That Moment in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977): A Troubling Discovery

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is the first in the hugely popular and long-lasting sci-fi epic film series about a young man learning of his place in the universe as an evil force threatens to control the galaxy. One of the most popular films of all time, it’s a critically acclaimed fan favorite that remains an important and highly influential piece of film history. It’s also a lot of fun.

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .

Some pesky rebels and their equally rebellious princess leader are on the run with some stolen secret plans about a deadly space station thingy called a Death Star that’s rumored to be able to destroy an entire planet in one shot! Talk about overkill. The poor little rebel ship is no match against the giant triangle Empire ship chasing it, and despite a flurry of pew pew pew laser shots, they get dragged into the big ship’s docking bay and boarded. The highly-trained, white-armored Stormtroopers breach the main cabin and charge in with lots more pew pew pews, easily overtaking the heroic but doomed alliance soldiers. Meanwhile, shiny, snarky human-cyborg relations protocol droid C-3PO and his little sidekick R2-D2 have managed to dodge the volley of colorful laser beam crossfire but get temporarily separated in the body-strewn, smoke-filled corridors. Hearing R2-D2’s familiar beeping, C-3PO spots the little robot off in a darkened corner of the ship, but the bulbous robot is not alone . . . Hold the phone! Hottie alert. Who is this lovely lady in whi . . . EGADS, is that her hair? Are those earmuffs? Is it cold on the ship? Well, despite the girl’s ‘do, the pretty princess seems to be fiddling with R2-D2’s hard drive. Lucky robot. She slips away just as C-3PO arrives. From there, R2-D2 seems rather urgent in getting off the ship and leads his pal to an escape pod where they jettison out into space over a dusty looking planet. R2 beeps that he’s now on a secret mission (in uncharted space! Toy Story fan, anyone? Anyone? No? Moving on). C-3PO quibbles and claims he’s gonna regret this. He might, but we won’t.

Star Wars
Carrie Fisher (Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977)

Back on the ship, in walks Darth Vader, clearly the guy in charge, or at least we assume so. He’s big. He’s dressed entirely in black, has a freakin’ cape, and wears a helmet/mask thing that either assists his faltered breathing or severely limits it (“I can’t breathe in this thing!” Spaceballs fans, anyone? Anyone? No. Moving on). He’s looking for these stolen plans and won’t take any excuse. When the Stormtroopers capture Princess Earmuffs, they take her to Lord Vader who welcomes her with open arms, lavishing her with gifts and tickets to a show. No, that’s not right. He doesn’t do any of that. Instead, he accuses her of being part of the rebellion and has her bound and put aboard the triangle ship, thrown into the detention block for further questioning. He’s gonna get those plans no matter what he has to do. The problem is, the troops searched the ship and can’t find ’em anywhere! Fortunately, some very observant empire operator noticed that ejected pod and makes a report. Vader is convinced the plans are on board and sends a detachment to retrieve them. “No one will stop us this time,” he affirms! But little does he know . . .

Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977
Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977

The planet is called Tatooine, which sounds like it might be just place to go for fresh tatts, but is instead a rather desolate place populated by gangs of roving Sand People, little scavenger Jawas, and the spaceport city of Mos Eisley, a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Oh, and also Luke Skywalker, the one man in the universe that can not only defeat Darth Vader, but topple the entire empire, so hurray for coincidence! But is it? Or is there something else at work here? Maybe some unseen force at work? (That was a hint. It’s totally a force. In fact, it’s called the Force. Go figure). In the meantime, the two droids have got themselves caught by the creepy red-eyed Jawas and are put in storage inside a massive tanker that trolls the dunes in search of robots because if you’re looking for quality robotics, it is in the dunes of an isolated desert planet where you’ll find them. Apparently, business is good as the transport is chuck full of various cybernetic and automated mechanisms. By luck (or by Force?), the Jawas roll up on a tiny moisture farming community where a man named Owen is in need of a couple of robots who understand the binary language of moister vaporators. Sounds all very technical. But don’t worry. Can you guess who’s first job was programming binary load lifters, which are very similar to said vaporators? Oh my. Did you just say “Jawas”? That’s a terrible guess. Why would Jawas program binary loaders? It’s C-3PO. His first job was programming binary load lifters, which are very similar to said vaporators. Try to pay a little more attention. Owen buys C-3PO and an R2 unit, but not our pal D2. Instead he chooses the “red’ one and wouldn’t you know it, it goes kaplooey (That sneaky Force!). So R2-D2 is bought and our bickering robotic duo are together again. Oh, did we mention that Owen is actually Uncle Owen, and his nephew is . . . wait for it . . . Luke Skywalker! Ding! Wow, things are coming together now.

Mark Hamill (Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977)
Mark Hamill (Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977)

So Luke brings the robots in for some cleaning, and while C-3PO gets a dip in an oil bath, Luke uncovers a holographic message in R2-D2. Hey, it’s Princess Earmuffs! “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope,” she says. Luke, being the spry young fellow he is, couldn’t care less about what she is saying. He’s more interested in how she looks saying it. The girl is some serious eye-candy. He must have a thing for earmuffs. “She’s beautiful,” he says. Well of course she is. She’s a princess. She’s a girl. He’s stuck on a moisture farm out in the middle of nowhere with bug-eyed Jawas. She’s sure to be beautiful. Eventually he gets to listening more carefully to her cryptic message and there’s something familiar about that name. Could it be Obi-Wan Kenobi is related to Ben Kenobi, that strange old hermit out beyond the Dune Sea? Luke’s gonna find out because he’s horny, er no, because the Force is powerful in this one (which in this sense are the same thing).

The next morning, after the R2 unit breaks camp and tries to get to Kenobi on his own, Luke and 3PO hop in the Landspeeder and give chase. They meet up with some nasty Sandpeople and eventually Ben Kenobi arrives. He scares off the baddies and reveals that in fact, he is Obi-Wan and takes the trio to his place for some tales of adventure. Luke learns that his father, betrayed and murdered by the treacherous Lord Vader, was a master Jedi Knight and that Luke is destined to take up the family practice. Obi-Wan gives Luke a lightsaber, which doesn’t mean it’s a sword that is not heavy (who thought that?), but a sword that is made of light energy. Either way, it’s awesome. He tells Luke he must follow him to Alderaan, the planet where Princess Earmuffs tells them to go. Well, Luke can’t believe all this and claims his Uncle Owen would never allow it. There’s too much work to do. But Vader’s henchmen change all that (see That Moment below). In the aftermath, Luke joins Kenobi and they head to Mos Eisley in search of a ship and pilot that can get them to Alderaan. That ship and pilot are the Millennium Falcon and Captain Han Solo. We get tingles just saying the names. Sure, neither are pretty, but that rough around the edges, bad-boy attitude is all it takes, especially when it includes the towering walking carpet co-pilot, Chewie. Kenobi sees something special too and makes a deal. Now all the pieces are in place. The rebellion will soon be poised to strike its deepest blow yet upon the empire. Time to save the princess and have a little face-time with that Death Star.

Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977)
Star Wars: A New Hope, 1977)

Directed by George Lucas, Star Wars is pure movie enchantment. A gamble in theaters when it was released, it became the biggest movie of all time for a while and started the most successful film franchise in cinema history, still going strong decades later. With fans of all ages and ilk in all parts of the world, the Star Wars phenomenon has imbedded itself in pop culture, generated countless memes, spawned book series, video games and toys, and become part of the English lexicon. Most importantly, it ignited imaginations across numerous generations. The original is a brilliant example of taking something old and making it fresh. Lucas, who has become much maligned for what he eventually did to his creation, was a maverick in the beginning, taking huge risks. He was a storyteller in those days, pushing special effects in entirely new directions, but using them as tools to deepen the narrative and expand the universe his characters lived in. It was something no audience had seen before. It has its flaws and certainly those once grand special effects can show their age, but it is the remarkable humanity of the movie that keeps it so special. Yes, we remember the great space battles and lightsaber duels, the wild creatures and fantastic worlds, but it is the characters we love the most and they are the reason we keep coming back. Luke, Leia, Han, Chewie, C-3PO, R2-D2, Obi-Wan, and even Darth Vader. They are why we love Star Wars.

That Moment In: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Scene Setup: On Tatooine, life seems pretty bleak. Young Luke Skywalker is working for his uncle on a moisture farm, which is what boys on Tatooine dream of doing! That’s a joke. In truth, Luke, like as his pals, wants to join the academy and get off the deadbeat planet, but his uncle needs him to keep the condensers working. To pass time, Luke’s become a good pilot, able to bull’s-eye womp rats in his T-16 while racing through canyons (That’ll come in handy later we think. The shooting. Not the womp rats). His uncle means well, but he’s not exactly wealthy so he needs the extra hands. Luke, being the kind-hearted hero that he is, is frustrated but loyal. Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru have raised him well and he doesn’t want to hurt them. So, when two droids who have been involved in the rebellion arrive on the farm, he’s naturally excited. More so when one of them tracks down Ben Kenobi, who is in truth, a freakin’ Jedi Knight! But when said Jedi Knight wants Luke to join him on this epic quest to save the princess and fight the empire, Luke balks. He owes his aunt and uncle. Well thank goodness for movie tropes ’cause along comes some Stormtroopers to deal with that minor inconvenience. Tracking the droids–who carry secret information–to the moisture farm, they slaughter everyone around, killing Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru with their blasters. Luke is about to get seriously motivated,

Why it matters: The rebellion is still a little vague at this point. We know it is a civil war and that the rebels have struck their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. Worse, they’ve got their hands on some secret plans and it could have dire consequences for the Empire’s new toy, the Death Star. So bad is the situation, they’ve sent the actual killer space station in pursuit with the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin in charge of the mission. With a title that, Tarkin’s either a very bad dude or he’s dressed in a Fez and attending meetings down at the local lodge. It’s the first one. And he’s not in a good mood. His number two man, Darth Vader is on a short leash, clinging to the ways of an ancient religion. Vader’s itching to do some real damage, but remains the second banana, a Jedi Knight turned to the dark side but stuck in the role of a general’s lackey. His goal is to stop the rebels, and he’s on an obsessive mission to get these secret plans back. While he is not the one that actually kills Luke’s aunt and uncle, he is the one that gave the order. We actually never see the attack, only destroyed buildings and the two smoldering bodies, but we feel Vader’s presence. His evil stank is all over it and is the most shocking moment in the film. Surely, a bit later, when Tarkin literally obliterates the entire planet of Alderaan with his big space gun, it’s jarring and we no longer question whether fighting these nitwits is really necessary. It is. But back on Tattooine, the charred remains of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru are horrifying. During entire scene as Luke races to the farm, we know something bad has happened. Like Jedi ourselves, we sense a disturbance. Surely, the Stormtroopers captured Owen and Beru and taken them aboard the ship. But no. The two are useless to the empire and they are instead used to send a message. Well, message received. For Luke, it is all he needs to make his choice. He lowers his head as the winds of change blow across his face.

More: To this point, we’ve seen surprisingly little actual scenes of violence, even in the battle on board the rebel ship only few bodies hit the floor but are rarely seen on screen and there is no blood or any visible damage to any casualty of any kind in this fight. Sparks, yes. Lots of sparks, but they’re shootin’ lasers so we’ll play along. When we see the remains of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru, their charred remains splayed out in front of the house, it’s shocking, but that is the point. We’re meant to cringe. It is the most gruesome in the film. Even more so than the arm that gets sliced off later in the cantina (which, incidentally shows the only blood in the film). We knew Owen and Beru, saw that they were simple farmers, innocents, far removed from the conflict, and we mourn their deaths. While we are spared witnessing their murders their loss is no less affecting. Their smoldering remains are testament to the savagery of the attack, their contorted positions validation of their suffering. For anyone watching, it is immediately heartbreaking and then suddenly infuriating. This is the same for Luke. With a glance, he realizes everything he once knew is gone. He has lost his entire family, his home, his livelihood, any possessions he once owned. Gone. Up in flames, still burning in plumes of black smoke. In one staggering moment, he is stripped of everything. When he bows his head, we feel the weight of that despair, but when he lifts it again, there is something else. There is freedom. Not from the thumb of his uncle, but to become the man he is destined to be. However, as important as this event is in Luke’s development, we must shift attention to something even more revealing, yet easy to miss. Notice Obi-Wan Kenobi. As the scene begins, he is keenly aware of what has happened to the Jawa’s. As they mill about the site, he allows Luke to piece things together, guiding him to reach the same conclusion, something he sees as very apparent. He presses a hand to Luke’s shoulder to steer him toward the next clue. He leans in like an interested teacher, giving visual cues to his new student that he should keep progressing in his line of thinking. He is a master Jedi, a powerful user of the Force and, as we learn later in the series, able to see future possibilities. He knows Owen and Beru are dead. He has felt it. When he warns Luke not go to the farm, he says, “It’s too dangerous.” This isn’t because he fears that there are Stormtroopers waiting for him. Not at all. In the next episode, The Empire Strikes Back, he warns Luke not to succumb to hate as it will lead to the dark side. This is the same situation on Tatooine. He knows what Luke will see at his home. He knows the burned bodies of the young man’s family will be hard to witness. He worries that this will inspire anger and rage and then hate. The boy has shown he is impulsive and emotional, prone to outbursts. These can be easily manipulated to the dark side. Kenobi has seen it before. So what actually happens? When Luke arrives at the farm, he is devastated, but he remains composed, at least physically. His stance is solid, feet firmly apart, arms stiff. Seeing the bodies, the bow of his head is natural. We look away at horror. When he lifts it again, we recognize the freedom as we mentioned, but there is much more. There is rage. There is fury. Obi-Wan has every right to be concerned. Let’s watch:

There is much to like about this movie. Watching it as many times as we have, there are still moments that seem fresh. With its approachable story, charming leads and evil bad guys, the film has a timeless quality. George Lucas and his team created magic in those days and the movie continues to have influence. No matter where the story went afterward, the original marks a turning point in cinema, and while we have grown to tire of the series and it ubiquitousness in modern culture, there is nothing like taking a break from it all and remembering how it all started. When that powerful brass chord of the opening track strikes, and the bright yellow letters of the title flash on screen, it’s a feeling unlike any other that only true fans of the movie understands.

Screen Shot 2014-12-26 at 9.01.29 AM
“He guys, let’s all meet up in 40 years and do this again.”
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