There never was a time without “Star Wars” — at least not in my lifetime. But, to my uncle’s generation, “Star Wars” marked a new era.
The packed theater audience erupted in cheering applause at the end of each scene in 1977 when my uncle, Mike Munz, saw the first in the trilogy “A New Hope” the week of its release. “I have never seen people applaud a movie, and I have been to zillions of movies,” said Munz.
“An ad for the movie came on TV; I was impressed by the special effects. Nothing close to that had been done since ‘2001 A Space Odyssey,’ in 1968. I said to myself, ‘I have got to get downtown and see this movie; this is going to be a landmark film,’” said Munz, 34 then, “Just the opening credits scene was awesome!” He likened the audience’s experience of the film to the first “Talky” (a film with audible dialogue), or the moment “The Wizard of Oz” switched from black and white to color.
Since then, all the six full-feature films within the “Star Wars” series totaled $4.4 billion at the box office according to boxofficemojo.com. While fan fiction and spinoffs carved out the depths of the story’s universe, commercial “Star Wars” products spread across the nation and beyond. “Star Wars” references became an easy cultural currency perhaps as much as Shakespeare references have become.
Born in 1981, I wanted to be like Luke Skywalker and his friends when I was a child. I also wanted to be able to shoot lightning out of my fingers like the emperor, but… After the release of the prequel trilogy in the 2000s, the next generation of children wanted to be like Anakin Skywalker and his friends. (That should scare us.) Then came “The Clone Wars,” animated film and t.v. series. Now, kids these days don’t even know who Luke Skywalker is?! Although, I must admit I have never seen “The Clone Wars.”
I’m not alone. While the first of the original trilogy grossed $775 million at the box office, and the first of the prequels “The Phantom Menace” grossed $1 billion, “The Clone Wars” only grossed $68 million, according to boxofficemojo.com.
The ground-breaking special effects, cinematography, costumes and set thrust “Star Wars” to the stage at the Academy Awards, but that’s not the only thing that gave “Star Wars” its staying power and cultural impact.
“I quickly recognized that each scene was a movie scene from any of the army, cowboy, cavalry, ‘sword fight’n’ movies of my childhood,” said Munz. George Lucas drew heavily on enduring mythic themes, especially using anthropologist Joseph Campbell’s “monomyth” theory. In an interview with journalist Bill Moyers, Lucas said that he purposely set out to recreate myths and apply them to issues relevant to the day. Among those issues, he listed the way our choices affect the balance of good and evil within each of us, humanity’s relationship to machines, friendship and duty to others, and how our choices effect our destiny.
The “Hero’s Journey,” Campbell’s “monomyth” reflected in “Star Wars,” is a compelling form no matter what critiques I might offer. Even though I might claim the form is passé, or note the problematic nature of the cycle of redemption through violence, and though I might point out that Campbell’s theory hollows out the unique cultural value of the myths it interprets and appropriates them as artifacts in the West’s supposed monoculture — though all of this may be true, a very large audience still apparently found “Star Wars” compelling.
Mostly adults made up the audience in the Philadelphia theater when Munz discovered “Star Wars,” but perhaps the mythos appealed to a youthful or ageless part of those watchers. What child has not had a fantasy like the story of Luke Skywalker, a marginalized youth with a special destiny due to his hidden origins, a hero discovering new powers in a world full of extraordinary actors? Who couldn’t be swept away by a call to adventure, to the unknown, to the ultimate fight between good and evil for the fate of the entire galaxy?!
I know I am. My brothers and I worked out the psychic tensions in these movies as we play-acted within the world we built in our back yard. We each in our way found access through “Star Wars” to the place inside where we know that the world is a wild place, and we have choices to make about the destinies we build. I haven’t seen “Star Wars” for a while, but I still love the (im)possible worlds of science fiction, like in my favorite show ever, “Battlestar Galactica!”
Two questions stick with me about “Star Wars,” questions that ruminated while playing. One, why do the characters in “Star Wars” never go to the bathroom? Two, if this all happened a long time ago in a galaxy far away, how did we come to hear about it? My theory is that C-3PO tells us the story, with aid from R2-D2 of course, to whom C-3PO undoubtedly owes his survival on the long trek to our galaxy.