Let’s take a break from all the grim economic and international news to remember that Friday is Star Wars Day, a commemoration of that landmark film’s release. The date was chosen largely because it permits us to say “May the Fourth be with you.” Just roll with it.
Star Wars is a major cultural milestone, for both the generation that saw it in theaters, and their children. Culture is important. Pop culture can seem a bit cheesy, particularly compared to the more elegant literature of earlier eras… but then again, some works that we consider very serious today were dismissed as trifles in their time.
Along with the previous smash hit Jaws, Star Wars helped usher in the era of the summer blockbuster, which is now a significant element of our entertainment economy. Given the size of the entertainment industry, it would be fair to say it’s a significant element of our economy, period. You don’t see individual movies dominating a whole summer any more – perhaps the last that could fairly make that claim was the 1989 Batman. Now studios grab billions in disposable income from young audiences with multiple “tentpole” releases.
Because of the impulse to cater to the youth crowd, the quality of blockbuster summer films often suffers. Even the most marvelously entertaining of them frequently feel more rushed and shallow than good old Star Wars did. In fact, when the original Star Wars movies were re-released in advance of the prequels, I recall critics who hadn’t watched them in a while remarking on how slow-paced the original film seemed. Few in its original audience would have described it that way.
The primary cultural themes running through Star Wars, particularly the original three films, are humanism and individuality. Courage and resourcefulness trump the mechanistic power of the Empire. A wild crew of alien misfits and lovable rogues overcomes a drab, homogenous enemy clad in grey, black, and white, among whose ranks a display of individual initiative can get you strangled. Compassion ultimately defeats cruelty, fear, and despair. Rocks and arrows fired by teddy bears penetrate high-tech body armor.
Okay, it’s been thirty years, and I’m still not sure how that last one worked. The Ewoks are often cited as the great false note of the original Star Wars films, the moment when George Lucas started going off the rails. I’ve always thought it was because their absurdity undermines the generally potent theme Lucas was working with: the importance of people, with all their spirit and ingenuity. Legend has it the climax of Return of the Jedi was originally supposed to occur on the Wookie homeworld. That would have made a lot more sense – you can see the Wookies as a threat the arrogant Empire would overlook. When they shrank into Ewoks, the fall of the Empire became silly, instead of thrilling.
Beyond the visual appeal of its special effects, and the way they transformed Hollywood, the lasting cultural inheritance of Star Wars is the way it makes the case for choosing risk over conformity, adventure over submission, and love over hate. The plot of those three great movies shows us every species of love, from romance and loyalty to humility and mercy, prevailing over every brand of hatred. The difficulty of Darth Vader’s redemption, and the defeat of the Emperor, reminds us that such triumph is not easy. That’s important to remember. Love is fierce when it needs to be. There’s nothing passive or submissive about the way Anakin Skywalker’s son drags him back into the light.
A whole generation of people has grown up using Star Wars as part of its cultural lexicon. It can be difficult to communicate with them unless you understand it. When this generation looks for a symbol of wisdom, images of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda fill their heads. If you them to ponder blind cruelty and oppression, mention the Death Star. If you would discuss the concepts of sin and redemption, “Anakin” is a good name to drop.
There’s nothing wrong with all that. Every generation of every society on Earth has expressed itself through myth and legend. Old legends assume new names, and old stories are retold in new ways. Fiction influences the way people view the real world. Favored quotes become short-hand notation for much larger concepts. You can learn English by studying a lexicon, but you can only learn to speak American by understanding popular culture, which Star Wars changed for decades to come.