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Film phenomena: What makes “Star Wars” so great?

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ON JANUARY 23rd 2013, there was an awakening, and everybody felt it. Production for a seventh “Star Wars” instalment began under the direction of J.J. Abrams, and became the talk of the year. No more rumours, but new hopes: would Luke, Leia and Han come back? What about C3PO, R2D2 and the Millennium Falcon? Even the much-derided prequels had not been able to kill the excitement for the franchise, which reached new heights when the “Force Awakens” trailer appeared. The internet was filled with videos of reactions to the trailer, people crying and cheering, scanning its smallest details in hopes of discovering the plot of the movie.

But in 1977, though the theme uniting the franchise is destiny—of which more presently—the first “Star Wars” (later renamed “A New Hope”) seemed destined for ignominy. George Lucas was still trying to make a name, having released “American Graffiti” in 1972 and not much else. The actors were sceptical; Harrison Ford later said “There’s this giant guy in a dog suit walking around. It was ridiculous.” Fox had just a hundred prints made, and dreaded a flop; George Lucas took a vacation in Hawaii as the film opened, expecting the worst. On its opening weekend it was shown in only a few dozen theatres, and was out-earned by “Smokey and the Bandit”.

But before long the film took off, within months surpassing “Jaws” to become the highest-grossing film of all time to that point. Today, in inflation-adjusted terms, it beats every film ever made bar “Gone With The Wind”, which has had 38 more years to earn. In “The World According to Star Wars”, Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School tries to explain why a movie so obscure became the talk of not one but several generations. He aims the book at everyone: those who love, those who merely like and those who dislike “Star Wars”. But this is still not as ambitious as his main aim: demonstrating how “Star Wars” echoes and influences all aspects of our daily lives, whether we have seen it or not. Jim Cameron’s “Avatar”, he notes, grossed a fortune—but can anyone quote a single line from it? “Star Wars” rules the galaxy.

The book poses a central question: was “Star Wars” especially timely, a lucky shot or “just too awesome to fail”? He gathers data, research and even bits of unfinished script to piece out the puzzle. One looks into two explanations as to why “Star Wars” became legend: the “cascades effect”—popularity based on what others thought of the first instalment—and the “network effect”—since a majority of people know about “Star Wars”, it is useful to know about it too. All the data and theory in the world would not work without Mr Sunstein’s delightful style. With a mix of culture references and research, he finds the balance: informative without being boring, funny without being silly, a spare 200-odd pages make for a marvellous swift read, his analysis following a dynamic and resourceful rhythm.

We learn that Luke and Leia, the most famous twins of the galaxy far, far away, were not related from the beginning. Mr Lucas added this twist to the script upon writing “The Empire Strikes  Back”, in 1980, which has the wizened green Jedi master Yoda saying “there is another [hope]”. When came the time to decide who this new hope would be, Leia was the perfect fit. Mr Lucas still had to explain why she had the Force. So he changed the original script, and turned her into Luke’s sister. It led to an uncomfortable public reception, as the two characters share a clear romantic chemistry—and that kiss. Mr Sunstein is brilliant when he separates fact from fantasy about the saga’s origins. For instance, we learn that Mr Lucas’s early drafts were heavily inspired by Kurosawa’s “The Hidden Fortress” from 1958. This is where “The World according to Star Wars” appeals best to Mr Lucas’s disciples.

When he leaves the trivia territory, he struggles to answer his question about what made the films succeed: “None of these explanations can be shown to be wrong. The problem is that none of them can be shown to be right.” So he instead probes many subsets of the films’ meaning, from the spiritual to the political. He teases the saga’s fans when he asks what was so wrong about the Empire, after all, claiming that Emperor Palpatine—the main antagonist of the franchise—had little impact on the lives of the people he governed. He devotes a page to the theory that Jar Jar Binks is, in fact, a Sith Lord. (Mr Lucas has denied it, but “he would deny it, wouldn’t he?”) In Earth’s politics, Mr Sunstein notes that Barack Obama’s unexpected rise in the 2008 election can be explained by a cascade effect not unlike the one that drove “A New Hope” to surprising success: once both received a certain amount of support, more people decided to devote them a bit of their precious decision-making attention.

In perhaps his most interesting rumination, he wonders about the importance of destiny in the “Star Wars” universe, a theme appearing in all seven films. Although prophecy and destiny are heavy notions, all of the “Star Wars” characters make their own decisions when facing two paths: both Luke and Anakin face a powerful tempter from the Dark Side, but only one of them chooses it. Some readers may remain unconvinced that this is particularly deep stuff. But the true asset of “The World according to Star Wars” is Mr Sunstein’s infectious infatuation with the franchise, allowing him to cross-reference the series to nearly anything from Harry Potter to same-sex marriage. The force is strong with this one.

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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