With just nine films spanning 42 years, barely some 1000 minutes of storytelling, Star Wars‘ claim as the most influential piece of pop culture in the modern cinema age seems almost modest. Its story – of Jedi knights, Sith lords, the Empire and the rebellion – concludes when the final chapter, The Rise of Skywalker, is released next month, but it leaves behind a complex cultural legacy.
Star Wars gave us the female action heroine in Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia Organa, the cinematic prototype for a generation of women of action: Ellen Ripley in Alien, Sarah Connor in The Terminator, Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and even Elsa in Frozen. She may have been a thin feminist feather in the cap of a film whose only other substantive female character is Luke Skywalker’s Aunt Beru, but she mattered enormously.
A potent figure of female primacy, Princess Leia, with her signature hairstyle, stood toe to toe with Darth Vader and showed no fear, choked the gangster Jabba the Hutt with the exploitative chains that bound her to him and, unlike the smuggler Han Solo – whose did-he-or-didn’t-he equivocacy has perplexed director George Lucas for decades – when confronted with Imperial stormtroopers Leia shot first.
George Lucas made the original film after he was unable to secure the rights to Flash Gordon and decided instead to make his own. “I’m trying to make a classic sort of genre picture, a classic space fantasy in which all the influences are working together,” Lucas told American Cinematographer magazine. “There are certain traditional aspects of the genre I wanted to keep and help perpetuate in Star Wars.”
Proving it takes a village to raise a blockbuster, Star Wars had many parents: Lucas’s close friend Steven Spielberg, his producer Gary Kurtz, Brian De Palma, who helped write the “opening crawl” story setup (“It is a period of civil war …”) that became one of the signature elements of the franchise, John Dykstra and Ben Burtt, who created its pioneering special and sound effects, and Ralph McQuarrie, whose sketches were the blueprints for its production design.
But Star Wars was still a hard sell. Universal turned it down, as did Disney – though they would acquire Lucasfilm decades later for US$4 billion. A deal was struck with 20th Century Fox and what was known in its early drafts as The Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Starkiller was filmed in 1976, in Chott el Djerid, Tunisia (for Tattooine), the Mayan ruins of Tikal National Park, Guatemala (the rebel base on Yavin), and Elstree Studios, near London, where nine soundstages were turned into the Mos Eisley cantina, the X-wing hangar and the Death Star.
During production it quietly transformed the special effects industry. The original film used matte paintings on glass and miniature models, but later pioneered a push into digital computer-generated effects and, more recently, human motion capture. In almost beggars belief, in hindsight, that Dykstra achieved the spectacular destruction of the Death Star at the original film’s conclusion by exploding a box of titanium shavings.
The film opened on May 25, 1977 and was a smash hit. It stayed in cinemas for a year, spawned a billion-dollar merchandise industry which ran the gamut from the obvious – bedsheets, model starships and Kenner action figures which are now valuable collector’s items – to the dubious, including Darth Vader handheld shower heads, Death Star waffle makers and, more recently, Le Creuset Han Solo carbonite cookware.
Thanks too to the simultaneous arrival of the soon-ubiquitous video-cassette recorder (VCR), the film was replayed in homes around the world until the magnetic tape of the VHS cassette was worn thin and a generation of children knew every line of the film by heart, from “Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope” to “May the Force be with you”.
An estimated 88 million tickets to Star Wars were sold in the US alone – around 40 per cent of the population – pushing the film to a US$775 million box office. Globally the franchise it built has since earned almost US$10 billion. All of that off a movie with an US$11 million budget that many wrote off before it had been made.
Star Wars gave Hollywood the “tentpole” film and it gave writer/director storytellers a new framework, the cinematic trilogy – though the three-part story was a well-established form, from Sophocles’ Oedipus cycle in Ancient Greece to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. On the cinema screen it would be followed by Indiana Jones, Back to the Future, The Matrix and The Dark Knight.
The tendrils of its impact can be seen everywhere: SpaceX named their first rocket the Falcon 1 after Han Solo’s ship the Millennium Falcon, it was parodied on stage as the musical The Force and I and in the realm of science it has been used to name everything from bacteria (Midichloria) to hermaphroditic acorn worms (Yoda purpurata). The Jedi faith has been adapted into a real-world religion, Jediism, and it even won the great honour of a Mad magazine parody, Star Roars, in 1978. Today the internet is awash with video tutorials demonstrating how to create the perfect Princess Leia hair buns.
Two more Star Wars “trilogies” followed, the prequels beginning with The Phantom Menace in 1991 and the sequels beginning with The Force Awakens in 2015, exposing the democracy of fandom in ways that earlier franchises such as Star Trek had merely brushed against. The fans had built Lucasfilm with dollars spend on movie tickets and Kenner toys and, for the first time in popular culture, their disapproval found voice.
“Whatever the merits of the original Star Wars, the empire it spawned is not about art, it’s not even about myth, it’s about money,” The Hollywood Reporter‘s executive editor Stephen Galloway wrote in 2016, criticising the franchise for allowing “brands to become more important than the artistry behind them. Star Wars may not have been a great movie from an artistic point of view but it was a perfect petri for the clones to come.”
And yet Star Wars also gave rise to a generation of disciple filmmakers, such as Ron Howard, Peter Jackson, J.J. Abrams, Damon Lindelof, Guillermo del Toro and Jon Favreau, all of whom have followed Lucas and his Indiana Jones collaborator Steven Spielberg as master storytellers in an old tradition.
Jackson, who directed The Lord of the Rings, says Lucas “opened the door for me to make films … in a way I could have barely dreamt of doing before Star Wars, [allowing] me to transfer images directly from my imagination onto the screen. The same would be true of most filmmakers working today. He is the Thomas Edison of the modern film industry.”
Del Toro credits Lucas with flipping the notion that science fiction was a “highly polished, pristine” environment. “He made it feel mundanely used; things were rotting or things were oxidised and rusty, it was a lived-in universe,” del Toro says. “It was a genre that was on the verge of self-parody when Star Wars came out and all of a sudden it became so huge.”
The secret, Del Toro says, is that Star Wars was never properly science fiction, but rather science fantasy. “It’s a tale of princes and princesses and evil wizards … George combines, in a majestic way, the best of Tolkien, the best of Nordic lore, the best of science fiction,” Del Toro says. “All of this appetite that he has for these mythologies, all packed into one movie. He’s created something that is unique in film history.”
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens December 19.
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.