Star Wars might be the most discussed, most picked apart, most academically studied, most fans theorized, universe expanded, dissected, deconstructed, obsessed over the movie of all time. An entire generation of film geeks studied Flash Gordon serials, Akira Kurosawa movies, Joseph Campbell, and so on, just because they learned they were the building blocks of Star Wars. It kicked off the high concept, turn-off-your-brain blockbuster era alongside Jaws that is still going on to this day.
So why was the original Star Wars so beloved? Aside from the beautiful cast of characters, revolutionary special effects, iconic music, genius world design, genius sound design... Aside from that, why? What is the secret sauce? It turns out there as still things to talk about.
It Did Not Tell You Anything Yet the World Feels Like it Has Everything
Imagine you have never seen Star Wars before and you are watching it for the first time. The title crawl startled you and it is telling a story but you have no idea what it is talking about with no words that seem familiar. Then we are suddenly in a shoot-out between two parties and we don't who's who and what the hell is going on. Then there is this robot who is just as confused as us, saying "What the hell is going on?" The other robot responds, but it turns out it only talks by beeps and whistles so we have no idea what he is saying. Now they are talking about a guy with a funny name called, Obi-something. Now we are on a desert planet and no one is still explaining anything. Okay, there are these hooded people in the desert, maybe they will explai-- no, never mind. They don't speak English. 15 minutes later, and finally, we have Luke Skywalker, who can talk normally.
Star Wars does not care if you know anything. It just drops the viewer in the middle of the story without context and asks you to feel yourself through and eventually, things will start to make sense because you grab on to familiar-looking and sounding concepts and make connections like visiting a foreign country for the first time and you don't speak the language. By the end of the original trilogy, we still have no idea what the war with the rebels and the Empire was about. What it does do, is show you a realistic fantastical world that feels complete and lived in. In the first 15 minutes before Luke appeared, it is like we are watching a nature documentary in an alien world minus the narrator, and if George Lucas told you that it is real, you might even believe it.
That is why the world is so intriguing. It feels like a real word, but if no one is telling you anything, then we want to see what lies beyond the frame. Learning encyclopedic knowledge about Star Wars became a badge of honor that every film scholar and impressionable new fan needs to have. That is why the expanded universe become so in demand and every alien and extra in the background of the frame ended up with an elaborate backstory complete with a family tree. This is why Wookieepedia is a thing.
The tradition of not telling us anything extends in every movie. Every start of the new movie feels like there are missing chapters in-between since the last movie and we scrabble for any context by looking at the opening crawl. Everyone criticized that the opening crawl for Star Wars: The Phantom Menace was undecipherable but the joke is that it is hard to understand due to the point that war is run by complicated issues and political red tape that we have no reference for.
What is a Sith? Why are there only two of them? Why is a princess suddenly a senator? Why is there automatically a war just because a few planets separated from the Republic? How does tax and trade fall in all of this again? We don't know, but looking at the world we really want to find out, until we get to know all the lore eventually in tertiary Star Wars materials.
By the time of the sequel trilogy, we punished them that they did not give us any answers on what happened since the last movie, even if that is what Star Wars had been doing since the very beginning.Advertisement
It Secretly Told the Audience they are Already Doing the Right Thing
Most movies and certainly, most popular movies include a degree of wish-fulfillment fantasy. Do you know what the most common wish-fulfillment message in popular culture is? The one that the history of the human race has always wanted to hear, and the vast majority of myths, legends, and stories place at their center? It is the words, "You are already doing the right thing." Isn't that the most beautiful words in the world? "You got it figured out." "You are on the right track." Feels reassuring, doesn't it?
If you want to make a movie that captures the cultural psyche of a generation, you got to tell a story that validates them. A story that tells them that a key component of their life or personality makes them special, heroic, and important in saving the day.
Look at those Hobbits, look how satisfied they are with a simple and comfortable middle-class life that they are not easily seduced by the notion of wealth, and power unlike the other species of Middle Earth. That makes them the only people capable of wielding the one ring without giving in to its temptations. Frodo, you are already doing the right thing. Do you feel a vague sense that the world is fake and messed up, so you have the instinct to rebel against the system? Congratulations, Neo, you are The One doing the right thing.
The perfect example of this is the original Star Wars. Luke Skywalker, despite living a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, represents the contemporary young man of the '70s baby boomers. What was the most popular philosophical and spiritual outlook for such a person in 1977? -- Chilling, "Be chill." "Chill out, dude." Do you know how the force works in the first movie? By just chilling - seat Indian style, go with the flow and just relax. When Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star, he was being a really chill dude. See that target audience of the 1970s resembling Luke Skywalker in background and personality? -- You are already doing the right thing.
Han Solo is the Secret Weapon
Han Solo is handsome, charismatic, badass, and gets the best lines, but that is not the only reason Han Solo is a fan favorite. In the original Star Wars, for 45 minutes before Han Solo came along, there is no one in the characters that feel like we can hang out and talk with because every character feels like they are not from our world - Luke feels like a timeless kid with an "Ow, gee wiz" attitude. Obi-Wan and Darth Vader speak like they are from Medieval times or are Shakespearean, everybody else feels like they came from a British period drama. But Han Solo feels and talks like us.
Han Solo feels like a contemporary guy who just walked into the theater and is watching Star Wars with us. The impetuous young hero, the wise sage, the dastardly villains, are all playing by the rules of the sci-fi genre, but Solo does not. He heckles the elements of the movie that are hard to take seriously just like us. He is the first person who is normal sarcastic instead of theater British smug sarcastic. When he improvises, it is like a normal person improvising like in the scene with the "boring conversation." He is as skeptical of new-age spiritual methods like the force the way a real mainstream guy would to feng shui.
Han isn't cool just because he is cool, Han is cool because having experienced this strange new world for 45 minutes, we suddenly meet a guy we can all relate with. We instantly like him because he is such a relief, and we instantly trust him despite doing so many things untrustable.
Maybe it is hard for you to take all knights and wizards' honor talk seriously, but that is alright because look, someone in the movie does not take it seriously just like you.
He is the main ingredient to why Star Wars pulled the audience to a fantasy world like no other film before and ever since because before he came in, no matter how impressive the world may be, it still feels like we are outside looking in, but if the coolest guy we have ever seen that we can grab a beer with is having a good time, maybe this world is fun after all. Maybe even buy all the action figures, why not.
It Secretly Told America it is Okay to Enjoy War Movies After the Vietnam War
What is Star Wars about? Here is a hint, it is in the title. No, it is not about stars, it is about war. It is set during the war. The characters are participating in a war. The locations are military craft or instillations of war. The hero wants to fight in a war, the main plot is disabling a weapon of war, and so on - Star Wars is a war movie. What was so bold about it is that it is a war movie just right after the Vietnam War, when the cold war was ice cold and everyone is just waiting for the next significant war.
When 9/11 happened, action movies were walking through eggshells. The same thing happened after the Vietnam war. The wounds were still open and raw, the opinions were still too divided, the good versus evil narrative that makes war movies so useful got just too grey. Using any real-world setting for stories of action and violence in a hyper unrealistic, just for fun, mass entertainment way was inappropriate. So what to do when the appetite for war stories is still there, especially for America, a country shaped by war narratives?
If only someone could make a war movie seemingly removed from any real-world context but can still connect with an audience in a similar way.
Star Wars is a war movie that is vaguely every war movie trope mashed together in space, effectively letting the audience experience a war narrative in its most visceral without the constraints of real-world context, complications, and nuance. Stripping any direct connections to real-world consequences.
It has contemporary-type of soldiers with guns and bombs, but the war also involves a Jedi who is both a Knight, a samurai, a member of a religious order, and a pacifist. Sometimes it looks like the contemporary Vietnam War, but it also has a princess, so it is like a medieval war. But the princess is also a diplomat so it can feel like a current politicized war conflict.
Luke Skywalker is a rebellious youngster that joined a resistance movement and also an idealistic farmboy that joined the air force. He learned a new wave of philosophy and pacifism that he used to be the best fighter pilot in the galaxy and blow up the Death Star.
Darth Vader is The Black Knight, a samurai warlord, The Red Baron, and a fascist goon. The Empire is a terrifying age of exploration armada, an occupying colonial army, the cops, the Soviets, and are Nazis all rolled into one. Hey, it even involves pirates.
Whatever war Star Wars is about is only based on what the viewer's imagination says it is about. The Rebels can be any history's war hero, and the Empire can be any history's war bad guy.
The tactile realism of Star Wars with recognizable war reference points made it feel like a real war, while also being completely detached from any contemporary or historic baggage.
Star Wars restored the innocent pre-Vietnam sensation. The nostalgia for pulp adventure serial, but also for the secure safe feeling of rooting for the good guys you like to wipe out the bad guys you don't like and not have to question it. Star Wars did what many thought at the time was impossible after the Vietnam War - It made war fun again.
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Tell us if there are other under-explored reasons Star Wars became beloved.