It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armoured space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet. Pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, Princess Leia races home aboard her starship, custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy…
It’s the 40th Anniversary of Star Wars. Exactly 40 years ago as you read this, people were queuing around Grauman’s Chinese Theater and the other cinemas that Fox had been able to push the weird throwback space fantasy from that American Grafitti guy into, desperate to get a glimpse of Luke Skywalker’s hero’s journey. To put this in context, that’s the same period of time Anakin Skywalker went from plucky slave racer to galactic dictator before being redeemed out of love from his son.
That’s no doubt a crazy thought for those who worked on the film, from director George Lucas down to the Elstree set hands, and frankly unfathomable to those who’ve grown up with the Force as permanent a fixture as the film medium itself. After all, those queues weren’t a fleeting fancy; in the months that followed the landmark release, George Lucas’ B-movie would become the biggest film ever made, over the years evolving into the biggest entertainment franchise in the western world, “ending” two times already and yet coming back even bigger to enthral a new generation.
Most people reading this won’t remember what it was like at the start. In fact, the majority won’t have even been alive when that happened. Many won’t have even seen the film we’re talking about – for the twentieth anniversary, George Lucas redid the trilogy with added scenes and the most economical CGI 1997 had to offer and began to suppress the previous versions. That’s right, we’ve now had the rightly reviled Special Editions longer than the untampered versions.
Of course, you don’t have to have been there at the start to appreciate Star Wars. That’s why it endures. Millennials grew up with the prequels, yet many were truly welcomed into that galaxy far, far away through the original adventures, and an entire subculture of YouTube wouldn’t exist if the next generation weren’t shocked by the “I am your father” reveal as toddlers; viewed in original 35mm, on VHS taped off the TV or a spanking new Blu-Ray, the original film is still powerful (and no version of CGI Jabba will change that). But Star Wars is more than the movies and the ephemera. It was a game-changing phenomenon, something that those not there in 1977 will never experience anything like. There will never be another Star Wars.
Of course, The Last Jedi will be a bona fide event and other movies can and will reach similar financial heights, but Star Wars really is “Year Zero”. As a culture we love to mark out dates as “The Beginning”; our entire date system is built around the start of a new religion, while modern western society is defined either from the end of World War II in 1945 or of the Cold War in 1990. In cinema, there’s a litany of turning points; the advent of sound, the introduction of color, the rise of computer-generated effects and animation. But if you want to cite a Year Zero for cinema, a moment where everything before becomes ancient history and everything following is contemporary, you can’t get much better than 25th May 1977.
That’s not intending to downplay every other film before or since and it’s recognized that to single out one movie as “most important” is internet hyperbole personified, but in terms of irreplaceable cultural and societal impact Star Wars is a once-in-a-century event. There’s been imitators, inspirations and massive, industry-altering successes besides, yet none have been as seismic or all-in-one.
The majesty of the original Star Wars (we’ll have no A New Hope here) is well-documented – from the wonderful, recognizable characters to symphonic score it rightly deserves to be regarded as of the greatest movies ever made – so we won’t spend excessive time on that here. Instead, we want to focus on what releasing such a great movie of such broad appeal meant. There’s so much within Star Wars that people love to discuss – how astounding the special effects were, the way it made merchandising essential and how it only got better with the sequel – but any artistic influence on film language is only half the story.