There are innumerable critical choices involved in the production of a great film, but one of the most apparent (and important) is determining how an important character first appears. It can happen in a flash, or slowly build to a satisfying reveal, but however achieved, much of a movie’s success can hinge on these moments. Heroes, villains, and anyone in between; the first impression is often how we remember them for the rest of our lives, so filmmakers had better make it count. How to Make an Entrance hopes to celebrate some of the greatest film character entrances of all time by attempting to examine and explore why they work so well — and along the way, perhaps reintroduce readers to some classic cinema friends.
The Star Destroyer in Star Wars (1977)
Okay, calling the Star Destroyer from the opening scene in Star Wars a ‘character’ may be a bit of a stretch, but certainly a case could be made that the identity of the Empire permeates the story, and is crucial in setting the tone for many actual characters merely based on their association with it. This Star Destroyer initially defines that identity, and the simple juxtaposition of one little spaceship being chased by one gigantic spaceship also establishes the David vs Goliath conflict, as well as conveys the relative strengths of the good guys and bad guys. It’s one of the most elegant introductions in all of cinema, and its influence over how audiences perceive the rest of the film is vital. So in other words, I’m cheating this time.
Skip to 1:55 in the video above for the sequence to begin
After some exposition text that at least somewhat coherently prepares the audience for the strange universe they are about to enter (thank you, Brian De Palma), Star Wars wastes no time in setting its stage. A peaceful pan down reveals a brownish planet that stretches the length of the entire screen, while two lesser moons in the background provide scale to this awe-inspiring sight. Immediately the audience is struck by cosmic beauty of a grand nature; this is a galaxy of sizes big and small.
This tranquil scene isn’t going to last long. With a flash and a bang, the chase we just read about — Princess Leia racing home to deliver some plans — is on. The Tantiv IV (nerd) speeds along, shrinking more and more against the backdrop of the cosmos. By the time the Star Destroyer enters, Leia’s ship is almost a mere speck, nearly lost against the starry backdrop. Again, relative size is everything here, and the triangular shape of the Empire cruiser plays perfectly into teasing audiences with just exactly how large this thing really is. The prow enters the frame in pursuit, and from there the breadth of the ship just keeps growing.
And growing. And growing.
Writer-director George Lucas wanted audiences to understand the long reach of his Empire, how it extended to all corners of the galaxy and exerted influence over nearly everything, and this shot conveys that idea. Before the entire Star Destroyer has even revealed itself, the ship has visually engulfed Leia’s tiny rebel craft; it might as well be a great white shark in space, an eating machine that consumes everything in its path. Also, note the distribution of screen real estate: the Star Destroyer has spatially taken over. The ominous gray hull stretches from one edge of the frame to the other, looming powerfully over the planet from above — a not-too-subtle hint at who is really in charge.
This is a stunning entrance whose basic elements are textbook in how they establish the relationships within the macro plot, but the effect impacts so much more. By making the disparity between good and evil so distinct, Lucas doesn’t need to work as much later on to gain audience sympathy or disdain.
Case in point: Darth Vader. This week’s column was nearly about his introduction to the world, which surely must be one of the most momentous entrances in the history of cinema, right? Hmm. In reality, the reveal of this infamous villain involves little more than him strolling into a hallway, looking at some casualties from a previous laser fight, and strangely putting his hands on his hips, as if to say “that’s it?” He then walks calmly on, as if nothing was happening (catch it for yourself at 4:33 on the clip above), and yes, that’s it — not exactly a treasure trove of filmmaking to dissect.
Yet, despite the overall lack of heraldry in Vader’s first moments, audiences instinctively fear him. Yes, he looks dastardly enough dressed in that black suit for us to know that we’re not rooting for the guy, but the gut-level reaction that makes his entrance seem more memorable than it really is comes from what preceded it. He is clearly the leader of a group that uses brute strength to terrorize, imprison, and enforce control over the lives of freedom-seekers across the galaxy. This overwhelming force is what makes the Empire — and by association, Vader — so frightening. It’s also what makes a wholesome farm boy, a feisty princess, and a roguish scoundrel so sympathetic; they are a team of gangly underdogs taking on the muscle-bound champs.
The ramifications felt from the instant that Star Destroyer appears on screen extend to those characters, and even more. They extend to desert outposts and Death Stars. They extend to beeping droids and Grand Moffs. They extend to poorly manned security checkpoints and chaotic, full-scale assaults. In short, the entrance of the Star Destroyer touches every moment in Star Wars, an unforgettable contrast that distinguishes the good guys from the bad in the simplest, most effective way.
That’s how to make an entrance.
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