This week marks the 40th anniversary of Star Wars: Episode IV-A New Hope, the original movie that launched a franchise phenomenon. Episode eight, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, will be released this December, and it will almost certainly be another blockbuster. Even a trailer for a new Star Wars movie is a major event, guaranteed to light up the Internet. Our story is set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, but Star Wars has never been more relevant than it is right now.
Other classic 1977 movies-such as Saturday Night Fever or Annie Hall-didn't give birth to 40-year film franchises, and they've had nothing approaching the impact of Star Wars. The force is strong with this one.
To probe how Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo's galactic adventure revolutionized movie-making, we turned to American University School of Communication Assistant Professor Kyle Brannon. He's a Star Wars aficionado-there are undoubtedly others on campus-with some insights on the franchise's legacy.
"At this point, I think Star Wars is history and connection and culture," he says. "It's not a novelty."
Never Tell Me the Odds
Historically, Brannon notes, genre movies like Star Wars weren't considered serious films. That started to change around the time of George Lucas' space epic, helping to remake the Hollywood landscape.
"People who grew up on B movie, sci fi, horror, fantasy stuff were coming of age to where they wanted to create something," he says. That included Lucas and other directors in the mid-to-late 1970s. "Jaws, Halloween, Alien, Superman. These all took themselves seriously, and rewarded those fans who had been handed cheese before that."
The film technology was also advancing, he adds, making it easier for audiences to suspend disbelief. Even without Lucas' tinkering in recent years, Star Wars' special effects-somewhat miraculously-still hold up today.
"Star Wars just blew everyone away with the effects," Brannon says. "You believe those spaceships flew around, and that the lightsabers worked. It didn't look imposed into the reality. It looked like it could be real."
Brannon exalts Lucas more for his producing than his directing, and he notes his cross-marketing innovations through toys and memorabilia. Lucas also had quality people around him, such as screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) before coming back to co-write Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015).
The writing helps drive the best Star Wars movies, Brannon says. "Some films exist in a space of memory that people connect on, and it transcends everything that happened in the film. It gives it this new life. I usually identify this with films that are eminently quotable," he explains. "If I said, 'Never tell me the odds,' there's no reason that should be connected to Star Wars, right? But if I said it in a group of five people, I'll bet you three of them will say, 'Han Solo.'"
Beyond Generation X
1977 was also the year Brannon was born. In the run up to The Empire Strikes Back, A New Hope was re-released in the theater and Brannon's parents took him to the movie. He was probably three years old, doesn't remember the experience, and can't vouch for his own behavior in the theater. But his parents recognized that this movie was important. "I was crazy about Star Wars as a little kid. And it lasts with me to this day," he says.
This year at the Visions, a Film and Media Arts awards ceremony, he filmed SOC profs Russell Williams and Chris Palmer in a fun parody of The Force Awakens.
Star Wars was practically a rite of passage for Generation X kids like Brannon. Yet with its massive popularity in 2017, it's extended far beyond that. We're in a second wave, he says, with Gen Xers passing on the Star Wars traditions to their children. And with the Internet and social media, there's even more minutia to discuss and discover. You could spend hours dissecting this trailer for The Last Jedi.
"Right now, if you're a child and you find this thing, there's so much to explore and go with," he says.
While growing up, Brannon devoured Timothy Zahn's "Thrawn trilogy" novels, which are sometimes credited with rekindling interest in the series in the 1990s. The Expanded Universe (EU) of books, comic books, and video games bolstered the Star Wars story and energized its fan base. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, the old EU was scrapped and replaced with a new Star Wars Legends universe. With theme park attractions and TV shows such as Star Wars Rebels, creative outlets for the franchise will keep proliferating.
Star Wars is also the modern template for the many film franchises dominating Hollywood. "That is the one thing I believe you could say that Star Wars really gave us," he says. The fact that The Empire Strikes Back ended on a cliffhanger was a game changer, he argues. "Star Wars showed, for good or bad-because there is good and bad about this-the summer blockbuster can have a franchise that expands out beyond one film to multiple films."
It seems every year we get a new X-Men, Hunger Games, Harry Potter, or Fast and the Furious movie. Marvel's The Avengers, a kind of ultra-franchise, stands above the sub-franchises of Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor. Brannon says Disney's goal is somewhat similar to what's being done with the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Tell the overarching Skywalkers' tale and fill in gaps with affiliate movies, such as Rogue One and the upcoming young Han Solo film.
A cynic might say this is all about maximizing profits with ready-made characters and built-in audiences. Money will always be a factor, but Brannon says that truly talented directors will aim for artistic achievement.
That's why studio executives tapped J.J. Abrams-who also helped revive the Star Trek series-to direct The Force Awakens. That critically-acclaimed movie was also beloved by fans, which was vital for the franchise after the polarizing Star Wars prequel films.
"I really don't think J.J. Abrams would have done the film if he didn't want to do it right," he says. "Getting it right is the reward. Because you know when you get it wrong, you get Fantastic Four or X-Men [The Last Stand] or The Phantom Menace."
Myths and Legends
Regardless of the shiny new X-wings or droids devised for upcoming flicks, Star Wars films tell the same human stories we've been telling since time immemorial.
"The original three, in particular, were just really rich, really human, and really fun. And it plays into your fantasies, and it also just plays into traditional mythology of good versus evil," Brannon says.
He calls Star Wars' allusions a "cultural stew," incorporating Westerns and Akira Kurosawa's samurai movies. Theologians have written books about the religious overtones in Star Wars, and observers have found Jesus traits in both Luke and Anakin Skywalker.
"But there's also the hero's journey, something that reaches back to the Ancient Greeks. I feel like this says less about Star Wars and more about these other stories," Brannon adds. "You look at Luke as being every kid's dream. That they're not just destined to be this simple kid, and that's what you identify with in the story."