Star Wars is not just an epic sci-fi saga, it’s a cultural institution

Prahlad Srihari

Dec 13, 2017 16:28:28 IST

Some 14 billion years ago, the Big Bang marked the origin of our universe — the beginning of an expansion from its pebble-size origin to one of intergalactic scope. But 25 May 1977 saw a Big Bang of another sort. As Star Wars exploded into theatres, a single space odyssey led to a rapid cosmic expansion of our shared pop culture universe.

George Lucas' epic sci-fi saga is so deeply embedded in our popular culture that 40 years later, kids and adults alike are still living out their dreams of fighting the Empire wielding makeshift lightsabers. We still like to think we are embracing our dark side by putting on a cape and helmet while walking to “The Imperial March”. Cosplayers still like to dress like a certain "scruffy-looking nerf-herder" and do their hair into two perfect cinnamon buns. "Luke, I'm your father," is still a popularly uttered plot twist trope and now, also makes for a pretty funny meme.

And Yrsssss, to speak like our little green friend, Yoda, we still try.

 Star Wars is not just an epic sci-fi saga, it’s a cultural institution

Star Wars: Original trilogy artwork. Mondo/Olly Moss

The ripple effect of Star Wars has left a legacy unlike any other. With the imminent arrival of The Last Jedi, kicking off on Friday, let's take a look at how Star Wars changed our world.

How sci-fi went mainstream

Until the mid-1970s, science fiction films were mostly intellectual interrogations and socially conscious warnings of how not to build a future society. Films like Chris Marker's La Jetée, Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris and even Lucas' THX 1138 made for cerebral cinematic experiences but were hardly escapist blockbusters. By adding explosions, spaceships, robots, aliens, a princess and a space cowboy to a simplistic tale of good versus evil, Lucas revolutionised sci-fi films with both spectacle and substance in Star Wars. A genre derogatorily deemed to be for geeks was soon being embraced by mainstream audiences.

Harrison Ford's iconic intergalactic cowboy Han Solo went on to influence many protagonists in other space operas on film (Peter Quill aka Star-Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy) and television (Mal Reynolds in Firefly). Princess Leia subverted the usual "damsel in distress" trope by portraying a badass sci-fi heroine — traces of whom can be seen in Alien's Ellen Ripley, The Fifth Element's Leeloo and Firefly's River Tam. The influence extends to the non-human monosyllabic sidekicks (Chewbacca and Groot) or the adorable, beeping and bopping robots (R2D2 and Wall E).

The influence of Princess Leia, Han Solo, and the Millennium Falcon on Joss Whedon's Firefly is visibly evident.

The influence of Princess Leia, Han Solo, and the Millennium Falcon on Joss Whedon's Firefly is visibly evident.

What was essential to the success of the original trilogy was not just the characters, special effects and the story but also the music accompanying them. Yes, John Williams has created some of the most instantly recognisable scores in film history from the simple two-note yet terrifying theme of Jaws to the rousing, heroic theme of Indiana Jones. But, surely, his most iconic compositions were written for Star Wars. The sweeping brass and strings of the “Main Title Theme” and the ominous, militaristic rhythm of “The Imperial March” will continue to be hummed and cherished for ages.

Geeks now, we all are!

References to Star Wars lingo have become the lingua franca of our pop culture. The force and the dark side have gained a whole new meaning while padawan, jedis and their mind tricks are constantly referenced by even politicians and the media.

Also read: The politics of Star Wars: How civic ignorance can make a democracy slide into dictatorship

Talk about star wars without speaking of Yoda, we cannot. A curious semantic challenge Yoda's sentence structure offers. Hrmmm. Know him and love him we all do. Yeesssssss. Dimunitive figure, Yoda may be. But be underestimated, he should not. Herh herh herh. For 800 years with unwavering focus as a jedi, he trained. The Grand Master of the Jedi Order, he was. Yet, speak English, he cannot. For an interesting linguistics experiment, he makes. But other things to write about, there are. So, move on for now, we shall.

A parody comic on BB-8's origin. Reddit/TheSkeletonBlog

A parody comic on BB-8's origin. Reddit/TheSkeletonBlog

Expectedly, the franchise has also inspired several parodies in a variety of mediums — Lego Star Wars, Family Guy, Sesame Street, That '70s Show and Community to name a few. There have been plenty of comics and jokes spoofing Star Wars. We heard a couple of pretty good ones recently.

The Star Wars text crawl walks into a bar. “Get outta my pub!” the bartender yells. “We don’t serve your type here."

What do you call a Jedi in denial? Obi-Wan Cannot Be.

Of magic, miracles and merchandising

A person looks at a Stormtrooper photograph made by Hyperactives Studio as part of the new exhibition at Maison d' Ailleurs, "Je suis ton pere!". Wednesday, Dec. 6, 2017 in Yverdon. 13 artists revisit the world of Star Wars in the exhibition "I'm your father!" which runs from 10 December 2017 to 14 October 2018. (Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP)

A visitor looks at a Stormtrooper photograph made by Hyperactives Studio as part of the new exhibition at Maison d' Ailleurs, "Je suis ton pere!" in Yverdon, Switzerland. Laurent Gillieron/Keystone via AP

Star Wars was the original blockbuster media franchise and it started Hollywood's fascination with trilogies. In its aftermath, there was an influx of big-budget special effects spectacles in the 80s such as Alien, Indiana Jones and The Terminator.

When he began production of Star Wars, Lucas founded his own special effects company named Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), which has since been ground zero for several significant milestones in modern cinema — from the "Genesis sequence" in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to Terminator 2's T-1000 to Casper. It ushered in a new era of visual effects and paved the way for the ground-breaking technology used in films like Jurassic Park, The Matrix, Interstellar and Avatar, which have since set new benchmarks for computer generated images.

In the wake of the original film's success, Lucas also deferred part of his salary in return for the merchandising rights to the entire series. It was a shrewd move and one that turned him into a billionaire as Star Wars fever turned into a worldwide epidemic. Today, the toy industry is built upon major film franchises. As we are deluged with cross-promotions for food, smartphone, video games, Legos, action figures, t-shirts, boxers and other things you didn't realise you needed, you know just who to thank.

Hell, there is even an actual religion — a charter as a religious institution in Texas — that follows Jediism called the The Temple of the Jedi Order. According to their website, "The Jedi here are real people that live or lived their lives according to the principles of Jediism, the real Jedi religion or philosophy. Jedi followers, ministers and leaders embrace Jediism as a real living, breathing religion and sincerely believe in its teachings. Jediism does not base its focus on myth and fiction but on the real life issues and philosophies that are at the source of myth. Whether you want to become a Jedi, are a real Jedi looking for additional training or just interested in learning about and discussing The Force, we're here for you." Hmmm, that's comforting to know. Thanks!

Poster for The Force Awakens and Rogue One. Star Wars

Poster for The Force Awakens and Rogue One. Star Wars

The Force of nostalgia awakens

Despite the myriad video games, comics, spin-offs, toys and the fancy boxers, it was when Disney announced in 2012 that it planned to release a new Star Wars film each year that gave scores of fans of the franchise multiple geekgasms.

While we all enjoyed the film, The Force Awakens was a wonderful nostalgia trip for many who grew up in the 70s and 80s, including director JJ Abrams. He must have been 11 years old when the original movie came out and perhaps grown up playing with Han Solo action figures as a kid like many others. And here he was, directing Harrison Ford in its reboot, living his childhood fantasy. Even Kylo Ren was practically fanboying over his grandpa, Darth Vader, in the movie. But a little part of them must have died when he performs a patricidal surprise-attack on Han Solo.

Poster for the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Star Wars

Poster for the upcoming Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Star Wars

Anyway, here we are eagerly awaiting the next instalment of the new trilogy — The Last Jedi. This Friday will see those who grew up watching the original films, those who probably only saw the prequels and the many whose introduction to the universe started with The Force Awakens; three generations all in line on opening day hoping to see a new Star Wars adventure in a galaxy far, far away.

Watch the trailer below:

Updated Date: Dec 14, 2017 13:09:25 IST