Talking about the cultural impact of the Star Wars franchise is like talking about the effects of the sun on the planet. It’s that big and encompassing…sometimes life changing. I know the first two movies of the series affected me deeply. I remember the day I first saw Star Wars as a seven-year-old almost as clearly as 9/11 as a thirtysomething. Perhaps it’s a bit of hyperbole on my part, but I think many of you get the point.
Many pop culture auditors have explained the quantitative “how” of Star Wars success, but few in any arena have intimately dealt with the qualitative “why.” The central reason of “why,” overlooked by pretty much everyone and their droids, is actually obvious—especially when connected to the other “tropes” George Lucas utilized while captaining the first six movies of the franchise.
First, some of the “How”
The statistics on the commercial supernova that is Star Wars are nothing but eye-watering. Mentioning them is akin to shooting Moby Dick in a barrel:
– At the writing of this article, the seven Star Wars movies have grossed $6,359,492,838.
– More than 14 billion Star Wars toys and collectibles have been sold (with $1.5 billion in sales just in 2015).
– If one includes merchandise sales, movie tickets, and other products like video games, among many other items, Star Wars nets out at $42 billion. That’s more than the combined total sales fromthe James Bond and Harry Potter franchises.
That’s popular. That’s high-school-quarterback-popular, but more…religious heights popular.
Attempting the “Why?”
Attempts have been made to understand the behemoth popularity of Star Wars. These theories include:
– Star Wars taps into the Joseph Campbell “Hero with a thousand faces” formula—a dependable narrative about a young protagonist journeying to alien lands to become an adult, then returning home a champion eternal. As a timeless example, this literary blueprint worked with Odysseus, who in Greco-Roman times was part of a franchise that was the Star Wars of its epoch.
– Star Wars is a stew of revered cinema genres, pumped with budget steroids. From cowboy westerns to World War II epics, from space operas like Flash Gordon to venerable Saturday matinees, Lucas didn’t miss an appropriation beat for his “original” science fiction saga.
– Star Wars weaponized the passion for the summer blockbuster, already started by earlier films like Jaws and The Exorcist (before their arrival, winter was traditionally for movies and summer was for the outdoors…go figure). More than the two movies mentioned, Star Wars and its sequels commercialized films beyond the big screen.
– Star Wars is the archetypal Manichaean tale of light vs darkness, set in a western culture era of duality (“You’re either with us or against us,” echoed both Anakin Skywalker and George W. Bush).
These theories have merit, certainly, especially when spliced together. However, marketers or movie studio gurus have never been able to truly replicate the success of Star Wars (and it’s doubtful the upcoming sequels for Avatar, the highest grossing film in the world, will fare better).
There has to be more, then, to the allure of Star Wars. There has to be a core element, a missing stone the movie moguls rejected.
The true “Why?”
Here it is the main reason Star Wars is so popular:
In that action cheesiness? Family issues? Yes.
At its soul, Star Wars is the story of a family—the trinity of Luke, Anakin, and Leia Skywalker. They hold the narrative together. In the prequels, the trinity shifts to Padme Amidala, Anakin, and two brotherly Jedi’s). The family unit struggling with its internal dynamics while navigating a perilous world is an eonian theme that never gets old. Why? Because everyone relates deeply and often desperately. Everyone is in a family having difficulties in a perilous world. This keynote certainly harkens to Tolstoy’s classic quote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
Even more fascinating, Lucas distilled some of the more enigmatic and gripping elements of family issues:
– The Oedipus tension between parent and child (son Luke and patriarch Darth Vader, destined to ruin each other).
– The ancient Egyptian/Game of Thrones tension of incestuous/forbidden fruit attraction (the siblings Luke and Leia, although as with Oedipus, their intimacy is out of ignorance).
– The modern soap opera tension of dysfunctional relationships (Leia and Han Solo; or Padme’s jailbait attraction to Anakin).
How could you lose with this type of plot hot sauce?
Don’t take my word on any of this, though. Lucas himself explained the essence of Star Wars:
People don’t actually realize it’s actually a soap opera and it’s all about family problems – it’s not about spaceships.
It’s that simple. It’s not simplistic, mind you, and that’s the mistake Hollywood continues to make: producing facile family plotlines set in complex backdrops.
Not so with Lucas in Star Wars. By blending complex and even taboo family issues with the four formulas mentioned earlier, he gave birth to a commercial and cultural juggernaut the world will feel for a long time—maybe not after the sun finally burns out, but surely until the day the last family ceases to exist.
I disavowed the Star Wars franchise after stomaching the three prequels. Federation ships and Jar Jar stones broke my bones. Words from bad acting before green screens broke my heart. I’ve heard that The Force Awakens is simply a PC reboot of A New Hope, and that’s fine if it wishes to remain financially supreme. Yet to become a memorable narrative, the film will have to successfully engage in those sticky and uncomfortable family affairs.
Of course, we should put things in perspective. None of the Star Wars films will ever receive a major movie talent award. Star Wars has sold a lot of tickets, but in numbers is still second to Gone With the Wind. At the end of the day, the Star Wars franchise is ultimately extroverted entertainment with inspiring but prosaic messages.
It does have one profound message, though: Family problems started a long, long time ago and will continue even in a galaxy far, far away…