The week of December 13, 2015

The immense cultural legacy of ‘Star Wars’

By Jesse Hicks

Just days from the release of Star Wars: Episode VII The Force Awakens, Disney’s well-oiled hype machine is rolling across the cultural landscape, inundating us with cast interviews, limited-edition toys, and VR headsets. Premiere-night shows are selling out; excitement for the film is approaching its crescendo.

Now seems like a good time to step back and examine the cultural legacy of Star Wars. At the Kernel, we’ll be doing so over two issues. This week, we’re looking at how the original trilogy changed the landscape for sci-fi and fantasy cinema. And we’re also looking at how, a generation later, the prequel trilogy forced many fans to re-examine their relationship with the series.

First, Noel Murray rounds up the sci-fi and fantasy films released in the year before Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope. It’s a remarkable grab bag, though Murray argues that with hindsight you can see how moviegoers were primed to fully embrace George Lucas’s saga. Movies such as Logan’s Run, Westworld, Jaws, and even, most surprisingly, Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards all featured elements that’d appear in his trilogy. So while 20th Century Fox put its marketing dollars behind Damnation Alley, a post-apocalyptic car-chase thriller that mashed up the then-popular tropes of badass cars and killer animals, Lucas, who was genuinely steeped in the movies of his time, waited to debut Star Wars. Its success has fascinating implications: It made certain films possible (from both an artistic and commercial perspective), while making others obsolete. It ushered in the age of the blockbuster, and it’s not hard to analogize to our current era, when big-budget cinema is dominated by franchises, many of them bearing the name “Marvel.”

Then we move on to the prequel trilogy. The Phantom Menace arrived in a different world, and it’s no spoiler to say that many fans were disappointed. Over the years much ink has been spilt explaining the precise nature of that disappointment, and contrarians have argued that the three films just aren’t that bad. They are that bad, argues Charles Bramesco, but the way to make them better is not through constructing elaborate, defensive explanations. It’s to stop watching them. Give yourself over to a kind of willed nostalgia; let the specifics blur in your memory until only the best parts remain. That’s how human minds work, Bramesco says, and the best way to appreciate the prequels is to let the vagaries of memory work upon them.

And finally, Nathan Rabin reminds us of the fans unwilling to look away from a movie they thought was being unjustly maligned. In this case it was Fanboys: Finally released in 2009, it told the story of four Star Wars fans, one dying of cancer, determined to break into George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch to steal a copy of The Phantom Menace. Rabin argues that Fanboys is by no means a good movie; it’s filled with homophobic gags, generic hijinks, and fairly shallow sci-fi references. But Star Wars fans believed it spoke to them—spoke for them, even. When the Weinstein Company planned to change the film, it was cast as the Galactic Empire, with Fanboys fans eager to step into the role of the Rebel Alliance. This melodramatic online battle, Rabin says, was deeply misguided, but might offer us some understanding of the nature of Star Wars fandom—just the insight Fanboys promised but never delivered.

Enjoy the issue.

Illustration by Bruno Moraes