Forty years ago, on May 25, 1977, the path of Hollywood was changed forever. Thirty-two movie screens, including the famous Mann’s Chinese Theater, showed the premiere of a small science-fiction film that told the story of a plucky young pilot, a dashing smuggler, his furry companion, and a lost princess. The director was a relatively untested George Lucas, who had one hit film to his name – the seminal American Graffiti, and the leads were played by a trio of relatively unknown stars.
It may be hard to fathom it now, but in 1977, the trio of iconic leads were relative unknowns to the majority of the world. Carrie Fisher was the daughter of Hollywood royalty, but she only had one movie under her belt. Her male costar Mark Hamill was best known for his recurring role on General Hospital, and Harrison Ford was a small time character actor who had one major role in George Lucas’ American Graffiti. In fact, Harrison Ford wasn’t even asked to audition for the role of Han Solo. He was hired by George Lucas to read lines with actors who were actually auditioning. He only won the role when Lucas was impressed with his readings.
Needless to say, Star Wars went on to become one of the biggest critical and commercial successes of its time. It was the highest-grossing film of all time from 1977 until 1983, earning $786 million off of an $11 million budget. Critics, for the most part, found it to be amazing, and a return to a simpler era of Hollywood. While some critics decried the simple nature of Star Wars, seeing a backwards trend away from the weightier films of the day, most enjoyed the space epic. The late Roger Ebert, writing for the Chicago Sun-Times is often quoted as saying this in his positive review of the film.
“What makes the Star Wars experience unique, though, is that it happens on such an innocent and often funny level…there’s entertainment so direct and simple that all of the complications of the modern movie seem to vaporize.”
A Great Disturbance in the Force
Star Wars did far more than just spawn a multi-billion dollar franchise beloved by millions and create stars out of its cast and director. Its influences can be felt in the cinema even today, 40 years later, especially in how modern blockbuster science fiction films are presented. Modern day trilogies, from The Matrix to The Lord of the Rings all have their roots firmly in the original trifecta of Force-bound adventures in a galaxy far far away.
But if you’re looking for a definite influence, one only needs to look at in how fast things went. From Luke’s speeder to the Millennium Falcon, things zipped along. Today, whether it’s the alien spaceships in Guardians of the Galaxy, or the intricate warp speed battles of Star Trek Beyond, fast spaceships and faster action sequences are something modern moviegoers expect. And they have Star Wars to thank for that. Before Lucas’ vision of space battles based on WWII dogfights, spaceships in science fiction moved very slowly in an attempt to be extremely realistic. Think of how the Discovery One in 2001: A Space Odyssey moved around Jupiter or the slow steady movements of Frank and Dave in the EVA scenes. Now compare those to the exciting dogfights between the X-wings and TIE fighters around the Death Star.
Another huge impact that Star Wars had was the invention of the Dykstraflex camera. This camera, designed by John Dykstra, who was a supervisor at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), used computers to program specific movements that couldn’t be replicated by hand. It was key to making those dogfighting scenes look amazing and tense. The Dykstraflex camera is just the tip of the iceberg of the innovations that have come from the Lucas-created ILM special effects studio. Other notable things that came out of ILM are Photoshop, numerous CGI advances – including the development of ambient occlusion (to make realistic shadows cast by purely digital creations) – and every Pixar movie ever made. Pixar started off as the CG department of ILM, and John Lasseter, the current head of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, worked there as a computer animator.
Of course, you can’t mention the impacts of Star Wars on the movie industry without mentioning the toys. Prior to Star Wars, merchandising was an afterthought. Lucas was almost prescient in his contract with 20th Century Fox when he agreed to direct the movie for a paltry $150,000 if he could retain the merchandising and sequel rights. Of course, now merchandising rights are a hotly contested item on any actor or director’s contract, especially given that the Star Wars franchise has generated over $12 billion in revenue just from merchandise alone.
These are just the tip of the innovations in both film and the real world that Star Wars has brought about. There’s no denying the influence of Star Wars on everything from fashion to everyday language. If you really pay close attention, you might see it in places you least expect. And on this anniversary, as you enjoy seeing the films again for the hundredth time, or as you watch them for the very first time through the eyes of your children or friends, remember the words of wise old Ben Kenobi.
“The Force will be with you, always.”
[Featured Image via Lucasfilms]