A title card reads, "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire's ultimate weapon, the Death Star, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire's sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy."
We see two starships in some sort of battle as they travel around the planet of Tatooine. An Imperial star destroyer is following a smaller rebel ship. Onboard the rebel ship are two droids, robots named C-3PO and R2-D2. The neurotic 3PO is worrying that they have been captured, when indeed, Imperial stormtroopers board their ship.
After a fight in the corridors of the captive ship, Darth Vader emerges. Vader wears a black cape and suit that covers his entire body, and goes over to the ship's captain, Antillies, who tells him the ship is on its way to the planet Alderaan. Vader notes that the ship ought to have an ambassador onboard if it is a consular ship. When Antillies reveals that the plans were not downloaded onto the ship's computer, Vader strangles Antillies and orders the stormtroopers to bring him all the ship's passengers, but make sure they are still alive.
Meanwhile, 3PO and R2 find Princess Leia, who loads stolen plans and a holographic message onto R2, the smaller droid. She instructs the droids to bring the plans to Tatooine, and they board an escape pod. When the pod comes up on the ship's radar, the Imperial forces decide not to destroy it, as they cannot detect any living beings onboard, and think it must be a malfunction.
When the Imperial forces find Leia, they bring her to Vader, who questions her about the plans that the Rebels stole from the Imperial ship. Even though she insists that the ship is on a diplomatic mission on behalf of the Imperial forces, Vader does not believe her and has her locked up. An advisor, Commander Jir, tells Vader that keeping Leia captive will hurt the reputation of the Empire, so Vader devises a plan to fake Leia's death. An officer enters and tells Vader that an escape pod just left the craft, and Vader infers that it must be carrying the stolen plans.
The escape pod lands on the desert planet of Tatooine, where 3PO and R2 get in a little argument about what to do next. R2 wants to deliver the plans to their next location, but 3PO is concerned about staying safe. When the two of them go their separate ways, they each end up getting kidnapped by the desert creatures, Jawas. The Jawas are scavengers who trade various junk in the desert, and they bring the two droids to the Great Chott Salt Flat settlement to sell their parts.
There, they meet Owen Lars, a moisture farmer, who buys 3PO for his translation skills (the droid is fluent in six million forms of communication). He then buys a cheaper droid, R5-D4, but the droid breaks almost instantly, and the Jawas offer him R2. Owen's nephew, Luke, cleans up the droids, even though he has plans to meet up with friends in Anchorhead, another town. As he is cleaning up the droids, he finds the holographic message that Leia stored in R2. The message shows Leia saying, "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you are my only hope." Luke rushes off to dinner with his aunt and uncle.
From the start of the film, the science fiction setting is a fully realized entity, and filmmaker George Lucas does not spend much time setting up exposition or explaining the logic of this intergalactic playground. After a brief title card that scrolls up the screen, we know only that the galaxy is in the midst of a civil war, and that Princess Leia bears information that could save the galaxy. The film wastes no time in dropping the viewer down into the imaginative world of the film.
Part of what makes the world of the film so fully realized and instantly legible is its special effects. Lucas creates the world of "a long time ago in a galaxy far far away" in just the opening moments. We see the expanse of space and a number of impressive space stations and starships. The film was made in the late 1970s, but its visual effects are still stunning to the contemporary eye, in part because they are so meticulously crafted and so specific to the world of the film.
Soon enough, we are introduced to the film's central protagonist, Darth Vader. Darth Vader is the second-most powerful member of the imperial forces. He wears a black suit of armor that completely covers his face, and a black cape, a costume that represents his evil affiliations. Not long into his interview with Antillies, he strangles the rebel captain, and we get further confirmation of Vader's evil.
On Tatooine, we are introduced to the protagonist, Luke Skywalker, an unsuspecting teenager who has dreams of becoming a pilot. He lives with his uncle and aunt on a moisture farm and leads a calm and uneventful life, until the two droids show up on his doorstep. The arrival of R2-D2 and C-3PO throws Luke's existence into a tailspin, as they seem to be carrying highly sensitive information, delivered by a beautiful woman.
The impressive and highly specific visual effects of Star Wars continue beyond the first moments of the film. While the starship that the film begins on paints one image of sleek intergalactic travel, Tatooine is an entirely new and distinct world, a desert habitat with its own specific architecture and ecosystems. This part of the film was shot in Tunisia, in the African desert, but the location truly looks like something out of someone's wildest dreams. The structures are completely unique, and the hills of the desert are inhabited by strange creatures, such as the Jawas.