Coming at A New Hope off of the prequel trilogy, what jumps out first and foremost is how much smaller and more intimate a story it is. No small part of this is because of the twenty-eight year backwards jump in film technology, which isn’t something that can be erased even by Lucas’s extensive efforts to tinker with the original trilogy. Which I suppose are a digression worth getting into at this point.
Obviously the special editions are easy to get cranky at. Hell, I’m on record making fun of the “redo old special effects for the DVD release” approach when it comes to Doctor Who. And the scholar in me is unsurprisingly appalled by Lucas’s active efforts to suppress the original theatrical versions of his films, to the point of denying film festivals focused on the 1970s permission to screen an original print. But these days there are multiple gorgeous reconstructions of the theatrical version up on BitTorrent for people who care, and while that doesn’t invalidate the understandable frustrations of people who spent decades wanting to watch the movie of their childhoods and not a CGI-ed over mess where Greedo shoots first and there are a bunch of cavorting aliens around Mos Eisley, it at least makes them a somewhat easier pill to swallow.
But the bigger difference between the special editions and replacing a dodgy puppet snake with a dodgy CGI snake in Doctor Who is that if you’re watching Doctor Who for its visual spectacle you have already fucked up. Whereas Star Wars has always been about raw visual spectacle in a way that makes the original trilogy’s aging into a problem for them. Without wanting to get into a (desperately tedious) debate about the superiority of traditional special effects vs CGI, it’s on a basic level understandable that Lucas would want a reaction to A New Hope other than “well that’s dated.” A uniform style of special effects across the saga is an entirely sensible desire when the saga is going to be presented as a single unit. So long as the actual historical objects are preserved in some fashion - and I'm fine with that fashion being BitTorrent - I can at least see the sense of trying to give a six-part film series a unified design.
No, the problem is simply that, as I said, you can’t actually bridge that gap. Lucas can and did narrow it, and it’s certainly less jarring to watch the special edition of A New Hope after Revenge of the Sith than it is to watch one of the restored theatrical versions, but at the end of the day A New Hope feels like a fundamentally different kind of object from any of the prequel films. It follows only a handful of characters, never moving wider than those caught in the immediate consequences of Leia’s ejecting R2-D2 and C-3PO onto Tatooine to find Obi-Wan. To its original 1977 audience, this basically appeared to be a film about a single space station.
But, of course, coming off of the prequel trilogy the scope of it is not so much “a single space station” as the moment, some twenty years after Revenge of the Sith, where Anakin is reunited with his two children. More than perhaps anything, this is the defining decision of the film. It would have been entirely possible, and arguably saner storytelling, to do the prequel trilogy such that the first film essentially combined the storytelling duties of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, the second film did Anakin’s fall, and the third actually took place during the ascendency of the Empire. Instead Lucas decides to make the saga about the Skywalker lineage, deciding that all the events that take place between Luke and Leia being spirited away and the reunion at the start of A New Hope can be relegated to the spin-offs.
There’s only one colossal problem with this, which is that none of the three characters involved in the reunion actually know the reunion is going on. This thus ends up being something of a farce without actual comedy - three characters the audience knows far more than bumbling around and failing to get to the actual plot. The only character with any agency ends up being Obi-Wan. (R2-D2’s knowledge of the prequel trilogy is difficult to actually square away with what’s on screen here; on the whole everything makes much more sense if one assumes he also had his memory wiped along with C-3PO, although that’s pretty clearly not the intent of Revenge of the Sith and the continuity lapses can be squared away by other means. Certainly it’s easier than figuring out why Vader doesn’t point out that he literally just chased Leia from Scarif when she tries to claim she’s on a diplomatic mission.) And frankly, Alec Guinness doesn’t play the scene where he lies to Luke about Anakin as Obi-Wan lying, largely because when he played it nobody actually knew that he was lying, Lucas having not settled on the “Vader is Luke’s father” twist until nearly a year after the film was released. It’s plausible, due almost entirely to the fact that Alec Guinness is actually incapable of playing a role without ambiguity and nuance, but it’s clearly not the intent of the scene as shot. And the Obi-Wan/Vader lightsaber duel is flatly impossible to read as consistent with the prequel trilogy (or indeed with The Empire Strikes Back) - there’s simply no way to imagine the Obi-Wan we’ve spent three whole films with calling Anakin “Darth.” And so as a payoff to Revenge of the Sithi, A New Hope is understandably a complete failure.
Meanwhile the things the film is actually invested in - Luke’s quasi-classical Hero’s Journey - are largely obscured by the prequels insertion in the narrative. Luke isn’t exactly a character long on depth or nuance, which is fine when the world of Star Wars is new and things like the sudden rush of weird aliens in the cantina scene serve as an actual expansion of scope. He’s a perfectly functional viewpoint character. But as a protagonist defined primarily by being Anakin’s secret son, well, it’s hard to figure out why the film isn’t spending more time on the self-evidently more interesting and equally mythos-rooted Leia. The answer isn’t hard to figure out, and Carrie Fisher would have been happy to spell it out for you, but, spoilers, it’s a deeply unsatisfying one.
The hilarious and mildly trolling endpoint of this argument would be to suggest that A New Hope is thus inferior to the prequels, and it’s deeply tempting. But it’s also ridiculous. More than anywhere else in the saga, that makes this the film where our approach encounters its limits. Imagining The Phantom Menace as someone’s first exposure to the franchise is one thing. Imagining that this film is actually Episode IV and called A New Hope is quite another. This is Star Wars; the only film that can legitimately be called simply that. It’s a metonym for the entire saga. Much like one cannot hear the Imperial March as anything other than itself, the knowledge that A New Hope is the beginning is inescapable.
If one bludgeons through this tension, insisting on inventing a viewer completely incapable of understanding that this was made before even the barest phantom of the prequels was imagined but who is nevertheless an intelligent and discerning viewer, the reading eventually resolves into a film that is about introducing the galaxy after the Empire has completely taken hold. In this regard, the line about the dissolution of the Senate clearly positions the twenty year gap as not just a product of the Skywalker diaspora but as a precise bridge over the rise of the Empire. Indeed, this finally makes some sense of the Yoda/Sidious duel that wrecks the Senate chamber, which is a logical anchor opposite the Senate’s actual and final dissolution. It’s something of a pity Lucas didn’t have the audacity to cut in a Jimmy Smitts evaporation scene, especially in light of Rogue One, but this still basically works.
Except that the intimate scale of A New Hope means that the imperial galaxy is introduced almost entirely in terms of Tatooine. Which on the whole seems… nice. It’s tough to tell, since it appears to consist of nothing save for Owen and Beru’s farm, but one thing becomes staggeringly conspicuous in its absence: slavery. Even when Jabba shows up, providing a direct connection to the gangster regime that oversaw Anakin and Shimi’s enslavement, he appears to have moved into the spice trade. And with no real sense of other planets, the result is to suggest that for all its evident brutality the Empire has actually improved life in the galaxy.
But this is hardly the first instance of muddy politics in the saga, so let’s carry on. We already briefly discussed the way in which the cantina scene serves to open out the world within the film’s conscious structure, but in the context of illustrating the differences between this world and the one of the prequels there’s a more obvious aspect of it than the cool alien design: Han Solo. Ultimately, no character even remotely like him exists in the prequels. For all that the prequels have bounty hunters, corrupt businessmen, gangsters, and Sith Lords, all of the main characters are agents of legitimate governmental authorities. Han Solo, on the other hand, is a criminal; a character with an oppositional relationship not only to the fascist empire but to all governmental authority, the defunct Republic included. He’s also self-evidently the most charming and entertaining thing the saga has yet presented.
Han is not, obviously, the first charming rogue in genre fiction; this is as well-worn a trope as space monks or laser swords. But save for a handful of scenes in Attack of the Clones the sort of worldview he offers simply doesn’t exist in the prequel trilogy. He represents a fundamentally new idea. And it’s one that finds a close cousin in the other new idea the film introduces: the Rebellion. Indeed, this is the one regard in which the prequel trilogy might credibly be said to enrich A New Hope itself. As it stands, the sudden expansion of scope very late in the film whereby the Rebellion is introduced is a jarring tonal shift - a hodgepodge of new characters who are largely indistinguishable from one another and an unexpected genre pivot into “war film” that is poorly set up by the first 75% or so of the film. It’s a minor complaint, to be sure, but a real one that comes out of Lucas trimming some early Tatooine scenes that served as setup by establishing Biggs as an existing friend of Luke’s in order to make the opening pacier. (It’s a sound decision - the scene is a clumsy bit of political exposition that makes the Senate scenes in The Phantom Menace look like The Lion in Winter.)
But coming off of Revenge of the Sith, the confluence of Han Solo and the Rebellion offers the resolution to the Republic/Empire dialectic: anarchism. Obviously this exists within the fundamentally compromised politics of the saga, which is no more straightforwardly anarchist than it is anti-fascist. Nevertheless, it’s on the whole a good fit. One of the biggest differences between the original trilogy and the prequels is their focus on constructive politics. The prequels are regularly concerned with the affirmative question of what government should look like. The original trilogy, on the other hand, does not touch the question of what the Empire might be replaced with. It’s simply not something that was part of their conception. They’re about the Rebellion, not the Republic, with all that entails.
Positioned after the prequels, however, the question becomes unavoidable. Rebellion becomes not an alternative focus to constructive democratic institutions but a replacement - a step forwards in whatever political argument the saga is making. And it’s largely Han Solo that forces the issue, for the simple reason that he would not have fit comfortably under the Republic either. As the one thing in A New Hope that is in no way set up by the prequels, he immediately assumes the vacant role of moral viewpoint character for the saga. Which is by some margin the most interesting choice made so far.