A New Hope is my favorite Star Wars movie, even over Empire Strikes Back. That’s not to say that the former is a better made, more thought-provoking film (it isn’t). In fact I consider Empire to objectively be the best written, acted, directed and scored of all the Star Wars movies, and I love it, but let me explain why I still like Hope better. Just for clarity, I mean the original versions, NOT the “”””special”””” editions.
One of the more famous debates among sci-fi fans is whether Star Wars or Star Trek is the better franchise. I greatly enjoy both for different reasons. I watch Star Trek when I want to think more about ethical dilemmas, how a complex society works, or to have a (fictional) scientific principle explained. Star Wars films I watch to have fun and enjoy the adventure and characters.
No one who likes Star Wars films can deny the movie version of an adrenaline rush that you get at the ending of A New Hope. The villains are given enough time to be enjoyably evil, we see Luke’s progression from a complaining kid to a war hero, and we don’t think about the millions of people he singlehandedly killed. It’s 2 hours where the viewer can be given the well-paced events of the story and not still be thinking about their implications in the next scene, allowing them to do the same thing throughout the movie.
Also Leia never kisses Luke in A New Hope, that’s important.
In Empire the audience is challenged to think more deeply about the characters and how their relationships will influence the story. The scenes in the cave on Dagobah, Vader and Luke on Cloud City, and Luke and Leia’s connection all raise fascinating questions that, until Return of the Jedi, people could only speculate about. I wasn’t alive in 1980 but I imagine long, heated discussions between Star Wars fans who, in the absence of answers, created their own. We have the luxury today of just watching the full trilogy as well as dozens of hours of the TV shows and even the prequel trilogy. As a result we know what the intent of the story was and it’s hard to imagine alternatives.
This brings me to the 2 main reasons that I consider A New Hope to be the better Star Wars film: it’s a fun adventure and a self-contained story. When Alderaan is destroyed the viewer isn’t thinking about Leia’s psychological torment, the focus is on escaping from the Death Star. When the Death Star’s destroyed the award ceremony is all the follow up you need, there aren’t cliffhangers or burning questions that make a sequel inevitable.
Empire Strikes Back, for these reasons, has more of a Star Trek feel than a Star Wars feel. It began the episodic feel of the series and added a level of seriousness that I think would be better suited for a debate of the Prime Directive in Star Trek.
Finally, this may seem like a minor point, but A New Hope has Empire beat in terms of originality. Yes there were new ship and character designs in Empire, but they’re more of an expansion of the style introduced in Hope. It was in Episode IV that this universe was created and the basis for the series’ sounds and visuals was established. The sound of a lightsaber is (for the most part) still unchanged from its first appearance. The cantina scene showed that the aliens of this universe looked far less human than in Star Trek. These elements set Star Wars apart from other sci-fi franchises.
Like in my Signs review I’d recommend re-watching both Hope and Empire. Try imagining you have never seen a Star Wars movie before and ask yourself which one stands on its own better. If you still say Empire I can fully understand why, but my priorities for what makes a great Star Wars movie are different than yours.