Why Did Star Wars Stick? #MayThe4thBeWithYou #StarWarsDay

star wars logoAs much as we wonder about it, it’s a question that is not perfectly easy to answer. 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?

Yet, Star Wars lives–not only lives, but thrives, growing in popularity as its universe of characters grows. While the Marvel Universe films have become the kings of the opening weekend, Star Wars is still a giant in a land of grasshoppers. Star Wars still beats out Harry Potter, Bond, The Lord of the Rings, and all the other comic book cinematic empires. It’s hard to beat the Japanese for pop culture or children’s entertainment for eager consumers. In total media franchise sales Pokémon and Hello Kitty lead the world, with Winnie-the-Pooh and Micky not far behind. When it comes to total economic impact, Star Wars continues to outpace Harry Potter and the Marvel Cinematic Universe combines (see the infographic below).

Let’s be honest: I still wish I had an ’80s classic Millennium Falcon.

Why did Star Wars stick? 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 little bit of the famous ’70s Show episode, “A New Hope.”

The entire episode is filled with nostalgia and hilarious throwbacks to the original series. The nostalgia continues to this day, from reproductions of Star Wars lunch boxes to celebrated Goodwill discoveries of Chewy pyjamas and broken light sabres. 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.

Almost. It is still a painful, painful prequel, but the empire moved on with its own strengths and weaknesses in the sequel trilogy. The Last Jedi was a complex and perhaps failed film, though one I quite loved. The first two parts of the sequel are echoes or mirrors of the original series, and the Rise of Skywalker conclusion brings that saga to a close. Critics are mixed on the way the series concluded, but fans are torn. The trilogy that concludes the Skywalker trilogy is cinematically brilliant but the storylines don’t always land. Some of the characters brighten up and fill out that world, while others fell with a thud.

Personally, I think the Skywalker Saga closes the 2010s–the decade of nostalgia–pretty well. I love these films, even as digital waggery and character fails replace stage acting and zippers on costumes. I am content with what we have, even having loved the standalone Rogue One–you gotta love a director who has the courage to kill almost every character on his payroll. And although Ron Howard is always better with his partner Brian Grazer, Solo, one of the most expensive films ever made, deserved my $15.

I recognize that a lot of this is memory building and nostalgia. But I don’t think that’s a problem. We see this in the tone set by the very first J.J. Abrams episode, The Force Awakens. Predictably, it was filled with nostalgic moments:

“Chewy, we’re home.” Classic.

Über critical fans did not like it, I think. To them, it looked like a commercial grab for the fans of the past blended with a technological capability George Lucas could only have dreamed of. Personally, I loved the new characters and think the visual technologies have finally found their home.

There are problems in the logic of the series and the storylines. Star Wars still fails to answer its own question of providential luck–characters in The Force Awakens find each other across staggering distances or in buildings of infinite complexity–and Rogue One, despite its apocalyptic air, still carries that part of the myth on. But I like how the final trilogy is paced, and although there are huge gaps, and a gaff or two, it fits well into the Star Wars universe. More than nostalgic, The Force Awakens is framed up like a remake of A New Hope.

Imperial-class Star Destroyers wrenched into the sands of an alien world, Darth Vader’s mask from the flames, R2D2, the ping-pwang of laser fire: nostalgia, certainly. The deconstruction of the old series in The Last Jedi only adds to the nostalgia, even as it usurps it. But, nostalgia for what? There has to be something at the core of the series, beyond cheese and lights. Why has Star Wars 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 these days.

And it is also easy to forget how far the art and science of special effects has come. When you live in a generation where you can use shareware software to stage an at-home light sabre battle for Youtube, 20th-century effects won’t impress us much. Think of Hugo, The Life of Pi, Inception, The Jungle Book, and Harry Potter–an almost random collection of films from this decade from five different genres that have special effects unlike anything imagined by the human race in my childhood.

star wars posterBut it isn’t just effects is it?.

The films that visually impressed me the most growing up–Toy Story, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Matrix, Shrek, and, more recently, 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.

A_long_time_ago prologueGeorge 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, like The Lord of the Rings, 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. For all their flaws, I think Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams get the myth in us.

At the centre, then, it is not just about nostalgia–which is no bad thing–but about our deepest realities of being human.  May the 4th be With You always!

star wars box 1979

Plus, this is amazing:s

The Infographic from TitleMax:

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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7 Responses to Why Did Star Wars Stick? #MayThe4thBeWithYou #StarWarsDay

  1. I still remember watching the original Star Wars movie on first release – and that it took two attempts to get in at my local cinema in Napier, New Zealand. Everybody wanted to see it. I was totally blown away. I’ve quite liked the franchise since – I’m not a crazy-wild enthusiast type of fan, but I think the ‘Star Wars’ universe can be a lot of fun and, at its best, it speaks to those deeper mythological themes that flow through so much of our imaginings.

    The original still stands out, though, because at the time I suspect Lucas never expected to make more, so it was a more fully self-contained tale. And he was definitely creating a new form of mythology in that cultural sense – I mean, he had Joseph Campbell in on script-advice; and the story was the archetypal hero journey – just like The Hobbit and Wizard of Oz (the latter in some detail, I mean the Tin Man and C3P0…?). I suspect this was a large part of the appeal: that movie, particularly, spoke to our deeper selves at the time. Add to that the ground-breaking special effects of the day and Lucas’ other intention to echo everything from WW1 air-action movies to Flash Gordon, and it had every potential to engage emotionally on multiple levels, from that sense of inner emotional journey right up to vicarious thrill. Looking back, that’s why it grabbed me.

    Have the later ones matched that? Not so much: to me the movies have been quite variable and the last couple were formulaic. They’ve also had too much saccharine for my liking: mythology, as a reflection of human realities, can’t elide the dimensionality of character. Matter of personal taste, I guess. On the other hand, there’s today’s news that my fellow Kiwi, Taika Waititi, will be writing and directing the next one. If the studio let him, I’m sure he’ll come up with something brilliant.

    Like

    • Awesome story. I am too young for the originals, and saw them in livingrooms on bad TVs along the way.
      This is a super ECHO film series, isn’t it? Especially the first three. I suspect that has to do with how e read and watch today, but we see very other-soaked films today like Easy A and Stranger THings.

      Like

  2. Aonghus Fallon says:

    I haven’t seen any of the subsequent films and the last time I saw the original trilogy was coincidentally the first time – in a dusty old cinema on O’Connell Street. That trilogy was a gamechanger in (I reckon) two fundamental ways. Firstly, Lucas/Spielberg’s films were very different from – say – 2001: A Space Odyssey. This was an intergalactic world full of scavengers and people surviving on the fringes of civilisation, a staple of many SF books back then, but not really a feature of the few SF films that did get made. The vibe was more spaghetti western than SF. Secondly it tapped into certain preoccupations that were very much a feature of the day and which are now largely discredited or forgotten: ESP, levitation, a life-force that can be directed or exploited for good or ill etc, etc – in the same way as a lot of 50’s SF tapped into fears about communism to create stories about bodysnatchers etc. I say the trilogy was a gamechanger, but it was also very much of its time – which is a big part of its charm for me (and one reason why I never watched any sequels).

    Like

    • Spaghetti Western, yes, great term. But the way Spaghetti Westerns get taken up by Japan but then reintroduced to the Wester.
      I hadn’t thought of the spiritualism aspects. I have done some reading on the monomyth and Joseph Campbell and the like

      Like

  3. lolalwilcox says:

    The great truth is, as you say, “George Lucas is, I think, at the deepest level, a mythmaker.” “Star Wars isn’t just adventure. Star Wars is mythology.”

    Here’s a story for you: In 1985 Robert Bly invited Joseph Campbell to the Great Mother Conference (GMC) in Mendocino CA. Joseph and his dancer wife, Jean Erdman, had retired and relocated to Hawai’i. At the GMC Joseph would join in the meal time conversations – it was a big campsite and meals were times of deep, constructive conversations about the material we were being taught. Joseph drew us the hero/ine’s wheel, which I talk about here: https://lolawilcox.com/the-transformation-journey/

    What’s important to this email happened at lunch. When the “god” joined our lunch table a respectful silence fell. I had just seen the movie Cocoon, about retirees, and threw out the conversation opener: “Have you and Jean seen the movie Cocoon?” Joe: No, I don’t go to movies. (general table reactions; you have to know he always had a twinkle in his eye) Lola: Why don’t you go to movies? Joe: From deciding which movie to see, driving into town, going to it, catching a meal and discussing it afterwards, and coming back home takes about four hours. (pause) That’s half a chapter.” (This particular comment revolutionized my choices in life, but that’s not the point of this story either.) Lola: But… but haven’t you seen Star Wars? I know George Lucas built it on the Hero’s Wheel. (I genuinely was distressed that he hadn’t seen this great honoring of his work.) Joe: Yes, I’ve seen it. George flew me to the ranch to see it. He did a very good job.” It was a lively table conversation after that.

    It’s one of those moments when I longed to have been there also, even as a fly on the wall.

    Lucas was 100% conscious about building Star Wars to the myth – for years I used clips of the movie to teach the sequence. It moves exactly through the sequence as Joe outlined it at the GMC.

    ……………

    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. For all their flaws, I think Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams get the myth in us.

    At the centre, then, it is not just about nostalgia–which is no bad thing –but about our deepest realities of being human. May the 4th be With You always!

    On Mon, May 4, 2020 at 7:02 AM A Pilgrim in Narnia wrote:

    > Brenton Dickieson posted: “As much as we wonder about it, it’s a question > that is not perfectly easy to answer. 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? Yet” >

    Like

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