Star Wars (Episode IV): The Phenomenon

Star Wars

(a.k.a. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope)

(1977, George Lucas, USA)

Star Wars may be the most popular movie of all time.  When adjusted for inflation, only Gone with the Wind (1939) has made more money at the box office – and it can be safely said that Star Wars is a more popular film than that particularly troubled work.

As an impartial movie observer, I would agree that there are better films than Star Wars.  It’s true that George Lucas’  greatest cinematic influences comes from the man whom this writer believes is the greatest filmmaker who ever lived – Akira Kurosawa.  Most notably, there are elements of Seven Samurai (1954) and the Hidden Fortress (1958) visible in Star Wars.  Both of these are considerably better movies than Star Wars, but, while popular, they are mostly popular among film buffs, film historians, and filmmakers.

So Star Wars is more popular than its cinematic influences, and it is more popular than the only movie that has made more money than it has (granted that film had a 38 year head start on Star Wars and periodic re-releases in that timeframe).  So why?  The first clue can be found in Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” a favorite of George Lucas and a seminal work in modern mythological theory.  In it, Campbell sets forth the concept of the “mono-myth” or the singular myth that weaves a thread through the myths of all societies.  To boil it down into two sentences, the mono myth involves a reluctant hero answering a call to adventure from an older, father figure.  The hero must either defeat or avenge the father figure in order to complete his quest and return from it with a benefit to society as a whole.

While Lucas used Campbell’s work as a blueprint for Star Wars, elements of the mono-myth by its very nature can be found in numerous other better, less popular movies.  Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the aforementioned Seven Samurai, and other classics films follow the Campbell mono-myth quite closely.  What sets Star Wars apart are three elements: its characters, its music, and its technology.

First, the acting in Star Wars is not technically of a high quality.  But who cares?  The actors’ performances create interesting and memorable characters.  It is no small feat that characters that appear on screen for only a few minutes at a time are among fans’ all time favorites.  The main characters are among the most memorable in cinema history (no matter who shot first, which, by the way, was obviously Han).

Second, the musical score, heavily influenced by Gustav Holst’s The Planets Suite (one of the most important pieces of music from the 20th Century), is among John Williams’ best. Remember, this was in the era of drum machines and synthesizers, and I’m sure some film producer told Lucas to use a more “futuristic” sounding score.  But just as Stanley Kubrick used a classical score for 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), Williams’ orchestral score magnifies the epic feel of the film.

Finally, the technology’s impact cannot be understated.  No one had figured out how to make realistic space combat on screen before Star Wars.  If you watch the classic television series Mystery Science Theater 3000, for instance, you will see dozens of crappy attempts at this.  The fact of the matter is that Star Wars made these effects look real, and this was a huge deal at the time that cannot be understated.

Beyond these three elements, the popularity of Star Wars sustained itself in a time before the internet or easy access to home video.  The experience of seeing that film for the first time stayed with fans for decades, and comes back to them a little bit every time they see it.  That even goes for those of us who first saw the movie on home video or on cable television.  While you can nitpick flaws in Star Wars’ script, acting, or the changes and updates Lucas has made to it over the years, it is its ability to impact the first time viewer and stay with them that makes Star Wars perhaps the most popular film of all time.

(c) 2012