The Enduring Legacy of the Star Wars Universe
By Zack Mandell
In 1976, nobody knew what a lightsaber was, Wookies didn't exist, and the sci-fi movie genre was on life support. A year later, George Lucas' space opera "Star Wars: A New Hope" had revived the stagnant genre, put Wookies on the map, and made lightsabers the coolest weapon in the galaxy. The legacy of the film, which spawned two sequels, three prequels, and an upcoming third trilogy, doesn't stop there. The entire movie industry was changed irrevocably by the film, with many of those changes still evident today.
Before "Star Wars: A New Hope," movies released into theaters were largely dramatic and relied on tension and pacing to make them suspenseful. There was very little in the way of epic dramas, comedies, or sci-fi to be found. That all changed when the first of Lucas' trilogy came out because it was unapologetically a work of science fiction that was irresistible to moviegoers. In fact, the film started a sci-fi boom of sorts, with films like "TRON" capitalizing on the film's success in order to sell tickets. This boom started in the late 1970s after "Star Wars: A New Hope" was released and lasted for several years, solidifying the sci-fi genre as a force to be reckoned with. It also ushered in an era of adventure films that were based on action and had much bigger budgets than the quieter dramas that preceded them. A good example of this is the Indiana Jones trilogy, which starred "Star Wars: A New Hope" alumnus Harrison Ford.
One of the most impressive and lasting legacies of "Star Wars: A New Hope" is that it also brought much-needed focus onto the state of special effects in the movie industry, which had made little or no progress in the previous years. The film's effects seem rather rudimentary by today's standards, but in 1977, the year that the first film came out, they were positively groundbreaking. When audiences first saw effects like a ghostly Obi-Wan Kenobi and a lightsaber, they were immediately hooked. This sudden thirst for special effects did not go unnoticed by the studio heads, who quickly started investing in the technology to give audiences what they craved. Storied companies like Lucas' own Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) were created during this rush for better special effects.
Movies have had tie-in merchandizing for years, but few had it on the level that "Star Wars" does. For the first movie in the original trilogy alone, the merchandise was so in demand that Kenner, the company that produced the toys, had to issue IOUs to impatient buyers. With each sequel, the amount of merchandising grew until the unprecedented amount of $100 million in revenue was earned. The number of items bearing the Star Wars logo was so great that this aspect of the film was mocked in the hilarious Al Brooks parody "Spaceballs."
Speaking of parodies, this is yet another lasting legacy of this fantastic series. It is rare that a movie, particularly a genre movie, gets to the level of success that " Star Wars: A New Hope " did in 1977. When huge success happens on this scale, the comedians come out of the closet to make parodies. Besides "Spaceballs," there were some parody films like "Return of the Ewok," which was made by ILM and features the story of an actor from the "Star Wars" trilogy. Actor/producer Seth Green's show "Robot Chicken" has made entire episodes that mock and pay tribute to the films. Likewise, the Fox animated comedy "Family Guy" has made three full episodes that deal with the Star Wars universe.
Many films are based on a book or series of books, but "Star Wars" has done things in reverse. The concept for the films is based on an original idea from George Lucas, who then allowed other writers to begin working on books and comic books based on his creation. Dozens of books have been written and issued since then, which are largely referred to as the Extended Universe (EU). The EU has told much more story than the six films that have currently been released, and the upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII may take advantage of some of that source material.
Arguably the biggest part of the overall legacy of the films is that they have taken what used to be a niche genre and made it mainstream. Pop culture is full of references to the Force, lightsabers, Darth Vader, and other characters from the films. Most of these references don't have to be explained because people already know what is being referred to. The films made sci-fi both fun and accessible once again, something that many, way back in 1976 and before the original trilogy came out, didn't think could ever be done again.