Why Is Star Wars So Popular?
"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..." This cardboard, known to all, entered the legend thirty-eight years ago, in 1977, with the release of what will become one of the cornerstones of science fiction cinema, or even cinema in general: Star Wars. The smashing success of this innovative work propelled its director George Lucas into the upper echelons of the Hollywood industry, offering him the opportunity to deliver, through six films, one of the richest, most recognized and popular cinematographic universes in history.
Yet the Star Wars franchise, like its creator, has often been the subject of controversy. The sale of Lucasfilm to Walt Disney in October 2012 is one of the best examples of this, even if most grumblers are now ecstatic at the idea that this transaction will allow them to discover an immensely awaited seventh episode, the kick-off of a new trilogy. Of course, Lucas' world has made millions (billions even) of people dream, and has always been related to universal themes, but it took more to keep its cult aspect despite the long questioning of its public, most generally expressed by a detestation of the special editions of 1997 and the prelogy made from 1999.
So, why is Star Wars so popular?
Success because of the saga's historical context
Of course, the success of Star Wars is primarily due to its historical context. We are then in the New Hollywood, a period during which the production of more auteurist and less expensive films became more democratic. But for a few years, this economic model has shown its limits. If its merits are undeniable (more diversity in subjects, more freedom for filmmakers, a little less censorship, etc.), it is worth remembering that it is the lowest attendance rate in the history of American cinema, which can be attributed, among other things, to a general public that does not recognize itself and/or does not understand these works. Despite some great successes at the end of the 60s and the beginning of the 70s (Easy Rider in particular), the New Hollywood accumulated commercial failures, with a few exceptions, starting with Lucas' American Graffiti.
In 1975, the immense success of Jaws was a catalyst for this situation, although it surprised many producers at the time, not to mention the young Steven Spielberg. Its spectacular subject matter and seemingly classic narrative (but compensated by its high-concept and original direction) made a massive audience curious during the summer, making the feature film the first defining element of what would soon be called the "blockbuster" (Star Wars is often considered the second). Its main asset: to address all audiences, most often through imaginary worlds and in the best cases through a staging that tends to make its purpose clear and universal (which does not prevent it from being ingenious). And this is the path that Star Wars will follow, even involuntarily. Indeed, the richness of its realization, although a little dated and fixed today, is above all due to its economy of means, seeking to suggest more to us with each line, with each frame.
Star Wars was a risky cinematographic endeavour
It is clear that Star Wars was rewarded for its "risk-taking": that of wanting to describe, in the most serious way possible, a science fiction greatly inspired by pulp stories such as Flash Gordon, which Lucas had always admired. High risk, high reward, as we say!
The first public to have really defended the film was only the "nerds", until then considered as marginal and absent from the Hollywood studios' line of sight. If Star Trek had already made its way to television, Star Wars contributed enormously to legitimizing this type of universe and the community that is attached to it.
The saga even democratized the space opera sub-genre, before others followed. If the critics of the time were not totally conquered at the time, many already saw in the first part of the series interesting lines of thought, which finally allowed science fiction to be taken seriously, apart from the existentialist interrogations of a Kubrick (2001) or a Tarkovski (Solaris). In this way, as the success began to be publicized, American families rushed en masse to the theaters, discovering, beyond the quality of the entertainment, the universality of a story and of its subject.
The Hero with a thousand and one faces
Better still, the multiple rewrites of the script led Lucas to a decisive discovery: The Hero with a Thousand and One Faces. It is a thesis written in 1949 by the mythologist and specialist in comparative mythology Joseph Campbell. To summarize, his book exposes the theory of the monomyth, noting that all myths, regardless of their era or civilization, are based on the same archetypal pattern, a hero's journey that finds its foundation in certain important stages of life, ranging from the "hero's call" (Luke intercepting Leia's message through R2-D2), to his "return" (where Lucas eventually deviated; Luke should have returned as a hermit on Tatooine, like Obi-Wan), passing through various trials, including the famous "confrontation with the father" (Darth Vader's revelation).
The filmmaker then saw it as a form of script guide, like a general template to be reproduced and adapted to his universe. And to be honest, this is undoubtedly the most important element in the success of the Star Wars saga, as it allowed all audiences to identify with its story, whether it be the wondering eyes of a child or the more informed, and sometimes conscious, eyes of an adult. Thus, this reflection on the other side of the myths allowed Lucas to question his world, without stopping to treat it in the first degree. His work thus perfectly meets the definition of post-modernism, and offers the spectator the opportunity to reflect (if he wishes) on the construction of the entertainment he enjoys, while many filmmakers decide to follow this path by sometimes exploiting Campbell's book themselves.
With the arrival of the prequel, Lucas goes even further. Since it takes place before the events of the original trilogy, the public already knows for a large part the obligatory passages of episodes I, II and III. All that remains is for them to witness an off-screen event that has been hidden from them until now, to discover the causes of the consequences they know. The whole premise of the prequel, which disappointed some, is based on this game of suppositions and fantasies, where the spectator can once again question the fiction he has in front of him by means of dramatic irony. The problem is that the vision of these moments so imagined by the fans of the first hour are necessarily disappointing, because often not corresponding to the idea they had of them. It is true that giving the man who will become Darth Vader the features of a blond child with a slap in the face, then a teenager in the middle of a crisis, is enough to kill the dream (and the aura of the character).
But whatever one thinks of this second half, one cannot blame Lucas for constantly seeking interaction with his audience, even through the latter's admonitions. "Art is like an open window on the world" said Alberti, and the director understood this very well when he thought about the function of the screen and the cinema room in the relationship with his spectator. In Star Wars, the frame is a limit that prevents from showing all the richness of its world. But it is through his technique that he manages to transcend it, and to push the viewer to think beyond what is presented to him. The limits of the image become an ally. Concretely, it is enough to refer to the introductory credits. The title plunges into the background of the field, towards the immensity of the stars that we are invited to join, before the scroll does the same by scrolling obliquely. John Williams' theme fills our ears, like a call to immerse ourselves more deeply. Then we arrive in the middle of a chase, as the Tantive IV is about to be docked by an Imperial destroyer. These ships do not come towards us, but pass over our heads, smashing the frame. By this chosen direction, towards the depth, Star Wars makes it incumbent upon us to penetrate almost literally into its universe, as if we had to cross the screen.
A balance between complexity and simplicity
The power of the franchise is then a clever balance between the complexity of its universe and the simplicity of its stakes, which even borders on abstraction. Here again, the fact of having directed the original trilogy and then the prequel allowed Lucas to more easily develop the political dimension of Star Wars, drawing on examples from the history of the fall of a democracy for the rise of a dictatorship. Except that by discovering the Old Republic in The Phantom Menace and its sequels, we already know the fate that is reserved for it, and we can more easily unravel the details that announce its end. Nevertheless, some aspects of the plot are deliberately underdeveloped, to touch on a form of atomic truth, to which anyone can add their thoughts and interpretations.
For example, in his book "Star Wars, anatomy of a saga", Laurent Jullier asks this pertinent question: "Why is the Emperor so keen on playing the dictator?" It is true that apart from his desire to see the dark side triumph (the Force is also a mystical power, summarized by its simple relationship between Good and Evil), his motivations are quite vague, so that the viewer, whatever his age or generation, can connect him with the figures of tyrants that come to mind. And it is precisely by this treatment of the scenario and the direction that Star Wars touches its universality. It gives us only snippets of its world and ideology, which we have to complete and interpret. We can even relate to a specific and characteristic case: the imaginary language. The films never translate Chewbacca's roar, R2-D2's beep-beep or the dialect of the Ewoks. But this does not prevent us from feeling affection for them, because according to the tone they use, we get an idea of what they should say. In this way, the generality of the saga's subject matter is faced with the specificities of the universe, which are sublimated, and for this reason it includes so many cult symbols, both visual (the design of the Stormtroopers, the Millennium Falcon, the X-Wings, Yoda's ears, Leia's buttons, Darth Maul's tattoos... ) as well as sound (blaster sounds, Darth Vader's breathing, or the majestic sound of a lightsaber...).
Star Wars as a relatable saga
To quote Laurent Jullier again, he describes the power of Star Wars by the English term "relatability". It is the capacity of a work to be put in relation with the daily life or the concerns of the spectators. On a purely practical level, this is affirmed on the screen by the simple distribution of the two trilogies over time, making their characters grow and age at the same time as their audience. This simplifies identification, to the point that the greatest generational sagas, from Toy Story to Harry Potter, have followed this progression. But even more than the others, and notably because of all the reasons previously mentioned, George Lucas' work has become a special case in the history of cinema, so close to the people that they have dispossessed its author. If some people only see it as movies, others cling to this universe by unconsciously recalling the primary reason why humanity created fiction: escape.
Contrary to the persistent cliché of the asocial "nerd" who runs away from the difficulties of reality, the imaginary world to which it is attached becomes a safeguard, a means of expression, of identification. It is therefore not surprising that Star Wars sometimes simply inspires a philosophy of life based on the path of Anakin (the one not to be followed) and Luke (the one to be followed), or even in more extreme cases, religions. After all, the treatment of the Force and the morality that surrounds it are not without evoking certain sacred texts. The fan community (of which the author of these lines is a part) makes the object of their passion exist outside of the feature films, giving it a life in reality beyond fiction. But this does not mean that he responds to the other cliché that transforms him into a manipulable being, whose excessive love leads him to blindness, starting with his relationship with marketing and derivative products.
As reflected in the amusing Fanboys (Kyle Newman, 2011), the fan is active in its dialogue with the work. The group of friends we follow is able to stand back, and even argues throughout the film about details of the universe that its members question, about inconsistencies, about obvious flaws, about lack of objectivity. What is often forgotten is that if Star Wars is part of post-modernism, so is its audience. It can laugh at itself and at the world it loves, a truth that the Internet highlights every day with the ever more impressive flowering of parodies of various forms. In the end, these are the reflection of a real sincerity, mocking from time to time the saga to better thank it for the gift it represents. Despite its flaws, Fanboys expresses this wonderfully by appealing to the dream of its hero-loosers: to steal a copy of The Phantom Menace before its release. But they don't set out to fulfill this fantasy by the sheer force of their fan-attitude. On the contrary, it is a violent return to reality that pushes them to act, while one of the characters is suffering from a cancer that will take him away before the official release of the first part of the prequel.
This is the beauty of Star Wars: the fictional and the real perpetually echo each other, even in the script of Fanboys. Indeed, the Internet recently got excited about the story of Daniel Fleetwood, a fan who also had terminal cancer and thought he would no longer be around when The Force Awakens was released. He asked for support on social networks, which responded favorably by relaying the information to Disney and J.J. Abrams. The filmmaker then personally hosted him at his home for a private screening. Daniel Fleetwood was thus able to share a last fan memory with this saga that occupied an important place in his life. He passed away on November 10, 2015.
Star Wars exists because of its audience
It is obvious: Star Wars exists because of its audience. But the audience is so curious and inventive that it complements it like no other work of fiction. The so-called Expanded Universe has even been officially rejected by Lucasfilm in favor of the Legends Universe, a parallel universe created to avoid inconsistencies between the creations of fans and the stories stamped by the House of Lucas. To sum up, the world of Star Wars has been so enriched that it has become a multiverse capable of expressing itself in all forms (comics, books, fan-films, encyclopedias...). Like a kind of modeling clay, the franchise is the stimulus for a creativity that is just waiting to be released. Everyone has their own detail or story to tell. One example among many: during the pod race in The Phantom Menace, there is a shot of a white-skinned spectator dressed in red, with a long gun on her back. She could have remained just another extra, but she quickly found a name: Aurra Sing, and the fans went so far as to create a very complete background for her.
From then on, this need to tell Star Wars stories, especially in the age of the Internet, can only be described as the modern inclination of the oral transmission of ancient tales, where everyone can communicate the stories they have been told, modifying them as they wish and according to their memories. The saga does not hesitate to support this mythological sharing, which is none other than an ancestor of the cinema. In one of the most beautiful scenes of Return of the Jedi, C-3PO tells the Ewoks about the events of the previous parts. We don't understand what he says because he speaks in their dialect, but thanks to the audience's reactions and the droid's sound effects, we grasp each moment described, with the feeling of having lived a great epic.
Star Wars as a common ground becomes a work of sharing, to the point that the notion of transmission concerning it almost touches the sacred. Filiation, the central subject of the saga, is not only the expression of an intra-diegetic heritage. The children of 1977 have become parents, eager to show their offspring the films that made them dream so much. From the innocence of Luke Skywalker, they have come to acquire the experience and maturity of Darth Vader (which is not to say that they have turned to the dark side!). Interestingly, many of them have fun filming their children during their "virginity", as if they wanted to recapture and immortalize in their offspring the sensations and emotions they had in the past, starting with the twist in The Empire Strikes Back (which offers a series of often cute and hilarious compilations). So there is indeed a passing of the torch, but it still includes its share of selfishness. We free ourselves from a weight to better remember its value, which habit had ended up losing its power and meaning. This is the delicate game that The Force Awakens seems to play, its trailers oscillating between nostalgia and desire for renewal. Through a slogan, several TV commercials support this functioning of the story in cycles, in order to revive the memory of the fans of the first hour while conquering a new public: "Every generation has a story."
George Lucas, or how a genius became a victim of his success
And this is where George Lucas poses a problem. If it is true that Star Wars is a rather unique case of almost total dispossession of a work of cinema, or even of art in general, its director has never really accepted it, at least until the takeover of Lucasfilm by Disney. In 1997, he did not imagine that the public could reject the special editions, these versions of Star Wars "improved", those that he always wanted to show on screen, while the technology did not yet allow it. From then on, the creator of the franchise could argue that "it's my baby, I'll do what I want with it", but the fans no longer supported him, feeling that they were being robbed of their Proust's madeleine for a megalomaniacal delirium bordering on artistic suicide. In their eyes, the prequel did not improve things, abandoning a character-driven narrative for an unnecessarily complicated political context (though much more interesting than the consensus would have it) and a flurry of digital special effects. Rather than listen to the critics, Lucas goes further and further in what he is accused of, to the point of splitting Star Wars into two sagas with less production consistency. It seems that he has never understood the strength of his universe and its cinematographic power by refusing to trust his audience. Because where others would have simply moved on, Star Wars fans continued to argue, to debate, to defend their memories by proudly twirling their slings and arrows, like David facing Goliath, to the point where the latter was a bit overwhelmed by the situation.
Nevertheless, Lucas' speech and his ambitions on the prequel are for many justifiable, although in contradiction with what many viewers expected. Yes, there is Jar Jar Binks, Jake Lloyd or the cardboard love affair of Anakin and Padmé, but aren't we criticizing these films above all for what they are not? In other words, Star Wars could well suffer from a dictatorship of the fans of the original trilogy, because they are the first ones to have written in depth on the subject, to the point of becoming the voices of reason. As a result, it is sometimes difficult to be taken seriously as an aficionado when you like episodes I, II and III. But that's forgetting that the prequel was the gateway to a new generation (especially for the author of these lines), and to denigrate this point of view would be to denigrate the universality of Star Wars. But this is quite indicative of the power of the franchise, which relates to the memories it provides, even if it means sometimes making fans feel bad about themselves. It is true that The Phantom Menace infantilizes the universe a bit to make it accessible to the youngest, but what about the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi? Some of Lucas' obvious flaws were already visible in the original trilogy. But the nostalgia it evokes, as well as that charnel house moment it often represents in the youth of fans, makes them more forgiving. And how can you blame them...
One of the greatest sagas of all time...
What if, in the end, Star Wars was one of the greatest sagas of all time thanks to its imperfections? As Rafik Djoumi's comprehensive essay George Lucas: The Man Behind the Myth, his life has been fraught with pitfalls and misunderstandings. Many elements that supported the genius of the franchise are not due to him, whether it is the designs of Ralph McQuarrie, the sound design of Ben Burtt or the music of John Williams. Unlike a Tolkien/Jackson on The Lord of the Rings or a Rowling on Harry Potter, the creator is no longer deified, which comes to question the legitimacy of his paternity. Star Wars was conceived by a human being, a perfectible being who directly affects his work. It is then easier to see the limits of the latter, to conceive the edges of the frame to transcend them. In fact, loving Star Wars is almost like an editing exercise, where we imagine the missing counter-frame, where we correct a sequence that we don't like (see this famous rewrite made by fans of a scene cut from The Phantom Menace, where Jar Jar Binks dies).
This is how the universe continues to expand and excite. Star Wars is not set in stone, which would almost give Lucas reason to want to change it. Today, he has finally agreed to cut the umbilical cord with this child too imposing for him. He finally listens to his public, represented by his new directors who themselves have been fed with the original trilogy. It remains to be seen if The Force Awakens will be a luxury fan-film or a real cinema proposal, faithful to the original spirit while finding its own way.
But in any case, there is no doubt that our children's eyes will be conquered to return to this galaxy far, far away...
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