Cultural Impact of Star Wars


George Lucas’ six-film Star Wars saga has had a significant impact on modern American popular culture. ‘Star Wars’ references are deeply embedded in popular culture; references to the main characters and themes of Star Wars are casually made in many English-speaking countries with the assumption that others will understand the reference. Darth Vader has become an iconic villain. Phrases like ‘evil empire’ and ‘May the Force be with you’ have become part of the popular lexicon. The first ‘Star Wars film’ in 1977 was a cultural unifier, enjoyed by a wide spectrum of people.

Science fiction since the original 1977 ‘Star Wars,’ particularly in film, has often been influenced by and compared to ‘Star Wars.’ Sounds, visuals, and even the music from the films have become part of the tapestry of American society. The film also helped launch the science fiction boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and made science fiction films a blockbuster genre. It has also been parodied in films and short videos, such as ‘Spaceballs.’

Star Wars fundamentally changed the aesthetics and narratives of Hollywood films, switching the focus from deep, meaningful stories based on dramatic conflict, themes and irony to sprawling special-effects-laden blockbusters. Before ‘Star Wars,’ special effects in films had not appreciably advanced since the 1950s. ‘Star Wars’ was also important in the movement towards the use of computer initiated imagery in films. The commercial success of Star Wars created a boom in state-of-the-art special effects in the late 1970s. There was increased investment in special effects, and companies like Industrial Light & Magic and Digital Productions were created to provide them. The 1977 Star Wars pioneered the genre pastiche, where several classic film genres are combined in one film. In ‘Star Wars,’ the genres were science fiction, the Western, the war film, and the quasi-mystical epic. Along with ‘Jaws,’ ‘Star Wars’ started the tradition of the summer blockbuster film in the entertainment industry, where films open on many screens at the same time and profitable franchises are important. It created the model for the major film trilogy and showed that merchandising rights on a film could generate more money than the film itself did.

20th Century Fox optioned ‘Star Wars.’ When it unexpectedly became the decade’s blockbuster, grossing $100 million in three months, Fox’s stock soared from $6 to $25 per share and generated revenues of $1.2 million a day for the studio. Fox purchased the Aspen skiing and Pebble Beach golf corporations with the increased cash flow and still declared excess profits in 1977. Income from ‘Star Wars’ re-releases, sequels, and merchandising enriched the studio in the following decades. Star Wars helped Fox to change from an almost bankrupt production company to a thriving media conglomerate.

The Smithsonian’s ‘National Air and Space Museum’ had an exhibition called ‘Star Wars: The Magic of Myth.’ It was an exhibition of original production models, props, costumes, and characters from the first three films. In 2007, NASA launched a space shuttle carrying an original lightsaber into orbit. The prop handle had been used as Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber in ‘Return of the Jedi.’ After spending two weeks in orbit, it was brought back to Earth to be returned to its owner George Lucas. John Williams’ score for the films, especially the ‘Main Title’ theme and the recurring ‘The Imperial March (Darth Vader’s Theme),’ has become part of the musical repertoire. Other symphonic themes are often used as fanfares at sporting events. In 1995 during a defense debate in the UK parliament, MP Harry Cohen related the ‘Star Wars Day’ joke: ‘May the 4th be with you.’ ‘Star Wars’ also made its mark in the 2001 census, when over 390,000 UK respondents entered their religion as Jedi.

In television commercials, public interest group critics of the Reagan administration’s ‘Strategic Defense Initiative’ (SDI) program deridingly referred to the orbital missile defense project as ‘Star Wars.’ Lucasfilm originally sued to try to enjoin this usage of its trademark, and lost. Explaining its decision, the court said, ‘When politicians, newspapers, and the public generally use the phrase star wars for their convenience, in parody or descriptively to further a communication of their views on SDI, plaintiff has no rights as owner of the mark to prevent this use of STAR WARS. … Since Jonathan Swift’s time, creators of fictional worlds have seen their vocabulary for fantasy appropriated to describe reality. Trademark laws regulate unfair competition, not the parallel development of new dictionary meanings in the everyday give and take of human discourse.’

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.