For many, the 25th of May is a date that will pass by with no significance. However, if you are part of the great fraternity of Star Wars fans, today is a keystone date for the sci-fi classic that changed the world.
On this day, 40 years ago, 20th Century Fox released the low budget sci-fi space opera to only a handful of cinemas. With a limited budget, relatively unknown cast and an ambitious fantasy story, not much was expected from the bizarrely named Star Wars. Even the film’s director George Lucas, best known at the time for his classic retro coming-of-age tale American Graffiti, felt the film would underperform against close friend Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
What was released was more than just a film; it was a cultural phenomenon.
Forty years later, the Star Wars brand is still going strong. The ninth overall film and second in the sequel trilogy is due to be released, expected to earn over $1 billion at the box office. TV shows, video games and merchandising are only the tip of what Star Wars represents as it has become a core aspect of Western culture, one that symbolises it to the outside world.
So on the 40th anniversary of Star Wars debut release, we have decided to use this momentous occasion to examine the impact that Star Wars has had on the world and ask, just how did a movie change the world?
1. The Blockbuster
The concept of a blockbuster was nothing new in 1977. Hollywood has always valued the impact of large-scale filmmaking, utilising big stars, epic stories and grand set pieces. Classics such as Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments already left a large impression on audiences, able to merge personal tales with grand spectacle. Even Jaws, released just two years prior, is credited with creating the summer blockbuster. So how does Star Wars fit in?
With only a small budget, an original idea and limited cinematic release, Star Wars still managed to defy expectation, including those of Lucas, and became arguably one of the most successful films ever released. Overnight, the Hollywood model changed forever. Smaller pictures carried by big names were no longer the key source of revenue for studios. High concept ideas were suddenly the craze.
Star Wars was not without criticism with legendary film critic Pauline Kael dismissing Star Wars as “an epic without a dream”. Some were even harsher. Historian and critic Peter Biskind accused both George Lucas and Steven Spielberg of ending the Golden Age of cinema, made prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, leading to the Hollywood of today: an assembly line of mediocre blockbusters and Oscar bait vanity pieces.
Regardless of one’s personal feelings on the state of Hollywood, it is impossible to ignore the significance that Star Wars has over this shift.
The documentary The People vs. George Lucas, released in 2010, was an examination of the fan culture surrounding the Star Wars franchise. One moment that stood out from the film was one shared belief amongst all the interviewees: that Star Wars made fun important. While the subjects had in some way turned their love of Star Wars into a career, each of them still emphasised how important a culture of fun is to a society.
Not only did Star Wars represent a culture of fun, it also became so familiar that it has been used as a reference point from a political and religious perspective. In Ukraine, following the 2014 revolution, the nation went through a period of decommunisation, where the government attempted to remove any landmark that commemorated Communism. One statue of Vladimir Lenin in the city of Odessa was converted into a statue of Darth Vader. Perhaps it was a cheeky comparison between the two or maybe it was the perfect counter-cultural symbol for a more Westernised Ukraine. The country even went further as 2014 elections across the country saw characters such as Darth Vader, Yoda and Chewbacca running for the senate.
But it was not just politics that was impacted by people’s love of Star Wars. Since 2001, several nations, including the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand, saw a sharp increase in the number of people marking Jedi as their official religion in their country’s census. While some saw this as a joke, for others, it was a phenomenon that illustrated a change in values as more and more people rejected the importance of religion in national data collection.
It is almost impossible to miss Star Wars’ influence on so many aspects of the world around us. Dozens of filmmakers, including the likes of James Cameron, J.J. Abrams, John Lasseter, David Fincher, Peter Jackson, Joss Whedon, Christopher Nolan and Ridley Scott have all credited Star Wars as inspiration for their own careers, projects and style.
The saying goes that satire is the best form of flattery and, when it comes to Star Wars, there is a lot of flattery. One of the earliest spoofs of Star Wars was Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs, taking aim at not only the genre and saga tropes but also targeting Star Wars’ merchandising. However, even forty years later, the original films are still being spoofed through cartoons including The Simpsons, Family Guy and Robot Chicken.
Outside of film and television, Star Wars’ influence can even be detected in literature, music, art, design, fashion and comedy.
4 . Media Convergence/Fan Participation
A relatively new concept in the media world, convergence is the term used for the merging of multiple media platforms, technologies and forms for the purpose of networking and expanding the influence of a certain product. Since computers and the Internet have become a staple for the majority of homes in the Western world, fan participation through convergence has become not only the norm but actively encouraged.
Fans of Star Wars have been able to express their love through multiple forms of fan fiction including literature, art and, most famously, film. Since 1977, having almost become a genre in themselves, hundreds of fan films have been produced ranging from spoofs to remakes to original tales set within the universe. Fans have produced these films using whatever means were available to them. Some were modestly budgeted films with costumes, sets and special effects. Others were crudely made with animation and even action figures shot with stop-motion.
Not only are these films, along with all fan fiction, allowed by LucasFilm, they are encouraged. Since 2002, the studio has accepted submissions that are entered into the Official Star Wars Fan Film Awards.
Some examples of great fan films include Hardware Wars, Troops, Duality, Thumb Wars and, most recently, Darth Maul: Apprentice, all of which can be found on YouTube.
When discussing Star Wars merchandise in The People vs. George Lucas, one fan pondered over the landfills that will one day be filled with all the discarded toys, clothing, lunch boxes and other branded items. Suffice to say a lot of junk has been sold with Star Wars attached to it.
Famously, in 1977, toy stores only purchased a certain amount of action figures for the Christmas period, not expecting many sales. The limited number of toys turned out to be so popular that the stores quickly ran out and resorted to selling empty boxes with the promise of supplying the intended toy once they were restocked.
Before Star Wars, the idea of making money off merchandising was so far fetched that when Lucas agreed to pass up a $500,000 director’s fee in exchange for the merchandising rights, 20th Century did not even blink. A decision that turned out to be a big mistake, a $20 billion mistake.
Since then, Star Wars has been found in action figures, Lego, video games, clothing, food, hygiene products, beds, books and other accessories.
6 . Fandom
Us Star Wars fans are a peculiar bunch.
Outsiders may call us nerds and weirdos but even we must look at ourselves and acknowledge our own obsessive behaviour as a whole. Our dedication and love for everything Star Wars can range from the obsessive to the downright strange to sometimes the profoundly beautiful. Ask anyone how they picture a Star Wars fan and in return, you may hear about stereotypical nerds that watch the movies continuously, collect every bit of merchandising available, quote lines verbatim and attend conventions dressed as our favourite characters.
While it is hard to argue against this, Star Wars fandom can actually be credited with so much more. Not only was Star Wars one of the first to encourage fan interaction through blogs and fan films, it was responsible for making nerd culture mainstream. Before 1977, interest in science fiction was seen as niche. Something reserved for nerds, usually resulting in a stereotypical divide between nerds and jocks. However, Star Wars opened up nerd culture and blurred the lines between jock and nerd. Fans of the series can range from any profession to any interest group.
While the series has also lead to a number of humorous stories of fandom gone too far, such as the Sydney father taking his spouse to court for the right to name his child after Darth Vader, it has also created communities that link fans across the globe. The most famous of which is the 501st Legion. Started in 1997, the Legion is made up of fans that dress up as Stormtroopers and participate in cultural events and aid others in creating their own uniforms. The Legion, however, is also renowned for its community involvement. Various garrisons around the globe take part in charity events, visit hospitals, attend conventions and promote Star Wars to younger generations. Fan culture can be found in multiple forms of popular culture. Musicians, movies, television shows, sports and celebrities can all be the basis for a devoted fan base, but Star Wars was one of the first to turn it into a community.
From the moment the opening credits finished and audiences watched an immense Empire Star Destroyer fly over their seats, chasing a much smaller Rebel Alliance Blockade Runner, cinema changed forever. The sheer epic nature of this shot, mixed with the revolutionary use of sound and a unique camera angle created something brand new. The limitations of what we could see were suddenly challenged for the first time since the world was introduced to the work of special effects genius Ray Harryhausen.
However, while Star Wars’ impact on practical and special effects was profound, the film also had another impact on cinema: it inspired a generation of renegade filmmaking.
While Star Wars was a studio film under the direction of 20th Century Fox and studio head Alan Ladd Jr, Lucas’ style of independent filmmaking, especially after his experience shooting the original Star Wars, was ambitious. After realising that most studios would borrow the money for films from banks, Lucas decided to cut the middleman out and make himself the boss on subsequent sequels.
Independent filmmaking went through something of a renaissance in the years that followed with Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies and Videotape, Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Richard Linklater’s Slackers and Kevin Smith’s Clerks were all small, independent films that launched successful careers outside the studio system. Star Wars may now be considered the ultimate studio franchise (especially after its recent purchase by Disney) but it was Lucas’ unique work ethic and style that got the idea off the ground and helped bring one of the most original and life changing films to the big screen.