Lucasfilm has breathed new life into the Star Wars franchise, with the classic Saga extended in The Force Awakens and - this week - Rogue One launching the franchise in a whole new direction, embracing spinoff movies for the first time. But with seven movies already released, and an eighth imminent, one question is hotly debated: Which of the Star Wars films is the best?
For many #StarWars fans, it's The Empire Strikes Back. That movie is darker than almost anything we're familiar with in modern movies; it presents a dark plot where the heroes barely survive, let alone triumph. What's more, when Darth Vader uttered those famous words - "I am your father!" - he introduced themes that have become central to the entire Star Wars franchise. Themes like redemption, hope, and an intragenerational dynamic that even Rogue One continues to honor.
I disagree, though. For me, the best has to be #ANewHope. And here's why!
'A New Hope' started it all.
The problem, you see, is that - with the exception of A New Hope - every Star Wars movie is essentially derivative. Nowadays, we're all too familiar with the themes and concepts of Star Wars - from lightsabers to Death Stars, from X-wings to the Force - but we forget just how much work had gone into the script of A New Hope.
We don't really know the behind-the-scenes story of A New Hope, not least because George Lucas's tales have changed over time. We do know that, after the completion of THX 1138, Lucas attempted to buy the rights to make a Flash Gordon movie. When he was turned down, Lucas - somewhat depressed over this failure - decided to make his own. In 1973, he put pen to paper, and began working on the script.
The bare bones are all there: a ruthless Empire, Darth Vader, the Force, mysticism, lightsabers; the amount of imagination and creativity that went into this one film is frankly incredible. All the other Star Wars films simply tap into the incredible wealth of potential George Lucas created in A New Hope. A New Hope is original; the rest of the franchise is largely derivative.
A Complete Story
Imagine if the rest of the Saga had never been made. A New Hope would still work; it charts a complete story, from beginning to end. In actual fact, A New Hope is a classic Campbellian 'Hero's Journey'. Here are just a few examples:
- The call to adventure is received in that classic message: "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you're my only hope!"
- The heralds of adventure are the droids
- The mentor (who ultimately dies, leaving the hero to stand on his own two feet) is Obi-Wan
In fact, pretty much every aspect of the Hero's Journey is faithfully reproduced in A New Hope, culminating in Luke's 'slaying the dragon' - destroying the Death Star. Nowadays, with the Hero's Journey so famous, it's easy to mock A New Hope for being so faithful to the concept. Back when the film was first released, though, the Hero's Journey was a concept only some literary students would know about. It was A New Hope that really made the Hero's Journey famous.
A Powerful Political Message
It's easy to forget that A New Hope is a product of its time - and it carries a very political message. George Lucas opposed the Vietnam War, and back in 1973 he described A New Hope as "a large technological empire going after a small group of freedom fighters". When you put it like that, it's pretty easy to see the parallels. In fact, in some retellings Lucas claims President Nixon was the inspiration for Palpatine!
Of course, A New Hope looks beyond Vietnam to strong, powerful imagery from the Second World War and the American War of Independence. You only have to look at the Imperial insignia, or the conformity of the Stormtroopers (let alone their name), to be reminded of Nazi Germany. What's more, while the Empire is all about conformity, the Rebellion is about individuality. You have humans and nonhumans, men and women, all allying against the Empire.
The major role played by Carrie Fisher's Leia Organa was revolutionary at the time; although she was played as a love-interest (mainly for Luke), she was no swooning damsel in distress. Lucas's script subverts our expectations when she's rescued in the Death Star; it doesn't take Leia long to take charge, and she's the one who spots the garbage chute! It's true that the film isn't perfect in terms of diversity; African-American actor James Earl Jones voices Darth Vader, but beneath the mask he is the white David Prowse. But for its time, A New Hope was pretty revolutionary, allying itself with liberal values in a way that still angers conservatives to this day.
An Everyman Hero
And here is the thing; watch A New Hope on its own, and you actually get a slightly different message. In A New Hope, the hero is the farmboy from a galactic backwater, the 'nobody' who the galaxy would just have overlooked. The subtle message is that anyone can be a hero if they stand up against evil, and we are all empowered; we are the everymen, the people who should rise up against fascism.
Ironically enough, that particular theme is diluted as the franchise continues. The Empire Strikes Back turns Star Wars into a dynastic saga, more about the family line of an elite Jedi bloodline, and the Prequel Trilogy only exacerbates that problem. As much as I love the franchise, I actually think that the dynastic element took it in the wrong direction, and unwittingly ditched a beautiful everyman theme.
As you can see, for me the Star Wars story begins and ends with A New Hope. This was the film that set up a Galaxy Far, Far Away; this was the movie rich in ideas that sequels and prequels and spinoffs would mine for yet more gold. It's thematically strong, politically aware, and with strong characterization. It's the only one of the Star Wars films that stands on its own, and it does so with such confidence that you can literally build a galaxy on its back.