Attempting to define just what George Lucas’s original Star Wars and the subsequent two trilogies, mean to us presently would be a fruitless effort. Please do not misunderstand, I do not mean that Lucas’s film has had little impact and to define this would be a waste of time; instead, I think it is very clear that Lucas’s plight of love and intelligence that is Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, has directly affected many aspects of today’s culture, too many to define here or even in a small book. Therefore, before I begin, a disclaimer: instead of overwhelming all of us, I aim to focus mainly on the impact Star Wars has had on present-day film culture, a large topic but a manageable one at least
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was only the third feature film Lucas had directed, at the time and was an immediate hit when it came out in 1977, changing the movie game forever. Even the opening credits, which crawl across the screen at an angle, setting the film “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” before disappearing into the black, end-of-frame abyss, has become a prime example when thinking about the importance of the beginning and end credits. Before the characters even appear onscreen, we as the audience are put into motion, a trait which directly affects the resonance a film might have. The fact that a film’s credits alone could have that effect was something largely ignored, or even undiscovered, until Star Wars and has been a lasting realization. For example, anyone who has seen, oh I don’t know, You’ve Got Mail, knows just how crucial a role those credits play.
In addition to stylistic importance, the credits also explain that the galaxy Star Wars takes place in is currently in the midst of a civil war, with the heroic Rebel Alliance having just stolen the plans to the Empire’s Death Star, a space station with so much firepower that it has the capacity to destroy an entire planet. Rebel leader Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has these plans with her the day her ship is captured by the evil Darth Vadar (voiced by James Earl Jones) and his forces. Before she is taken hostage, Leia, like any good leader, hides the plans in the memory of a small droid named R2D2. While Leia is captured, R2-D2 and his friend, droid C-3PO are able to escape, in a pod, to the desert planet of Tatooine.
After crashing their ship, the two droids are promptly sold to a moisture farmer whose nephew, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), finds a piece of Leia’s recorded, hidden message in R2-D2 in which she asks for the help of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Luke knows of a Kenobi, but is unsure if he is who Leia is referring to in her plea for help, so he sets off to find the only Kenobi he knows. Kenobi reveals that he is not only the Obi-Wan Kenobi in question, as he once served as a galactic peacekeeper, but also that Luke’s father, Anakin Skywalker, fought alongside Obi-Wan until he was betrayed and murdered by Darth Vader, a former mentee of Obi-Wan who has since turned to “the dark side of the Force.” Obi-Wan concludes by giving Luke his father’s old light saber and convinces Luke to accompany him in his quest to save Princess Leia as well as the entire galaxy—a reasonable request, right?
Mentor and mentee, along with R2D2 and C-3PO, hire Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his furry first-mate, Chewbacca, to transport them, on their ship, The Millennium Falcon, to the planet Alderaan where Leia’s father lives so that he can review the plans that Leia stored in R2D2. Upon arriving at Alderaan, however, they discover that the planet has been destroyed by the Death Star.
They then set off to the Death Star and, as they are approaching, are caught by one of its tractor beams and brought into the ship. While Obi-Wan is disabling the beam, Luke realizes that Leia is being held on board, so he, with the help of Han Solo and Chewbacca, sets off to rescue her. When the group, with Leia in tow, finally gets back to the Falcon, they witness Obi-Wan in a light saber duel with Darth Vader which leads to Obi-Wan’s timely, yet sad demise.
After a struggle, the Falcon escapes from the Death Star, but is tracked back to the Rebels’ previously hidden base on the planet Yavin IV. Back on the base, while the Rebels are analyzing the plans that Leia had stolen, they identify an opportunity to attack the Death Star’s main reactor. Luke decides to join the assault team, but despite Luke’s own requests Han Solo decides to simply collect his reward for Princess Leia’s rescue and leaves. The assault team sets off to destroy the Death Star, but lose a lot of fighters after a few failed attacks, leaving only Luke and a few others still alive and fighting. Vader and a group of his fighters are about to annihilate Luke’s ship, Luke along with it, when Han Solo comes back to save the day by destroying Vader’s fighters, a blast which sends Vader off into the black abyss. Luke is then able to destroy the Death Star, mere moments before it fired on Yavin IV. Star Wars IV: A New Hope concludes with Luke and Han receiving medals of heroism from Leia.
A fairly simple plot for a movie about space right? Relax, I am only kidding as Star Wars, both this original film and the series as a whole, boasts an incredibly complex plot; and what’s more? Well, this plot does not take away from the film as a convoluted, complicated plot often can, but instead adds to its overall intelligence. It seems unlikely to me that Ridley Scott’s Alien and its similarly complex plot were in no way influenced by Star Wars, which was released just two years before. Yes, both films feature droids, but the similarities do not stop there. Each film, one a space-adventure and the other a space-horror film have detailed designs that provide for ongoing series, ones that continue even today.
But Star Wars contains more than just an intelligent, intricate plot and innovative credits that lead both to its greatness and its continued relevance. It is the film’s relationships—three main ones, in my opinion—that take this from being merely a film about space and turns it into a universal story, one that is continually referenced if not repeated in our current cinema. First, there is the relationship between the Rebels and the Death Star (along with all the people who go along with that killing ship). By the end of the film, the Rebels, comprised of characters both strong and weak, from many different planets, have bonded together fighting not only for their lives but also for the survival of their galaxy. Like in The Magnificent Seven, Star Wars proves to be a film pointing to the true strength of numbers and a moral compass.
Second, there is the relationship between Obi-Wan Kenobi and Luke Skywalker, a classic mentor-pupil relationship, in which Obi-Wan confers upon Luke both physical and intellectual skills. Like the Native American Jeremiah Johnson encounters in the namesake Western, Obi-Wan teaches Luke how to survive in this world he is new to.
Finally, the last key relationship that I see as crucial in Star Wars is that between Luke and Han Solo. Part adversaries like in 3:10 to Yuma, but part friends like in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Luke and Han have perhaps the most complex relationship in the film as Han is portrayed as inherently selfish. It is not until Han returns at the end of the film to save Luke that he is redeemed. But this redemption is so great–they are both given medals and Han eventually proves to be the love interest of Leia–that the two men are almost equated to heroes.
Yes, each of these relationships seems to have roots in the Western and while this is not completely surprising as space is often referred to as the final frontier, it seems that the connection that Star Wars has to the great American genre is what allows the film to be so widely accessible even today. After all, these three relationships keep appearing in our films–from Independence Day (which showcases the banding together for the greater good) to Million Dollar Baby (boasting a clear mentor-mentee relationship) to Lethal Weapon or Beverly Hills Cop (highlighting the adversaries-turned-trusted colleague relationships)–no matter where they are set. Where Lucas excelled so greatly was in making a science-fiction movie set in space, but not specifically about space. While it is clear that any science-fiction movie being made after Star Wars will be endlessly influenced by the momentous film, it seems more of a testament to Star Wars that movies not about space give us continual glimpses, allusions and references to it, even if only by including one of the three key relationships Star Wars made use of.