clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
The two suns of Tatooine.
The two suns of Tatooine.
Lucasfilm, Ltd.

Filed under:

Star Wars, explained

Just why is this franchise so popular? We've got some theories.

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

I don't need to tell you what Star Wars is. You already know.

Consider this: Can you picture an Ewok? Sure you can; Ewoks are tiny and fuzzy and teddy bear-like. You might even be able to tell me they appear in Return of the Jedi and live on the moon Endor. This is despite the fact that the word "Ewok," fairly famously, doesn't appear once in the original Star Wars trilogy. The films — and their marketing — are so ubiquitous that you already know.

And that's just how Star Wars has been for a long time, ever since it debuted 40 years ago on May 25, 1977. It's part of the cultural ether, a thing you breathe in as surely as Superman or movies where two people who hate each other are obviously meant to get married. You know the story of a farm boy from a desert planet who meets a pair of robots and gets sucked into a story that's one part interplanetary action adventure and one part family saga.

So I don't need to tell you what Star Wars is. The more pertinent question for those who've never seen the films — or who have but just can't connect with them — is why Star Wars? Why did this kinda weird, scrappy little sci-fi movie from 1977 go on to become a cultural behemoth?

There are many reasons, but everything starts with the miracle of timing.

Reason 1: Star Wars came out at exactly the right time

Star Wars
The cast of the original Star Wars settles in for an exciting adventure.
Lucasfilm Ltd.

If Star Wars hadn't been released in 1977, I'd wager there would have been something to fill that space in the vacuum by at least 1985, if not 1980. Critics and film historians remember the American films of the 1970s as some of the best ever made — emotionally layered works that examined characters who operated in shades of gray. But audiences' interest in these films was, ultimately, only a minor flirtation.

To say that American film before the '70s had never existed in such morally complex milieus would be inaccurate. For one thing, the entire genre of film noir would beg to differ. But the '70s were different in that even morally complicated, dark and disturbing films could be huge commercial successes. The Godfather, for instance, is about the corrupting power of evil, wherein the protagonist is slowly sucked right back into his family's crime empire. And it became one of the biggest hits in film history for a brief time.

It wasn't just The Godfather. Consider The French Connection, a cop drama that suggested the cops were just as bad as the criminals they pursued, or M.A.S.H., a savage satire of the American military industrial complex. American film was finally entering a newly mature phase of its life cycle, and the same evolution was happening everywhere, with social issues–driven sitcoms on TV and world-weary rock on the radio. Adulthood had come to pop culture at last.

But if you kept your ear to the ground — or just looked at things from a slightly different angle — things weren't all that different from the more carefree blockbusters of just a few years prior. For most of the history of film, the biggest hits have been escapist in nature. The '70s just shifted that escapism into other genres.

The No. 1 film of 1973, for example, was The Exorcist — which, yes, went further than any horror film ever had before in depicting the horrors of demonic possession, but was still fundamentally about the ultimate battle between good and evil, with clear delineations between the two.

The division between white hats and black hats found its fullest flowering in two films that actually preceded Star Wars: 1975's Jaws and 1976's Rocky. In both films, there's a good guy and a bad guy (or shark), and they have to face off. Though both movies feature more complicated and earthbound heroes than today's blockbusters, they're still stories where everything boils down to one final showdown between a mostly good guy and a mostly bad guy. (Apologies to Rocky's Apollo Creed, who enjoyed more nuance in the sequels.)

And it worked. Jaws made more money than anybody thought possible — and inadvertently invented the summer movie season — while Rocky made tons of money and won the Oscar for Best Picture.

Plus, there were plenty of science fiction and fantasy movies being made around the same time, spurred by the massive success of 1968's big hit 2001: A Space Odyssey, which proved that audiences would turn out for genre movies if they were thoughtful or at least well-produced. As Noel Murray underlines at the Kernel, the year before Star Wars came out was littered with dozens of sci-fi movies that didn't quite hit the zeitgeist as well.

So when George Lucas — a filmmaker already known for the hugely successful American Graffiti — released a sci-fi picture that reveled in escapist tales of derring-do, of good guys and bad guys and narrow escapes, the world was ready — to the tune of more than $1 billion in 2015 dollars in the US and Canada alone. That's the second-biggest film ever at the domestic box office, when inflation is factored in, behind only Gone With the Wind.

In short, there was a Star Wars–shaped hole in the pop cultural fabric. Lucas just knew how to fill it.

Reason 2: Star Wars is a perfect blend of old and new

One of the canniest things Lucas did was wear his influences on his sleeve. The first Star Wars is a heady mélange of World War II fighter pilot movies, the samurai epics of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, and '50s creature features and B-movies.

Star Wars is literally built atop the bones of other movies. But it's also built atop a story so universal that Joseph Campbell called it the monomyth. Roughly the film's first half — when a young man named Luke Skywalker is bored out of his skull because he's stuck on the desert planet Tatooine — could be about any kid in any backwater town anywhere.

Recall the famous, justly acclaimed moment when Luke looks out at Tatooine's two suns while John Williams's magisterial score swells on the soundtrack; it works so well because it captures that feeling we all have at 17, when know there's something else out there, even if we don't know exactly what it is. (If Williams hadn't done such a great job, Bruce Springsteen's "Born to Run" might have made a great replacement.)

But Lucas transforms the familiar into something the viewers of 1977 had never seen before. The original Star Wars is a perfect momentum generator. It starts with Luke meeting a couple of robots, and it ends with the kid blowing up a massive, death-generating space station without breaking a sweat. The build of the story is both gradual and completely inevitable, and it accumulates complications and characters almost as a matter of course, with something new popping up every few minutes to entertain us.

It's also worth noting that the second half of Star Wars was legitimately groundbreaking, game-changing cinema in 1977. It's harder to see now because the game has changed so thoroughly, but back then, the film's rocket-fueled trajectory exploded into a near-perfect meld of sensation and technical prowess.

In particular, the Oscar-winning editing by Paul Hirsch, Marcia Lucas, and Richard Chew drives the film from start to finish, its cuts growing more and more frenetic as the film's stakes rise higher and higher.

And Gilbert Taylor's cinematography perfectly recasts scenes from here on Earth as those of an alien world, while the visual effects (by Industrial Light & Magic, the now-famous firm founded to work on Star Wars) pushed every sort of special effect that was possible at the time to its absolute breaking point.

In short, Star Wars held the hand of its audience, leading viewers from the sorts of movies they were completely familiar with to the sorts of movies we know very well today. It's no wonder the first half of that first film can play a little slow to modern eyes — it quite literally belongs to a different era.

Reason 3: Star Wars is the most involved fictional universe this side of J.R.R. Tolkien

In an excellent series for HitFix on showing his two sons the first six Star Wars films, critic Drew McWeeny points out something that's underrated in terms of understanding Star Wars' appeal: Everything has a name. He writes:

One of the things that really does make Star Wars such a potent fantasy world for young viewers is the density of detail. They want to know the names of every single weird and freaky thing they see onscreen, and they like saying the names, and they like testing each other on their ability to recall all the names. They can dig as deep as they want, and they keep coming up with little things to look at or talk about or add to the ongoing game of imagination that they're engaged in now.

Kids of a certain age love to perform taxonomies. They like to make lists of things. They like to know everything about a certain property or hobby. That can manifest as, say, memorizing every stat about every player of a certain sport or learning everything there is to know about every Oscar winner for Best Picture. But for a Star Wars–obsessed kid, it tends to involve learning the names of every single character in every single scene — because they all have names.

Of course, this endeavor isn't just reserved for kids. There are plenty of adults who can discuss and debate the Star Wars universe endlessly. Indeed, the most common defense of the oft-derided prequel trilogy (released between 1999 and 2005 to slowly deflating expectations) is that the frames of those movies are filled with so much stuff to look at, so many interesting bits and pieces of a larger world that seems put together organically.

It's that last word — organically — that must be repeated. Because nothing about Star Wars feels tossed in all that haphazardly. Are there creatures and vehicles in the films' world that exist just to sell toys? Sure, probably. But even those Ewoks seem to have a real reason to be part of that world — beyond simply pushing merchandise.

Especially in the original trilogy, the Star Wars universe feels like a real place. Some of that is due to the dingy, banged-up condition of the ships, the feeling that this is a very tactile place. Some of it is due to the way its structures feel lived-in. And some of it is probably due to the fact that if you were so inclined, you could lose hours of your life to reading all about this world on "Wookieepedia."

But some of it is due to the skill that Lucas and his collaborators display in making the details matter. If there's a weirdo creature, it'll get a close-up. If we're headed to a bar, you'd better believe a wise old man will describe it as a "wretched hive of scum and villainy." Every little thing feels important, even when the films themselves don't. The greatest films suggest rich inner lives for their characters, no matter how minor. Star Wars does this for puppets, and that might be its greatest triumph.

Reason 4: Okay, it's also a marketing machine

Star Wars Toys Hit Store Shelves Months Ahead Of Movie Release
Star Wars merchandise comes in all shapes and sizes.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Look at these oranges.

Why are they Star Wars branded? Because somebody somewhere thought, "Hey, the perfect way to get kids to want to eat oranges is to put a Star Wars character on them." There is no movie marketing machine as sophisticated as the Star Wars marketing machine, as if those in charge of it witnessed that first Christmas of 1977 — when kids famously couldn't get their action figures depicting characters from the film — and grimly said, "Never again."

As Noel Murray (again) wrote for the Dissolve, the buildup to The Empire Strikes Back, in particular, felt like the invention of modern movie marketing, where the long period of anticipation for what's to come is almost as important as — if not more important than — the experience of actually watching the film itself. Star Wars exists in many forms. It's a movie series. It features TV spinoffs and sequel novels and even a disco album. But perhaps its most permanent incarnation is in lots and lots of merchandising — merchandising that made Lucas incredibly rich.

It's really easy to be cynical about several aspects of the Star Wars machine — particularly the way it gradually smoothed out big studio movies from the sorts of quirky expressions they were in the early '70s to the long series of largely similar blockbusters we have today — but the marketing is by far the easiest thing to grouse about. After all, those Ewoks were only given names because of the toy versions that were produced to represent them. And the prequel films sometimes seemed to exist solely to get kids interested in collecting the tie-in merchandise.

This is particularly true now, as Disney acquired the rights to Star Wars and all its characters in 2012. The relentless onslaught of promotion for The Force Awakens (the first Star Wars film produced under the Disney regime) and the fact that the studio largely removed Lucas from the production process suggests that it sees itself less as a creative force and more as a caretaker of beloved characters, the better to keep the money rolling in. It will make movies. Some of them will probably be pretty good. But what's important is that you keep buying Star Wars stuff.

Yet I can't be too upset by the marketing aspect, not really. In the end, the single biggest reason for Star Wars' enduring popularity is the most obvious one of them all.

Reason 5: Star Wars got there first — and we're all living in its shadow

Empire last shot
The final shot of The Empire Strikes Back, the best Star Wars film.
Lucasfilm Ltd.

How many movies have done their own version of Luke's trench run on the Death Star in Star Wars? How many times have we seen the second movie in a trilogy described as the "darkest" one, à la The Empire Strikes Back?

Think of it this way: The movie Gone With the Wind was exactly as old when Star Wars came out as Star Wars is right now. And yet it's a lot harder to see the throughline between Gone With the Wind and Star Wars than it is to see the line between Luke Skywalker and basically every blockbuster hero of today. (Okay, some of them are more like Han Solo.) Star Wars took the process of making movies and made it easier to commodify. Yeah, you still need a little bit of magic, but it's easier when you have a rough idea of a formula that always, always works.

That sounds more cynical than I intend. I think there's something beautiful and weird about the Star Wars universe, and The Empire Strikes Back is one of my favorite movies ever. The Star Wars films so far — yes, even the prequels — are very personal statements on the part of one man who hasn't always seemed to understand how humans interact or even talk, but who has always understood exactly how film can reach us straight in our guts.

Star Wars is primal. It might seem to be about spaceships doing battle, but on some level it's about fathers and sons, brothers and sisters. It's about comrades in arms, deeply felt betrayals, and saving the day at the last possible moment. It's made up of elemental storytelling bits and pieces that we've been employing for millennia, and if The Force Awakens is criticized — justifiably, I would say — for leaning too heavily on favorite moments from the original trilogy, well, there's a reason for that. Star Wars feels, on some level, like George Lucas plucked it out of the sky and presented it to us, like it's always been there somehow.

There's a scene in the rightfully forgotten 2002 film Reign of Fire, in which Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey fight dragons in a post-apocalyptic future (it's sadly not as good as the premise sounds), when people reenact the plot of Star Wars for kids. They may not have the technology to actually screen the film, but they remember the story, because it feels imprinted upon their DNA.

And that is perhaps Star Wars' greatest triumph. It understands the simple power of myth, but it also understands how to feed us that myth in a modern era. It originally succeeded because a movie like this was always going to succeed back in 1977. It endures because at its core lie the most basic elements of storytelling itself — a peasant kid, a wise old knight, a band of sidekicks, a princess, and a great adventure.

Editor: Jen Trolio
Copy Editor: Tanya Pai
Did I like the new movie? More or less!


How Sarah J. Maas became romantasy’s reigning queen


The revolutionary spirit of Soul Train


Shane Gillis’s SNL hosting gig is an unearned rehabilitation

View all stories in Culture

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.