Imagine there is no Empire. Before there was a Star Wars franchise, there was only Star Wars. For decades, a geeky dogma emerged that the 1977 film, while excellent, was simply the beginning of a much larger world. Many have believed the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, according to common dogma, supposedly improves upon and tops the original. But as we look back at 45 years of Star Wars, what if it’s not true? What if the Star Wars franchise actually peaked with Episode IV: A New Hope?
From a certain point of view, here’s why the Star Wars saga continues to try (and fails) to recapture the magic of A New Hope.
Star Wars before “A New Hope”
When it was released in 1977, Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope wasn’t called that at all. The opening text crawl began with “It is a period of civil war,” without the now-familiar episode number and subtitle. The reason for this is simple: Star Wars becoming “Episode IV” was a retroactive move on the part of George Lucas, the first of his numerous revisions to the entirety of the Star Wars saga. It wasn’t until 1981, after The Empire Strikes Back, that Star Wars was re-released in theaters with the subtitle “Episode IV: A New Hope” added to its opening text crawl.
But nobody started calling it “A New Hope” in the ‘80s. Even when the classic trilogy was re-released theatrically in 1997, all the trailers and posters called the first film “Star Wars.” The idea that this movie had another title didn’t stick in the public consciousness until the internet went mainstream and the prequels arrived — which happened around the same time in the early 2000s.
The nomenclature of how we talk about “A New Hope,” at least relative to the existence of the entire Star Wars franchise, has only been in common use for roughly twenty years. That’s less than half the time Star Wars has been a thing at all. And this leads me to a crucial detail: At the point that “Star Wars” was relegated to “Star Wars: A New Hope,” its reputation was hugely affected. When you call Star Wars just “Star Wars,” it has power, and it loses that authority when you call it “Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope.”
Star Wars (1977) is better if you forget the sequels
Okay, I’m not calling Star Wars (the 1977 movie) “A New Hope” for the rest of this essay. I’m calling it Star Wars 77. And if you think that is some blasphemy, get ready for this: If you sit down and watch Star Wars 77 and only focus on how it connects to the rest of the saga, guess what? It doesn’t quite fit. You can tell all the mythology that came later was retrofitted to work with this movie.
Here are a few examples.
- At first, Darth Vader wasn’t necessarily Luke’s father, which seems clear in Star Wars 77.
- Luke is interested in the adventure because he thinks Leia is “beautiful.” That’s not his sister.
- The behavior of Stormtroopers is vastly different. Why didn’t anybody set for stun again until The Last Jedi?
- Lightsabers are not emphasized as a huge deal the way they are later.
You can make a billion arguments that all of these things might be the case because Lucas couldn’t do what he wanted with Star Wars 77. But much of that is muddied through the paper trail. Lucas farmed out the writing of The Empire Strikes Back to fantasy novelist Leigh Brackett, and her early drafts suggest that Anakin and Vader were not the same person. Lucas (and Lawrence Kasdan) swooped in and changed the basic story when Brackett passed away before finishing the screenplay.
“Thinking about Star Wars 77 as part of the Star Wars saga makes it less fun.”
It’s impossible to prove that he always intended to make Vader Luke’s father because he insists today that he did. You don’t want to say George Lucas is a liar, but the larger point is if you watch Star Wars 77 and all you’re thinking about is connecting it to the following two sequels, it makes the movie harder to watch.
In other words, thinking about Star Wars 77 as part of the Star Wars saga makes it less fun. It’s much more entertaining to watch it as a standalone movie. And you can’t do this with any other Star Wars movie. Even random Star Trek movies are enjoyable as standalones. But the only Star Wars film you can totally enjoy without thinking about the rest of the franchise’s movies is Star Wars 77.
Empire ruined Star Wars 77
The Empire Strikes Back is a great film. In fact, it’s one of the greatest films of all time. But it also injured the reputation of Star Wars 77 irreparably. Post-Empire, everything about the Star Wars saga became imbued with psychological ruminations about dysfunctional families. The subversive nature of Empire was so effective that when it came time for Return of the Jedi in 1983, the franchise was so devoid of ideas that another Death Star was required to power the plot of the film. (This was true of The Force Awakens, too.)
The central feeling of Star Wars 77 was impossible to recapture after Empire. In 1977, when Harrison Ford was asked if he considered the film to be like a “road picture” in the style of “Bing Crosby,” he said, “Sure. It’s a road picture in space. The characters have the same devil-may-care attitude. It’s not real serious.”
It’s impossible to think about the franchise like this now. No single Star Wars adventure since 1977 has contained the same “devil-may-care” quality, with the possible exception of Donald Glover’s version of Lando in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Because of the melodrama in the rest of the films, the lighter nature of Star Wars 77 has not been replicated entirely in any of the other installments. This is a long-winded way of saying that from the point-of-view of pacing, humor, action, and storytelling, no single Star Wars thing since Star Wars 77 has been as easygoing and crowd-pleasing.
Yes, several Star Wars projects have succeeded where Star Wars 77 failed, notably in the areas of representation. (Star Wars 77 is painfully white.) But the rest of the Star Wars franchise simply doesn’t contain another movie like Star Wars 77. Even the most blatant rip-off of Star Wars 77 — The Force Awakens — ends with a son stabbing his father through the belly, something far darker than anything you’d have seen in Star Wars 77. If we got a Lando-centric Disney+ series starring Donald Glover, the Star Wars franchise could find its way back to its Star Wars 77 roots. But so far, it hasn’t.
From Kylo Ren and Anakin Skywalker’s dual identity as Darth Vader to the redemption of Boba Fett, all post-Empire Star Wars have been obsessed with ruminations on darkness and redemption arcs for murderers. None of that is present in Star Wars 77. Instead, the movie succeeded at what George Lucas claimed he wanted to do at the time: to update a swashbuckling Flash Gordon-style adventure for the audience of 1977.
It worked. But to pretend like the rest of Star Wars is like Star Wars 77 is just not true. Star Wars 77 is the least Star Wars-esque movie of them all, and 45 years later, it remains the most unique and compelling movie of the bunch.
Star Wars 77 is streaming on Disney+.