… is this a bluff? Bravado? Or is there truth in it? We’re left to wonder as the duel attracts the attention of the guards posted around the Millennium Falcon, which allows Luke, Han, Leia, and Chewie, in addition to Threepio and Artoo, to get to the ship. But before boarding, Luke spots Ben battling with Vader.
All Is Lost (92:23): When Ben spots Luke about to escape aboard the Falcon, he makes a clear decision to put up his sword and shut his eyes. This is a completely mysterious moment, actually incomprehensible, and allows Vader to deliver what appears to be a light saber coup de grace. The whiff of death is literal. But wait — before he is struck, Ben dematerializes and his empty robe drops to the floor. Is Ben dead? Luke thinks so (he’s watching from a distance so perhaps he couldn’t quite make it out), even though moments later Luke hears Ben’s disembodied voice say “Run, Luke. Run!” Ben has apparently transformed, by choice, into spirit. The B Story has just gained a new and powerful element: it’s not only about Luke’s transformation, under Ben’s tutelage, from Farm boy to Jedi Knight, but it’s also about Ben’s transformation from Jedi Master to Jedi Spirit! The B Story has a Double Transformation! As Blake said, “the death of something makes way for a rebirth” — in this case it’s Ben’s new mysterious spirit status and Luke’s access to him (and vice versa). In addition, this moment is a complete surprise, and an immediate triple reversal from anxiety to horror to wonder, at least for the audience. Oh, and it’s “magical.” The Wizard somehow triumphs.
Dark Night of the Soul (93:45): On the Millennium Falcon as it rockets away from the Death Star, Luke (even though he heard Ben’s voice in his head) is devastated over the loss, which he still believes is some kind of death. Leia comforts him with a blanket over his shoulders and her maternal presence, as Threepio and Artoo look on sympathetically. It’s worth noting that even though Star Wars includes the All Is Lost and the Dark Night of the Soul beats in exactly the right place and exactly the right order, they’re incredibly short — each less than a minute. It’s a lesson in economy, because neither needs to be any longer than it is. Interrupting the latter, Han announces, “Come on, buddy, we’re not out of this yet.” This is an action movie, after all, and a major action set-piece has yet to come, because Lucas’ story world pulls from sources other than Arthurian romance. This story is also about pilots flying spaceships, and the great movie genre of high adventure that concerns hot shot in the air is World War II fighter pilot movies. And that’s what we see next, probably the best dogfight ever put on film.
Here again, we have Fun & Games, insofar as Lucas draws from a specific and recognizable source, and yet vastly improves it with his filmmaking prowess, exuberant energy, consummate editing, groundbreaking visual effects, awesome music, and comic relief (“Come on baby, hold together.” “Great kid! Don’t get cocky.”). Han and Luke are like gunners on a B-17, but with laser cannons and computer interfaces instead of .50 caliber machine guns. After Han destroys the last incoming Tie Fighter, Leia hugs Chewie (someone she had insultingly called a “walking carpet” back on the Death Star), Artoo proves resourceful by putting out a fire, and Threepio is seen helplessly caught in some wiring (humor). The bickering, antagonistic team has congealed into an affectionate unit. But only for a moment, because Han disavows any interest in the Revolution; he’s only in it for the money. Leia is disgusted, and Luke is secretly pleased by her reaction. Antagonism in the form of a rivalry percolates just below the surface, which playfully maintains tension. However, the Bad Guys are close behind as Tarkin reveals that a homing beacon has been placed inside the ship. Uh-oh. In a reversal of expectation (and total coolness), Leia assumes, quite casually, that the Empire is tracking them. But they still have Artoo and the Death Star plans, so there’s still a hope.
Break into Three (98:15): The Millennium Falcon arrives on the moon of Yavin, the location of the Rebel Base, and the technical readouts of the Death Star are analyzed. Here, the new idea is presented to the Rebel pilots who gather for a briefing: as hoped, the Death Star has one weakness, and we see visually the exact process required to exploit it. The Rebels must attack the Death Star in one-man fighter ships down a long trench and fire a proton torpedo at a two-meter wide thermal exhaust port. A precise hit will cause a chain reaction that will destroy the Death Star. Everyone reacts at the seeming impossibility of this task — someone even exclaims, “That’s impossible, even for a computer!” But Luke responds, almost playfully, “It’s not impossible. I used to bullseye womp rats in my T-16 back home. They’re not much bigger than two meters.” Both lines foreshadow the climax, where Luke chooses to turn off his computer and bullseye the womp rat in his last attempt to save the Rebel Alliance. Luke’s line also shows how his Farm Boy past will converge with his growth under Ben to create the synthesis that will make him a Jedi Knight. Convergence/Synthesis, in dialogue. The scene ends with the Rebel Leader saying, “Man your ships. And may the force be with you.” This is a restatement of the theme.
The next cut introduces the new ticking clock, as we see a computer graphic on the Death Star that shows the planet Yavin and the moon on which the Rebels have their base, and a voice explains it will be in range in 30 minutes. Bad Guys Are Closing In as the Empire prepares to destroy the Rebel Alliance. The stage for the finale is set.
Except for one last thread: Han. Luke finds him loading his reward and asks if he’ll join the cause. Han refuses, calling the whole enterprise a “suicide mission.” Luke is disillusioned by Han’s selfishness, but as he departs, Han says, surprisingly, “May the force be with you.” This is an apparently authentic expression of friendship, and hope that Luke survives the ordeal to come. It also shows that Han himself might be undergoing a transformation of some kind, since earlier he was so openly contemptuous of “hokey religions.” It also foreshadows a crucial moment in the climax.
Gathering the Team (102:33): “All pilots to your stations” echoes the voice on the loudspeaker, and Luke climbs into his X-Wing Fighter, as do all the other Rebel pilots. A key member of Luke’s team is Artoo, who is loaded onto his ship as the master computer, which is totally cool. Threepio tells his little friend to “hold on tight,” and Luke gets another good luck kiss from Leia. And just as he’s taking off, Luke hears Ben’s voice again: “Luke, the force will be with you.” That’s three times he’s heard this in just a couple minutes. Luke’s entire team has gathered in his head, his heart, his soul.
As the Rebels takes to the air, the time clock advances, this time announced from the Rebel side: the Death Star will be within range in 15 minutes.
Like a fighter squadron on a bomb run over Nazi Germany, all units report in. The Rebel Team is fully and explicitly gathered and introduced, just before they commence their attack.
Executing the Plan (to storm the castle) (106:13): This sequence is clearly the “trench run,” and though they’re successful at avoiding the Death Star’s large battle guns, Vader orders a squadron of Imperial Tie Fighters to “destroy them ship-to-ship.”
Fun & Games is present even here, as Lucas surpasses the excitement of the dogfight the Millennium Falcon survived. Here the evocation of space battle, literally “star wars,” is nothing short of astounding, especially the way chaos is evoked in a way that never loses the audience. This final battle is why so many kids came back to see this movie a dozen times. There was absolutely nothing that compared to the adrenaline rush of it in the history of the movies. Also, the tension is at a maximum as we hear the clock count down to seven minutes and we lose one Rebel ship after another, though we see Luke save his friend by shooting down a Tie Fighter from behind, and he in turn is saved by another friend.
The High Tower Surprise (109:32): Vader, however, personally joins the Imperial attack, which is really bad news for the good guys. He leads the attack on the Rebels racing down the trench for the target and destroys them. The clock ticks down to five minutes, then three. Red Leader gets off a shot, but it only grazes the target. It doesn’t go in. Then Vader shoots him down.
With one minute to go, Luke and his two wingmen are the only ones left. Luke says, “We’re going in and we’re going in full throttle.” One of the wingmen asks if Luke will be able to pull out in time at that speed, and his response is “It’ll be just like Beggar’s Canyon back home.” More convergence/synthesis of his past with his future. But during the attack run, both wingmen are hit, leaving Luke all by himself. The clock: 30 seconds and closing. And Vader is on Luke’s tail.
Secret Weapon/Dig, Deep Down (115:34): As Luke turns on his targeting computer, he hears Ben’s voice: “Use the Force, Luke! Trust me!” The Force is Luke’s secret weapon, and Vader notices: “The Force is strong in this one…”
The Execution of the New Plan (115:48):
Luke makes the leap of faith and turns off his targeting computer. Vader fires and a laser bolt hits Artoo in the head. Artoo takes a bullet for Luke, so to speak, thus saving the ship. “I’ve lost Artoo!” Now Luke is truly and completely alone. The Death Star has the Rebel Base in range and Tarkin says, “You may fire when ready.” The Death Star powers up its planet-destroying weapon. Vader zeroes in on Luke and gloats, “I have you now!”
Final Twist (116:47): The Millennium Falcon comes diving out of the sun on top of Vader, disrupting his attack. Both of his wingmen are destroyed and Vader’s ship loses control. Han’s voice rings out, “You’re all clear, kid, now let’s blow this thing and go home!” This is a secret weapon Luke didn’t even know he had: Han’s friendship and loyalty. These converge, along with Ben’s spirit, Artoo’s sacrifice, Leia’s agonized hopes (and Threepio’s fears, seen in the background), and of course, The Force, all in a matter of seconds before Luke stretches out with his feelings and fires his proton torpedoes. It’s a direct hit! And literally a second before the Death Star is about to unleash its destructive power on the Rebels, it explodes! Han says, “Great shot, kid! That was one in a million!” And Ben speaks to Luke once more: “Remember, the Force will be with you. Always.” Theme restated, explicitly and unequivocally. But Vader regains control of his ship, so evil persists and lives to fight another day. When Luke lands he’s greeted as a conquering Hero at the Rebel Base, and Han, Leia, and Threepio are all reunited with him, now the best of friends. Artoo has been crippled, but he can be rebuilt.
The opening image of Star Wars shows the Rebel Alliance in dire peril, so the final image should be its perfect bookend, which is exactly what we find. It’s actually an extended curtain call as the Rebel Army gathers at an awards ceremony to honor Luke and Han. The whole concept is rather daring because it really does nothing to advance the plot, which clearly ended with the destruction of the Death Star, and we’ve even had the beat of the Hero being recognized and reunited with friends back at the hangar in a public display. However, looking at stories as both an emotion machine and a transformation machine (and looking at the necessity of the Final Image to express the opposite of the Opening Image) — then this sequence makes perfect sense. It’s even obligatory.
Final Image (118:23):
We get to see Luke fully transformed at a formal, public ceremony with soaring positive emotion. He may not be a Jedi Knight yet, but he’s well on his way, and we’ve seen him traverse the nearly impossible distance from Farm Boy to savior of the Rebel Alliance. In this sequence we also get to see all the main characters transformed in one way or another, as everyone is clean and polished, wearing fresh clothes and coiffure (Leia gets a new hairstyle), looking their very best. It’s transformation formalized, but also playful, as winks are exchanged between Han and Leia, and soulful looks between Leia and Luke. In fact, a spirit of playfulness, relief, and joy are the feelings permeating the entire event, which are extremely welcome after the almost unbearable tension and uncertainty of the preceding 12 minutes. Even Artoo is transformed, now fully rebuilt (so his appearance is a full-blown resurrection), and he rejoins the team. It is a moment that utterly celebrates the concepts of transformation, reunification, convergence, and synthesis.
And thankfully for all of us, the pervasive spirit — The Force — of Fun & Games!
Next week: Guest Blog from William Neal Harrison