The release of Star Wars in 1977 turned the entertainment industry on its head. Here was a film that not only broke through box office records, but it also fundamentally changed the way the film industry worked. For one, it changed the way that films were made. Above all, Star Wars was fun to experience, and so great effort was put into developing new ideas and techniques to make films more enjoyable and easily engaging. Star Wars also changed the way film was sold. Merchandising became a valuable method by which studios could earn back their sizable investments for more expensive movies. With television specials, promotional runs, product tie-ins, and eventually home video releases, Star Wars found a way to reach out to its fans in a way that had never been done before.
This is a brief look at some of the films which realized these lessons and took them in stride. In one way or another they were inspired by not only Star Wars itself, but the success that Star Wars found in and out of theaters. Many of them were created by filmmakers who realized the genius of George Lucas’ approach, and wanted to do something similar. Others took advantage of the circumstances in the wake of Star Wars’ popularity to capture some of the magic for themselves. Others were created later, not as a direct result of Star Wars, but playing off of its entrenchment in popular culture over the last few decades.
Taking Advantage of Science Fiction’s New Popularity
Prior to Star Wars, science fiction was a risky genre for a big budget movie. By the 70’s, the Hollywood New Wave had pushed popular film beyond escapist narratives to something more realistic and meaningful. Science fiction, which had traditionally always been escapist in nature, found little success at the box office. It didn’t help that audiences connotations of science fiction at the time were of cheesy 50’s B-movies and boring cautionary tales like 2001: A Space Odyssey. Star Wars changed all that. Borrowing the blockbuster approach of Jaws, Star Wars found excitement in a genre that Hollywood had all but forgotten about. Lucas’ use of the “dirty space” ideology made science fiction more relatable, and seem (at least visually) more in line with the types of gritty, and dark films of the era.
Once Star Wars became a major hit, studios scrambled to try and take advantage of audiences’ newly found thirst for adventurous science fiction. At first, we saw the release of low-budget rip offs, such as Starcrash, and Battle Beyond the Stars (which actually “borrowed” footage from Star Wars). Later, we saw more creative and fully realized science fiction films coming out of rival studios. Disney may now own Star Wars, but back then they wanted a piece of the pie too. Their film, 1979’s The Black Hole, tried to take the company’s family-friendly adventures into new territory: outer space. 20th Century Fox was looking for a science fiction movie of their own, and jumped on the chance to make Alien once the studio saw how profitable Star Wars became. The idea of Alien had been a work in progress for many years, but it was the inspiration that director Ridley Scott got from watching Star Wars which made Fox agree to start production.
Star Wars is even responsible for starting the film franchise of what we consider its biggest rival. For years after the original series went off the air, Star Trek tried to start a revival. Initially, the idea was to create a new television series and plans moved forward for Star Trek Phase II in the mid 70’s. Paramount watched the success of Star Wars, and at first they thought it was a fluke. When Close Encounters of the Third Kind also became a smash hit too, they abruptly cancelled the new television show right before production started and switched to a feature film, what would become Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Interestingly, a similar series of events unfolded at Universal Studios. NBC was developing a new Buck Rogers television show (ironically Star Wars was heavily influenced by the original Buck Rogers serials). When Star Wars became a hit, the studio changed the series’ pilot into a feature film and released it in theaters to try and capitalize on the new found appeal of science fiction.
Taking Advantage of Star Wars’ Mass Appeal
The massive impact that Star Wars had on popular culture can be seen in the way that not only did it breed imitators who wanted to find the same type of success, but it also gave way to imitators who wanted to make fun of it. Spaceballs is the best representation of a film that was made primarily to make fun of Star Wars, but it makes its appearance here on as a representation of a slew of parodies that were made after 1977. Starting with the short film/trailer Hardware Wars, parodies began showing up everywhere. From children’s TV shows like Muppet Babies, to sitcoms such as That 70’s Show, and also comedy programs like Family Guy and Robot Chicken, Star Wars parody specials proved to be entertaining and popular.
Like the films that tried to imitate Star Wars in order take advantage of that film’s popularity, the movie/TV parodies owed their opportunity to the widespread appeal of Star Wars. After all, parodies are only effective if the audience can understand the target of the jokes/exaggerations, and luckily everyone knew about Star Wars. In the past, parodies had always been a hit or miss affair because it was difficult to find a source material that had widespread appeal.
Star Wars changed all that. No film has had as much impact over multiple generations and multiple age groups like Star Wars. People who saw the original trilogy in theaters became the first avid fans, while their children saw Star Wars on VHS/DVD or else in theaters with the prequels or re-releases. After Star Wars was released, kids had Star Wars video games, and toys growing up. That is why we have seen more Star Wars parodies over the last decade or so than ever before – it is arguably more popular and acknowledged than any previous time in history. Star Wars is so ingrained into culture that we almost take it for granted.
Filmmakers Who Were Inspired by George Lucas’ Filmmaking
While studio executives may have been seeing dollar signs once they realized the impact of Star Wars, prospective film makers and storytellers saw something different. To them, Star Wars was a fresh take on science fiction (even if it wasn’t all-new). Lucas’ more enthusiastic, adventurous, and inviting techniques made a film that literally blew audiences away. That impact stuck with many future filmmakers who wanted to accomplish the same thing.
Roland Emmerich is one film director who was heavily influenced by Star Wars. After seeing the film, he was inspired to become a director. Science fiction would become the genre he was most interested in, and the scope of Star Wars inspired him to create the massive films that he is known for. The serial-like narratives in Star Wars influenced him to have multiple characters with intersecting storylines in his films. Other obvious influences include the blending of the supernatural with science (most of his films), using special effects to ramp up tension, and also the dogfight scenes in the Independence Day movies as well as Moon 44.
Another successful director who was heavily influenced by Star Wars was Christopher Nolan. Nolan has been a Star Wars fan from the very beginning. From a young age, Nolan was interested in movies and when he saw Star Wars at the age of 7 it made a huge impression. While Nolan has only made one true science fiction movie to date, many of his films incorporate ideas from Star Wars. Consider his Batman trilogy, with the first film being an introduction/origin, the second being darker and more challenging, and then the third which completes the story arc. In both The Prestige and Inception, Nolan takes his audience on a journey into the unreal, and he says that from Star Wars he first noticed the importance of a director’s task to be able to convincingly pull this off.
Finally, we have J.J. Abrams. Abrams had always been interested in Star Wars (there are easter eggs in almost all of his films), and he even got to direct one (and will get to direct another!). Abrams claims that Star Wars was the first film that really resonated with him, and he never forgot that feeling. The film also spoke to him in regards to the forces of good versus evil. He appreciated the inclusion of humor into the action, and used that as a template for his Star Trek reboot. On the other hand, the challenges and emotional struggles of Luke Skywalker is not unlike many of the protagonists in Abram’s films, which frequently deal with the death of a parent or loved one (Super 8, Star Trek Into Darkness). Abrams also appreciated the use of the love triangle and the heroic journey. These are tired and true storytelling aspects, but Star Wars utilized those elements in a newly compelling way. As such, Abrams uses both of these tactics in some of the television shows (Lost, Felicity) and films he directs.
Jumping on the Blockbuster Bandwagon
Finally, there are a number of films which may not have been related to Star Wars in terms of themes, subject, or genre, but nonetheless would not have existed without Star Wars’ success. Along with Jaws of 2 years earlier, Star Wars essentially created the summer blockbuster. Although big, expensive movies have been produced since almost the beginning of the 20th century, Jaws and Star Wars created a phenomenon which resulted in more simultaneous screenings than ever before. This became a yearly competition, where studios tried to attract as many theater goers as possible during the lucrative summer months. To accomplish this, they embraced films that were easier to watch and enjoy. Film creation shifted towards aspects which would allow it to gain a larger audience. This included improving special effects and investing heavily in film production and advertising.
Immediately, this new approach to movemaking resulted in films like Grease and Superman. Star Wars also changed the way that studios approached sequels. In the past, when a film proved popular with audiences and was successful at the box office, a sequel could be considered in certain circumstances. Studios would consider making a sequel not necessarily to repeat the success of the original film, but to take advantage of audience enthusiasm. Sequels tended to get smaller budgets than the original films and the filmmakers behind the first film rarely returned for the follow up. Examples of this phenomenon can be seen in the Superman films or original Planet of the Apes. After Star Wars, studios realized that in order to keep audiences coming back, they had to outdo themselves. Production costs now typically increase with each sequel, which has led to the formation of the modern film franchise. Star Trek, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones were the first modern film franchises in the mold of Star Wars.
In terms of special effects, Star Wars sparked a revolution that would fundamentally change the industry. When Star Wars was released in 1977, very little advancement had been made to special effects in film since the 1950’s. George Lucas wanted Star Wars to look unlike any movie people had ever seen before, but he had to accomplish this on a small budget. He brought together a group of experts, engineers, and college students to create what would become Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) to oversee the special effects for his films. ILM would eventually develop computer generated special effects, which would go on to become important parts of future movies such as Jurassic Park, the Harry Potter films, the Terminator films, and eventually Marvel’s cinematic universe. From the computers division of ILM, a graphics department was developed, which was eventually spun off and sold to Steve Jobs. That spun off graphics department would become Pixar.