Putting aside so many of its other innovative aspects, the original 1977 Star Wars: A New Hope was a new kind of world-building that borrowed from the age-old mythmaking toolkit. Forget the innovative special effects, unique aesthetic, and quick-cutting editing style. So much of what it did right barrels directly at the audience almost immediately and without much warning.
The opening crawl sets the scene, making the audience aware of everything that’s happened previously. Before you see any Rebel spaceships, a hidden base, the evil Galactic Empire, or anything else mentioned in the crawl, you’re given just the bare minimum of context. What the crawl lets you know is that this story isn’t just beginning — it’s been in motion for some time.
This idea is hit home by what comes next. After the camera tilts down from the vast galactic expanse, we’re treated to that iconic shot of a Star Destroyer in hot pursuit of Leia’s blockade runner above Tatooine. This is the power of a storytelling technique called in medias res. Translated from Latin, this term means “into the middle of things.”
In medias res has been in use for as long as there have been epic stories to tell, and The Iliad is often cited as a classic example. The term was coined by a Roman poet named Horace around 13 BCE. In medias res exists as the opposite of what Horace terms ab ovo, or “from the egg,” meaning that the story starts from the very beginning of the action. Rather than set up the introduction of a story on-screen, A New Hope throws you into the middle of a dramatic chase, avoiding exposition that is unnecessary to understanding the gist of the plot.
This notion informs much of the way that first Star Wars film is constructed. It boldly refuses to spoonfeed the audience, plunging you into a foreign land with strange sights, sounds, and, most importantly, dialogue. In A New Hope, we are told about (but never see) Tosche Station, Beggar’s Canyon, the Imperial Senate, and the Emperor. The Clone Wars are mentioned, but who are the clones? Why was there a war? All of these tantalizing ideas are sprinkled throughout the film, but it’s always in service of adding texture and depth to the universe. Things have happened off screen, in the past, that have a bearing on the events that we’re watching unfold.
Film professor Will Brooker traces the opening of A New Hope back to Lucas’ earlier works, with which it shares other distinguishing characteristics: “[It] represents the synthesis of Lucas’ film-making at that point in this career: the surveillance culture of the Death Star is inherited from THX, and the teen banter from American Graffiti, but the sound montage, the in medias res immersion in a strange culture, the fascination with machines…the underlying theme of escape, and the documentary approach, with its implications for naturalistic improvisational performance, are common to both — and all these elements can be traced back in turn to aspects of [his] student films.”
By putting the audience into the story and universe abruptly, Lucas aimed to evoke what he and his friends felt when watching Kurosawa movies and other Japanese cinema in the 1960s. Walter Murch, sound designer on THX-1138, says that “the problem that George and I found with science fiction films that we saw is that they had to explain these strange rituals to you, whereas a Japanese film would just have the ritual and you’d have to figure it out for yourself.”
It is important, however, to note that having a prequel does not automatically make a film in medias res. As an act of retroactive continuity, prequels add backstory, but conflating the two is understandable. A New Hope opens in medias res due to the chase occurring when the film opens. The action is not directly due to the narrative strands left from the prequels. We’re not counting the rise of the Empire as told in Revenge of the Sith, but rather the acquisition of the Death Star plans that led to the chase of Leia’s ship by Vader’s Star Destroyer.
It’s also important not to conflate in medias res with a cold open. Cold opens traditionally thrust the viewer into some kind of situation, but perhaps not directly related to the overall story of the film. Crucially, they occur before the opening credits. These sequences often function more as a prologue or a teaser of the events to come than anything. Take 2008’s Guardians of the Galaxy as an example. In Guardians, we see young Peter Quill’s mother pass away from cancer, and we see him abducted by an alien ship, but after the titles, the film cuts to 26 years later. The film ramps up to the main storyline by starting out with character introductions.
That said, plenty of modern films, genre and otherwise, have come to rely upon in medias res as an excellent way of hooking the viewer on the story right out of the gate. By subverting the dominant expectations of what audiences knew of blockbuster storytelling, A New Hope added words to our common cinematic language. It unlocked the usage of in medias res for later generations.
Star Wars (BFI Film Classics)
By Will Brooker
Artifact of the Future: The Making of THX-1138
Dir. Gary Leva
(2004 documentary from THX-1138: The George Lucas Director’s Cut DVD)
Brendan Nystedt was very afraid of Darth Vader hiding under his bed when he was five years old. Now, he writes reviews of consumer electronics for Reviewed.com. Please follow him on Twitter @bnystedt!