Star Wars: The Middle-Aged Space Phenomenon

Star Wars is one of the biggest movie franchises of all time. People of all ages and from all backgrounds love the films, TV shows, tie-in comics, books and toys from the universe created by George Lucas in the 1970s. Now owned by Disney, the franchise looks set to continue apace into the 2020s with a new movie or spinoff every two years.

Star Wars also has some of the most dedicated fans in all of popular culture, with cosplayers and conventions, fan fiction and fan theories in the millions. But what is it about Star Wars that makes it endure, even four decades later? Why do we still love these tales of the Skywalkers, their friends and their enemies enough to spend hours watching the films, playing with the toys and discussing the story online?

The Beginning

Back in the days before Star Wars, George Lucas was living in a tiny apartment in California. He made his first full-length movie, American Graffiti, in 1973 on the tiniest of budgets – less than a million dollars. The film was based on Lucas’ own formative years, and was a surprise cult smash; grossing some $50million and being nominated for a massive five Academy Awards.

It was the unexpected success of American Graffiti that gave Lucas the clout to get Star Wars, which he had already wanted to make for several years, off the ground. Most of the science fiction being made in Hollywood at the time was aimed at more mature audiences and featured heavy, dystopian themes but young George had been a huge fan of more light-hearted, epic space stories, and was desperate for the opportunity to make his own.

After his idea was rejected by several big studios (all the best ideas get rejected at first – just ask JK Rowling), Lucas turned to 20th Century Fox, who gave him and his writing partner Pete Kurtz some money to develop their ideas. Lucas then spent time refining the script over several drafts, some of which even he thought were terrible. It was only in 1975, around the time of American Graffiti, that the script started slowly transforming into what we now recognize as Star Wars. Han Solo had gone from being a weird alien that looked like a frog to a human, Luke Skywalker had had several decades shaved off his age, and Obi-Wan Kenobi had made his first appearance. The script was finally finished on New Year’s Day 1976, less than three months before the first day of the shoot.

On its release, Star Wars became a global phenomenon. Not only did it annihilate box office records, it was the first movie to spawn a merchandise line. And boy was there merchandise! Toys, lunch boxes, cups, blankets, you name it – Star Wars was everywhere that year. It’s no surprise that the franchise is now one of the biggest in the world, with movies, spin offs, comics, novels, and tons of other content being released every year.

Cool Characters

Star Wars birthed some of the most iconic characters – both good guys and bad guys – in the entire history of cinema. How many people do you know who wouldn’t be able to recognize Darth Vader’s signature helmet, or name the original movie’s hero Luke Skywalker? And that’s before we even get into the non-human characters such as Yoda and Chewbacca, whose unique characteristics have made them favorites of every generation of Star Wars fans. 

After the original trilogy was completed, Lucas continued to create memorable characters – for better or worse, everyone who has seen the prequels will have an opinion on Jar Jar Binks (perhaps the most divisive character in the history of the franchise).The prequels also gave us Anakin Skywalker, father of Luke and Leia and alter ego of Darth Vader, his wife Senator Amidala and Darth Maul, whose double-bladed lightsaber contributed to one of the series’ most memorable duels.

In 2020, Star Wars is still bringing us new and ever-better characters. For example; how many kids do you know who will get a baby Yoda toy this Christmas?

Even the background characters of Star Wars are more memorable than most, with tentacles, green skin and huge eyes a common sight in every scene. Is it any wonder these movies are still raking in billions at the box office after nearly 50 years?

Universal Themes

While it may be set in a galaxy far, far away that looks nothing like our home planet of Earth, the stories of Star Wars explore ideas that we can all relate to in some way. The original trilogy is about Luke searching for adventure, dreams greater than himself, friends, and the truth about his heritage.  They’re about redemption, good versus evil, and the meaning of family. Millions of people have had similar dreams and experiences, even if theirs didn’t take place on a distant desert planet.

Similarly relatable ideas show up in the newer trilogy of movies, starting in 2015 with The Force Awakens and finishing up at the end of 2019 with The Rise of Skywalker. In these newer films, a female heroine (Rey) takes up Luke’s mantle, searching for her place in a world bigger and scarier than she could ever possibly imagine. Her villainous counterpart is Kylo Ren, son of two of the original trilogy’s greatest heroes (Han Solo and Princess Leia), a young and conflicted man trying to figure out right from wrong, and Dark from Light. Who hasn’t been there? These all-consuming ideas and themes are a key part of what makes Star Wars popular with people of all ages, from all backgrounds and cultures. There’s something in it for all of us.

Badass Weapons

Lightsabers are cool. They just are.

These old-school turned sci-fi weapons, wielded by those with knowledge of the Force, are perhaps the single most unique weapon in the history of cinema. A sword with the blade made out of an actual laser beam? So cool, so recognizable, and so important to the stories of Star Wars that it’s basically a character in itself. From the color of their lightsaber we can know if a character is good or bad, and many central plots have revolved around lightsaber duels and mythology. Do you remember how fans reacted when it was revealed that newest Star Wars villain Kylo Ren’s saber had a crossguard, the first time such a thing had been seen? That’s how rad lightsabers are. 

There are only three major characters in the entire nine-movie central saga to have wielded a lightsaber while not being able to use the Force, and only two of those three ever used one in battle.

The first Force-less character to use a lightsaber was of course Han Solo, who used a lightsaber to save Luke’s life in the second movie (or the fifth, depending on how you look at it) by slicing open a creature’s stomach for him to shelter in. It was pretty disgusting. It is in Episode III, Revenge of the Sith, that we first see a non-Jedi or Sith character – General Grievous - fight using a saber. Four in fact, one for each of his mechanical arms.

That means, of course, that defecting Stormtrooper Finn, from the newest trilogy, is the only non-Force human to ever fight using a lightsaber (although some say the films hint at him being Force-sensitive), when he battles the injured Kylo Ren at the end of Episode VII. Unsurprisingly, he loses that fight.

Because, Space

Let’s face it, 99.9% of us are never going to space. One of the great mysteries of the Universe is just how vast and unending it is, and how we, with our limited human capacity, are ever likely to truly understand if there is life in galaxies far, far away. And while humans have already been to space, and will inevitably return there in the future, those of us alive now are not going to see the level of technological advancement that we see in the Star Wars movies.

This is why we love Star Wars, where characters routinely go barrelling through space on crazily cool ships like they’re popping out for groceries. We imagine ourselves in a world where we can jump from planet to planet at never-before-seen speeds, make friends with eight-foot-tall hairy aliens and spend every day looking at the stars from close up – and we love it. 

Great Actors

While some critics of Star Wars claim that the dialogue is cheesy and the acting ‘terrible’, some of the greatest actors working today (and those who are no longer with us) have appeared in the franchise.

Across nine films the cast includes Oscar winners Natalie Portman, Lupita Nyong’o, Alec Guinness and James Earl Jones, and Oscar nominees Harrison Ford, Liam Neeson, Samuel L Jackson, Keira Knightley, and two-time nominees Max von Sydow and Adam Driver. That is some serious pedigree!

Alec Guinness is also the only actor to receive an Oscar nomination for appearing in a Star Wars film: he was nominated for his performance as Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original movie. 

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