Forty years after its release, talking about the legacy of “Star Wars” is a tricky task. The global media, merchandising, and pop culture franchise has become so embedded in our collective cultural consciousness that it’s difficult to remember a time when Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and John Williams’ iconic score did not exist. From the vantage of 2017, where the “Star Wars” empire is expanding rapidly under the direction of Disney, maintaining a sense of historical perspective is challenging. What we tend to forget in a world in which “Star Wars” toys dominate store shelves, new “Star Wars” films appear in cinemas every year, and a new Disney theme park – “Star Wars” Land” – is scheduled to open in 2019, is just how momentous the release of the first “Star Wars” film was in 1977.
While 1977’s release of “Star Wars” was certainly a game-changer, the success of the film was also part of a wider trend of a changing Hollywood industry. In the 1960s, Hollywood was in the midst of a serious decline. Movie attendance was dropping, studios were releasing fewer films, and corporate conglomerates began acquiring formerly independent movie companies. Following a string of box office failures and production budget overruns – including films such as “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1962), “Cleopatra” (1963), and “Doctor Dolittle” (1967) – Hollywood started changing its strategy.
In the late-1960s, drawing on the success of youth-oriented exploitation movies, Hollywood released a series of low-budget films that tapped into the growing American counterculture. These films were enormously successful at the box office, and they signaled a change in Hollywood’s attitude toward the content of movies. Freed from the constraints of Hollywood’s censorship code, films like “The Graduate” (1967), “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), and “Easy Rider” (1969) embraced cultural shifts regarding violence, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll. These films were part of what later became known as the “Hollywood Renaissance,” a period in film history when movies borrowed stylistic and narrative techniques from European art cinema, adopted an oppositional stance toward the American cultural status quo, and directly targeted a youth audience comprised of baby boomers in their teens and 20s. These movies dealt with alienation and social decay, and their message of cultural change tended to be rather pessimistic.
As the 1960s transitioned into the 1970s, audiences began tiring of these kinds of depressing social message films. What happened next was a return to genre films, and these movies experienced massive box office profits, the likes of which Hollywood had never seen. Films like “The Godfather” (1972), “The Exorcist” (1973), “Jaws” (1975), “Rocky” (1976), “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977), “Saturday Night Fever” (1977), and “Star Wars” (1977) ushered in a new era of blockbuster films, and they fundamentally changed how Hollywood did business. Franchise logic took over, and George Lucas (creator and director of “Star Wars”) was one of the first filmmakers to predict the value of merchandising. Much of his massive fortune is the result of ancillary “Star Wars” products, which far exceed the box office profits of the films.
“Star Wars” not only fundamentally changed the economics of Hollywood. It also (along with “Rocky”) restored a sense of optimism in American cinema. Compared to the films of the Hollywood Renaissance, which were frequently sad, heavy affairs, “Star Wars” let the good guys win. One of the dominant narratives of film history is that movies like “Rocky” and “Star Wars” signaled a retreat from progressive social critique. In their appeal to classical stories of underdogs and good versus evil, the films abandoned politics in favor of a return to myth.
Critics of this shift argue that by elevating the B-movie, child-oriented fantasy serials of the 1930s to blockbuster cultural status, Hollywood moved away from the socially conscious ideals of the 1960s to a more pacifying, head-in-the-sand view of the world.
This perspective, however, doesn’t account for the futuristic optimism of “Star Wars.” Yes, the film returns to the swashbuckling, heroic stories of classical adventure and science fiction films, where good triumphs over evil, the little guy triumphs over an all-powerful oppressive empire, and princesses, farm boys, and gunslingers save the world. But “Star Wars” isn’t simply blind mythmaking and a reinforcement of dominant cultural ideologies. Through its spectacular and industry-changing special effects, the film also imagines an alternate, more just world than that of 1977.
To create this world, Lucas established one of the first and most important companies dedicated solely to producing visual effects: Industrial Light & Magic. The influence of ILM cannot be overstated. Almost single-handedly, Lucas and ILM introduced computers into filmmaking, and they ushered in a new era of cinema, one dominated by digital visual effects. ILM’s influence can be seen in the effects of the hundreds of films they have worked on since “Star Wars.” In many ways, “Star Wars” set the template for how visual effects should look, and the spectacles we see in cinemas today are the direct descendants of “Star Wars.”
The special effects ILM created for “Star Wars” crafted a magical, wondrous dream of the future, one that is stridently optimistic about humanity’s potential. The use of special effects in the film also creates an appeal to a wider audience, sneaking in social and political messages under the guise of blockbuster cinema. Julie Turnock, associate professor of media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois, argues that “Star Wars” produced an accessible version of the 1960s counter-culture. Rather than beating audiences over the head with social messages, “Star Wars” used the genre of science-fiction to imagine an optimistic vision of the future, one in which good guys win, bad guys lose, and all races/aliens work together to overthrow evil. This futuristic perspective was sorely needed in the economic and political doldrums of the late-1970s. “Star Wars” offered a hopeful view of humanity’s future, and read in this way, the film can be interpreted as presenting as subversive a message as the films of the late-1960s.
In other words, rather than functioning as a reactionary return to myth, “Star Wars” uses the format of the blockbuster special effects film to create a social critique that still resonates 40 years later.
Through its seemingly simple story of a refugee farm boy, a princess in exile, and a rogue smuggler with a strong moral code, “Star Wars” initiated a global audience into the wonders of its universe. The film also offered a hopeful message to an American culture disheartened by Nixonian political corruption and economic decline. 40 years later, we need the optimistic vision of “Star Wars” more than ever.
Drew Ayers is an assistant professor of film at Eastern Washington University.