Movies that usher in a new era of filmmaking are very rare. They exceed expectations not just because they are entertaining or have memorable stories, but because they expand our expectations as far as what movies are capable of. The original Star Wars trilogy is one collection of such films. A New Hope especially was a film that effectively raised the bar as far as what movies were capable of. The following is a list of the most important things that Star Wars has taught us about making movies. Audiences everywhere are forever indebted.
Each month the Cinelinx staff will write a handful of articles covering a specified film-related topic. These articles will be notified by the Movielinx banner. Movielinx is an exploration and discussion of our personal connections with film. May (the) 4th is Star Wars day, and because of this we will honor Star Wars all month long. What do you love about Star Wars? How did the franchise influence you? Feel free to add your comments and reviews!
25. What’s Earth?
Until Star Wars, science fiction movies almost always mentioned Earth. Either the films focused on people travelling from Earth or the film took place on Earth itself. In Star Wars, there is no mention of Earth besides the reference made in “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away….”. This was really monumental as the film invited audiences to think bigger. Furthermore, it meant that Lucas could create his own universe without worrying about tying it into ours. Both gave audiences something they had not seen, and probably not even thought about before.
24. The Next Generation of Hero
Star Wars features a lot of old people and a lot of young people. The old people are frequently in command and the young people are trying to make their own way. Luke is, in essence, the “new” hero. Obi-Wan is the “old” hero. Obi-Wan passes the baton to Luke. This is an important theme, and one that traditional action films rarely explored. Traditional action films found the protagonist figuring things out for himself. Star Wars showed the benefits of having an old hand to lead the way. Since then, many films have followed this pattern.
23. The Minions
Star Wars was one of the first non-animated films to have mindless minions (strom troopers) as an antagonist. Typically bad guys would have some lackeys or maybe an army, but the idea of having a lot of similar-looking but faceless goons to do whatever you wanted was mostly new. Furthermore, there were technical challenges for the film makers to make all of these identical costumes and then make sure they seemed like formidable foes.
22. Credits At the End
Star Wars was one of the first films to not have opening credits. George Lucas didn’t want opening credits to limit the ability of the film to immediately grab the audience’s attention. He was right, the immediacy of action in all Star Wars films is what engages the audience. For this reason it is the norm for movies today. The Director’s Guild didn’t like it because they wanted the audience to know who the director was. They won a lawsuit against Lucas, but eventually Lucas was able to win a compromise by putting the director’s name first in the end credits.
21. Basing A Movie Around a Bad Guy Works
The first Star Wars film doesn’t focus on Darth Vader, but he was the first character that George Lucas wrote. Darth Vader is the most important character in the entire franchise. In subsequent films (especially the sequels) we can see how the entire series is more or less about him. By first making him very memorable, and then telling the story of his rise and fall, George Lucas has shown us how important a good bad guy can be.
Before R2-D2 and C-3P0, robots were always a “gee-wiz” moment in science fiction films rather than an actual character. Furthermore, besides the robot in Metropolis (on which C-3P0 is based) they were rarely humanoid and rarely acted like humans. George Lucas showed us that robots can become lovable characters, and their roles can be varied.
19. Humor Has A Place in Action
For better or for worse, George Lucas loved using comic relief. R2-D2 and C-3P0 are the most common sources of this humor throughout the series, but there are other characters and situations that end up comical as well. This was a fairly new thing in a science fiction film, let alone an action movie. Dark Star is the only science fiction film that I can think of that came out before Star Wars with elements of comedy mixed into serious situations. Action films before the 80’s were typically very serious, but Star Wars changed all that.
18. Steven Spielberg Understands What it Takes To Make Money
The production studios, the actors, even George Lucas himself thought that Star Wars would be a flop. One of the only people involved who thought otherwise was Steven Spielberg. He believed in what George Lucas was doing and encouraged him to keep going. He saw the potential and understood that this film could usher in a new era of profitability for Hollywood.
17. We Don’t Have to Understand What You’re Talking About to Understand What You’re Talking About
Kessel run? Womp rats? Bad motivator? What are they talking about? Well, it doesn’t matter. Star Wars is full of made-up things that have little to no explanation. In traditional science fiction films this was bad, alienating parts of the audience. In Star Wars, it’s charming. The scripts use connotation and repetition to allow the audience to infer what is happening. This allows the films to exist in their own unique universe without having to take baby steps to explain everything.
16. Dolby Encoded Soundtracks Were the Way of the Future
Not only was the Star Wars soundtrack memorable, but it sounded great. Part of the reason for this is because it was recorded on 4 channels (surround sound). Star Wars wasn’t the first film to have a surround sound soundtrack, but because it became so popular, it expanded the appeal of this technology. Theater owners who might have initially been reluctant to spend the money to install a surround sound system now had audiences begging for it. Proof is in the fact that the Star Wars soundtrack was the first of 18 consecutive years of encoded soundtracks winning the Academy Award for best achievement in sound.
Star Wars takes place in a colorful and diverse universe. It is filled with aliens of all types and sizes. Traditional science fiction films usually had one of two types of aliens in it; little green men or aliens that looked a lot like humans. Star Wars showed us that there are limitless possibilities to what life on other planets could look like. Not only did Star Wars broaden our horizons as far as what aliens could look like, but also it gave us new ideas about how they could behave.
14. No Need For A Major Studio
Star Wars was not supposed to be a big hit. George Lucas had trouble securing financing because everyone thought it would be a flop. When he did convince Twentieth Century Fox, he negotiated certain parts of his contract so that he could remain in creative control. For the sequel, Lucas obtained funding from mostly independent studios. They agreed to produce Empire Strikes Back because the first film made so much money. This is a trend that continues today. For larger budget films it is not uncommon for multiple studios to become involved in order to produce the large sums of money required, but also to limit their losses if the film they are financing is a dud.
13. Dirty Space
Up until Star Wars most science fiction films seemed fascinated with the idea of space travel. Their characters cruised the cosmos in immaculate sparkling ships that exhibited cutting edge technology. In Star Wars, the space ships break down frequently, they are full of clutter and debris, and space trave never isl romanticized. Furthermore, the Star Wars universe is full of crime, drugs, violence, and greed. The “dirty space” idea was so new at the time that Lucas had trouble convincing the production studios (and their cleaning crews) that the film was supposed to look dirty. This opened up a whole new level of possibilities for science fiction films.
12. Sound Effects!
Star Wars put a lot of effort into producing unique and interesting sound effects. The filmmakers were very innovative in how they came up with these sounds, and were even more innovative in how they used them to enhance their film. Subsequent science fiction films would put much more emphasis in the soundscape.
11. The Power of the Trilogy
While the original three films has since turned into six and counting, Star Wars originally gave us the idea of a film trilogy. Sequels were somewhat common (not like they are today), but a third film was rare. The trilogy has a lot of advantages for filmmakers because it is usually enough time to tell a complete story without drawing things out too long for an audience to stop caring. Audiences who want more after seeing the original film will be even more hungry and likely to pay to see another if the second sequel is handled well.
10. The Popcorn Flick
Star Wars outlined the formula that would allow studios to make films that were easier for audiences to digest. By making films less formal and more fun, Hollywood could appeal to a larger audience, and therefore make more money. By focusing on action, adventure, and special effects, production studios could inspire and engage all age groups. Star Wars showed us that audiences want their movies to be fun, but not silly and still executed in a professional manner.
9. Orchestral Score
The score of Star Wars is one of the most well-known and recognized because not only was it executed well, but Lucas used it for maximum impact. By creating a romantic tone with the soundtrack, Lucas allowed his audiences a common point of reference as they explored this new universe he was creating. Traditional science fiction films had used classical music (2001: A Space Odyssey) or electronic (Forbidden Planet). The score for Star Wars is more akin to an adventure film.
8. The Mass Appeal Movie
By inventing the popcorn flick, Star Wars became a mass-appeal movie. Like James Bond, or The Beatles it became a phenomenon that transcended its original intent. Unlike James Bond, this excitement extended beyond film. Star Wars became a pop-culture force to be reckoned with, one that has been sustained for forty years. As such, everyone has tried to duplicate its success, with mixed results. Starting in the 80’s there was an influx of action-packed science fiction films, trying to cash in on the craze. Today, there are new franchises popping up (Star Trek, Marvel) trying to emulate what Star Wars was able to do.
7. Star Power? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Star Power
Star Wars is interesting because of its lack of star power. Arguably, the only actor that most audiences would have recognized was Alec Guiness. Everyone else was basically new. By casting relative unknowns, Star Wars could invest more money in its special effects. Furthermore, because the film is full of action, it didn’t really need famous actors to draw the audience in. This is a trend that has continued since, with plenty of up-and-coming actors getting their big break while starring in a big-budget blockbuster film.
6. Science Fiction is Here to Stay / Profitable
In the 1970’s, science fiction was to be avoided. Films of the genre had not been popular since the 50’s and they never seemed to make much money. Star Wars changed all that. It showed everyone that science fiction could be the MOST PROFITABLE genre in film. It allowed audiences to become comfortable in paying money to see science fiction, and it rewarded them for doing so.
5. Special Effects are Special Indeed
The reason that Star Wars proved that science fiction had staying power was because technology had finally advanced to the point where special effects in film could be improved. Furthermore, Star Wars showed that there were benefits for heavily investing in special effects. It is a trend that continues to this day with most action/sci-fi films spending a majority of their budget on special effects.
4. Go Big or Go Home
By pushing special effects to the forefront, Star Wars started a trend. Movies now had to “outdo” each other. Audiences didn’t want to pay money unless they were seeing something for the first time. They wanted movies to be bigger and better, to push the envelope, and give them their money’s worth. Small films would still have a place, but it was the big ones where studios would need to invest if they wanted to maintain their profit margins.
In exchange for the financing of the original Star Wars film, George Lucas agreed to give up some of the money he would make if the movie were profitable in exchange for merchandising rights. Previous to Star Wars no movie had been successful with merchandising. The film studios gave Lucas this compromise because they thought he was foolish. He was not. Because of the mass appeal and transcendence of Star Wars to become a pop culture phenomenon, audiences wanted all the Star Wars that they could get their hands on. For this reason, toys, comic books, posters, and so on became big business. So much so that the money Lucas earned from merchandising allowed him to continue having creative control over the subsequent films. Other film makers watched Lucas making bank and the trend caught on with merchandising (and eventually home video) sales becoming a major part of any film’s bottom line.
2. Birth of the Modern Movie Franchise
Movie franchises had technically been around before Star Wars, but Star Wars became much more than just a bunch of movies. Star Wars gave birth to the modern movie franchise. It became a creative property where the films serve as the anchor to a host of other related media and merchandising that is mostly owned and controlled by one company. It laid the blueprints on which the biggest film properties have since been developed.
1. The Green/Blue Screen
The biggest contribution of Star Wars to modern cinema is the use of the green (or blue) screen. The green screen had been around before Star Wars, but the technology used to perfect it had not been developed. Because of this, film makers (including Lucas) relied on the The Schüfftan process which used mirrors to project models and sets into live action. Furthermore, because production studios had mostly left science fiction films out to dry, there was no interest (or need) to develop the technology for green/blue screens. While it would be Jurassic Park that would eventually bring CGI into the mainstream, Star Wars made many important breakthroughs in order to make that possible. It also proved to audiences and production studios alike that this was the technology of the future. There was nothing more realistic besides building full-scale sets, which was quickly becoming more and more expensive and didn’t allow directors the same flexibility as with a green screen.