It’s May the Fourth! Star Wars Day! The day in which we celebrate all things Star Wars (except the prequels… and those Ewoks TV movies). I was unsure what to write about to celebrate the occasion. I was tempted to write reviews for some of the Star Wars films, or write a blog about why – contrary to many Star Wars fans – I greatly prefer The Force Awakens over Rogue One. But I think I’ll save those for another day (soon).
Earlier today, I found this video in my recommendations on YouTube. It’s a video of an old television appearance by film critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel, who defend the Star Wars films from a rather prudish critic who is less enthusiastic about the franchise.
This video inspired me to write about something that I actually intended to write some time ago: Why Star Wars is so special, even in a time when fantasy and sci-fi blockbusters are no longer as rare as they were when Star Wars first made its impact.
Critics of the Star Wars franchise often deride the series for being “all about the special effects” (much like the prudish critic in the above video does, as he makes an incoherent analogy about a dog’s tail to go with it). While it’s true the visual effects of Star Wars were revolutionary, the real treat about Star Wars is its imagination.
All the visual polish in the world wouldn’t mean a damn thing if what it brought to life had nothing to it (just look at all the visual effects movies today that fall by the wayside). What makes Star Wars stand out so much is the imagination at play in its world.
There are countless aliens and creatures, many of which are truly original and inspired to behold. Considering the closest thing Star Wars has to a rival is Star Trek, a series in which the majority of aliens just look like people with varying odd-looking foreheads, the fact that Star Wars was able to bring to life so many unbelievable creatures made it captivating to audiences.
The “wow, look a that” factor, prominent as it may be, is probably the least of Star Wars’ imaginative triumphs. The world (or should I say Galaxy?) of the series is a unique blending of genres that creates something truly original.
Because of Star Wars’ popularity, we often take for granted how inspired its setting is. People who refer to Star Wars as “sci-fi” are only looking at things from face value. Sure, it’s set in outer space, and many of its machines look like something we can only imagine being products of the distant future. But Star Wars, from the offset with the immortal words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” immediately informs us that it’s more akin to fairy tale than science fiction.
Jedi like Luke Skywalker and Obi-wan Kenobi, as well as Sith such as Darth Vader, are more or less wizards and sorcerers. The Force is their magic, and the heart of the series’ mythology. We also have princesses, animal sidekicks (Chewbacca), and robots who have more personality than real-life humans. If Star Wars were strictly sci-fi, an uppity, whiny droid like C3-P0 could never exist. But with the fantasy and fairy tale elements in play, we can happily embrace the idea of a robot who cracks jokes and has panic attacks.
Star Wars isn’t just sci-fi and fantasy, either. It also has elements of westerns and samurai films, as well as war dramas. It’s a franchise that takes all these radically different pieces, and puts them all together in a coherent whole. Very few franchises even come close to pulling such a thing off.
Of course, these things still wouldn’t mean much if Star Wars weren’t also compelling films in their own right. Though the prequels certainly leave a glaring blemish on the franchise, as a whole, there’s a reason why the Star Wars films have remained the most influential of blockbusters.
I wouldn’t often use the word “purity” to describe the appeal of a film, but I think it’s incredibly fitting when describing Star Wars. Not pure in the sense that it’s completely void of evil (this is a series in which the galaxy is ruled by a lightning-throwing sorcerer). I mean pure in the sense that it has no ulterior agenda. It’s a simple story of good and evil that adopts the iconic “hero’s journey” structure of the myths of old, and uses its wildly original world to introduce us to memorable characters.
Though the likes of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo may be a bit archetypal, they easily stand out over any other characters of their ilk by the simple touches the films (and actors) gave to them. Whatever similar characters existed beforehand have long-since been rendered obsolete. Anyone else who fits into such archetypes is now compared to those found in Star Wars, who are unlikely to be displaced from their pedestals.
Another aspect that makes Star Wars so appealing is that it is a film series anyone can enjoy. In the above video, Siskel and Ebert (rightfully) defend Star Wars’ placement as a children’s film, whereas their opponent John Simon derides it for its childlike elements.
The thing is, Star Wars works because it’s a children’s film, but one that doesn’t talk down to children. It’s fun and imaginative, and littered with memorable characters that could appeal to anyone. It’s the kind of film a kid can (and will) easily enjoy, and the adult sitting next to them can enjoy every bit as much.
A lot of Star Wars fans don’t want to admit that it was always a series aimed largely at children, but that’s exactly what’s allowed it to endure. If Star Wars were a series aimed squarely at science fiction enthusiasts, it’s hard to imagine it would have anywhere near the level of timelessness that it does. Many people (such as myself) have grown up with Star Wars, and new generations are continuously doing the same. It’s a film series made for kids, and because of that, it has managed to break age barriers and be appreciated on a universal level.
In the video, Ebert and Siskel also mention how, back in the early 80s, younger audiences really didn’t have a whole lot of options when it came to quality entertainment. Most kids movies at the time were dumbed down, because they were made for kids. Star Wars, on the other hand, gave children a whole mythology to embrace. It captivated audiences’ imaginations, and continues to do so to this day.
In this day and age, children do have a few more options when it comes to quality entertainment, due in large part to the influence Star Wars had on filmmaking. But while Star Wars may continue to be endlessly imitated, its only really been duplicated by, well, more Star Wars movies.
It’s true, Marvel has put out some great family entertainment, as have a few other studios and franchises. But really, the only better family films around are all in the realms of animation. Disney has been on a hot streak in recent years, Pixar’s resume speaks for itself, and Studio Ghibli sits at the very peak of this mountain. Outside of such animated endeavors, however, Star Wars is virtually inapproachable in its imagination and appeal. Though Star Wars’ storytelling may not boast the sophistication of Pixar or Ghibli, its execution in storytelling easily stands above any of its live-action peers. Even Marvel’s best haven’t come close to being as captivatingly imaginative as Star Wars’ galaxy far, far away.
That’s not to say that the Star Wars films are perfect, of course. Even my favorites of the lot (Empire Strikes Back and The Force Awakens) have some issues. But anything the (non-prequel) Star Wars films may slip-up on, they more than make up for with the purity of their imagination and storytelling. And that’s why it has drawn in so many fans in a way very few – if any – franchises have.
Why so many people love Star Wars shouldn’t even be a question. The real question is why wouldn’t we love Star Wars so much?