I have two different identities when it comes to my love for movies. On one hand I am a film buff constantly reading about film history and learning as much as I can. On the other hand I am a film geek with enthusiasm for storytelling and high fantasy. The former identity can appreciate the artistry of Casablanca and West Side Story. The latter identity gets pumped whenever a new Spider-Man film comes out. Like Jekyll and Hyde, I have an analytical historian POV and an enthusiastic fanboy POV, which makes watching movies an appealing pastime for both my brain and my heart. The original 1977 Star Wars is a film that I love on a personal level. Not only is it literally my favorite film of all time. It is the movie that made me fall in love with movies. I’m almost certain you can track the founding of this blog back to my love for that film. It set me down the film geek path, but it’s also a film that appeals to my film historian side because in many ways it was the beginning of the modern era that the film industry currently occupies. But what exactly was it that differentiated Star Wars from other films and made it such a cultural phenomenon?
The period between 1967 and 1982 was the era of the New Hollywood. People like Warren Beatty, Dennis Hopper, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese were making new kinds of films that were more gritty and psychologically complex than previous films. Films like Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, The Godfather and Taxi Driver were way more violent and fearless in their realism, which was inspired by the films of Europe and the counterculture movement of the sixties, which revelled in authenticity. Suddenly movies were getting real.
But these were not the kinds of movies that geeks loved. Geeks love fantasy and science fiction. They didn’t want reality. They wanted to escape into worlds of spaceships, monsters, superheroes and wizards. The counterculture movement revelled in the real but geek culture revels in the unreal.
Which is why it was a good thing that some of Scorsese and Coppola’s filmmaking peers just so happened to be geeks. Steven Spielberg for example directed Jaws, which could have been another Roger Corman-esque B-movie monster flick but was instead a masterpiece because Spielberg took the story of a shark terrorizing a beach just as seriously as Coppola took his movie about gangsters in the mafia. Spielberg invented the modern blockbuster by applying New Hollywood craftsmanship to a simple story of man vs. monster, which was way more appealing to the majority of moviegoers than the drug-induced anti-establishment tale of Easy Rider.
Then came George Lucas.
Lucas recognized that action movie serials aimed at kids like Flash Gordon were poorly made, but he wondered what they would be like if they were “done really well,” grounded in reality and full of great characters like the films of the New Hollywood. Lucas couldn’t secure the rights to Flash Gordon so instead he created his own sci-fi story, a realistic and character-driven space epic with funny dialogue and relatable characters called “Star Wars.”
When Lucas sat down to create Star Wars, he was not only creating a story. He was inventing an entire galaxy with its own set of rules, the same way J.R.R. Tolkien created Middle-Earth for The Lord of the Rings. As a result, the script was long and elaborate, and the movie would eventually be shortened and start in the middle instead (hence the “Episode IV” in the title of the film’s 1997 re-release).
The story takes place in another galaxy a long time ago during a civil war in which rebel spies have stolen an evil empire’s electronic blueprints for the Death Star, a huge space station capable of destroying an entire planet. After retrieving the Death Star plans, Princess Leia of Alderaan plans to fly her starship to the desert planet of Tatooine to enlist the aid of a Jedi Knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi, but her ship is captured by another ship, the Imperial Star Destroyer which belongs to an evil cyborg named Darth Vader who serves the Empire and tries to take back their stolen plans.
But before Vader can reach them, Princess Leia hides the plans in the memory banks of an astromech droid named R2-D2 who uses an escape pod to fly to Tatooine. There it is discovered by a farm boy named Luke Skywalker. When Luke finds out the droid was meant for Obi-Wan Kenobi, an elderly hermit who used to serve the Rebel Alliance alongside Luke’s father, Luke decides to help Obi-Wan get the Droid back to Alderaan. They end up hiring a pilot and smuggler named Han Solo to fly them to Alderaan, all while being pursued by Darth Vader’s imperial troops as the Empire holds Princess Leia captive.
One of the most remarkable things about this movie was that when you were watching it, it felt like you were being thrown into a pre-existing universe where robots and aliens were seen as ordinary and supposedly important events like the Clone Wars are only referenced briefly and matter-of-factly, even though no one in 1977 knew what the Clone Wars were.
This was immersive and detailed storytelling to a degree never felt before in film. The fact that all the actors in the film played it straight and that there was no one in the story marvelling at the futuristic technology was a significant and welcome change of pace for a sci-fi film.
The reason why this is my favorite movie of all time is because almost everything about it is done in the best possible way. The writing was amazingly well done, the dialogue was believable, the acting was believable, the relationships between the characters were three-dimensional, the special effects were jaw-dropping, the stakes for the characters felt real and the comedy, drama and action were all brilliant and blended smoothly.
The film score by John Williams was a grand and symphonic change of pace from the otherworldly theremin-filled soundtracks of sci-fi films like Forbidden Planet. And even the sound effects by Ben Burtt were creative.
Realism had been applied to fantasy before with horror films like The Exorcist and Rosemary’s Baby, and even sci-fi films like 2001: A Space Odyssey. But what no one had ever seen before was a sophisticated sci-fi film that kids loved just as much as adults, and this would be a formula that Hollywood would try to copy for decades since with E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Jurassic Park, Tron, Back to the Future, and basically any family-friendly blockbuster.
Star Wars premiered on May 25, 1977 and became a huge box office hit and received critical acclaim. The movie was so huge that it ran in theaters for more than a year and made an impact on pop culture that is still felt to this day, spawning endless copycats and parodies, giving Hollywood a case of space fever and surprising even George Lucas with its level of fame.
It is probably not a coincidence that the biggest movie in Hollywood also happens to be my favorite movie of all time, so what is it that me and millions of fans love about Star Wars so much?
Speaking for myself, there is something that feels different about watching a Star Wars film compared to other films, and I am pretty sure it began with the first film, which made a huge impression on me by being basically the perfect movie all while appealing to my love for science and fantasy, but also for building a world that felt real.
Tolkien said that if you build a world with a consistent reality and its own set of rules, it will suspend your disbelief enough to make it feel like a real place, which draws you into that world even more. This is something only the best fiction can do. Marvel did it. Game of Thrones did it. Even Charles Schulz did it to an extent with Peanuts.
No popular series can be popular unless it feels real, and Star Wars goes above and beyond other series with its creative world-building. I can confirm that any time I watch something Star Wars-related, I think of it as checking in on characters who I love, which is why I loved watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars on Cartoon Network. I wanted to see what this briefly mentioned Clone War was like, and I also wanted to see what it was like when Obi-Wan fought side by side with Luke’s father.
This does not feel like a franchise to me. It feels like a place to visit. A place I want to visit over and over again. This universe is my Neverland. My Oz. My Narnia. The alternate dimension that I occupy at the same time as this dimension.