On this day in 1977, Star Wars opened in a handful of theatres across North America. Walking in, the first people paying to see it hoped to see a good space adventure movie, but when they walked out a couple of hours later, they were the first prophets of a cultural phenomenon. Four decades later, it’s hard to find anyone that hasn’t been touched in some way by Star Wars. Even if they haven’t seen it, they know about it, they’ve seen glimpses of it, or they know someone absolutely ravenous in the love for a galaxy far, far away. This piece is dedicated to all those people, the lovers and those that want to understand the love. Why do we love Star Wars? Why have we poured our hopes, dreams, and happiness into a fictional galaxy of the distant past?
The world might be distinctly separated into two time periods: one before Star Wars and one afterward. In 1977, 20th Century Fox was worried that Star Wars was a money pit waiting to happen; they cut George Lucas’ production schedule, stopped any extra money from flowing in to complete post-production, and were so famously disillusioned by the film that they let Lucas have all the merchandise and sequel rights for a song. Fox thought The Other Side of Midnight, based on a popular novel of the same name, was going to be their money maker in ’77, and theatres only got the latter if they promised to take the former.
All that changed though when people started filling up those initial 32 theaters that played Star Wars on May 25, 1977. For those lucky enough to watch it without the weight of the Star Wars phenomenon and expectation, much has been written about the impact of that opening shot of the Rebel blockade runner being chased across the screen by the Imperial Star Destroyer. It was the moment that changed everything. Or to put it the way Seattle Times movie reviewer Soran Anderson did in a recent piece, “We gasped. We cheered. We knew in an instant this was the movie we’d been waiting all of our lives to see.”
Most of you reading this were probably several years too late for that experience. Kids of the 80s had to enjoy Star Wars through endless rewatches on TV, and wearing out our VHS copies of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. They were not known as “The Original Trilogy” – they were just simply “The Trilogy”! And on the rare occasion when the movies weren’t enough, there were the animated Droids and Ewoks series, the two Ewok TV movies, comic books, and endless hours playing with action figures and vehicles, storytelling through strange and different new variations. So, Star Wars wasn’t a purely theatrical experience, and if you were young (or young at heart) it nevertheless started to slowly eat your life.
That brings us back to the original question: Why do people love Star Wars as much as they do? Believe it or not, there’s actually a Yahoo! Answers page on the subject. Actually, there are several Yahoo! Answers pages on the subject, and for some reason, many of these posts were begun by people who don’t like Star Wars, as in the whole experience and not just the prequels, or the “Special Edition” retoolings. For the haters, or even just the apathetic, to find Star Wars appealing is be drawn into something simplistic and/or childish.
“[W]hat I find mildly depressing about Star Wars is that it seems to address itself, like more and more television programming, to a ‘family market’ defined by its prepubescent age level, somewhere between 10 and 14,” wrote famed film critic Molly Haskell in her Village Voice review. “Lucas bridges the generation gap simply by providing a one-way ticket back to adolescence.”
Haskell wasn’t alone in her assessment that “Star Wars is childish, even for a cartoon.” Coming out of a series of post-Vietnam/post-Watergate-inspired moody thrillers and dark dramas, it was kind of unsurprising that critics would feel that Lucas was taking the country in a more simplistic direction with its clearly defined rules of good and evil. You know Luke Skywalker is good because he wants to rescue the princess, and earn his father mantle as a Jedi Knight; we know the Empire is evil because they blow up planets and sit around big, black tables to talk about ruling the universe. A far cry from a time when presidents were accused of being crooks, and soldiers returned home from war to anger and indifference.
“In an era when Americans had lost heroes in whom to believe, Lucas created a myth for our times,” wrote Andrew Gordon in a 1978 piece for Literature/Film Quarterly. He argued that the aspects Haskell and others considered “childish” were traits shared by Star Wars with works like The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings. “Star Wars is a modern fairy tale, a pastiche which reworks a multitude of old stories, and yet creates a complete and self-sufficient world of its own, one populated with intentionally flat, archetypal characters.”
Famously, Lucas drew from the work of Joseph Campbell, and his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In it, Campbell outlined a universal blueprint for something he called “The Hero’s Journey,” a process by which a story’s protagonist goes through three stages, which can also conveniently fit the typical three-act structure of a screenplay: Departure, Initiation, and Return.
“Star Wars is an example of what Joseph Campbell called the Monomyth, which reaches a broader audience and is more enduring,” said Shanti Fader who’s an editor for Parabola magazine, a publication of the Society for the Study of Myth and Tradition. “The stories speak to something inside us that wants to know how our world lives, that wants to make order of it and find some meaning. Myths fulfill that in a way that science and facts don’t always do, because science and facts don’t always give us meaning.”
Between quips and arguments about what’s good and what sucks, a Reddit thread from earlier this year got similar answers in regards to Star Wars’ appeal. “The story is timeless,” said one user, “and resonates with common experiences in the lives of most people – that is growing up, [and] learning to deal with the realities of the world around you.” Anther user concurred. “There’s a sense of innocence in how kids process things – good vs. bad – that spoke to me directly. [It’s] part of the good old days and nostalgia.”
Nostalgia is another big factor to Star Wars ongoing popularity. The median age worldwide is nearly 30 years old, which, unscientifically speaking, says that more than half the people living have grown up in a post-Star Wars world. Even a post-prequel world. Despite the vitriol directed to the prequels, even that triad has its defenders, and given that The Phantom Menace came out over 18 years ago, there are actually millions of kids out there for whom their trilogy is the Prequel Trilogy. The point is it’s hard to find someone under the age of – let’s say 45 – whose life wasn’t touched, if not altered, by Star Wars.
But nostalgia and Star Wars have had a long relationship before those first screenings were over in May 1977. Lucas’ original idea for his space opera was simpler: buy the rights to Flash Gordon and make that a movie. With the rights to Flash off the table, Lucas started writing the script that would eventually become Star Wars, using the tropes and ideas he loved about Flash Gordon and other sci-fi serials, and combining those with other odd bits from comic books, westerns, and Kurosawa films.
Like Quentin Tarantino decades later, Lucas remixed his brain into a coherent original universe, and voila, Star Wars was born. When Darth Vader meets Ben Kenobi in the Death Star he says, “The circle is now complete,” which is a line Lucas might have used about his creation. Lucas was inspired to create, and others have since been inspired by Star Wars. It’s a cycle that seems stunted now in Hollywood’s race to remake everything, but so many people had there creative muscles energized by Star Wars, even the rights holders of Flash Gordon would eventually made their movie (only to see it remembered solely for the title song by Queen).
That creativity was fostered by the incredible world building done by Lucas and the amazing team of artists he developed to bring the Original Trilogy to life. In the case of Star Wars, it was more than making the main characters look cool, which they did, but every square inch of the film was capable of carrying out its own story. How else do you explain the rise of Boba Fett to prominence in the fan consciousness? He spoke four lines in Empire Strikes Back, and said nothing in Return of the Jedi before being eaten by mouth in the ground. While his name is only mentioned a couple of times in Return of the Jedi, Fett stands as one of the most well-known and beloved characters of the franchise.
Boba Fett, though, isn’t a unique phenomenon. They may no longer be canon, but entire volumes were written about minor characters, or were extrapolated from the back story of the films. Remember the various characters in the Cantina, or Jabba’s Palace? Two books called Tales from the Mos Eisley Cantina and Tales from Jabba’s Palace told their story. How about Knights of the Old Republic? An RPG that takes place thousands of years before the movies, and spawned its own intricate series of comics and novels. And those are three examples amongst the hundreds of published works spawned off from Star Wars. How many other stories unfurled in the heads, and notebooks, and camcorders of fans over the years?
Star Wars and Lucas have done a great job of fostering a shared sense of community ownership when it comes to Star Wars over the years. Rather than litigiously swatting down every attempt by filmmakers and others for trying to claim a piece of the Star Wars legacy for their own, Lucas has encouraged them, and even started handing out annual awards to honour the select few deemed to be the best of the best of fan films. Lucas has his faults, but making fans feel unwelcome when playing with his toys isn’t one of them.
And that’s yet another reason people have made Star Wars part of their lives, there are just so many different toys to play with. There’s the magic and mysticism of the Jedi, the quasi-political and war allegory of the Rebels Vs the Empire, the gangland drama of the Hutts and their smugglers, and the futurized Old West with laser guns, bounty hunters and rogues that play by their own rules. It’s a universe of weird-looking aliens, robots, clones, spaceships, and, most important of all, lightsabers. Absolutely anything is possible, because the blueprints Lucas laid out has so many different moving parts. In terms of storytelling possibilities, Star Wars is a giant pack of assorted LEGO, the results are limited only by your imagination.
So why do we love Star Wars? The exact answer depends on who you ask, but collectively there’s its familiarity, its nostalgic flavor, and a sense that the love expressed for Star Wars is something you don’t just hold on your own, but is something you share with so many others. Star Wars brings people together, whether it’s in an ethereal sense like sharing that one cultural frame of reference with a stranger, or more literal, like the way the charity Star Wars cosplayers of the 501st Legion brighten up community events around the world. From Albania to Zimbabwe you know what it means to say “May the Force be with you,” you know that these are not the Droids they’re looking for, and you know that anger, fear and aggression lead to the Dark Side.
There’s a great scene in the Rob Bowman movie Reign of Fire where Christian Bale and Gerard Butler, playing the leaders of a community ravaged by dragon attacks, act out The Empire Strikes Back for the local kids. There’s a truth in this: if all film prints, videotapes, DVDs, Blu-rays, and digital versions of these films were gone tomorrow, the stories would still endure and be retold. Many of the greatest stories ever told were passed down orally before someone ever had the presence of mind to write them on paper. Why? Because a great story must be shared, and whether you’ve seen Star Wars once, or seen it a thousand times, it belongs to us all. We are Star Wars, and it is us.