Enduring Popularity

May 01, 2005
A thought by James Berardinelli

I was recently asked if I had a theory about the enduring popularity of Star Wars. Why, some 28 years after the release of the first film, is Revenge of the Sith not only a lock to be the box office champ for its first week of release, but a legitimate contender for the #1 movie for the year? (There are other contenders, most of which are either animated or feature a big ape, but I'll leave that for another ReelThoughts.) Well, as it happens, I have several theories.

Star Wars is as close as we can get to modern mythology. As popular as other science fiction properties have become, perhaps only Star Trek can boast such deep pop culture penetration - and Spock & Kirk had an 11-year headstart. For members of my generation, Star Wars is our Wizard of Oz. And, while the popularity of the series is certainly not limited to Generation X'ers, that's where the greatest passion is to be found.

Star Wars was released in 1977. Those of us who are now adults in our mid-to-late 30s and early 40s were kids. We ate up everything that George Lucas had to offer and came back for more. We bought the toys, the trading cards, the books, the magazines, the comics, the towels and sheets, the tee-shirts, and the posters. Star Wars was only a movie at the very beginning. It quickly grew into a phenomenon. We gave up swingsets, four square, and kick-ball in favor of picking up a couple of sticks and playing "lightsabers." And the subsequent re-releases and sequels only expanded the empire, opening it up to younger children and future generations.

There was an innocence and purity about that original movie that appealed to viewers of all ages. In a country whose psyche had been raked across the coals by gas lines, Watergate, and Vietnam, seeing a movie like this, about outer space and genuine heroes, was a tonic like none other. There was nothing cynical about the original Star Wars. And, with special effects like no others at the time, it was pure movie magic. And it stayed in the hearts and minds of those who watched it.

When The Phantom Menace opened six years ago, it was the most anticipated motion picture event in decades. (Some would argue that it was the hottest cinematic opening in medium's century-long history.) Disappointment sprung up like a pestilence, but could any film have matched the titanic expectations piled upon the fourth Star Wars movie, and the first in 16 years?

The opening of Attack of the Clones was more subdued, and reactions to the film were mixed. The die-hards were generally positive, but the masses were unenthusiastic. The movie suffered the problem of all middle chapters - no real beginning or end, and too much exposition. Well, now we have come to the "end of all things" (to quote another popular franchise). After this, there will be no more big screen Star Wars adventures, at least not in the foreseeable future. Once Revenge of the Sith has arrived, we will know the entire story of Darth Vader, one of movie-dom's most iconic villains.

Star Wars has always been popular with childen. Lucas has admited that elements of the films have been designed with the under-12 age group in mind. (Jar-Jar Binks, anyone?) The merchandise is strongly aimed at that market. Teenagers and young adults became fans when the original films were on video and the new ones were in theaters. And older viewers still recall the magic of the first two movies, even if they have been less-than-thrilled by Lucas' recent output.

The frenzy surrounding the release of Revenge of the Sith is being fueled by the enormity of Star Wars' appeal, in conjunction with the realization that this is it. And the fact that it's rumored to be a good movie doesn't hurt. For Star Wars, this is the send-off, and fans are determined that it be a memorable one.

So why does this franchise possess such enduring popularity? The answer goes back to the first film, which touched everyone who saw it in a fundamental and lasting way. The Empire Strikes Back is a better film than Star Wars, but it did not have an identical impact (nor did it make as much money). The story for the second film is better, and the characters are more richly developed, but the sense of wonder is not the same. Yet, each time we go to see a Star Wars movie, regardless of whether it's in 1980 or 2005, the sense of anticipation takes us back to 1977. The nostalgia is palpable. For two hours, we can forget the troubles of today and immerse ourselves in the story of a galaxy long ago and far away.