Innovations in Context Essay: Star Wars (1977)
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is an epic space opera written and directed by George Lucas in the mid-1970s, and released in 1977. It is chronologically the first episode of the Star Wars saga. The film is cited as a popular culture behemoth, a game changer for both Hollywood Cinema and American culture. Though commonly referenced to as a science-fiction film, the “science” that is present in Star Wars is only manifested through its advanced special effects. In terms of influence, Star Wars is an homage numerous depression-era adventure serials, westerns, classic films and mythology. The film resonates through many aspects of modern American popular culture, and is a major precedent for cinema today.
Made in the United States, the film comes out of the turbulent era of the 1970’s and 1960’s. Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope was both embraced and shaped by the changes that would occur in the transition of those decades into the 1980’s. In the 1970’s, in the context of the vicious Cold War, America had just finished its hugely controversial Vietnam War and paradigm-shifting civil rights movement, endured the Watergate Scandal and serious stagflation. The cynicism of this hard time was reflected in the culture of cinema: the “New Hollywood” movement. New Hollywood was a product of the changing times of the 60’s and 70’s, bringing cynical yet highbrow sensibilities to mainstream cinema with films like Annie Hall and Taxi Driver (Biskend, 1998). But the Reagan Era, a new age of American exceptionalism and simplified worldview, was about to begin (Staskowski, 1992). Star Wars was a large part of what catalyzed an end to the New Hollywood movement and a new age of Blockbuster cinema. (Biskend, 1998)
In this confusing era, George Lucas felt that “there was no modern mythology to give kids a sense of values, to give them a strong mythological fantasy life” (Brooker, 2009) and he set out to build a film that would establish one. In many ways Star Wars is “the quintessential American Mythology” (Greydanus, 2010) an American and modern response to the mythic worlds of King Arthur or the Greek Pantheon (Greydanus, 2010). The western genre had always taken the de facto spot as an American mythology, but by the late 1970s westerns seriously waned in popularity (Greydanus, 2010). Also, the western was an unusual mythological precedent, always tied to some geographical and historical reality (Greydanus, 2010). To create his new mythology, George Lucas was heavily influence by Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with A Thousand Faces and Campbell’s idea of the monomyth (Voytilla, 1999). The hero’s journey is used as the “archetypal and timeless story” (Telotte, 2001) which involves a hero and his “ call to action… reluctant acceptance of the call, his penetration into another world wherein he accomplishes great deeds, and his return to his own world as a hero… bringing great boons to the people”, all in the backdrop of an epic struggle between good and evil (Telotte, 2001). Lucas uses the archetypal structure laid out by Campbell in order to create a timeless, mythological universe. It was the first American cultural mythology to distance itself from reality; hence it’s setting “A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”(Voytilla, 1999).
To create this American mythology, Lucas was not only is influenced by the classical mythic structure, but by American culture and film culture itself. Star Wars is written and shot in a way that pays much homage to classic films and serials of the 20th century. One must first look at Flash Gordon, a space adventure serial from the depression-era. The Star Wars project evolved from Lucas’ desire to in fact remake Flash Gordon (Brennan, 2006). The Flash Gordon appeals to children and the child within as all and that space adventure theme was carried over to the A New Hope (Brennan, 2006). Some of the clearest Flash Gordon influences were of having Rebels fight imperial forces, “soft wipes” as scene changes, and the iconic “roll-up” that begins the movie (Brennan, 2006). A New Hope is influenced by much more than this; it has the epic setting and shoot-outs of the western genre vein, and the World War II dogfights that were a huge part of post-war cinema (Greydanus, 2010). Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is very much a distillation of and homage to American imagination as interpreted through the popular culture of the mid 20th century.
A New Hope was, at the time, a groundbreaking technological achievement in special effects. It can be argued that the film would not have had as great of an impact without its effects, and by definition would have been less of a spectacle. The visual approach used to create this film was very much influenced by the main science fiction spectacle of the 1960s, 2001: A Space Odyssey, which in turn was heavily influenced, in terms of technology, by the television show Thunderbirds (Brennan, 2006). These two productions were groundbreaking in their realistic approach to the model aesthetics. Instead of the generic and perfect looking model rockets of early science fiction, Lucas had the vision to follow the precedent of these two influences to make a world that felt “furnished” (Brooker, 2009). For example, designers combined store bought kits and weathered the final models to create believable but equally fantastic sets and models (Brennan, 2006). This gave Star Wars a unique and alien aesthetic while maintaining an ‘earthliness’ that kept the aesthetic universal and accessible to audiences.
The special effects company created to build these models was Industrial Light and Magic (ILM). The company succeeded its roots in A New Hope and continued to have major influence on cinema. For Star Wars, ILM refined and created countless special effects for movies like E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan, and Raiders of the Lost Ark (Lucasfilm, 1999). Most recently, ILM has moved into the area of creating advanced digital effects (Lucasfilm, 1999). By pushing the boundaries of special effects first with A New Hope, ILM and George Lucas helped to, for better or worse, herald in a new era of a special-effects-heavy Hollywood.
A New Hope heavily influenced the future of American cinema. This is especially true of science fiction and spectacle films, such as the Hollywood blockbuster. Due to the tremendous success of A New Hope, Lucas “ demonstrated that science fiction could… [be] a highly appealing and tremendously profitable genre” (Brooker, 2009), even though the heart of Star Wars lies in space fantasy. Nonetheless, it is hard to imagine films such as Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Tron, or even Blade Runner without the context of the fertile sci-fi market created in the wake of Star Wars. It is also hard to imagine, after the tremendous cultural phenomenon of Star Wars in the summer of 1977, a Hollywood system that does not rely on films with blockbuster potential and technological spectacle. One of the greatest examples of a successor in this regard is the career of James Cameron, a director with the highest grossing films of all time (Box Office Mojo, 2010). He was kick-started by Terminator in the sci-fi frenzy of the 1980s, and gained the throne with the blockbuster sensations of Titanic (1997) and Avatar (2009) that mirror the success of Star Wars both in style and cultural impact.
Without a doubt, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope influenced not only the filmmaking aspect of the movie industry but also the business aspect. It had a huge impact on how the intellectual rights of the movies are capitalized upon. When making A New Hope, Lucas accepted only $175,000 as his salary for the project to receive 40% of the merchandising rights (Dirks, 2010). From T-shirts to fast food promotions to video games, Lucas used these rights to create an expansive merchandising and marketing machine out of the Star Wars franchise, making millions of dollars (Rapp, 2006). Star Wars set a huge precedent for the creation of movie and video game franchises that were epic not only for their intrinsic content, but also for the huge marketing machines behind them. The idea of this integrated system spawned the huge financial success of franchises like Bungie’s Halo and Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.
George Lucas set out to create his own space opera with the “explicit aim… to provide a modern fairy story for a generation that had grown up without them.” (Brooker, 2009). Lucas created an homage to films of important cultural merit, integrating cinematic technical and aesthetic advances of the 1960s, and tied it all together with the mythic structure suggested by Joseph Campbell in an epic space opera setting. Lucas created a film that is much more than the sum of its parts. Star Wars greatly influenced an entire generation, and the film still retains its universal appeal today. The widespread cultural influence of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is unprecedented and in today’s society one finds as many allusions to Lucas’ work as Homer’s.
Word Count: 1508 (INCLUDING IN TEXT CITATIONS)
Biskend, Peter. (1998). Easy Riders, Raging Bulls: How the Sex-Drugs-and-Rock’n’Roll Generation Saved Hollywood. New York, NY. Simon & Schuster.
Box Office Mojo Staff. (2010). All time Box Office. Box Office Mojo. Retrieved From http://www.boxofficemojo.com/alltime/world/
Brennan, Kirsten. (2006). Flash Gordon. Star Wars Origins. Retrieved from http://moongadget.com/origins/flash.html
Brennan, Kirsten. (2006). 2001: A Space Odyssey. Star Wars Origins. Retrieved from http://moongadget.com/origins/2001.html
Brooker, Will. (2009). Star Wars. London, UK. BFI Film Classics.
INTEG 275 Geoffrey Evamy-Hill March 15, 2011 Linda Carson 20367993
Dirks, Tim. (2010). Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope. AMC filmsite. Retrieved from http://www.filmsite.org/starw.html
Greydanus, Steven D. (2010). An American Mythology: Why Star Wars Still Matters. Decent Films Guide. Retrieved from http://www.decentfilms.com/articles/starwars.html
Lucasfilm. (1999, July 15). Industrial Light & Magic. Star Wars Online. Retrieved from http://www.starwars.com/themovies/saga/19990715news.html
Rapp, David. (2006, May 25). How Star Wars Surprised the World. American Heritage.com. Retrieved from http://www.americanheritage.com/entertainment/articles/web/20060525-star- wars-george-lucas-movies-hollywood-luke-skywalker-darth-vader-american- graffiti-science-fiction-special-effects.shtml
Staskowski, Andrea. (1992) Science Fiction Movies. USA. Lerner Publications Company.
Telotte, J.P. (2001). Science Fiction Film. Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press.
Voytilla, Stuart. (1999). Myth and the Movies. Studio City, CA. Michael Wiese Productions.