There are scores more schools of scholarly film theory than I could possibly name, but at least a few of them focus on how the dominant social discourses we grow up in determine, or at least influence, our interpretation of art. So I'm pretty sure those theorists would look at how I grew up in a house of wordplay and puns and be totally unsurprised that what I took away from the opening of Star Wars, from the very first time I saw the very first scene, was a visual pun. It was 1977, I was 12, and I was laughing and surprised no-one else saw it.
So I'm going to try to show you, in the hopes that someone else gets the joke.
A few points of 1977 context to keep in mind. I was a science fiction nut, and read and saw just about everything I could get my mitts on; Asmiov and Star Trek (there was just the one Star Trek then, thank you) were favorites. So anything with spaceships, I was there. And there wasn't the internet leak-and-hype machine back in that day; we may have seen a few still photos from the Star Wars set, and there were a few stories in the newspaper, but we really had no idea what was coming. Also, too: our first viewing was piled with relatives in an uncle's house, straining to see it all from a 3/4-inch VCR tape running on a 21-inch TV (it was L.A.; people knew people who had screener copies).
And I should note note that the lines and process of picking apart pop culture through visual rhetoric is greatly beholden to the work of Scott Eric Kaufman (@scottekaufman), who blogs at Acephalous and Lawyers, Guns & Money. He does it better, longer, and harder.
So first, there's the scroll. (It was hard to read on the little TV, but really, did you read it carefully the first time you saw the movie? Did it make much of a difference?)
Hm, this is kinda like the opening of 2001, with the alignment of planet and moons… . Though the music isn't as creepy. Imperial, to be sure, but not so creepy.
Note the rule of threes: there's something not balanced in this shot. Maybe needs something in the right of the composition?
Ohmigod, a spaceship! That looks big, with all those engines. Remember, this is the first time anyone's seen anything in this series/universe/space mind of Lucas -- so you have to forget what you know after decades of merch, and remember that for a few seconds, this was the Greatest Ship Ever for SF lovers. At least for a few seconds.
As the ship moves through the grid to the center, it leaves room for -- oh, there's something.
And here we see that the ship we thought was so big and cool was actually fleeing from something. From something that looks to be a bit bigger.
Well, quite bigger. (I've outlined the wedge that this new ship cuts into the scene.)
Make that wicked bigger.
Actually, really BIGGER.
AND IT KEEPS COMING AND GETTING BIGGER.
In fact, you've long been unable to even see the original ship; that, we're beginning to realize, was a fake-out. The effect is one of: "Oh, you thought that was cool? Sucker! Now, isn't that cool? Sucker! How about now? No, sucker, you have NO IDEA how big this thing is!" Seriously: from the first glimpse of the tip of what we'll later learn is called a Star Destroyer to seeing it in entirety, takes about 12 seconds. That may not seem like a long time in the abstract, but that's 24 times longer than it took the first ship to come into the scene, and it's 12 full seconds of watching one single thing roll… and roll… and roll. Try staring at a single item for 12 seconds and see how long that feels. (Cats don't count, because, as the internet teaches us, people can stare at them all day.)
In fact, the only shot showing the entirety of the Star Destroyer is cut away from after less than a second. Any longer and it'd suffer the emsmallening of the original ship and dilute the joke. Remember, the key to comedy is knowing when to drop the mic.
Wait, one more thing. Remember how the Star Destroyer formed a wedge as it came to dominate the screen? Haven't we seen something like that before?