I believe the release of the trailer for Rogue One is reason enough to discuss the film that started it all. Star Wars: A New Hope, the ultimate B-movie, has altered popular culture to an extent that no single movie, franchise, or medium has accomplished since it first lit up the silver screen thirty-nine years ago. Not even Marvel, the current titan of the multiplex, has the appeal or presence of George Lucas’ original space-opera. But why? Surely there are better sci-fi films out there? How could a film with lines like “But I was going to Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!” be one of the pinnacles of Hollywood cinema? Today, Star Wars goes under the knife (or in this case the lightsaber) as I try to figure out why it has enjoyed the kind of success most filmmakers can only dream of.
Note: for this article I am going to control for strong technical and aesthetic elements, such as the visuals and score etc.
- A film for all ages, but not a family film
Brian De Palma, after watching the first cut of Star Wars, was disappointed that the violence was almost completely bloodless. But therein lies a key aspect of Star Wars‘ success. There is quite a lot of action and violence in Star Wars, with stormtroopers being shot on a regular basis; an innocent family is murdered and apparently burnt alive; and an alien has his arm lopped off. However, the stormtroopers never bleed, the violent murders occur off screen, and the one bloody shot of a dismembered arm is just enough to make the kids in the audience feel like they’re watching something edgy and cool.
Star Wars is too violent to be labelled a “family film” as it was not made to be viewed as harmless material in a family setting, like the typical Disney film. However, by making the action bloodless and fun, Lucas allowed people of all ages to watch it and enjoy it as an action film.
- Prioritised fiction over science
Prior to Star Wars‘ release in 1977, Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, released in 1968, was the biggest cinematic sci-fi spectacle in an otherwise quiet decade for the genre. The monster and alien movies of the 1950’s that had been influenced by developments in nuclear weapons had given way to a “hard” sci-fi that had been influenced by the Space Race of the 60’s. The films were scientifically accurate (or at least pretended to be) and “serious”.
When Star Wars came along, however, Lucas didn’t explain the physics of hyperspace travel, how two lightsabers are able to make physical contact, or what Luke needed power converters for. It was taken for granted that the world of Star Wars worked, and thus the audience could enjoy the story and accept that a ship could travel at light speed when the story required it.
- Epic, timeless story
Star Wars, at its core, is like a fairytale about a poor farmer taking on the dragon that has been tormenting his town, with Luke Skywalker as the unlikely hero, Obi-Wan Kenobi as the sagely guide, the droids and Han Solo as his companions, Princess Leia as, well, the princess, Darth Vader as the evil knight guarding the dragon, and the Empire itself as the dragon. None of this is particularly original, but the unique settings, the excellent performances by the four main actors and the breathtaking action and adventure makes the story feel new.
- Blend of genres
For many people, Star Wars is likely the only sci-fi film they have ever watched because, just like horror, fantasy, action, westerns, etc., pure genre films have the tendency to alienate viewers whose tastes don’t naturally align with said genre. However, Lucas combined some of the most accessible elements of the Western (the character of Han Solo bears some similarities to John Wayne; the cast of outsiders; the shootouts), Japanese Samurai Epics, otherwise known as Jidaigeki, after which the Jedi were named (the sagely master; mysticism; sword duels) and war films (infiltrating the Death Star; the aerial attack on it) to appeal to the general movie-going public.
- Unrealistic Dialogue
In a rare situation where a disadvantage becomes an advantage, it is arguable that Lucas’ limited dialogue skills actually aided the timelessness of the film (Harrison Ford once told Lucas: “George, you can type this s**t, but you can’t say it!”). No one in Star Wars talks like a regular person: their dialogue is almost completely devoid of slang and it’s delivered in a heightened, theatrical manner. However, that means there is little chance of the meaning of the words changing over time, and further cements the individual nature of the film’s world.
- The Force
I personally think that the Force is the one thing that truly separates Star Wars from the rest. The very notion of the Force, a power that unites all living things, which one can connect to and channel, is one of the most fascinating, philosophical, borderline theological concepts to appear in a mainstream Hollywood film.
Although some might argue that the powers and ideas of the Force are on display in the typical superhero film or in the form of magic in a fantasy film, the key difference is that the Force is not a concrete set of abilities that are bestowed upon a select few (the artificial mutation of Spider-Man, the genetically inherited powers of the X-Men, or the magic of Harry Potter), but is a power that all can tap into and wield according to the strength of each person’s will. I think there’s a reason why Han Solo’s famous line “May the Force be with you” carries so much weight: Not anyone can be a wizard or a superhero, but anyone can be a Jedi, so long as you have the will, and I think it is as much for this reason as any of the above reasons that Star Wars holds such a special place in the hearts of those who were first transported to that “galaxy far, far away” as young children (of whom I am one).