It is fruitless and really quite impossible to describe the social, economical, cultural and psychological influences the Star Wars movies have had on the world’s membrane since they engulfed young audiences in 1977. They have transcended film and have become part of the collective consciousness of our souls and memories. Very few people have not seen the movies (I know a couple), and those that have have seen them all more than once. I myself have seen them countless times; it is evidence of George Lucas’ limitless imagination that Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi still make me feel like a bright teen given free roam at the best gaming arcade in town.
The reach of the original Star Wars movies extends ceaselessly into our homes. Movie parodies have been made, and continue to be made. Movie tributes. Character parodies. Sitcom references. The merchandise. My gosh, the merchandise. Clothing, board games, video and computer games, action figures, memorabilia, breakfast cereal prizes, Lego sets, mugs, plates, towels, car decals, bed spreads. You name it, it’s been made with the face of Star Wars. The films have surpassed the scope of their intergalactic ambition and domesticated themselves.
And then there’s the quotable dialogue, which everyone remembers by heart as if Lucas wrote it with the sole intention of turning it into a mantra. The Force will be with you, always. I am your father! You don’t know the power of the Dark Side. One thing’s for sure: We’re all gonna be a lot thinner! It is startling how such words stay with you. The passages in your history texbook about Genghis Khan and Ivan the Terrible don’t stand a chance.
Star Wars, like James Bond or The Wizard Of Oz (1939), has become one of those rare cinematic phenomenons where people know the words, characters and phrases even if they haven’t seen the movies. It has weaved its way into the very fibres of our pop culture.
But, why? Why Star Wars and not, say, 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), or Forbidden Planet (1956)? They too were outstanding science-fiction movies for their time. 2001 has endured more resiliently over the years, but Forbidden Planet, a sci-fi film dressed in suspense, still holds up perfectly with its crackling production design and special effects. So why did Star Wars betray its forebears and become such a mega hit?
The answer lies with George Lucas, who exemplifies the consummate student. Lucas was a quiet young man out of Modesto, CA, who grew up with honoured comrades like Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola (both of whom he has collaborated with on several projects). But while Spielberg and Coppola were more interested in gritty stories about life on American streets, Lucas’ gaze soared upwards to the skies. He developed his Star Wars stories by concocting new formulas for dramatic and technological storytelling. What he did, in essence, was combine high speed adventure with swashbuckling action with space opera, calibrated by narrative devices old yet resourceful: Good versus Evil; the Quest; the Tragic Hero and his band of quirky companions. It is a formula based on experimentation, and like all experiments you either succeed or fail. Star Wars snapped the larger half of the wish bone.
Movies before Star Wars, even the adventurous ones, were humble and introverted. Many were stark, telling stories about a singular hero or heroine overcoming singular or multiple foes. I go back to 2001, a movie admired for its technical achievements and philosophical enquiries. Now it is also admired for its villain, a computer with seemingly demonic sarcasm named HAL. HAL remains one of science-fiction’s best characters (villains) because he could look deep into a social situation and use his wiring and coding to block all possible exits. He could even lip-read. He made 2001 a quiet and claustrophobic movie. It was science-fiction for thinkers.
Star Wars is science-fiction for rebels. The first one heralded a new generation of young moviegoers. No longer did teenagers have to swim through the social politics of action adventures like The Poseidon Adventure (1972) or The Towering Inferno (1974) before reaching their delightful climaxes at the surface. With Star Wars, the story is fine-tuned, dumbed down slightly, not to insult the audience but to make the passage through space simpler and more accessible. Teenagers found characters they could connect with on any level that suited them without having to think hard about who’s on whose side and who may or may not come out victorious (that TESB ends with the bad guys triumphant must have come as a devastating twist of events).
The hero is Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), a plucky but naive young boy, who finds solace in the counsel of a wiser mentor named Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Luke fits snugly as a hero for Star Wars because he is like many young men living in today’s world: Brash, cocky, slightly wayward, but deeply adventurous. He also has a good heart, which is a necessary asset for sympathy. Teenage boys could see themselves in him. What’s more, they could easily picture themselves hurtling through the splendours of space like he does. When Luke learns the ways of the Force from Yoda (Frank Oz) and becomes a Jedi, he matures both as a hero for the movies as well as a role model for the boys in the crowd. And even if some boys disliked Luke, they had a good reserve choice in Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the perfect embodiment of cocksure humour and gunslinging machismo, glazed over with sexual charisma. Not all boys want to be the underdog hero; some want to be the masculine saviour. And what of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher)? A sight for sore male eyes, yes, but she doesn’t come without her strengths: Diplomacy. Mental toughness. Physical bravery. Concealed but powerful sexuality. Invaluable compassion and love. She struts through the plot of the three movies never needing help from the boys. Apart from her kissing her own brother, she’d be a movie character I’d want my daughter idolising. Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) storms in as the squealing pet.
All three movies are saturated with amazing sights and sounds, envisioned in the elastic mind of Lucas, visualised into reality by the embryonic form of Industrial Light & Magic. If Star Wars fails in complexity in a number of cinematic departments (characterisation, narrative, what have you), it triumphs proudly in the sophistication and exuberance of its art direction. There are so many worlds in this trilogy of films, each different from the other. There is the ice planet of Hoth that’s dreary and relentless. The sandy dunes of Tatooine. The dense Redwood forest of Endor that hosts an exhilarating high speed chase. There’s Lando’s city in the clouds, luxurious, elitist. The planet Dagobah is a massive swamp; its lakes and rivers bubble with mysterious gases. Lucas has created a universe of diversity that we inhabit along with his characters.
The aliens, too, are diverse. Lucas shows off for us in an early cantina scene in Star Wars, where creatures of odd shapes, colours and sizes lurk in the shadows of the corners, smoking alien pipes, sipping alien juice. The scene, though boastful in the first movie, becomes merely a tasting dish for the kinds of aliens we will see in Episodes V and VI. I can only imagine the creative stimulation shared by all the artists and designers as they put thoughts down onto paper.
Star Wars, ultimately, is just plain fun. The three films are a joyous ride through mystical adventure, where we learn about the Force, and lightsabers, and sumptuous characters like Darth Vader. Where we journey with our friends into danger and then out of it to safety. Where our eyes digest magnificent worlds and our ears are treated to state-of-the-art sound design. Where thrilling dogfights in the depths of space wow us with their agility. Where all our dreams and hopes are carried in the Millennium Falcon to a galaxy far, far away.