A cultural landscape far, far away: The diminishing impact of Star Wars
December 10, 2018
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Ever since its inception in 1977, the Star Wars series proved itself as a pioneer in nearly every area of pop culture: from inventing the idea of a fanbase to its role in merchandising, and the creation of the now ultra-successful blockbuster genre. As time went on, these films only saw their legacy-and its potency-grow; if the various spoofs, parodies, and homages to the series over the decades cannot support this assertion, then the adoption of common phrases from the original trilogy into the English vernacular surely does.
However, as of late, the series finds itself in something of a tumultuous position, as the divide between filmmakers and viewers that first materialized with the first remaster for the original trilogy in 1997 managed to widen immensely in both size and discrepancy after the release of The Last Jedi. And with the box office returns for 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story, a large contingent of fans, rightfully so, see the series in a state of disarray. However, when one manages to sift through all the chatter about character assassination and corporate repackaging of nostalgia, the biggest and perhaps most disheartening truth of the current state of Star Wars becomes clear: the series now holds no relevance to our culture.
To understand how the series reached this point, one must first understand why the series, specifically the original trilogy, holds the importance that it does. The movies served as timeless art: to that effect, director George Lucas utilized the monomyth (a narrative template defined by failure and a changed hero) as the skeleton for A New Hope, and the original trilogy as a whole. The reason behind this timelessness results from the structure applying to the countless stories told by humanity throughout its past, from Odysseus warring with Troy, to Arthur acquiring the sword of Excalibur. Regarding A New Hope, the mundane life of Luke Skywalker on Tatooine serves as an analogue for the Ordinary World in the monomyth, and his Road Back represented by joining the Rebel pilots on their Death Star assault; in terms of the Ordinary World, portraying the hero not as an all-powerful Übermensch, but a young man wanting to make something greater of himself, added a layer of relatability universal to all children. Undoubtedly, the use of this framing device ensured that the series would, on a storytelling level, continue to remain inheritable by future generations.
Contrasted with their timeless nature, the original Star Wars films also managed to stay in tune with the political and cultural climate of the late 70s and early 80s in a surprisingly subtle, yet clever fashion. One well known example of the former exists during the Battle of Endor in Star Wars: Episode VI-Return of the Jedi, serving as an allegory for the Vietnam War. In this particular instance, the native Ewoks serve as parallels to the Viet Cong, while the Empire represents the technologically superior United States; during this battle, the disadvantaged Ewoks defeat the Empire through inventive methods rather than brute force, reinforcing the notion of brain over brawn. This commentary comes right before a fairly goofy sequence wherein the Imperial helmets become substitute drums. And regarding the Empire, they themselves received a coating of simplicity over a historical base. The Stormtroopers who fought for the Imperials shared a name with the fighters who protected the Nazis, and not unlike how the Nazis masked their actions to the Germans with good intentions, the Stormtrooper armor comprises white armor over black clothes, a metaphor for using benevolence to mask evil.
Finally, and perhaps, most importantly, the major reason the original trilogy left the impact that it did relates to it serving as the first in its genre: a sci-fi blockbuster. Prior to the release of A New Hope, only Jaws in 1975 managed to reach a form of mass commercial and critical success, so when this film managed to earn over $300 million against an $11 million dollar budget, it certainly left waves. Beyond monetary gain, Star Wars pioneered media franchises, successfully incorporating elements from other mediums to build an entirely unique one, from the notion of moon-sized spaceships taken from the work of E.E. Smith to the Jedi Knights taking inspiration from feudal samurai.
All in all, the original three Star Wars films became a pop culture juggernaut by their conclusion in 1983. Their use of the hero’s journey, the aforementioned narrative structure, inspired later films to use a similar structure, most notably The Matrix in 1999, wherein the ordeal Neo faces involves rescuing his mentor Morpheus, and The Goonies in 1985, which ends with the protagonists literally acquiring the “treasure” from One Eyed Willie. And while not commonly associated with the structure today, superhero movies around the origins of Star Wars, most notably 1978’s Superman, built up their films from the layout of the monomyth.
Blockbuster films, while not quite on the level of any of the three, emerged en masse after the trilogy ended, including Ghostbusters in 1984 and Superman in 1978. And after even the first Star Wars film, a wave of science fiction films eager to cash in on the newfound craze emerged, with the most notable examples including Masters of the Universe in 1987, Battle Beyond the Stars in 1980, and Star Odyssey in 1979. It seemed like the series and its legacy on mass entertainment would remain undamaged for decades to come. But then came the prequels.
While plans for prequel films existed by 1987, the trilogy quietly died after George Lucas lost a good chunk of his money in a divorce; however, advancements in digital technology, as well as the 90s resurgence of the series with the Thrawn books, gave Lucas reason enough to tell his story; unfortunately, that story failed to resonate with audiences in the same way that the original trilogy did. And as a result, hardcore fans and audiences alike see these films as responsible for a decade long dearth of Star Wars films. The question of “How did this happen?” should come up to those reading, and one common answer revolves around the full creative control Lucas lorded over these films: because no one could rein in the more madcap ideas of Lucas, viewers see him as the problem. However, the real problem with these films does not lie at the feet of the director, as the story he told in the prequels, in spite of its convoluted nature, clearly exuded passion at every point.
No, the real problem lies with abandoning that which made the original trilogy so special in favor of thrill and spectacle. The relatability of the main protagonists that proved itself so effective in the original trilogy ended up abandoned. In this case, while Luke Skywalker possessed relatable flaws and trials to undergo that endeared him to audiences of all ages, Lucas wrote main character Anakin in The Phantom Menace as a holy figure, blessed from his immaculate birth with Force powers on a level never seen before and intelligence surpassing that of his peers. As for the hero’s journey, while it certainly saw usage throughout the trilogy, its use hardly compared to the originals. Without the wide-scale use seen in the original, nothing in these films made them timeless. But at the same time, nothing within these films gives off an antiquated vibe; they just feel adrift in time.
The scale of the series also no longer stood out as a Star Wars exclusive. During the six years the prequels ran, movies such as Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and the first Lord of the Rings introduced worlds with just as much depth as the original Star Wars trilogy possessed. Granted, the prequels did build upon the original trilogy, giving them a leg up over the competition. And not to mention, those kinds of stories came out infrequently, so the series lacked an abundance of competitors. Despite this, the prequels, at their time and even to this day, rack up critique after critique for ruining the originals, either through inconsistencies in the story or by lessening the scope of the series.
Box office returns suffered due to rival series, Spider-Man, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers all managed to outgross Episode II: Attack of the Clones. In addition, while the films still took inspiration from other works and mediums, particularly Japanese culture and Christian beliefs, these cues seemed mostly relegated to visual elements, as opposed to their prior use as inspiration for major story elements in the original trilogy.
In 2012, The Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion, with the intention to release a new Star Wars film every year. And upon their initial release with Star Wars: The Force Awakens in 2015, it seemed like the transition produced smooth sailing. While not universally loved upon release (and with opinions souring over the last three years), the film still earned incredibly positive reviews; and with box office numbers nothing short of historic, the decision by Disney to purchase Lucasfilm seemed like one incapable of backfiring. Unfortunately, the opposite seems true now, as a decent contingent of the fanbase sees the current state of the series as more unstable than its prequel era state.
However, the reason behind this problem, unlike the prequels, did not result from abandoning the strengths of the originals, but, at least for The Force Awakens (TFA) , rather embracing it too closely. As previously mentioned, opinion on TFA remains notably lower now than upon its release; and the factor arguably most responsible for that regards the idea that the film recycles the plot structure of the films in the original trilogy, specifically A New Hope. This repetition includes a hunt for a map in a droid, a plucky young hero on a desert planet thrust into greatness, an assault on a planet-sized superweapon, and the death of the mentor at the hands of a Sith warrior. Now in all fairness, reusing that structure comes with the hero’s journey, and its usage excelled. The problems lay with the lack of originality of the film: something that made A New Hope and its sequels so iconic, and the originality of it all ends up washed away in this film. Everything in it exists in other films, namely A New Hope.
Perhaps the biggest casualty of the series, the scope of the sequels now holds nothing moviegoers cannot find elsewhere. When the originals came out, they represented a vitalization of the then-fledgling blockbuster genre; when the prequels came out, the idea of blockbusters, while indeed a powerful force in cinema, still lacked the variety of choices to choose from that would discount them from box office success. But now, moviegoers, casual and hardcore alike, live in the age of blockbusters, wherein they come out in increasingly large numbers and produce consistently high amounts of money. All in all, it seems like the series just flies over the heads of modern moviegoing audiences; the older one sure, but most certainly younger viewers. During the time of the first trilogy, younger viewers literally could not stop consuming Star Wars media, helping propel the series to earn over $260 billion in merchandise. But now? The series directs its marketing towards older fans, at the cost of creating a potential legion of new ones.
“I would say outdated because it’s not something the younger generations are connected to. I think the continued Star Wars franchise are for people who grew up with it and it has relevance to their childhood”, a middle schooler said when interviewed in an anonymous survey for this story.
Series like Mission Impossible, The Fast And the Furious, and the X-Men films raised the bar for what a large summer film must do, either in terms of action, special effects, or revolution of a genre. Granted, the new Star Wars films do possess visual effects and soundtracks that audiences even five years ago would consider revolutionary, but one could swap out any tentpole franchise of the last 15 or so years, and the statement would remain true; even within the sci-fi genre, the genre that saw an influx of entries in under the first decade after the original trilogy ended. Star Wars can just barely hold onto its reign. While Force Awakens did become the highest grossing film of 2015, Jurassic World came in at a close second, with it earning around $397 million less than the $2 billion the former made. In 2017, Marvel’s Thor: Ragnarok, a film that definitely took inspiration from sci-fi comics of years past, made a respectable $853 million compared to the $1.3 billion The Last Jedi made.
In all honesty, the Marvel Cinematic Universe now does everything Star Wars encompassed when it first came out just as competently. In the last ten years, Marvel revolutionized serialized storytelling on film and inspired a wave of imitators, such the Dark Universe and rebooted Star Trek films, unlike Star Wars. While Marvel movies resulted in increased interest in the superhero genre, interest in sci-fi (while on the rise as well) rises independently of Star Wars.
In the last five years, Kevin Feige and the storytellers at Marvel Studios managed to successfully cross superhero movies with genres such as spy thrillers in Captain America: The Winter Soldier and heist movies in Ant-Man; meanwhile, Star Wars limits this kind of cross-genre storytelling exclusively to its two anthology films, which may not continue moving forward. And on a more circumstantial level, it seems like the children of this generation seem far more invested in the adventures of Rocket Raccoon and the Vision than in the battles between the Jedi and the First Order.
This trend should deeply worry the higher-ups at Disney, far more so than weekend drop-offs or critic reviews do. Yes, Disney workers need to satisfy their shareholders, so their creative decisions may reflect this need. And generally, these choices pay off—in the short term. In the long term, however, those choices weaken the strength of the brand. Conversely, George Lucas wanted to tell the story he envisioned when he first drew up story notes for A New Hope. While telling this said story more than likely pleased him in the moment, fan reaction to these films shows that the classic methods of building a legacy still hold merit. As for what to do, Force Awakens director JJ Abrams did well to honor the prior storytelling tropes of the original trilogy, and future writers and directors should use the monomyth to the best of their ability. Likewise, the passion for the story found within the prequel trilogy should remain consistent in the upcoming movies.
The impact of the Star Wars series exists as more than just an abstractual story framework or studio earnings as real people genuinely adore these films, including people in our community. In certain cases, it can bond generations of a family together.
“It [Star Wars] has served as a commonality between me and my now husband. It has given us both something to bond over, watch, and discuss. We are now passing on our love of the series with our daughter and nephews,” AP Statistics teacher Mrs. Hamilton said.
For other people, it can serve as a lifelong (literally) source of fervor, beginning in one’s childhood.
“I think [Star Wars resonates strongly] because the first movie came out the year I was born, so it is a series that has stretched the entire length of my lifetime. I watched the original trilogy (OT) as a young child and was fascinated by it. Then when I was in college, the news came out that they were making prequels to see how everything got started,” NC Algebra and Volleyball Coach Sansing said.
And even within the larger Acworth community, Star Wars leaves a large impact. During the first Atlanta Comic Con, held in July of 2017, an entire event devoted to Star Wars cosplayers occurred, with various competitions for men, women, children, and even pets; Ray Park, the actor who played Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace and Solo, even made a guest appearance. In addition, the series seemed among the larger attractions at this year’s DragonCon, with everything from debates on The Last Jedi to a military and political analysis of the wars and crime in the series, and even a droid-building competition. The extent of the legacy of the series does not simply end in the moviemaking industry; rather, it reaches nationwide and into the hearts of everyday people.
The meaning of Star Wars, like any media property of quality, varies from people to people: an escape from the worries of real life, the childhood fascination passed down from parent to child, or a source of financial assurance to actors and producers. No matter what the series may mean to someone, no one deserves to see the series extirpated to the nth degree. While those not into Star Wars may just see this series as mindless action to keep the kids quiet, the fact remains that these movies left an impact on global culture.
Consider the issue of series legacy in this manner: the 2002 film Rain of Fire takes place in a post apocalyptic London with no electricity or food, and streets remain in perpetual decay. To pass the time, the characters reenact scenes from the original trilogy; one specific scene involves a character telling children of the fight between Skywalker and Vader in Empire Strikes Back. After the fact, the kids watching let off a rapid fire string of questions, desperately needing to know what happened next. If this article leaves readers with one takeaway, consider this question: does anyone genuinely care about the series and its future in its current state? It seems like the current moviegoing audience does not.
“I think I wouldn’t be affected along with the younger generations who doesn’t truly adopt the Star Wars films versus older generations”, an anonymous middle schooler said.