Ever since 1977, the Star Wars films have captured the public’s imagination in a way that other studios and moviemakers have tried to recreate time and time again. As someone who studies fiction for a living, I can’t say I claim to have the answers myself, but I do notice a few consistent traits that almost each Star Wars movie and spinoff media has going for it (that is, if you don’t count the prequel trilogy from the early 2000’s). I think what makes Star Wars so memorable is the way it gives the audience a sense of just how big its universe is.
Here are 4 things that the whole saga exemplifies, from the Seventies to today.
1. War on a galactic scale
Sounds obvious, I know, but Star Wars is very much a space opera when it comes to the scale and style of its battles. You don’t get just dogfights in outer space, but plucky freighters outrunning giant Star Destroyers or rebel troops going toe-to-toe with massive, four-legged Imperial tanks. You get trench runs through the sides of planet-sized space stations, as pilots execute daredevil maneuvers through a storm of cannonfire. Lightsaber battles are iconic to the saga, but just as thrilling to the imagination are the space and ground battles between resistance fighters and the Empire’s soldiers.
2. Life on the frontier
For all the grandeur that a galaxy-spanning empire conjures up, it’s amazing how often the saga takes place in small, backwater worlds like Tatooine, Hoth, and Jakku. For me, it brings up what I like to call the “Hobbit effect.” In laymen’s terms, if you want to see how big a fictional setting is, show us through the eyes of the smallest people. When we see how farmers like Luke and scavengers like Rey get by on these out-of-the-way planets, we can only go up from there.
There’s also the appeal of outlaws like Han Solo and bounty hunters like Boba Fett, who give us a sense of how gritty and violent life under the Empire can be. It’s an element that clashes with the “cleaner” perspective of Jedi Knights and Rebel heroes.
3. Mythology that comes alive
As big an impact as Darth Vader had when he first appeared onscreen, audiences were still ready for a classic sci-fi epic like Flash Gordon. But everything changes when we first met Obi-Wan Kenobi. We learn about the Jedi Knights, the Force, and the lure of the dark side that turns good men like Anakin Skywalker into vicious monsters like Vader.
Lucas might’ve tried to explain the Force with later additions like the midi-chlorians (ugh), but there’s always something mystical and otherworldly about the Force. It borrows from the Zen philosophy that many samurai followed, from which the Jedi Knights were mostly based on. And it clashes with the technologies that both the Empire and the Rebellion use. For all the starships and laser sword duels we get to see, it’s the mystical bonds of the Force that drives everything from behind the scenes.
4. Good vs. Evil clashing onscreen
Compared to a science fiction franchise like Star Trek, which features the moral relativism of human beings encountering alien cultures, Star Wars has always been a little simpler in its conflicts. We get Good vs. Evil writ large. Fresh-faced, motley heroes fighting legions of faceless, armored shock troops. A ragtag, broken-down space freighter trading laser blasts with screaming starfighters and angular Star Destroyers. A young man with a blue laser sword fighting against a black-armored warrior with a red blade.
Even though every Star Wars film begins with an opening series of text to provide exposition, there’s almost no need. We can tell what’s happening just by the visual language alone.
So what else does Star Wars have that makes you love it? Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments below. And, as always, thanks for reading.