An Analysis – The Legacy of Star Wars
The legacy of Star Wars is so large that it has surpassed the films themselves.
Toys, lunch boxes, shirts, books, comics, video games, cereal – the list goes on and on. The following this franchise has is unlike anything we’ve seen. Just about everybody who has an interest in popular culture has at least heard of it, and hardcore fans can recall even the tiniest details of the movies. Go out on the street, and you’re bound to find at least one person who knows what “The Force” is. There are people right now playing Star Wars videogames. It’s the subject of hundreds (if not thousands) of online think pieces, this one included.
The fandom has become such a phenomenon that the sheer enthusiasm people have may even eclipse the quality of the actual pictures. From 1977 to the time of this writing, only six cinematic entries have been released: the original trilogy (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi) and the prequels (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith). All six have their positives and negatives, but most would agree that the prequel trilogy is a far step down from the original three. Many complain of the terrible dialogue, the ridiculous visual effects, and the incoherent plotting. Nobody cared about trade routes or senate hearings in what was supposed to a space adventure, and don’t even get me started on Jar Jar Binks. A New Hope (1977) and The Empire Strikes Back (1980) are considered classics, and Return of the Jedi (1983) is still fun despite its issues (which we’ll discuss later). So how is it that a franchise with as many missteps as successes leave such a massive cultural impact?
In retrospect, it’s funny to think that George Lucas had a difficult time making the first film. He had to fight tooth and nail to get his vision on the big screen, and many (including Lucas himself) thought it would be a flop. Stories set in space was not popular at the time. Some theaters initially refused to show it. Of course, history would prove everyone’s expectations wrong, as it would go on to be one of the biggest hits ever, pulling in critical and financial success, spring boarding the franchise to what it is today. Along with Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), Star Wars would effectively shut down the “new American cinema” of the late 1960s and early 70s, ushering in the big budget blockbusters of the 80s going forward. All this coming from the guy who originally set out to be an independent “artist,” separate from the studio system.
For better or worse, Lucas changed the game by bringing things back to simpler times, to the era of escapism. Above all, the genius of George Lucas was his ability to find the sweet spot for his narrative, where what he wanted to tell spread beyond generations. This is the pinnacle of how a movie can be enjoyed by an entire family. Older people could relate to the references he gave to the sci-fi serials of the 50s, namely Flash Gordon or Buck Rogers. Younger audiences gravitated to the awe-inspiring special effects. Fans of art house took to Lucas’ admiration for foreign filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa. And everyone could relate to the classic hero story, as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) fulfilled his destiny: stopping the evil Empire and bringing balance to The Force. Characterizations were clearly defined and easy to understand. The adventure swept viewers off their feet, letting them – for a short while – forget the troubles of Vietnam, Watergate, and the ongoing social injustices that lingered in people’s minds. It was a case of being at the exact right place at the exact right time, and to Lucas’ credit, he took full advantage of it. He created the modern “pop corn movie,” and studios changed their financial plans accordingly. In his book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, writer Peter Biskind quotes George Lucas as saying, “Popcorn pictures have always ruled. Why do people go see them? Why is the public so stupid? That’s not my fault.”
There were better movies that came before and after, and franchises that were more consistent in quality, but none have reached the universal embrace that Star Wars has on the big screen. Not Indiana Jones, or Back to the Future, or James Bond. The only one that comes close is Star Trek, and that has more to do with its presence on television. One of the biggest accomplishments of Star Wars is in its nostalgia factor. Because it had the ability to reach such a wide audience, people were able to come together through a shared experience. Hardcore fans could recall the first time they saw it, and share the different aspects they enjoyed the most. Conventions are held to celebrate the franchise, and every Halloween it’s almost a guarantee you’ll see someone in a storm trooper or Jedi costume. The culture has become more than just movies, it’s become a commodity. George Lucas had the foresight to obtain the merchandising rights, making him wealthy beyond measure and endowing us with more swag than our closets and bookshelves can hold.
But within this culture comes a fascinating dynamic between the franchise, George Lucas, and the fan base. The love of Lucas’ saga is so strong that when something goes wrong within that sphere, it’s met with a “love/hate” reaction. We can see the cracks start to show in the original trilogy. Lucas has never been the best writer, and his dialogue has always had its problems going all the way back to A New Hope. It’s well documented that Lucas had deficiencies at directing performances, and that is noticeable in some of the stilted interactions. Luke does come off a bit whiny early on, and Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) accent changes seemingly at random. A lot of that was addressed when The Empire Strikes Back was released, because Lucas took a producer’s seat that time, allowing more experienced filmmakers like Irvin Kershner (director) and Leigh Brackett/Lawrence Kasdan (screenplay) to helm the storytelling. But this was always Lucas’ vision, and it was with Return of the Jedi where his shortcomings started to take root.
Return of the Jedi is a good, entertaining picture, but it is a flawed one. The inconsistencies of tone, the thin plotting, the disregard of characterization and higher focus on spectacle dropped this from the heights Empire reached. It’s also really goofy. There’s no question that children were a target audience, but in the third installment the production started to cater directly to them. There’s a sense that the Ewoks were introduced specifically for this, and the way they were able to help take down the most oppressive power in the entire galaxy using sticks and rocks didn’t make much sense. The silliness of the Ewoks, combined with what was supposed to be the dramatic climax between Luke and Darth Vader created an imbalance that the film never really recovered from.