Why did Star Wars work?

Star Wars - Darth Vader

Star Wars – Darth Vader (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m no expert on Star Wars, which in a sense makes me ideally suited to explore this question. The question matters to me because I like telling stories, and I enjoy telling them to the target audience (as I take it) for this film. Let me start with my own history with the Star Wars franchise.

I saw Star Wars (i.e. episode IV) when I was still young enough to appreciate it fully. I was in the sixth grade, and a classmate brought this new-fangled thing called a VHS tape to a party at school and we watched it. I was mesmerized. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. (This would have been 1982. I’d been to maybe 2 movies in my whole lifetime, and hadn’t watched much television, either.)

For a lot of reasons–some of which you’ll gather from the previous sentence–I didn’t see Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi until much later, in college. Empire I liked a lot. Return of the Jedi didn’t interest me much. Later still, I saw the new Star Wars movies, episodes 1-3, and got nothing out of them except the enjoyment (if I can call it that) of seeing Anakin Skywalker become Darth Vader. In fact, that’s about all I remember from those three movies–that, and not being able to relate to people my age who were frothing at the mouth over Star Wars.

Now, back to my question: Why did Star Wars work? After all, love it or hate it, Star Wars does work. (Again, when I say “Star Wars” I’m referring to “Episode IV,” which to me still is and always will be the first movie. People my age used to just call that movie “Star Wars.”)

I saw it this afternoon again, but this time with my eight-year-old son. And for him, it was awesome. I think I can remember why. I think I can glimpse the reasons in his twinkling eyes.

First, it’s just so heroic. Darth Vader is so dark, he wears a black mask and, maybe even more awesomely, black gloves. Luke is so good, he wears white. The Death Star is so huge, Han Solo mistakes it for a moon. The odds that the rebellion will triumph are so small, even computers can’t beat them. And on and on. We all know boys of a certain age want, even need, heroes.

Second, on a related note, everything is big. The musical score is loud, thrilling, exciting. Whole planets can explode. The fate of the human race seems to be at stake. The bad guys don’t just die, their entire moon-sized space station disintegrates into a million bits of crackling light. And space … the graphics really do achieve a sense of the vastness of space. It’s a movie that draws you into believing in something bigger than yourself–if you’re a young boy.

Third, Luke Skywalker is that everyday kid finding out he’s important, has secret powers, … you know, Harry Potter. That’s no minor thing, I think, though it’s not the main focus of the film. A child feels that, even if he isn’t conscious of it. Remember, he’s getting that along with the first two things: great, heroic stuff, painted on a huge canvas. At the center of it all, the good guy is a normal kid finding himself, and discovering that he’s something special.

Fourth, like Luke all the main characters are “types,” which is something a young boy can really appreciate. I see it in the reading material my son gravitates toward. There isn’t, and for this age group shouldn’t be, a lot of depth to the characters. They are, admittedly, a bit more textured than my 8-year-old can fully appreciate. But they have enough of the true type to them that he recognizes them. That stuff about Han Solo–okay, he probably doesn’t really get that. But Luke, Obi-wan, and Vader, he knows. He’s seen their kind in fairy tales, early reader novels, and Disney/Pixar movies. He knows where he is, and he knows where the movie’s going. And yes … it goes there.

Now, as an adult, if I let it I can feel that most of this is just a lot of cliche. After all, I only saw the movie once when I was a boy. Since then, I’ve seen it as an adult and I can find plenty of problems with it (who can’t?). I don’t find most of the acting all that compelling, frankly. The story worked for me then, but now it’s a bit unidirectional. In fact, I can really only appreciate it with that youthful part of myself–the sixth-grader in that dark classroom, or the father empathizing with his young son.

So why did Star Wars work? I think it worked because it made a kind of deep, emotional sense. Evil in the world is exaggerated–then defeated. Good-hearted people are given amazing powers, and they use them to do good. And against incredible odds, they win. This isn’t so very far from what fairy tales do, in their essential structure. It’s obviously linked to what epic fantasy does. That it takes place in outer space, with fast ships and massive space stations, gives it just that much extra thrill. There’s a coolness factor to Darth Vader and the light sabers–good, boyish stuff. And there’s the flying; piloting of spacecraft, to be exact. What kid doesn’t want to fly a fighter, at that age? I flew one in my backyard regularly. But the gadgetry and space gear, the flying and the swordplay, are (I think) a layer that works on top of (and because of) the essentially archetypal story beneath.

That’s a story we all know and love.

So Star Wars works because it gives a young viewer all of that at once. But especially, and most importantly, it gives him the heroic storyline he craves and still secretly believes in. However old he may be.

What do you think? Did I miss a big part of it? I know everybody has a take on this: Let’s hear it.

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4 thoughts on “Why did Star Wars work?

  1. I like your point about how Star Wars works because it’s the archetypal story of good vs. evil. I recently watched Star Wars with my wife (who had never seen it) and while I still really liked it because of my association with childhood, she thought it was a little boring, which I could see too. I’m not a crazed fan or anything, but wrote some interesting tidbits about the movie here: http://ineverknewbutnowido.com/snippets/tag/star%20wars

    • I could see it being called a comic-book of a movie, so simplistic, yes. But boring? Of course, the first time I saw it was I was 13 year old boy, right in the cross-hairs of the target audience.

      The trouble I always had with the other installments, V possibly excepted, is that despite the fact that his audience grew up, Luca kept making movies for 13 year olds. Pixar proves you can target the same age audience but I think Lucas kept the goofy bits that teens like and dropped the archetypes. Or put another way, he kept the glitz and lost the story-telling.

      My boys and I do watch all six episodes from time to time. But for episodes 2 & 3, we fast forward through the oh-so-painful to watch Padme-Anakin romance. And while episode III at least had the merit of completing Lucas vision, the main theme of episodes II and III seemed to be that all teenagers are creatures of the dark side 😛

      • Interesting. People say Empire Strikes Back is the most “mature” of the movies. But I feel that I can’t comment on the sequels as well, because I was so much older when I first saw them.
        I suppose one difference between Pixar movies and Star Wars is that these were sequels. So you have the same audience, older; not a new, young audience. Maybe part of why a lot of people hated episodes 1-3 so much: they were in their thirties now.

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