In the early summer of 1977 one of the most enduring movie franchises was born, Star Wars!
As a man of a certain age, I was a little young for the original release date of Star Wars: A New Hope but was still brought up on a diet of Star Wars films from the early ‘80s onwards. Why is Star Wars still alive and kicking (and generating huge profits) to this date? What is it that made the story so relevant to generations both old and young?
For a start we are told that this could be more than one film from the very start. As the iconic titles roll across the screen we see that this is already Episode IV. What happened up until this point and what will happen next? At the time I’m sure even George Lucas was not sure whether there would even be a sequel so it was a bold move to make.
The plot behind ‘A New Hope’ seems corny and blindingly simple and the characters somewhat one-dimensional but it is classic storytelling at its finest. The plot itself follows a classical mythic structure which has 3 main parts; Departure, Initiation and Return. The myth itself is not based in the real world and so the fantastical elements of the ‘Force’ and the Jedi Knights can be added in easily.
Luke Skywalker starts the film as a bored orphan boy with very little experience of the world having been secluded on the planet Tatooine for most of his life. His call to arms comes by chance (or destiny) from the two robots that he finds near to his farm. Setting out to find Obi-Wan starts Luke’s departure from the safety of Tatooine. He is protected along the way by Obi-Wan until his departure from Tatooine aboard the Millennium Falcon. During the next phase of the story Luke is taken into the belly of the beast (almost literally) and this is the point where starts to change from being passive and in need of protection to being able fight for himself and even initiating action against the enemy. As his mentor is cut down by Darth Vader Luke’s initiation is completed. And of course once free from the clutches of the Imperial Starship he is able to return as the avenging figure and destroy the Death Star once and for all.
Using such a classic plotline was a master stroke from Lucas, but maybe more lasting in the hearts and minds of a whole generation of children (particularly boys) was the accompanying merchandise. This was the first time that merchandising had been carried out on such a grand scale. You could get everything from wallpaper to lunchboxes, fake light sabres to duvet covers. I may sound a little bitter, but I had none of this merchandise and was rightly jealous of my friends who did. Many an afternoon was whiled away playing out our own Star Wars sagas with the ubiquitous Hasbro action figures.
The two sequels to A New Hope broadened the scope (and product line) of the burgeoning franchise. Empire Strikes Back explores the darker side of our heroes’ personalities but ultimately ends in frustration as Luke confronts Darth Vader before he is truly ready and is lucky to lose only a hand to him. Return of the Jedi brings the idea of redemption into the story as well as introducing us properly to the power behind the empire, Emperor Palpatine himself. The Ewoks strike a chord with all of us and not just because they’re small and cute and furry. The idea that in enough numbers the little people can stand up to the establishment has been around forever in human history. The destruction of the Emperor and the 2nd Death Star may have signalled the end of the franchise in some minds.
However, never underestimate the power of fans. By now, there were enough hardcore fans that would buy anything related to the stories that it could not end there. For the next ten years merchandise was sold, spin-off novels were written and conventions were attended by wannabe Wookies!
By the mid-90s most of the original Star Wars generation were getting a bit long in the tooth so Lucas decided to digitally remaster the 3 films adding some extra effects and a couple of deleted scenes to the originals. Each film was re-released into cinemas and instantly won a plethora of new fans (and some purist critics). At around the same time the action figures were released and updated once more.
With the advent of realistic looking CGI, Lucas could now tackle the prequel trilogy. Remember, Episode IV: A New Hope. The prequel trilogy deals with the lead up to the Clone Wars and the formation of the Empire from the Old Republic. At its heart though is the human story of Anakin Skywalker. From the moment you see him as a cute little boy you find yourself wanting to know how he ever became Darth Vader. Yes the 3 films all wander off-piste a little too much, the middle one in particular. They also have some annoying characters, yes I mean you Jar-Jar Binks! But, Ian McDiarmid puts in an excellent performance as Palpatine who has the power to manipulate every situation from the very beginning. At the very last scene in Episode 3 you realise how easy it would be to be seduced by the Dark Side yourself and you ask yourself, is Anakin really that evil after all?
After 35 years I can see no end to the Star Wars franchise as the stories set within its universe and the number of fans continues to increase. I, for one think that’s a good thing.