Star Wars – 40 years of awakening The Force and captivating the generations
George Lucas was so sure his film was going to be a flop that he went on holiday rather than attend the premiere – but instead it was the seed from which a vast franchise grew, with the latest instalment due this week
The new instalment in the Star Wars film saga opens in cinemas on Thursday against a formidable force: the galactic hopes of devoted fans who have waited a decade to revisit their beloved universe of Jedi, droids and lightsabres.
Can The Force Awakens, the seventh episode in the celebrated sci-fi series, meet those expectations when it debuts? “No,” says director J.J. Abrams. “How can anything live up to any expectation like that?”
What the movie will offer, Abrams says, is great performances and visual effects, music “that breaks your heart and soars”, plus a story, characters and creatures that are new, but feel like they fit in the universe created by George Lucas in the original 1977 film.
“George was creating a world that we wanted to go back to in order to tell a story we’d never seen yet,” Abrams says. “In a way, we were going backward to go forward.”
For example, he says, the filmmakers created droids “to feel completely new and different and at the same time something that was so of Star Wars. That was always the challenge.”
Lucas bowed out of Star Wars after he sold his film studio to Disney in 2012 for US$4 billion.
“There’s no way that I can imagine anything touching the magic of what he did,” says Abrams, whose resumé includes a successful reboot of the Star Trek series and the cult TV series Lost. “Yet we all did the best we could to make that happen.”
Set 30 years after Return of the Jedi, the new film brings characters Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) back to their galaxy far, far away. Newcomers Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) lead a younger generation that grapples with the conflicts that haunted the past.
Disney is guarding details about the plot of The Force Awakens. The secrecy has stirred rampant online speculation, particularly about the fate of Skywalker, who is absent from trailers and posters promoting the new film.
Abrams says the character was purposely left off to keep key parts of the story under wraps. “It’s just what our narrative is,” Abrams says, “so if it’s driving anyone crazy, apologies. But it’s mostly about wanting to protect the experience for the people who might go see the movie.”
The series may now be one of Hollywood’s biggest success stories, but when the original Star Wars film was released in 1977 many people, including Lucas, believed it would be a flop.
“I don’t think anyone could have predicted what a smash hit and what a cultural phenomenon it was going to become,” says Jonathan Kuntz, professor at UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television.
“As soon as anybody saw Star Wars, they were converted and they fell in love with it.”
But the early beginnings of the space epic didn’t look that rosy. Twentieth Century Fox, the film’s distributor, hesitated over the film’s US$8 million budget and wasn’t convinced a science fiction movie would fill cinemas. Such was the lack of enthusiasm that the studio planned a limited release and had to twist the arm of some venues to agree to show it.
Given the budget constraints, Lucas agreed to a lower salary in exchange for full merchandising rights to the movie and any sequels – a deal that would prove brilliant and make him fabulously rich.
Before the film’s release, Lucas organised a private screening to a group of film director friends and most, including Brian De Palma, gave it a thumbs down.
The only voice of dissent came from Steven Spielberg, who rightly predicted the film would be a hit.
Still, Lucas was so convinced it would flop that on May 25, the day it was released, he went on holiday to Hawaii instead of attending the premiere. As everyone knows, Star Wars became a sensation and went on to become one of the highest-grossing films of all time.
It played in cinemas for one straight year, winning six Oscars and earning US$775 million at the box office. Overall, the space epic has generated US$4.4 billion in box office revenue.
While that number is below the earnings of the James Bond and Harry Potter movies, the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens – as well as its two sequels – will likely make it “the undisputed champion of the box office as far as franchises go”, says Jeff Bock, of the box office tracker Exhibitor Relations.
The secret to the success of Star Wars, studied and analysed in universities the world over, rests primarily with its multigenerational appeal, says Gary Kurtz, who produced the first two Star Wars films.
“Audiences of all ages could identify with the characters,” he says. “Even little kids three or four years old got the basic structure of the story and enjoyed being sucked into that kind of adventure.”
The space saga, inspired by the Flash Gordon movie serials of the 1930s, tells a classic story of good versus evil in a “galaxy far, far away”, and mixes in visual effects, a romantic plot and battle scenes.
“It jump-started the whole science fiction and fantasy era that we are still living in,” says Kuntz of UCLA.
“Star Wars is a non-stop action movie with goofy characters and humour and portrays so many alien worlds,” he adds. “It opens the door on a fascinating new universe.”
And unlike other hit sci-fi films such as Blade Runner and The Matrix, the series also gives fans reason for optimism. “It’s not total dystopia, there is still hope,” Kuntz says.
Still, the reason behind the stellar success Star Wars may never be known, says Kurtz, the producer.
“I would have never thought that 40 years after the first film was released, people would still talk about it,” he says.
As any thinker will tell you, perhaps the reason that people are still talking about it is because there’s more to Star Wars than a bunch of spaceships, lightsabres and princesses.
Rich in mythology, symbolism and theology, the film franchise for decades proved a treasure trove for earthbound philosophers, raising issues such as the nature of good and evil, free will and determinism, the prophecy of the chosen one, and the true nature of The Force.
“Star Wars is very powerful because it helps us understand ourselves in the light and dark side of The Force. We feel this in our lives when we have this pull of immediate gratification but a desire to achieve long-term goals,” says George Backen, professor of philosophy at Adams State University in Colorado.
“George Lucas hit on a perfect mixture of myth, Flash Gordon, Westerns and Japanese culture, and it really resonates with people,” Backen adds.
For more than 30 years, academics, students and people of faith have used Star Wars as a springboard to explore themes such as moral ambiguity, father-son relationships, concepts of feminine beauty and the yearning for something better in life.
Now they are anticipating new topics to explore with the arrival of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
“I wonder if The Force Awakens theme is a kind of post 9/11 take, where former certainties are rattled and things we thought were reliable are disrupted?” says Kevin Decker, professor of philosophy at Eastern Washington University and co-editor of the book The Ultimate Star Wars and Philosophy.
Decker will also be looking for any radical changes to the concept of The Force as the ultimate arbiter of who is good and who is bad.
“If, for example, The Force Awakens means all kinds of people wake up suddenly being able to use The Force who have never had any training or knowledge of it, that would be a fundamental shake-up in the Star Wars universe,” Decker says.
Spiritualism is a major Star Wars theme. Lucas was quoted as saying some 15 years ago that The Force embodies “a concept of religion based on the premise that there is a God and there is good and evil”.
Philosophers debate whether droids such as R2-D2 are conscious or self-aware, and how that could be tested. The Imperial Stormtroopers have long been likened to Nazi armies, and many feminists view Princess Leia’s gold metal bikini and chains of captivity in Return of the Jedi as embodying a tyrannical ideal of feminine beauty.
Backen says that although the characters are not actively wrestling with philosophical concepts, the movies help explain a lot of human experience through their stories. “Lord of the Rings and the Marvel universe are popular, but they don’t have the cultural influence that Star Wars has,” Backen says.
Reuters, with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse