Star Wars: The Last Jedi has already grossed $450M worldwide, and it’s only been in release for five days. The affect this one film has had on the world is profound, but it stands on very high ground to start with. For four decades, Star Wars has been a major part of not only science fiction and fantasy fandom, but mundane pop culture, too. What influence has George Lucas’ creation had on science fiction and fantasy?
“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”
Star Wars seems to have had more influence on media science fiction (movies and television shows) than literary science fiction (books).
Traditionally, media science fiction was bright and shiny. Spaceships were polished. Space navies were full of handsome officers in crisp uniforms. By contrast, George Lucas presented us with a dirty, lived in universe: “Lucas’ vision of a “used future” was further popularized in the science fiction-horror films Alien, which was set on a dirty space freighter; Mad Max 2, which is set in a post-apocalyptic desert; and Blade Runner, which is set in a crumbling, dirty city of the future.”
English science and science fiction author Paula Hammond suggested Star Wars offered science fiction, especially media science fiction, legitimacy. “Before Star Wars sci-fi was always considered to be a bit B-movie by the mainstream. Star Wars proved it was a genre that could pull in the big money. Although to be honest I always thought of it as more science fantasy than pure sci-fi…”
Canadian journalist and science fiction author Gregg Chamberlain agreed that Star Wars made science fiction more legitimate to Hollywood producers, if not necessarily to science fiction readers. “To me, Star Wars tended more to being good old-fashioned space opera bordering on science-fantasy… and that is fine. The dialogue was good, the characters cool, the action hot, and that is what you want with sf adventure, whether cinematic or literary. But as far as actual influence, beyond making sf more legitimate now in the eyes of the general public, and especially Hollywood, I cannot see that Star Wars has contributed anything else to the development of sf in general. Space opera and sf-adventure fiction had a long and fairly reputable history already, dating back to Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Mars novels, and the kind of fiction that ran in Planet Stories and other magazines back in the first half of the 20th century.”
“Star Wars” also has had more-subtle influences on Hollywood. It pioneered the modern special effects blockbuster as well as the modern movie trilogy, leading the way for “Lord of the Rings” and “The Matrix,” among others. It also showed that merchandising can make even more money than the movies do. The deal that “Star Wars” creator George Lucas made with Pepsico over merchandising rights for the prequel films was estimated to be worth roughly $2 billion.
Star Wars helped set the stage for such TV shows as Space Academy (Peepo was accused of being a ripoff of R2-D2), its spin-off Jason of Star Command (where Jason wore an outfit similar to Han Solo’s), Battlestar Galactica, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, and even Star Trek: The Next Generation. Yes, a Buck Rogers TV show was inevitable, given the copyright expiring, and ST:TNG would have come out sooner or later, because of the movies, but the success of Star Wars made them more palatable to Hollywood. Firefly and Blake’s Seven both focused on good rebels and an evil interstellar alliance, a point of view that came equally from post-Civil War westerns with southern heroes (Bronco, The Proud Rebel, etc.) and Star Wars, where the rebels were the heroes and the government forces wore the black hats.
In an interview with Southwest Airlines Magazine, Dr. Isaac Asimov said “I liked Star Wars. I thought Battlestar Galactica was such a close imitation of Star Wars, emphasizing the less attractive portions, that I was a little impatient with it.”
Dr. Asimov also wrote in the essay What Makes Good Science Fiction? that he “enjoyed Star Wars. It is deliberately campy and it is utterly brainless, but the special effects are fun and it is restful sometimes to park one’s brain outside. One can even forgive the kind of slip that makes ‘parsec’ a unit of speed rather than of distance, and consider it the equivalent of a typographical error.”
The effect on literary science fiction has been more indirect and far harder to measure. Would Rosemary Edghill still be writing romance novels rather than science fiction and fantasy if her Hellflower trilogy hadn’t been based on Star Wars fanfic? Would David Weber and Elizabeth Moon’s novels feature far-flung star empires if not for the example of Emperor Palpatine and his realm? Possibly — interstellar empires predate Star Wars and will doubtless continue long after it — but those books might have been written differently, or had a harder time finding a publisher.
Star Wars as a Driver of Cultural Change
Wikipedia claims “Star Wars helped launch the science fiction boom of the late 1970s and early 1980s, making science fiction films a blockbuster genre or mainstream. This very impact also made it a prime target for parody works and homages.” Spaceballs comes to mind immediately, as does Ernie Fosselius’ unabashedly corny and cheap Hardware Wars.
There are pop cultural references to Star Wars and its sequels in Barney Miller, Family Guy, Robot Chicken, Supergirl (where J’onn J’onzz thinks The Empire Strikes Back is the greatest movie sequel ever made), Phineas and Ferb, MacGyver, and dozens of other TV shows and movies. Even Campbell’s Soup has commercials celebrating making friends and non-traditional families that give a tip of the hat to Star Wars. In Mind Over Murder, one of William X. Kienzle’s Father Koesler murder mystery novels, Father Koesler describes a group of suspects looking up at him as though he’s Yoda.
Star Wars also affected geopolitical and military affairs. The Strategic Defense Initiative which used “ground- and space-based lasers, missiles and other weapons to help protect the United States from attack by nuclear missiles” was . “derisively referred to” as Star Wars by its critics. President Ronald Reagan, who approved the SDI, referred to what was then the Soviet Union as an evil empire.
In addition to SW affecting the types of movies Hollywood producers were willing to consider, it influenced the more technical side of Hollywood. The Dykstraflex, a motion-controlled camera system that could be programmed by computer, was designed by John Dykstra, for Star Wars: A New Hope. It allowed for believable illusions of starships maneuvering through space. In addition to visual and technical effects, SW also gave a boost to sound effects that hadn’t been seen since the days of radio.
Some people believe Star Trek‘s Spock brought more women into science fiction fandom. Certainly Nichelle Nichols inspired Whoopi Goldberg (Guinan on Star Trek: The Next Generation) and Dr. Mae Jemison (astronaut, doctor, ST: TNG transporter operator) and many others, showing that a “charming Negress,” as President Lincoln called her in The Savage Curtain could be a competent Starfleet officer. Star Wars, with a princess who refused to be a damsel in distress waiting to be rescued, inspired many young girls to believe that they could be heroines in their own right, rather than girlfriends of heroes. This seems commonplace now, but in 1977 it was a radical idea.
There is a perception that women prefer fantasy to science fiction, and with Star Wars being more fantasy than SF, it encouraged female viewers. (Harrison Ford, Lando Calrissian, and Luke Skywalker as eye candy didn’t hurt, either.) Those female fans wrote fanfic and filk songs, and some grew up to be professional authors. The profound influence of Princess Leia on these creators and authors cannot be overstated.
Is Star Wars Really Science Fiction?
Many fans consider Star Wars fantasy or science fantasy rather than science fiction. To outsiders, the people who watched the movies because they were blockbusters, the films were obviously science fiction. It had spaceships, didn’t it? Many SF fans, however, considered it a fantasy adventure that happened to take place in outer space.
Jesco Puttkamer, aerospace engineer and technical advisor on Star Trek: The Motion Picture, said “Star Wars … really not science fiction. I loved it, but it’s a fairy tale of princes and knights in another galaxy. The technology was improbable, the science impossible.”
A Sense of Destiny
No writer lives in a vacuum. Like any writer, George Lucas was influenced by the movies and the books he’d read. He has, in his turn, influenced other writers and filmmakers. The full extent of his influence on science fiction and fantasy may be incalculable. And yet, changing the world was not his plan. He just had a vision about the movie he wanted to make. He never imagined the profound affect it would have on every filmmaker and visionary that came after.
In the episode Raiders of the Lost Art of the TV show DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, two superheroes, Steel and the Atom, lose their powers when a change to the timeline has George Lucas become an insurance salesman instead of a movie director. Steel became a historian because he was inspired by the Indiana Jones movies; the Atom became a scientist because he was inspired by Star Wars. Without Lucas and his effect on adventure movies, neither took the paths that led to them becoming superheroes. In this space-time continuum, we don’t need to measure SW’s influence to appreciate it.
Many, if not most, of the creators who brought Star Wars: The Last Jedi to the screen were just children when the first Star Wars movie came out, or not even born yet. They were inspired by what they saw, and in many cases this inspiration was what led them to become part of the filmmaking profession in the first place. Seeing something like that at a young age makes a profound impression, and becomes a beacon. It calls to you. It shows you that wondrous things are possible, and that becoming part of it is equally possible, and that, like the Force, the best things come not from the stuff you own or the tools you wield, but what’s been inside you all along.
Even for those who did not see glimpses of this universe and be inspired to become filmmakers, or artists, or actors, or musicians, the idea that the light can defeat the darkness no matter how bad things sometimes seem can become a guiding principle for a lifetime. For those whose paths led in other directions, the universe created by George Lucas still resonates. Gamers, writers, musicians, artists, cosplayers and all sorts of other creative endeavor have been inspired by it. It’s the fuel in the engines of the dreamers.
In the end, it’s about hope. Hope for the future, hope that Things Will Get Better, hope for what we may become. Perhaps this is why, despite its flaws, we still want to share in George Lucas’ dream.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi released in UK cinemas on December 14 and US cinemas on December 15, 2017.