It’s an interesting question. Cheesy lines, over-the-top acting, zippers up the back of the monster’s costume–how many films just like it have found their way into the Betamax bins of history? If we are to believe the writers of That ’70s Show, it is the keen action and the super duper special effects. But there is also something more. Watch the first 3 minutes of the famous ’70s Show episode, “A New Hope.”
The entire episode is filled with nostalgia, hilarious throwbacks to the original series. The nostalgia continues to this day, from reproductions of Star Wars lunch boxes to celebrated Goodwill discoveries. Though it was almost lost in the incredibly painful second film of the prequel series, Attack of the Clones, the third episode, Revenge of the Sith, begins to recover the things we loved most about the original three.
Now we can look forward to a new episode this Christmas. And, predictably, it is filled with nostalgia:
“Chewy, we’re home.” Classic.
But, nostalgia for what? There has to be something at the core of the series, beyond cheese and lights. Why has it stuck with us?
I think the answer is hidden in this long lost trailer from 1977.
In the days after Saturday Night Live and Spaceballs and The Simpsons, it’s hard not to imagine going into the theatre in 1977 and expecting a spoof. Perhaps we’ve lost our innocence as a culture.
And it is also easy to forget how far special effects has come. When you live in a generation where you can use shareware software to stage an at-home light saber battle, 20th century effects won’t impress us much.
The films that visually impressed me the most growing up–Toy Story, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Matrix, Shrek, and Inception–had more to them than technology. 2012 is a good example of a film with no story and a pretty dumb premise but pretty good effects.
No, I think the reason we love Star Wars is that it goes deeper into our cultural consciousness than we can imagine. Look at the stunning statements made by the trailer:
“an adventure unlike anything on your planet”
“the story of a boy, a girl, and a universe”
“a big, sprawling space saga of rebellion and romance”
“it’s a spectacle light years ahead of its time”
“it’s an epic of heroes and villains and aliens from a thousand worlds”
“a billion years in the making: Star Wars”
Then the flash of light.
George Lucas is, I think, at the deepest level a mythmaker. He certainly is a genius SciFi world-builder. He takes the universe-changing work of Larry Niven and Frank Herbert to a new level with his own mythic Empire. But while Ringworld and Dune are set in the future, Star Wars is set in the deep past.
Star Wars isn’t just adventure. Star Wars is mythology.
In this sense, I think that as much as George Lucas relies on the SF masters, he is also a deep reader of the master myth-maker, J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien understood the project of mythopoiea at the most intimate level, shaping Middle Earth out of a worldview that is entirely consistent with itself. Moreover, Tolkien’s project does what myth always does: it tells us about the present world. Myths are never really buried in the past. True myths, the good ones, will resonate again and again through cultures that appear long after the myth-making culture has slipped into legend.
That’s why I think Star Wars has lasted. Beyond big names and big budgets and super duper effects, when you watch Star Wars you get the sense that it really is a film “a billion years in the making.” It is a story that tells all our stories, a myth speaks to us today.
Really, it’s a film that’s worth feeling nostalgic about. May the Fourth be With You!