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?

And those were originals! There aren’t many true fans who love all 11 feature films–the “trinal triplicities” and the two one-off films–not to mention Star Wars books and serials beyond count. Everyone has something that trips them up in the universe they love. For me it is Hayden Christensen–the brooding emo-menace of Episode II that is worse, even, than the dead-on-the-production-floor film, Ewoks in Las Vegas. Worse even than Jar Jar Binks.

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. I lived in great envy for a great many years.

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 lightsabers. 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.e

Almost. It is still a painful, painful prequel, but the empire moved on with its own strengths and weaknesses in the sequel trilogy. Perhaps you disagree. 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 concludes, but fans are deeply 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 fall 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–no doubt enhanced by the fact that even if I could get to a theatre, there isn’t anything of this calibre worth watching that we might complain about. Nostalgia is pretty important right now.

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 near-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:

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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16 Responses to Why Did Star Wars Stick? #MayThe4thBeWithYou #StarWarsDay

  1. Pingback: Why Did Star Wars Stick? #MayThe4thBeWithYou #StarWarsDay – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  2. lolalwilcox says:

    The premise of George Lucas as Myth Maker matches Lucas’ own goals. He read Joseph Campbell’s *Hero with a 1000 Faces*, and scripted the original movie, the two sequels, and the arc of the three first films to the Hero’s Journey. It is so perfectly done I used the first film to illustrate the Hero’s Journey for years while teaching. The Hero’s Journey is an archetype that resonates in us; witness the 2020 film *My Octopus Teacher* as a very recent example.

    I was lucky enough to be at a Great Mother Conference in Mendocino with Joseph Campbell in 1985. The movie Cocoon had just come out, about retirement, and Campbell had retired and moved to Hawaii. So when he sat down at our lunch table and was met with silence (the Hero at our table!) I asked him if he had seen the movie. Campbell: No, Lola, I don’t go to movies. (Shock on my face – he laughed.) It takes us fifteen minutes to choose the movie, 45 minutes to drive to Honolulu, park. 2 hours for the movie and a coffee to discuss it. 45 minutes back… it’s four hours. That’s half a chapter.” (What an arrow that was to our aspiring hearts.) Lola: If you don’t go to movies, did you not see Star Wars? Campbell: Oh, yes. George Lucas invited me to a showing at Skywalker Ranch. I thought it followed the journey quite well.”

    I wish I’d been in on that conversation!

    On Tue, May 4, 2021 at 4:22 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? And t” >

    Like

    • Wow, super cool story! There are lots of Joseph Campbell interviews with quirky things, but that one is pretty great. Well done.
      And yes, I have used Episode 4 for the Hero’s Journey. It’s well done.

      Like

  3. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    “There aren’t many true fans who love all 11 feature films–the ‘trinal triplicities’ and the two one-off films–not to mention Star Wars books and serials beyond count. Everyone has something that trips them up in the universe they love.”

    Well said, and a good starting point for wondering who likes how much, and which bits, and why? And who is how badly tripped up, and alienated (!), by what? For instance, a fascinating feature of ‘universe building’ under Lucas is how much was allowed freely to proliferate as contributions by others, yet with a certain oversight as to ‘canon’ or ‘possible canon’ – all of which was formally swept away by the Disney Empire.

    An interesting question within this ‘neo-canonicalism’ is, what of The Mandalorian? (Season I in my experience being much better than any of whichever of the unmemorable post-Lucas feature films I consented to see, without having to cough up any money).

    Liked by 1 person

    • So briefly:
      Who does like what? I don’t know, but it seems like an increasing number of real fans hate everything. But I find that most people have their own likes and dislikes.
      Personally, I have decided to like almost everything. I can’t like Anakin…. I have tried. I like parts of those films now. But I’m overall very positive about most things.
      I really, really want to watch the Mandalorian. So I can’t speak yet, but I heard good things.
      And did you get the ‘trinal triplicities’ reference?

      Like

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Nope – it sounded both sonorous and accurate in its degree: now you ask, I began by checking Lewis’s ‘The Turn of the Tide’ (nope) and thinking it Charles-Williams-y sounding, without placing it, before succumbing to searching online: “Like as it had bene many an Angels voice, // Singing before th’ eternall maiesty, // In their trinall triplicities on hye.” – Spenser’s Faerie Queene, Book I, Canto XII, XXXIX, according to Wiktionary – which, thanks to the Internet Archive scan of J.C.Smith’s 1909 OUP ed., I see is correct. Wow – that asks, and inspires, some enjoyable brooding! How are the Star Wars films like the music at the wedding of St. George and Princess Una?

        Yet wist no creature, whence that heauenly sweet
        Proceeded, yet eachone felt secretly
        Himselfe thereby reft of his sences meet,
        And rauished with rare impression in his sprite.

        As you suggest, the degree of ravishment, the force of mysterious ‘sweetness’, varies widely over the trinal triplicities plus two for different fans. I’ve taken the second trilogy, as authorial, as something I have variously enjoyed but never yet really thought through in detail – cute boy genius Anakin, to largely unimpressive horse’s ass teenager, turned mass-murderous Darth Vader. (I do enjoy the Darth Jar-Jar thesis, though!) The later movies seem too like Duessa has succeeded in messing up the wedding, though. Those “Star Wars books and serials beyond count”, ‘decanonied but not dethroned’ as it were, have lots of interesting things, as far as I have glimpsed – from, e.g., the original Knights of the Old Republic computer game play, and the curious John Whitman Galaxy of Fear ‘young readers’ series (many of which we read aloud en famille back in the day!).

        Liked by 1 person

        • Great response, David! It is a bit of a cheat on my part. I have struggled through Spencer, but I was listening to a new audio edition (which is well done, the first I think) of C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image and heard the phrase ” Singing before th’ eternall maiesty, / In their trinall triplicities on hye.” So I thought it would fit nicely here for three linked trinities of ideas.
          All this gives me nostalgia!

          Like

  4. Lucas was a big fan of Joseph Campbell iirc, too

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      I wonder if Lucas knew the work of that great Canadian, Northrop Frye, as well? His Anantomy of Criticism came out in 1957, when George Lucas was 13, and Fables of Identity: Studies in Poetic Mythology (1963) and The Educated Imagination (1964) appeared while he was in high school…

      Liked by 2 people

      • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

        Anatomy!

        Liked by 1 person

      • I didn’t realize that Northrop Frye was Canadian.

        Lucas actually said he was basing his plots on Campbell’s Hero Journey.

        My late friend/acquaintance Stratford Caldecott managed to map Lord of the Rings onto the Hero Journey too. (I refer you to Stratford’s book, Secret Fire.)

        Liked by 1 person

        • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

          Thank you! I have a happy sense of Stratford Caldecott, but have only read short works by him, so far.

          When I was in school, I heard an interesting pair of guest lectures at a local university by Joseph Campbell on Dante and Hindu mysticism.

          I did not have the sense of how very attentive to Canadian literature Frye was, until checking publication dates in his Wikipedia articles (in various languages: Italian has more detail than English!) for my previous comment. For instance: The Bush Garden: Essays on the Canadian Imagination (1971), Divisions on a Ground: Essays on Canadian Culture (1982), Reflections on the Canadian Literary Imagination: A Selection of Essays (1991), and the posthumous Mythologizing Canada: Essays on the Canadian Literary Imagination (1997).

          Liked by 2 people

        • I have heard the Campbell-Lucas link (and note above too, a personal testimony to that). I wonder how Northrop Frye was viewed outside of Canada. In Canada he was a huge figure–so big as a teacher and public intellectual that my colleague Joe Velaidum’s thesis about him as a United Church minister was shocking to some people. Frye is pretty important in my own work–early on in thinking about literature and theology integratively, and then later as a conversation partner about patterns and images.
          I wish that I had allowed Frye to be a more important figure when I was doing actual biblical studies! But I discovered his Anatomy of Criticism in a Salvation Army store and it took a lot of years for me to understand its significance.
          David, I do like the idea of “Anantomy of Criticism.” Perhaps an “Entomy of Criticism” is one day appropriate?

          Liked by 1 person

          • I had heard of Frye but didn’t know that he was Canadian and have never read any of his work or seen it referenced very much — and as I have studied a related subject at university, you’d think it would have come up.

            Liked by 1 person

          • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

            We read Frye as U.S. English-Lit undergrads, and I remember lots of mainstream U.S. press and television attention to him, too (e.g., when a new book of his was published).

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Experimenting on Students: A Thought about Playfulness and Personal Connection in Teaching | A Pilgrim in Narnia

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