Why Star Wars Still Matters

The original movie changed film and popular culture. Here’s why it’s still a Force.

Light Sabers

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Let’s say that you’re not quite four years old. You read a little and you love Super Friends cartoons. You’ve already seen some animated movies and you’re about to go to Disney World for the first time. That summer, you go to the movies, and your whole life changes. An entirely different universe opens in front of you, filled with bizarre aliens, friendly robots, mysterious knights, cynical smugglers, a tough-as-nails princess, the scariest villain you’ve ever seen, and a young boy who wanted adventure. The movie opens your eyes and your mind to a world of limitless possibility in what you can watch and read and hear. And you aren’t alone, because it did that for millions of other people.

May the 4th is considered “Star Wars Day” simply because it’s a pun. The original film was released on May 25th, 1977, but May the 4th sort of sounds like “May the Force Be with You.” For that reason, fans began referring to the date as “Star Wars Day” decades ago. Lucasfilm (and their owner since 2012, Disney) began making official observances several years ago, and Disney has been marking those with events in their theme parks since 2013.

But why? Commerce, certainly. Fun, sure. But why Star Wars, outside of its phenomenal success as a film and a franchise? Why that movie and the things that came from it in particular?

The original Star Wars trailer. (Uploaded to YouTube by The ReDiscovered Future)

Let’s go back to the almost four-year-old. It wasn’t just that kid who had never seen anything like it on the screen before. Nobody had seen anything like it on the screen before. Sure, you had solid effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey. And the winner of the Academy Award for Visual Effects from the previous year, Logan’s Run, looked pretty good. But Star Wars marked a great leap forward. Writer and director George Lucas cared enormously about how everything looked and sounded. He wanted his film to be a transportive and almost immersive experience. His drive to make film look and sound better in general would lead him to found Lucasfilm Ltd. and to create effects house Industrial Light and Magic, computer animation division Pixar, video game division LucasArts, Lucasfilm Animation, and both THX and Skywalker Sound. Lucas didn’t just conceive of a new galaxy; he needed you to see and hear and feel it.

Lucas knew everything rested on that opening shot. He chose to go with a full orchestra rather than pop tunes. He knew that he had to offer some set-up in the form of an opening crawl of text, just like the old Flash Gordon serials had. But he knew that if he landed that first scene of a spaceship being pursued by an impossibly larger spaceship, then he’d have the audience. He also knew that he had another hill to climb. The 1970s had been rough on America in particular, with Vietnam, Kent State, Watergate, and more. Hollywood was in an artistically successful period with dark dramas and disaster films that reflected the national mood. Lucas had to capture the viewer with the opening and maintain their interest in a kind of pure out-of-this-world escapism that was totally antithetical to what people had been watching for most of the decade.

In terms of reaching the audience on the broadest possible level, Lucas dug into myths and their themes and archetypes as explored in the writings of people like Joseph Campbell. In the documentary Empire of Dreams Lucas said, “I attribute most of the success to the psychological underpinnings because they’ve been there for thousands of years and people still react the same ways to the stories that they always have.” For the music, he leaned on composer John Williams to summon the kind of sound that would resonate as much as the themes; Williams looked to his own classical inspirations (like Holst) to pull out the emotional texture he wanted to create.

It all came together. And for millions of people, their imaginations were captured. Leave aside the franchise and the merchandising and everything else. Star Wars elevated the spirits of people who saw it. It made you believe that if THAT was possible on the screen, then anything was possible on the screen. It inspired filmmakers like Kevin Feige, who tried to get into Lucas’s USC alma mater five times before he made it, and who now runs Marvel Studios. It inspired countless others to try their hand at film or special effects or writing or acting. It provided endless fuel for cosplayers, with the massive 501st Legion group turning into a charitable organization as well.

It might be one thing if Star Wars was just a successful series of movies that sold a lot of toys and video games (and novels and comic books and wallpaper and so on). But it taps into the primal thing that Lucas was aiming for; it’s a modern interpretation of mythology that reflects our own aspirations and fears, our own views of light and darkness. That it’s stuck around so long isn’t such a tribute to the rewatchabliity of the films or the talents of the filmmakers at every level (though those are considerable). It’s an acknowledgment that some stories are just here to stay, with a different set of characters resonating or reconnecting with generations as they grow older or bring the next generation into the fold.

Star Wars still matters because story matters. It still matters because pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in film and in art and in life matters. It matters because sometimes the galaxy far, far away is better than what we’ve got now. And it still matters because it reminds us that people can take time where things aren’t very good, where the future in uncertain, and turn it into something worth celebrating. At least, that’s what that almost four-year-old thinks now.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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