I can’t remember the first time I heard about Star Wars or encountered a Star Wars reference. As a version of A New Hope adapted to a children’s storybook format was read to me in preschool, I already knew who Luke’s father was despite having never seen the movies. Even my mother, who is a leader of the “this movie is so stupid” movement, can recognize Darth Vader or Princess Leia. Star Wars has completely immersed itself into our cultural consciousness. So what’s so great about it? It can be argued that the later success of Star Wars is partially due to Lucas’ obsessive re-releasing and intensive marketing, but that doesn’t explain the initial appeal. The storyline, while well-loved and inspirational, isn’t spectacularly complex or full of societal critique. I had never watched a Star Wars movie when I was twelve, and I never could see what all the fuss was about. Once I saw the original trilogy, however, I couldn’t stop thinking about the movies. The acting wasn’t that great, I think Carrie Fisher looks kind of funny, and the constant re-releases are irritating, but I still fully enjoyed it. There’s something about Star Wars that allowed me to be suspended from reality in a whole new way.
A quick Google search reveals the massive extended universe based around the Star Wars franchise. I can’t think of many more trilogies that have inspired as much nitpicking and arguing as Star Wars. Did Han shoot first? What language do Rodians speak? How many children did Luke and his future Jedi wife, Mara, have? Star Wars has inspired a universe in which millions of people have collectively created a past, present, and future. A canon was decided on by writers and producers under the head of Lucas, and thousands of different story lines for individual characters have sprouted from that. For some people, the Star Wars universe is as real as reality is. What makes it so believable? First, the idea that the film occurred “a long, long time ago” rather than on a future Earth gives us a sense of possibility. Something that happened in the history of a galaxy far, far away could have actually occurred. George Lucas might be a carbonite-frozen representative of Tatooine, sent to Earth to keep the heritage of the galaxy alive. There are plenty of myths circulating how Lucas came up with the idea for Star Wars. My favorite claims that he was in a coma and dreamt the entire thing from start to finish. It could be a message from God! That’s right; Lucas is an oracle.
I think what really makes Star Wars unique is the fact that the universe which it takes place in is so worn. We meet Luke Skywalker on a dirty, tired moisture farm in Tatooine. He’s having dinner on plastic plates, getting cheated by salesmen, griping about his chores, and beating away at broken droids with tools that look like they’d probably break any delicate technology. Mos Eisley’s buildings are dirty and the town itself is rough around the edges. The Tusken Raiders are using outdated technology and wearing rags. We meet Han Solo, badass smuggler extraordinaire, when he is attempting to weasel his way out of a bad deal. His ship “doesn’t look like much,” and comparatively, the viewer understands why. The Millennium Falcon looks like it will break down any day now. The sleek, clean Imperial ships seem no match for the tired Falcon. The dirt and grime in the everyday world contrasts well with the sterile, institutional Imperial world. The contrast creates an idea that the Rebels are ragtag, the underdogs, while the powerful Empire can afford to pay a stormtrooper to personally clean Grand Moff Tarkin’s over starched uniform.
When I watch Star Wars, I see a universe I could actually live in. Previous science fiction movies tended to feature a shiny, clean future. This future seems so distant from the world that exists in 2013. It makes more sense to me that Han Solo wears a white shirt and some basic brown pants, but the clean, perfect uniforms in Star Trek bother me. People love the glamour of a rough world. From the gangster movie onward, a dirty, scruffy existence has a certain type of romance associated with it. There are so many types of professions displayed in Star Wars as well. Not everyone is a spaceship captain; some people are moisture farmers, bartenders, smugglers, bounty hunters or weird old hermits that have apparently been watching a seventeen year old boy since he was a baby. Star Wars isn’t just a set of movies. It’s an idea, a universe, that has been developed within the grimy, imaginative sandbox Lucas created.