Written by David Holland
It’s possible that you’re visiting this site looking for some new content related to the collectible dice and card game Star Wars: Destiny. If that’s the case, you might be disappointed to learn that this particular post is not Destiny related, although it is Star Wars related. For high-quality Destiny content, I recommend this, or this, or even this.
I’m writing this the day before I see The Rise of Skywalker, although it will be out by the time you see it. I wanted to take a moment on the eve of Episode IX to pause and reflect on what Star Wars has meant to me. It’s possible that this could be silly, sappy, or could border on the ridiculous but hey, that would put it right in line with Star Wars itself.
1. Growing Up with a Story
I was born at pretty much the exact right time to grow up with Star Wars. Dad brought A New Hope home from Blockbuster when I was around five years old. (If you’re too young to know Blockbuster, it was like a Redbox but an entire store instead of a vending machine. Redbox, if you’re even younger, was like a streaming service but you had to swipe your credit card at a kiosk outside a Food Lion to get the movie.) Mom and Dad worried that the movie might go over my five-year-old head, but I sat enraptured through all two-plus hours. The “plus” was because they had to pause it occasionally to explain what was going on – give me a break, I was five. “Star Wars” was an instant classic in my household and my brother and I talked about little else in the days that followed. Then, Dad told us life-changing news:
There were other Star Wars movies.
Over the next couple of years, all three Star Wars movies were frequent Blockbuster rentals, to the point that my parents finally got us a VHS box set for the sake of convenience. They took us to see the Special Editions in theaters each time a new one was released. Star Wars Legos, action figures, and video games populated my Christmas lists for years. Star Wars became, for me, what it was for Ted in “How I Met Your Mother”:
Look, Stella, that is Ted’s favorite movie of all time. He watches it when he’s home sick with the flu. He watches it on rainy Sunday afternoons in the fall. He… he watches it on Christmas Eve! Ted watches Star Wars in sickness and in health, in good times and bad. – Marshall Eriksen, “Trilogy Time”
The prequels came out around my birthday in sixth, ninth, and twelfth grades respectively. Looking back on these movies as an adult I certainly have criticisms of the writing, directing, and acting in the prequels, but when you’re fourteen years old, seeing Yoda deflect Force lightning before leaping into a lightsaber battle has a way of covering up for all of the flat romantic chemistry.
The sequel trilogy is something I’ve been able to share with my wife. We watched Episodes 7 & 8 together and we have our tickets for 9 ready. Star Wars doesn’t have the same resonance for her that it does for me, but she knows that it makes me happy and, as with many of the nerdy things I love, she enjoys watching me watch it. What started as something I enjoyed with my family as a child has become something I can enjoy with my own family as an adult.
2. The Big Picture
Let me step back from the personal side of things and take a more big picture approach. If you’re reading this, it’s possible that you already know some of the more technical ways that Star Wars has impacted the film-making industry. If you want a deeper dive, there are plenty of YouTube videos, articles, and documentaries that can go into more detail. I have personally been enjoying the Binge Mode podcast’s analysis of each movie and I highly recommend it. For our purposes, I’d like to talk briefly about how Star Wars has changed your movie-watching experience even if you’ve never watched a single movie about a galaxy far, far away, in which case I’m not sure why you’d be reading this but I won’t ask too many questions.
When A New Hope came out in 1977 there were a few trends common to movies. First, movies were wrestling with some of the same challenges as the rest of the country. A pessimism pervaded America in light of the Vietnam War and Watergate, and movies reflected this lack of trust. They centered around complicated anti-heroes and, most egregiously, the soundtracks were mostly disco. Into this depressing fog came an ambitious film by a young writer/director that most studios it was pitched to passed on. And it changed everything.
First, Star Wars looked different. George Lucas at least deserves credit for pushing the boundaries of what is possible when he makes movies. He had an idea for what he wanted and he pursued it, never mind the inconvenience that the technology to create the shots he wanted didn’t even exist. In production, Star Wars was a disaster. Lucas started his own production studio, Industrial Light & Magic, which promptly blew through their entire budget to create a single shot. New cameras and filming methods had to be developed for the Death Star dogfights. The droids barely functioned, especially in the sand. A first screening to friends and colleagues was widely panned. But the finished product was a marvel. ILM created space battles unlike anything that had been seen on screen before and the editing was so good that it won an Oscar! (As an example, the editors made the crucial decision that the Death Star should be threatening the Rebel base when it is destroyed which, amazingly, was not part of the original script!) Lucas eschewed disco and rock for his soundtrack and instead turned to Jaws composer John Williams for an iconic orchestral score.
What does this have to do with other movies? Lucas pushed the boundaries of movie-making, challenging other filmmakers to be creative with practical effects. When the prequels came out, Lucas pushed the envelope again by creating the first fully CGI main character in a feature film.
Everything we love about classic summer blockbusters owes a debt to Star Wars. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Lord of the Rings films, the Harry Potter films, none of these would exist at the scope they do today without the influence of Star Wars and the risks that Lucas took. Not only that, but THX, Industrial Light & Magic (from which Pixar would later emerge), Skywalker Sound, and Lucasfilm were all birthed from the effort to make the best possible Star Wars movies. That means you have felt Lucas’ impact, even if you’ve never watched a single Star Wars film.
3. Rejecting Cynicism
I believe there is an element of Very Online Culture that encourages people to “see through” things. It rewards them if they can see through new Star Wars movies as a plot to make money, for example. “I can’t believe you’re supporting this, it’s just a way for Disney to make more money off you”, they’ll say with an air of superiority. This always struck me as an odd criticism. No one ever criticized me for eating at an Applebee’s by telling me that Applebee’s is just a ploy to make more money off of me. I thought that pretty much every for-profit company’s goal is to make money.
At it’s heart this “see through” culture feels predicated on a cynical way of looking at the world. It criticizes people who enjoy something as dupes, building a sense of smugness in avoiding being similarly hoodwinked. But not enjoying something that’s popular doesn’t make you more sophisticated than the people who enjoy it. It just means you have different tastes. If you don’t derive the same meaning or joy from something as someone else, it doesn’t make you better than them, it just makes you different. The only time that difference becomes a problem is if you try to use it to make yourself feel superior.
Perhaps I’m being naive, but I believe there is something special about stories. Author CS Lewis reportedly told his friends that the best books make us “better, wiser, and happier”. Stories are distractions, but they’re more than that. They’re lessons, warnings, comforts, and inspirations. They are Gandalf reminding us that “all we can choose is what to do with the time that is given to us”, Dumbledore warning that “a time will come when we must choose between doing what is easy and what is right”, or Tyrion’s encouragement not to underestimate “cripples, bastards, and broken things”. I’m not saying that Star Wars should necessarily form the philosophical or religious center of your life, but I am saying that Star Wars is more than a series of movies about dudes in monk robes whacking at each other with laser sticks.
Star Wars is a story which presses us to look for redemption in others, which reminds us that we are “luminous beings”, that “rebellions are built on hope”, and that we win by “saving what we love”. Perhaps most importantly, Luke’s story arc celebrates a hero whose most significant moment was his decision not to fight, but to stand unarmed in the face of death. Behind lightsaber duels and space battles are messages that can make us better, wiser, and happier. On a recent episode of the podcast “Lovett or Leave It”, comedian Jon Hodgman came to the defense of the Mandalorian after receiving criticism on Twitter for liking it in a way that resonated with me:
Culture is needed distraction. We gathered around fires in prehistory to tell stories. Not only to enjoy the warmth of a fire… but also to forget for a moment the horrible, terrifying darkness at our backs. We have a whole lot of terrifying darkness at our backs right now. So, snobs, let people like what they like. It’s the holiday season, let them kindle a light in the winter solstice against the dark of the longest night of the year.” – Jon Hodgman, Lovett or Leave It, “Impeach for the Stars”
As a teacher, I’ve talked to students who have grown up with the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies the way I grew up with Star Wars. I have friends whose family traditions revolved around reading the Harry Potter books aloud together as they came out. Stories unite us around common ideals and heroes to whom we can aspire. Luke, Rey, Han, Jyn, Obi-Wan, or characters from the wider canon show us hope, failure, joy, loss, compassion, redemption, and what it looks like to fight for our beliefs. Sharing those stories with one another binds us together in much the same way the Force binds all living things in the Star Wars universe. They infiltrate our language, cut across cultural boundaries, and remind us of the core struggle of good against evil. That’s why some stories persist from one generation to another.
This is the way.