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The undersung middle act of the first Star Wars

posted by Tim Carmody   Oct 24, 2017

Speaking of digging up weird old stories from the pulps — I don’t know if we always appreciate how good the middle of 1977’s Star Wars is. “Middle” is a vague concept, so let’s nail it down to all the parts where Luke, Han, Obi-Wan, R2-D2 and C-Threepio are sneaking around on the Death Star.

The beginning and end of Star Wars are much more straightforward. You have a series of handoffs, from Leia to the droids to Luke. Luke then meets up with Obi-Wan, then Han Solo and Chewbacca, and sets off to find his destiny. That’s the Joseph Campbell part of the movie. The end, where Luke and the rebels attack the Death Star, is a straight-up war movie action sequence that pays off all the threads you’ve set up in the beginning.

The middle is much trickier. Lucas gets all the characters we’ve met so far into very deep trouble, and splits them up. Scenes float from one set of characters to the next before eventually converging back together again. Then he strings together a series of set pieces, largely ripped off from old serials. Han, Luke, and Chewie have to break into one room. Then they have to break into another. Then they have to break out. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan is quietly skulking around, and Threepio bluffing his way out of danger. And it’s all tied together by dialogue taken straight from 1930s-1940s screwball comedy.

Everything slows down, but because there’s a mood that anything can happen, it sustains its tension. The only recent movie I can think of that really does something similar is The Incredibles, as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl sneak around Syndrome’s base. I think for most contemporary movies, they’d find it too slow or too hard to follow. But pound for pound, it’s the best part of the movie.

I asked my friend Gavin Craig, writer of one of my favorite Star Wars essays ever [PDF], to tell me what he loves about the first Star Wars.

The best thing about the original Star Wars film is that it’s still a bit weird. The aliens that populate the Mos Eisley cantina are still compelling and inexplicable. Darth Vader comports himself with the sense of honor of a samurai serving an evil master without question. Obi-Wan Kenobi is not an old soldier, but a hermit and a wizard, with a trickster’s secret knowledge and impish grin. And for every attempt to recapture its magic, no Star Wars film has yet framed a shot as beautiful as Luke Skywalker standing outside his home while Tatooine’s twin suns set, staring at a horizon that he thinks he’ll never reach.

There are the raw materials for a universe ready to explode into being, but everything is still fresh and raw, not yet sure of what it wants to become.

For all this, it’s the droids that stay with me. C-3PO and R2-D2 have appeared in every Star Wars film to date, and have even starred in their own Saturday morning animated series. Still, their point of view has never been treated as worthy of consideration as it was in their first adventure.

In interviews, Lucas has said that he considers the Star Wars films to be a story narrated long after the fact by R2-D2, and there are fan theories that posit Artoo as a secret rebel agent guiding the action of the war. But in 1977, Threepio and Artoo are… almost human. They fret and squabble. They run from and into danger. They perform acts of sacrifice and bravery, but at least one of them would be happier with a kind word and the comfort of a warm bath. One of them nearly dies, and while the heroes aren’t terribly concerned, the film understands that we are. We are shown that they are restored and reunited. While the heroes are rewarded with a fanfare and medals, the droids find a home, together, and that is the true happy ending.