George Lucas Strikes Back: The Legacy of "Star Wars"

Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation
July 29th, 2013

George Lucas Strikes Back: The Legacy of "Star Wars"

A long time ago in a movie theater most likely torn down for the latest megaplex, a little film by the name of "Star Wars" was released. Marketed as "the story of a boy, a girl, and a universe," the swashbuckling science-fiction flick was expected to be a bust at the box office. Instead, it became the highest grossing film of all time up to that point, influencing a number of today's best filmmakers. Behind the scenes, "Star Wars" made special-effects-driven films a lucrative commodity in Hollywood, changing the industry's mindset from smaller, character-driven movies directed by young auteurs to churning out profit-driven blockbusters catering to teenagers. On the marketing side, director George Lucas was given the rights to merchandising, creating a toy empire that continues to this day.

Prior to "Star Wars," science fiction in cinema was relegated to the B-movie ghetto, with only rarities such as "2001: A Space Odyssey" going beyond the political allegories and cheap-looking special effects the genre was known for. It was also the era of the Vietnam War and Watergate, and most films reflected a cynical worldview. This was a time of directors such as Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese telling tales of crime featuring Michael Corleone and Travis Bickle; two men who were far different from your classic movie hero.

It was in this climate that a young George Lucas began sending out his script for "Star Wars." Turned down by United Artists and Universal, Lucas found a studio in Twentieth Century Fox. Used to working as an independent filmmaker, Lucas bristled at the occasional studio interference, eventually being forced to finish the film on a deadline before the Fox shutdown production. The studio, however, had given Lucas licensing and merchandising rights, setting the foundation for the director to build his own empire. During this period, Lucas also formed Industrial Light & Magic, a special-effects company that would go on to become the leading place for the cutting edge technology needed to make Hollywood's blockbusters.

"Star Wars" was released on May 25, 1977 to commercial success, going on to become the highest-grossing film ever until Steven Spielberg's "E.T." took the slot in 1982. "Star Wars" success led to the end of the auteur-driven '70s, paving the way for the summer season to be where the most expensive and effects-laden films would be dropped. Science fiction also became a hot commodity with films such as "Alien" and "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" being two of the biggest beneficiaries of the post "Star Wars" boom. It even made science fiction and action critically acceptable, with "Star Wars" receiving several Oscar nominations, including Best Picture.

While films that could break box-office records had displaced those smaller, personal films, the influence "Star Wars" had on a new generation of filmmakers cannot be denied. Directors such as James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan, JJ Abrams, and David Fincher have all cited "Star Wars" as a major factor in their styles and direction techniques. Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy have taken cues from the "Star Wars" saga, creating tales based on classic story tropes to thrill and entertain audiences. Lucas borrowed heavily from Joseph Campbell, Akira Kurosawa, and Shakespeare to build a grand space opera, using the "Star Wars" films to mirror acts in a play. The original film had an upbeat hopeful ending while the second entry, "The Empire Strikes Back," saw the heroes defeated, with several loose ends waiting to be tied up in the trilogy's final entry, "Return of the Jedi." Not only have Jackson and Nolan's aforementioned trilogies followed those beats but also films such as Robert Zemeckis' "Back to the Future" series and Marvel's "X-Men" films shared a similar path. Even when Lucas returned to "Star Wars" for the prequels, other studios and filmmakers followed suit by making prequels to well-established series, such as James Bond, "The Exorcist," and "Star Trek."

One of the biggest parts of the legacy of "Star Wars" comes from its effect on film licensing. As previously noted, Lucas was given control over all aspects of the film's licensing. Lucasfilm sold the rights of the film's characters to Kenner, a toy company known for its action figures. The rest, as they say, is history. Anyone walking down a toy aisle will see racks of Star Wars figures from all versions of the films, along with characters from the books and cartoons. Since the release of "Star Wars," the characters and situations have been seen in countless novels, comic books, video games, and cartoons. It's a media empire that has gone beyond the original film, one that's inspired countless film franchises to make an attempt for the multimedia crown.

With "Star Wars Episode VII" set for release in 2015, there's room for the film series to expand its legacy. Lucas has sold the rights to his films and company to Disney, giving his saga the full backing of one of the largest media conglomerates in the world. With JJ Abrams at the helm, it's only a matter of time before "Star Wars" is at the forefront of the pop-culture world again.