How Star Wars Shook The World
By Jim Emerson
Thirty eight years ago, on May 25, 1977, Star Wars changed everything. Star Wars Shook the World. Every once in a while, that’s what happens. Something comes along and it makes you realize — either at the time, or sometime thereafter — that things after that thing were not the same as things before that thing. Like, for instance, the wheel. Or the Enlightenment. Or The Beatles. Or TiVo.
For 22 years, between the release of the original Star Wars film (Episode IV: A New Hope) and the release of the first prequel (Episode I: The Phantom Menace), the Star Wars phenomenon had an impact on American popular culture like nothing else before, or since. A heroic celluloid myth based (according to auteur George Lucas) on Joseph Campbell’s studies of cross-cultural archetypes, it was released early in the Carter administration when, as it happened, we really could have used something like that. But it was also a prescient, anti-imperialistic fable in an anti-imperialistic age, with scruffy insurgent freedom fighters (insurgents?) taking on a corrupt authoritarian Empire — headed by the morally weak, sociopathic Emperor Palpatine and his even more powerful, right-hand iron fist, the dark Lord Darth Cheney — er, Vader.
The Star Wars phenomenon wasn’t really so much about “content,” though. It was more about capturing zeitgeist-lightning (or hyperspace star fields) in a bottle. And then, merchandising the hell out of them. Aesthetically, Star Wars was hardly a revolutionary picture, patterned as it was on lowly sci-fi cliffhanger serials, the kind they used to show at Saturday kiddie matinees. That was part of the joke: The thing even began in media res, with Episode IV — trumpeted with a now-familiar fanfare and a crawl that assumed previous installments. (The prequels later destroyed this joke — and the magic of the Star Wars mythology — for many.)
What Star Wars did best was combine corny stock characters and “Amazing Stories” plotlines with state-of-the-art Industrial Light and Magic visual effects and Dolby (later replaced with Lucas’s patented THX) Surround sound. No more rockets made out of cardboard toilet-paper tubes with sparklers stuck in the rear for thrusters. Mix that with a wisecracking, almost postmodern sense of humor (more gung-ho earnest than the arch self-awareness William Goldman pumped into the Western in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid eight years earlier) and an old-fashioned Hollywood military-symphonic score by John Williams, and you have a rousing, roller-coaster space adventure for children of all ages, as the marketers like to say.
Sure, the movie was criticized for being infantile, but that misses the point. It’s aimed at a sensibility somewhere between infancy and the second year of college (or high school). A space fantasy with the emphasis on interstellar swashbuckling (and with romantic mush kept to a minimum), Star Wars appealed to the 8- to 12-year-old boy in all of us — and still does.
But although all those things may have contributed to the Star Wars phenomenon, they don’t explain why it “changed everything“, or what accounted for “the mania” (as George Harrison used to call that unaccountable epochal thing that engulfed him and three other lovable mop-tops). Because it wasn’t really the movie itself that shook the world (not like the Beatles’ music shook up pop/rock music, anyway); it was the popular response to the movie, and the motion picture industry’s response to that response.
The most revolutionary thing about Star Wars was probably its demonstration of several “paradigm-shifting” business principles in the movie industry:
- After decades of banking on marquee names, it proved you could have a blockbuster hit with no stars — except for the ILM-generated ones. (Guest star Alec Guinness does not qualify, because he was hardly a marquee name by 1977.) The actors were good in their roles (and became indelibly identified with them), but none had ever sold a ticket before. (Or do you recall rushing out to see that new Harrison Ford picture, The Conversation?)
- It created the modern “franchise picture” — a series of “event” films (usually with numerals in their titles) that either continued a particular story with some or all of the same characters, or repeated the concept with new characters (so the actors wouldn’t have to receive star salaries from the start, unless the pictures became successful). Yes, that pre-Jaws blockbuster, The Godfather, directed by Lucas’ pal and American Graffiti patron Francis Ford Coppola, had already generated a Part II sequel/prequel in 1974 (only two years after the first!) that was superior to the original. But what was exceptional about the Star Wars series was that each installment became essential viewing — unlike, say, Jaws 2, Jaws 3-D and Jaws: The Revenge (“This time … it’s personal!“), all of which illustrated the common law of diminishing returns. Each episode of the first Star Wars trilogy took in more than $200 million — astonishing, record-breaking figures in the 1970s and early 1980s.
- It created the model for the modern major movie trilogy. From the beginning (or, OK, the middle), Lucas said that he envisioned the Star Wars saga as a “nonology,” or a trilogy of trilogies, so the sequels didn’t just dribble out endlessly — as would later become the custom with spotty horror series such as Halloween, Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street. Today, popular tent-pole pictures tend to come in groups of three: Back to the Future, The Matrix, The Terminator and Spider-Man (well, so far). Franchises such as the Alien and Rambo movies felt like they’d played themselves out after three installments and were only extended after a gap of five to 20 years as rather desperate afterthoughts. If these later offspring were children, they’d be considered “mistakes.” (Although Alien: Resurrection wasn’t terrible — at least not compared with Alien vs. Predator.)
- Perhaps most significant of all, Star Wars showed that you could make even more from the merchandising rights on a movie than you could from the movie itself. Lucas negotiated a deal with 20th Century Fox that gave him not only final cut and 40 percent of the net but also ownership of all sequels and merchandising. That’s what made Lucas a billionaire and built the ILM Empire. By the time of the late 1990s prequels, Lucas made an unprecedented tie-in deal with Pepsico (including Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC and Frito-Lay) estimated to be worth somewhere in the neighborhood of $2 billion — almost twice the North American domestic gross of Episodes I, II and III combined.
To see Star Wars in 1977 was to experience a moment in pop culture that seemed universal. This may have been the last such unifying landmark for the boomer generation — with the Beatles at one end and Star Wars at the other.
Unless you remember what it was like in the summer of 1967 — the so-called Summer of Love, when Sgt. Pepper was simply in the air, everywhere, or the summer of 1977, when lines for Star Wars seemed to last for months (and people waited in lawn chairs with coolers full of beverages) — it’s hard to describe the feeling, because it’s not likely to happen again.
Yes, E.T. — The Extra-Terrestrial would galvanize American popular culture again five years later, but the experience (the phenomenon, not the movie) already felt a little second-hand. Since then, we’ve seen Batman and ID4 (Anybody remember the actual title of that movie?) and Titanic, the top-grossing movie of all time and now Spider-Man 3… and yet they don’t approach the intensity of the impact Star Wars had.
That, it now seems, happened a long time ago in … I don’t have to finish that sentence, do I?