Why the First 'Star Wars' Is Still the Best 'Star Wars'

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Fan favorite Empire Strikes Back may thrill, but A New Hope beats it because for the way it transports viewers to another world

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Just as Friday's Blu-Ray release of all six Star Wars films affords fans another chance to bemoan George Lucas's meddlesome ways, it also grants us an opportunity to reassess what's what—and what's best—in the Star Wars universe.

The accepted history goes something like this: The three prequel films are largely rubbish, redeemed only in rare instances, like when Darth Maul appears in The Phantom Menace, or when Anakin/eventual-Darth Vader goes bad in Revenge of the Sith. The original three films, of course, are where it's at. Star Wars, which was later given the subtitle A New Hope, gets plaudits for kicking off the journey and blowing minds in '77. Return of the Jedi, six years later, capped it in Wagnerian style, but also featured the Ewoks, kid-pleasing fuzzballs that embarrassed sci-fi zealots everywhere. The second filmThe Empire Strikes Back—has aged the best with the fans, and it remains arguably the most popular of all the Star Wars offerings. Wherever you turn, Empire does well for itself. Time cited it as a prime example of a sequel that outpaces its predecessor—even if that predecessor is the lone Star Wars representative on AFI's list of the top 100 American movies. And according to Rotten Tomatoes, critics lean towards Empire above all others. It's easy to see why. Empire has always had what you might call movie bling: Think the ice planet of Hoth, AT-ATs, the pop culture hit that was Yoda, lady-loving Lando—"works every time," indeed, baby—and, of course,"I am your father," which may be the most iconic declarative sentence of the 1980s.

And as much as we enjoy being thrilled by on-screen action, there's nothing like feeling as though you've been rendered invisible and inserted into a film.

But Star Wars: A New Hope is better. Unrivaled in its ability to bridge the gap between the people who are sitting in their seats watching the movie and the characters that are dashing about in it, it's film as a congruous journey. Empire, conversely, doesn't have Hope's cohesion, even though its plot, essentially, is that the rebels run away, and assorted incidents, adventures, and anecdotes accrue with great rapidity.

Maybe that frantic pacing is why Empire resonates so much with many of the younger Star Wars fans. There's nothing stately about it. It's action upon action upon action. If you're watching Empire, you've probably already seen the first film, and you've bought into its universe. You know that Han Solo is the galaxy's master of Robert Mitchum-type bad-assery, so it's OK for the filmmakers to give him a few killer lines—like his response to Leia just before getting frozen in carbonite—and turn him loose. The film's emotional resonance—and its cultural resonance, too, really—hinges on its crescendo moments, which are familiar even to people who haven't seen the film: those moments parodied, discussed, and referenced time and again. If you want a popcorn flick that shows what's both good and bad about the mega-blockbuster movie experience, Empire is for you.

But if you look at a film as a film and not as part of a phenomenon, A New Hope is the galactic gold standard. It's the one movie out of the six Star Wars movies that you can put alongside The Searchers, Bride of Frankenstein, or The Wizard of Oz as an American film masterpiece. There's a lot of talk in it, but that dialogue is not deployed merely for exposition, as it often is in the Star Wars films, but rather for fostering a feeling of place and community within the picture. Its overall look is rougher, with less chrome and gloss, and more dirt and ash. But that griminess lends the film a mood that—despite the triumphant climax—infiltrates you, rather than pumps you up. And there's a beguiling innocence in the film-making that might be unmatched in the medium's history. You get full on visual derring-do, balls-to-the-wall-style, almost as if Lucas and his crew had been granted one chance to do a movie and one chance only. In other words: If anyone wants to try some crazy idea, now would be the time.

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Colin Fleming is the author of Dark March: Stories for When the Rest of the World Is Asleep and Between Cloud and Horizon: A Relationship Casebook in Stories. He also writes for Rolling Stone, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Boston Globe.

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