May the Fourth be with you: Fine Arts faculty members look at the legacy of 'Star Wars'
To celebrate Star Wars Day, Lo Que Pasa decided to talk to campus experts about the cultural phenomenon that gave us the terms lightsaber and the Force, and memorable characters such as Darth Vader, Yoda and Jabba the Hutt.
This story you should read to relive the wonder of seeing the films in the theater (or, for younger generations, on your tablet).
And May the Fourth be with you.
It started a long time ago (about 45 years) in a galaxy far, far away (with filming locations including Tunisia, California and Guatemala), where respected director George Lucas was taking a chance. He was about to enter what Bradley Schauer, associate professor in the School of Theatre, Film and Television in the College of Fine Arts, calls a "pretty spotty" science fiction landscape. His idea was new for the genre: a tale of good versus evil geared toward families.
Schauer, author of "Escape Velocity: American Science Fiction Film From 1950-1982," says that in the 1970s, science fiction films tended to be dystopian and artsy, or low-budget action movies. Science fiction was not considered a major genre and was not seen as fertile ground for launching franchises.
"That's one of the reasons 'Star Wars' was considered such a risk in the '70s," Schauer said. "No science fiction film had done that well since '2001: A Space Odyssey,' and that was 10 years before 'Star Wars' came out."
Schauer, whose research areas include contemporary media, cult cinema and the American comic book industry, said Lucas was essentially putting his reputation on the line with "Star Wars." At first, the movie did not receive much support from its studio, 20th Century Fox (now 20th Century Studios), and Lucas put much of his own money into the production. By the time it was done, the budget was over $10 million, which Schauer said was a big price tag at the time.
"A giant flop could have meant the end of his career," he said.
With one notable exception – Steven Spielberg – even Lucas' friends were not convinced the movie would be a success when they saw an initial print, Schauer said.
But, as we know, "Star Wars" was a hit. Over the decades, the movies have made over $10 billion in theaters worldwide. The franchise has extended to books, comics, television, video games and just about every aspect of popular culture over the last 45 years, launched the careers of actors including Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher and helped create generations of science fiction fans and creators.
"The first movie I ever saw in theaters was 'Return of the Jedi' in 1983, so I was a fan since I was little," Schauer said. "I used to watch our VHS copies, taped off of TV, until they wore out."
"I even liked the prequel movies," he admitted.
So why did the Star Wars franchise work?
"The first three films struck a chord," said Barbara Selznick, associate professor in the school of Theatre, Film and Television. "They did something different that people hadn't really seen before, and they became very important to people's childhoods."
Selznick, whose research examines the connections between films and television programs as art and the industrial, social and cultural contexts in which they are created, says she was slow to join the Star Wars bandwagon.
"I saw it when I was a kid, and I fell asleep," she said. "I didn't revisit it until I was in college. I remember thinking, 'I need to watch this trilogy, because clearly I'm missing something,' and I really liked it when I watched it then."
Schauer said the movies represented a new recipe for films, combining tropes from genres ranging from samurai movies to Westerns with new special effects and exciting musical scores to bring new energy to old storylines.
"It's become the template for the contemporary blockbuster," Schauer said. "I think every big franchise movie today owes something to the original 'Star Wars.'"
The future of the franchise
Fans were not sure what to expect when Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012 for $4 billion. The media giant promised new content, and delivered in 2015, 2017 and 2019 with three new movies – the third trilogy in the so-called "Skywalker Saga." It doesn't take too deep of a social media search to find that the newer movies have divided viewers, with many longtime fans disapproving of the creative direction. Schauer says he's not surprised, as Disney has a tricky task: balancing nostalgia with new content.
"You want to give people the old stuff they like, but you want to introduce new things, too," Schauer said. "It can be a challenge because sometimes old fans don't like new stuff."
While she believes Disney's money and reach helps Star Wars stay relevant today, Selznick isn't sure how long that will last.
"I will be surprised if it remains relevant for another 50 years," she said. "There is so much content being created that it ends up diluting the brand. Star Wars may end up sinking under its own weight."
Schauer is more optimistic. He says good content will always attract fans, and there is no shortage of creators ready to take on the challenge.
"It's such a great idea. It's such a great universe and great concept," he said. "There are always going to be people excited to make 'Star Wars.'"