Squeaky Mouse Droid (named after those little droids in Imperial facilities that roll around in the hallways with no discernible purpose and are easily scared off by Wookies) is the name of my new, irregular series of Star Wars essays, anecdotes, and observations. We’ll see where it goes from here. One thing is certain: there are no rules!
SMD, Episode 1: The Greedo scene
Ok, time to talk Star Wars.
You can never get sick of talking Star Wars, right.
Let’s talk about one scene from Star Wars. Yeah, from the first film. Other than the opening shot, it may be the single most important scene in the film for selling the audience on this “galaxy far, far away” as well allowing them to invest in what is about to become the greatest adventure ever committed to the screen.
The scene is – yes – the Greedo scene. Really? Yes, really. Yes I’m serious.
This scene is so important. This is why George Lucas had tarnished his own legacy forever when he added what was essentially one simple special effect to it twenty year after the original release of the film. Ever since then, fans have been in an uproar. They all cry: “Han shot first! Han shot first!”
Is this scene really that important. And is adding a single laser bolt really such a big deal?
The answer to both questions is, well yes. In fact, it’s really important.
Let’s talk about the scene as it originally played out, before any alterations were made. Keep in mind that Star Wars came out in 1977 and really changed cinema by (along with Jaws) introducing the blockbuster and (along with Rocky) showed that, after a rather depressing couple of decades, people could go to the cinema to really escape and have a good time. And escaping the real world and entering a fantasy that had relate-able and recognizable characters – which was why the fact that these very characters were just riffs on well-known mythological archetypes and the story, such as it was, also stayed true to the stories that these kinds of characters had been a part of before, since the dawn of story-telling – was what made the film such an important cultural milestone. People needed to believe in heroes again. They needed to believe in fantasy. They needed a sweeping epic that was free of cynicism and dreariness. You’ve heard all of this before, no doubt. Surely, hearing it from a Squeaky Mouse Droid won’t make any more or less valid.
So, getting back to the original cut of the movie itself: The scene happens about a half hour into the film. I’m not going to say precisely when. I’m the biggest Star Wars fan I personally know, but I’m not the type of fan that goes around rattling of timestamps of specific moments. No, that’s not me.
Anyway, prior to these scene we had a great opening that introduced us to the Empire in grand fashion as well as a hint of the under-powered rebellion against it, and how, despite having some diplomatic channels open to them, were still quite a ways of making any kind of dent in the chink of the Empire’s armor – but the stolen plans everyone was talking about might change that. Might.
From there, we spend a lot of time on what is a crappy desert planet. They filmed these scenes in desert. They built sets and props that felt like they could really exist on a desert word.. things that were different from what we had but felt real and functional and tangible. We get a sense that there are actual places on this world. Anchorhead, the Judland Wastes, and so on. People worked as Moisture farmers, but had a chance to off to “The Academy.” They drove in jet-powered cars that floated above the ground but were probably no better for efficiency than a ten-year-old used car you’d get on Craigslist.
The point: they were world-building. This real setting (a desert) was becoming a place that really felt like it was in a different galaxy, but that other p;lace felt as real as the actual real world. People needed to make a living. They needed to make life choices about whether to work another season or moving on. They needed to have droids in order to keep things operating. It wasn’t quite like American life in the late 70’s when the film came out, but it still felt like a real place. They didn’t need a lot of special effects to make this happen. They didn’t need a script that tried to make jokes and insert songs for no reason to keep the attention of an ADHD audience in order to build this world (yeah I’m looking at you, Guardians of the Galaxy!). They were selling us on a fantasy world by giving it grit, heft, and weight. This whole planet came across like a real place.. and sometimes that meant showing us unusual living facilities dug into the ground, and others was just showing us a Tuskan raider form behind, where we don’t get a lot of details before he scurries away. This felt like a real planet.
But the story had to physically expand beyond the moisture farms and the Judland Wastes, and so we come to the spaceport. This would be a leap forward in building the universe that is Star Wars. We were not just going to see a few props an usual sets. We were about to see something more ambitious. We were about to come to a place where you will truly never find a more wrested hive of scum and villainy.
As we enter the cantina bar in the spaceport, we are surrounded with many alien creatures. In the 70’s when the film was shot, this was quite a paradigm shift from what audiences were used to seeing. When he made 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick was afraid to show the aliens because he knew he could never do them justice, and Gene Roddenbeerry didn’t have the resources to make aliens in Star Trek that were any more than humans with oil slicked all over them or antennae glued to their heads. The cantina was totally different: aliens lived there, an it was just a part of what that place was. There were all different types, from hammerheads to butt-faces (I never remembered what that alien was called, but he like literally every other creature in this tavern, most certainly had his own action figure) to men wanted by the law in twelve different systems. Smoke filled the air. Many aliens were no doubt drunk or high or both. The most disreputable characters in the galaxy frequented this place as they scoped out new jobs at the spaceport, yet droids were not allowed.
Yet, this scene was filmed just like the rest of the scenes set on this crappy backwater desert planet. It was meant to feel like a real place, one that wasn‘t the most pleasant to spend time on but was so easy to connect with. Star Wars was fantasy that felt real.
It’s so important that the scene in question comes at this juncture in the film, as the film itself has just begun to expand it’s own canvass. Note: ti’s just it’s own canvass, but the canvass of ALL of film in general. If a movie was made today that featured characters starting on one planet and then visiting a few others before a big action finale.. well that’s not unusual. But back in the 70’s it was an entirely different thing. This fantastic place felt so real.. the culture was alien but also felt real. The characters – who would eventually become mythological icons in their own right – essentially start their adventure here, and that adventure would serve as a benchmark form which all other science fiction and fantasy films are compared to. So it just wasn’t the fact that Luke was about to expand his own horizons: it was that the audience was also having their own worlds expanded as well, for the first time, and for all time.
No, I’m not shitting you. That’s why the scene is so important.
And, of course, being in a seedy bar, not everyone is on the level. The hammerhead might be talking about a drug curtailing scheme feet from where you get a smoking cold, half-filled drink at a bar given to you by a bartender who is giving you a “look.” Some taps your shoulder and that person’s interpreter says “he doesn’t like you.” You might be 19 and eager for an adventure, but, as much as the world is expanding by the second, it’s also getting to be a lot darker. It’s not anything like a fairy tale in this bar. And it will be even less like one out there in space where the Empire governs this galaxy with an iron hand. You need to book passage with a freighter captain, and you’d be awfully naive to expect that this freighter captain would be “on the level” as well.
He’s not, he’s a scoundrel and a smuggler. He has debts to pay off. He has his own ends to look out for. It doesn’t matter that this character will become one of the heroes of this saga, nor does it matter that he gets a medal for heroism at the end of this very film: at this point, he’s really interested in himself. An offer is made for one more run that could really clear up those debts. Yes, 17 thousand credits. Just pull this one run off, and you might be in the clear.
What makes this character believable is both how hes written and how Harrison Ford plays him. He never says what the last paragraph of this essay had stated. He never says “You know, Chewie, if we do this one run, my debts with Jabba could be paid off.” That would be forcing the expositionary information we need, and instead we are given the following. “This could really save my neck. Go back to the ship and get ‘er ready.”
We don’t know what kind of trouble Han is in, but its perfectly believable that any freighter pilot found in a seedy bar like this could be in some kind of trouble. It’s also believable that this guy would only be looking out for himself at this point (and his Wookie co-pilot).
Now, the set up is over. Just before setting off on a job that could save his neck the bounty hunter Greedo stops him in his tracks. He’s led to a booth and Greedo is set to collect right here and right now. Han knows this. They talk the talk but it just gives Han a second to un-holster his blaster and end this guy. This might not be the moral thing to do, despite the fact that Greedo is likely more of a criminal than Han himself is, We might grow to like Han, but part of why we like him is that he comes from an entirely different background than either Luke of Kenobi or anyone else. This is his world. At that moment, he had to shoot Greedo just to have a chance to undertake this last run. Oh, and he had to pay off the bartender to keep this all on the down-low.
The Tatooine scenes showed us that Star Wars was areal, lived in world, one where people lived and worked in less than ideal conditions,. The cantina scenes showed us that there were places that crime and corruption could thrive. The Star Wars galaxy was becoming more and more interesting by the minute, while never becoming over-stylized, over-exagerated, or over flashy. No giant floating heads where people could get tossed in pools of spinal fluid… but a place where some people worked to make an honest living, and others that knew you couldn’t really make it “honestly” in these parts.
So: Han didn’t shoot first. He shot, and he was the only one who shot. Yup, the only one. We might come to find that he has a heart of gold, but, at this point, he was like the old western gunman, and was simply playing by the unwritten rules that come with being on this part of town.
I saw this movie when I was.. well maybe it was the first film I ever saw.. I was that young. And I saw it as often as I could after that. Throughout my single digits. My teens. My twenties. Beyond. The fact that shooting Greedo was a pretty immoral thing to do didn’t actually tell me that killing someone like that was the right thing to: I didn’t become morally corrupted. All it told me was that life at the cantina was not a whole lot different than life in a saloon in the Old West: you might have to shoot someone or cut off their arm in order to go about your business, and hope the others went about their own affairs.
These kinds of actions not only made this world seem real, they made it seem more interesting, and more tangible. It was still a fantasy.. and I never went around shooting people even if they stopped me in my tacks, but all the things that happened in this bar all added to the overall world that the film-makers were building for an audience that was opening their eyes for the first time to a new yet familiar mythology.
The special editions, and later, the DVD editions end even the blue-ray editions, made a lot of mostly unnecessary changes to the films. The single worst change was making Greedo fire a shot as well as Han. I don’t care if he shot first or second, or if (as in the blue-ray version) they shot at the same time – none of that matters. The fact that Greedo shoots at all dulls any edge that this scene might have had. It not only diminishes Han as a character and neutering his own personal arc ( he went from arc #1 – killing for selfish reasons to joining the “good guys” at the end of the adventure to non-arc #2: shooting the bounty hunter is self-defense to joining the “good guys” at the end of the adventure) but ti also diminishes the world that was being so well-built to this point: a world where people in Han’s line of work would have to resort to this kind of action in order to make it. And who is to saw that ol’ Hammerhead in the background wasn’t planning a scheme that would involve enslaving scores of people for some sort of scheme (no I didn’t hammerhead novel, so don’t ask me. I don’t even recall his real name because his original Kenner toy simply called him “Hammerhead.”)
But, in retrospect, George didn’t want our hero to do something so morally wrong so he added a single laser bolt to the scene that damaged not only the scene, but almost everything that the original Star Wars film was trying to accomplish: that the adventure was set in a place where not everyone was all that nice.
Harrison Ford was so great in this film. Han shot Greedo in order to get a chance to go on this run and solve some personal problems. He soon realized that his passengers were “much more than he bargained for” and becomes more and more irritated as the movie goes on. Yet Ford is a consummate, gifted actor, and as his character becomes more and more irritated as his mission goes awry, he becomes less and less irritated by his new, naive companion, Luke. It’s so subtle in the very best ways, but he forms an ever-growing friendship with Luke as the movie goes on. And maybe it’s Luke that helps convince him that there’s more to fight for than just himself. As for his relationship with the newly-rescued Leia: the more that they seem to hate each other is more the reason why Han is drawn to her. He needs someone that has that fire and that passion.
And its through these characters and their adventure on the Death Star that we see Han very believably become the hero we all know him to be) But it was clearly a mistake on the part of Lucas by making Greedo shoot at roughly the same time as Han. I think something is lost. The world Lucas had been building so well to that point was now softening at the hands of a one-time visionary who wasn’t afraid to give his fantasy world an edge but was now someone who was second-guessing every decision he once made… probably because he had grand-kids to think about or something.