May the Fourth be with you! Ha ha!
The Star Wars movies are some of my all-time favourite films. Of course they are – I was born in 1976, and therefore Star Wars (I refuse to call it A New Hope), The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi are some of the fundamental stories of my childhood. Not only the films either; they were the first movies that really pushed the merchandising side of film-making, and so I had a substantial collection of Star Wars toys – the first one I acquired, second hand, was one of the third-stringers, an Imperial officer who got Force choked by Darth Vader, but I moved up the ladder. Heck, I had an X-Wing Fighter. I had the Millennium Falcon!
My grandmother wasn’t impressed by all this. A lot of the characters in the trilogy are pretty much grotesque, and if I was ever ill for no apparent reason, Nan blamed Chewbacca and the others. Medically speaking this was unfair, although a couple of George Lucas’s decisions over the years have made me feel ill if that counts..
Nah, as a kid in the early eighties, it was the aliens, robots and hardware that made Star Wars cool. Nowadays it’s easy to appreciate other aspects of the films, like how Harrison Ford becomes a megastar before your very eyes (“I love you!” “I know.” is one of the coolest moments in sci-fi history), or how there seems to be a whole back-story to the whole thing (I have a friend who thinks the Expanded Universe is better than the films; I don’t altogether agree, but it’s a fair position to take), or how good the costume design in Return of the Jedi is, but back in the day it was all about comedy robots, cool spaceships, and light sabers.
That covers a lot of its appeal – it’s not a science fiction film, not in the strictest sense of the definition. Science fiction, as a genre, is about technology and scientific potentialities and their imagined impact on humans. That’s not really Star Wars. Sure it’s set in space, but that doesn’t really make it science fiction, and while the hardware is seriously cool, that’s pretty much all it is. No, Star Wars is a fantasy movie set in space, complete with naive farmhands, princesses, comedy servants, wizards, swords and magic. It’s got the trappings of sci-fi, and it owes a massive debt to early movie serials like the Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon adaptations, but at its heart it’s a fantasy movie with spaceships, and I think that’s a key component of its success. Fantasy, at least in the fairy tale guise that Star Wars taps into, is a bit more accessible than full-on science fiction; I think that’s a big part of Doctor Who’s success as well.
Another reason for the success of Star Wars is the way in which it lends itself to fandom; George Lucas has given his approval to fan films like Troops (Cops with Stormtroopers, basically – you can also join the 501st Stormtrooper Legion if you want ), you can have long arguments about why Chewbacca doesn’t get a medal when he did just as much work as anyone else, and you can sing along to Livin’ La Vida Yoda if you’re feeling musical. Never under-estimate the importance of fandom fodder to the success of all things culturally geek.
A lot of this is rose-tinted glasses – there are aspects of the original trilogy that look pretty dated nowadays – but at the same time it’s hard to see many blockbusters coming along nowadays that have half the impact of Star Wars; they may make more money, but I can’t see people cosplaying Avatar or Titanic in thirty years time. Or maybe, and again this is rose-tinted glasses time, there was a moment in cinema, late seventies to mid-eighties, that saw the release of a bunch of blockbusters that caught the imagination of audiences; Star Wars, yes, but also the Indiana Jones films, Back to the Future, Ghostbusters… Star Wars, to me, just seems to be the king of that movement. Or maybe it’s just because I loved all those movies as a kid.
That’s the key, I think – Star Wars is for kids. And, of course, for adults who can accept it’s for kids and enjoy it because of that. And yet it’s also for the kids who once watched it on BBC or ITV every Christmas, and who had all the toys; for the kids who grew up and sold those toys because they grew out of them, even though they kick themselves because of what those toys are now worth to collectors; for the kids who, somewhere along the line, realised that, actually, there’s no point in growing up if you can’t pretend to have a light saber fight once in a while.
Because, for me and for a lot of Generation X, part of our imagination will always live in a galaxy far, far away.