“It’s about family and that’s what’s so powerful about it.”
That’s how Carrie Fisher explained the lasting power of Star Wars. This answer, from such a witty and acerbic persona, was a kind parting gift to the folks over at Disney who got the perfect hook to advertise their gigantic holiday tentpole.
Putting cynicism aside, though, how else to explain such monumental success?
In the history of popular culture, there’s never been a cultural sensation quite like Star Wars. With the eighth episode of the Skywalker saga, “The Last Jedi,” premiering on Dec. 15, it’s worth running through the franchise’s accomplishments.
The original installment practically invented the modern blockbuster and still holds the record for most tickets sold in the post-World War II era. Sequels “The Empire Strikes Back” and “Return of the Jedi” continued the financial bonanza and created the popular trilogy concept.
A generation later, George Lucas returned with his critic-proof prequel trilogy. In 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm and set about creating a sequel trilogy and a series of spin-off films. Their first effort, 2015’s “The Force Awakens” became the current record-holder for highest grossing film in North America.
Altogether, the Star Wars franchise has grossed $7.7 billion worldwide at the box office.
All this success led studios everywhere to ask “Why not us?” Over the next four decades many tried, a few found some success, but no one was able to surpass the popularity and influence of Star Wars.
Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker, attributes it to escapism and he’s not the only one. Upon seeing the famous “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…” prologue in 1977, legendary poet Allen Ginsberg remarked, “Oh, thank goodness. I don’t have to worry about it.” Unlike most movies at the time, Star Wars presented nothing about our time or our place to concern us.
Lucas himself has lately been adamant that these were always intended to be children’s films. These aren’t satisfactory answers either, since nearly all fantasy is escapist and aimed at least partially towards kids.
The question is what keeps those kids coming back — and coming back after they’re grown up. I went to see the newest installments on opening weekend when I was 12 and 15, but I also showed up at the age of 25, 26 and pretty soon 27.
I do believe there’s something to the idea that this is not the story of one character. The first trilogy, episodes 4, 5 and 6, focused on Luke Skywalker. Then Lucas retroactively shifted the narrative toward his father, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader, in the prequel films, episodes 1, 2, and 3. Now the sequels find Daisy Ridley’s Rey taking up the hero mantle front and center.
For this reason I’m less persuaded by the theory that nostalgia drives this fervor. While it’s obviously a factor, millions of Star Wars fans were born long after the original trilogy premiered. Unless Jar Jar Binks (one of the most reviled characters in movie history) somehow actually did hook the Millennial generation, there has to be something else at work here.
Digging deeper, I turned to journalist Chris Taylor’s quintessential volume “How Star Wars Conquered the Universe.” One thing he points to is The Force, the source of spiritual and physical power in the Star Wars universe. Taylor tracked how Lucas came up with the concept.
He found it originally came from an avant-garde film Lucas was obsessed with as a student at USC called “21-87” which contained the phrase “some kind of force” in relation to personal communication. Lucas toyed with using the word in his first sci-fi flick “THX 1138” but it ended up on the cutting room floor before re-surfacing in episode 4, “A New Hope.”
“It’s an energy field created by all living things,” Jedi master Obi Wan tells Luke in “A New Hope” when he asks him about The Force. “It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together.” Lucas later added a biological aspect, making The Force present in every individual as well.
Perhaps this sheds some light on the answer. Plenty of stories center on the hero’s journey, the conflict between good and evil, massive battles, and tales of destiny fulfilled. The concept that the tides of history and pressures of society, their force, if you will, will shape every one of us — and that we all have the power to shape it ourselves — is a powerful idea indeed. Who can resist the chance to choose their destiny?