The Greatest Opening Shot – Ever

I’ve written on the topic of “Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope,” before, and those with only a passing interest in the film (if there is anyone matching that description) might feel compelled to skip this entry. I want to talk briefly about the very first shot in all of “Star Wars,” that of the spaceships battling it out above the atmosphere of Tatooine.

This is probably the most famous opening shot in modern cinema history. It grabs your attention, shoves you down in your seat (if viewed on a big screen) and immediately throws you into the action of George Lucas’s space saga. But why does it work? What makes it so effective?

Before we continue, here it is:

 

Back in 1977, audience went nuts for the movie from this very moment. No one had seen anything like it. Not even “2001,” the last big space movie, had featured a scene quite like this one. All of a sudden, the action is happening! We have no idea what or why, but we’re witnessing a true spectacle in deep space. I remember people cheering at the first appearance of the planet; even in 1997, when the film was rereleased as a Special Edition, people loved this shot.

I only want to talk about the first four shots of the movie, not including the crawl, which introduces each official “Star Wars” episode.

To begin with, we’ve already been primed by John Williams’ amazing, iconoclastic theme. Part of the reason for the success of the first “Star Wars” had to be its score, which has been hummed by children and adults alike for the last 40 years. I bought the double-LP soundtrack when I was 7 years old and played it until I wore it out. I know I’m not the only one. That’s how popular that theme was.

So, we love what we’re hearing – what is this movie going to look like? We find out in short order. As you can see, the camera pans down from an immense field of stars to … two distant moons … and a planet in the foreground. Wow! It’s like a blazing pit across the lower half of the screen! Less than a second later, a ship flies overhead, firing back at something big in pursuit. The music pounds in keeping with the action, brutal percussive beats that stir the blood. You think, what the hell?! The ship becomes a tiny point in space while laser blasts explode.

Then – the tip of a massive Star Destroyer enters frame, chasing after the smaller ship, and it’s on – the audience goes absolute ape shit. The Star Destroyer slides inch-by-painful-inch across the top of the screen, obliterating our view of its prey and the planet beneath. This thing is huge! Finally, its three blazing engines slide into view, powering the ship across the cosmos, and the audience cannot help but applaud like crazy – I’ve seen it happen.

The second shot is the reverse angle offering a wider view of both ships. The Star Destroyer is essentially a pyramid with stacks of intimidating architecture piled on top. The ships furiously exchange fire. In the third shot, a laser bolt hits the smaller ship, and there is an explosion. In the fourth, we immediately cut inside to a corridor, where R2-D2 and C-3PO react to the explosion.

That’s it. The first four shots of “Star Wars.”

What’s happening here? First, we are literally dropped into the middle of the action, or what is known as in medias res, defined as “into the middle of a narrative, without preamble.” Well, the crawl serves as a preamble of sorts, but we have no idea what we are seeing when Tatooine drops into view – in fact, we don’t even know the name of the planet. Virtually nothing has been introduced. Back in the Seventies, an era of careful exposition, this was unheard of. Think of the long setup for “The Godfather,” or how the private investigator is introduced in “Chinatown,” or the Early Man scenes in “2001.” Lucas provides nothing of the kind here. Boom – star wars.

Clearly, we’re looking at a scene of conflict, but who are the combatants? We get an idea by the sense of scale. The first ship is small and quick and firing over its shoulder, like a cowboy fleeing savages in an old John Ford movie. Our subconscious might suggest, “oh, this is a Western.” Then the Star Destroyer slides into view, overwhelming, incomprehensible, shooting back at the first ship and confirming our suspicion – the small ship is fleeing the big ship. (We don’t even know what “star destroyer” means, the term wasn’t introduced until 1980’s “The Empire Strikes Back.”) So, with no dialogue or exposition of any sort, we know the little guys are being threatened by the big guys in deep space. Keep in mind, we don’t even know where we are in the galaxy, and there’s no sign of a Princess Leia.

The second shot confirms the size of the two ships in relation to one another and makes clear the smaller ship’s dire situation – there is no escaping from its enemy. The third ship shows a close-up of the Imperial laser blast hitting the Rebel Blockade Runner – again, terms that have not even been introduced. We suspect it is a crippling blow, which is confirmed when we cut inside to the ship and the two droids.

Again – we don’t know the terminology of “Star Wars.” We had never heard of “droids,” “blockade runners,” “star destroyers, “Imperials” or “Tatooine.” We’re picking up all this information as we go along. Inside the ship, these two robots, one golden, the other short and on casters, react to the explosion we have just seen and heard outside. Without telling us anything via dialogue, Lucas instead tells us everything – we are now inside the smaller craft, and these two robots are the nominal heroes. How do we know they are the heroes?

Well, I think because they are shown reacting to the blast that came from the larger ship, which is implied, by the filmmaking, to be the enemy. Also, they look defenseless. Lucas has cut to two robots, not a couple of heavily-armed, strapping guys who verbally give us necessary information. Subconsciously, we make Artoo and Threepio the underdogs, and of course, we are right. By cutting to them just as the laser strikes the ship, we learn we are going to be experiencing this story through their eyes, from their point of view, which we do. Everything Lucas suggests through cutting alone is confirmed by the rest of the movie. It plays fair. “Star Wars” is the story of two droids bouncing from owner to owner across decades of intergalactic warfare; they are the only two characters to consistently appear in each and every film.

So, that’s the first four shots of “Star Wars,” and they convey tons of information without any spoken words. We know the story will be about these two robots; we know it is about good guys vs. bad guys; we know the good guys are outnumbered and outgunned; we know there is a literal war in space, not just a political or metaphorical one. We know there are starships that can move really fast in space and that they shoot lasers that make really cool pinging sounds. Everything else follows. The film delivers.

I could go on. When Threepio makes his first comment, it is in the clipped, almost effete tone of an English butler – which is what he is. Artoo responds with a beep and a chirp and a handful of other rude sounds, something audiences loved. It becomes clear that these two unusual characters will communicate in ways we hadn’t seen before. Moreover, they have a real relationship – Artoo and Threepio annoy the crap out of each other! They bicker, fuss, complain, call each other names, and sometimes make bad emotional decisions. They provide real comic relief, possibly distracting audiences from finding too much unintentional humor elsewhere – Lucas doesn’t get great performances out of his human cast.

Fifth or sixth shot finds Stormtroopers invading the captured Rebel ship and mowing down soldiers in a ferocious gun battle. Here is an interesting bit of production and costume design, in that the Imperial armor looks exactly like the Rebel ship’s hallway. Nevertheless, there’s no confusion – we know they’re the bad guys, in part because the Stormtroopers seem like robots, and the Rebels are humans, easily killed.

Last in this opening sequence, we are introduced – visually, not with words, as in a silent movie – to Darth Vader, whose first appearance usually strikes the audience silent. We’ve been whooping it up until now, having a good time old time, but this guy means business. Vader steps into the still-smoking corridor, surveys the number of enemy dead, and moves on, quickly, robes flowing. We aren’t told his name or what his function is and we don’t have to be – his black armor and robes and intimidating black helmet and facemask – not to mention the mechanical breathing! – tell us everything we need to know. (There is not even a hint of a lightsaber!) In one introductory shot, Vader became the greatest bad guy of all time. Forty years later, we are still buying tickets to hear tales of him … and his family.