OK, so maybe he was mixing his “Star Wars” and “Star Trek” references. But when President Barack Obama spoke of getting congressional leaders into a “Jedi mind meld” back in 2013, eight years after the last “Star Wars” movie had come out, he was displaying in one small way just how firmly the franchise had rooted itself in our popular culture.
Well, the new “Star Wars” is finally out. But since it might take you some time to get to the multiplex, here’s something to chew on while you’re waiting — a few reasons “Star Wars” has retained its exalted position in the pop culture firmament:
It made science fiction cool
Just ask a science fiction nerd. “I remember going with my wife and saying, ‘Look at these audiences!’” says Paul Levinson, sci-fi author and communications professor at Fordham University. “This franchise really brought science fiction, which had a cult following, into the mainstream in a huge way.” And in a way, too, that managed to resonate with little kids, grandparents and everyone in between.
It spawned a parallel universe
And we don’t mean up in space — we mean down here on Earth, in human shopping malls. The comics, the video games and, of course, the toys. “The films are the mother ship,” says Henry Jenkins, professor of communications, journalism and cinematic arts at the USC Annenberg School. “Meanwhile, all these other forms are generating content. These integrated systems have become the norm for successful Hollywood franchises.”
Especially the toys
How big has “Star Wars” been to the toy industry? “The biggest property the industry has even seen, bigger than any other by billions,” says Jim Silver of TTPM, an online toy review site. “To put it in perspective, just imagine “Frozen” lasting for close to 40 years, but with a much larger demographic.”
One of the best things going for “The Force Awakens” — and this is hardly a spoiler — is its liberal use of humor amidst the action, a quality it takes from the early films, particularly from Han Solo (more on him soon) and, of course, C-P30 and R2-D2. “Robots had never been funny before,” says Levinson.
Um, Harrison Ford, people!
To many, the dashing young Ford’s embodiment of swashbuckling space cowboy Solo was the best thing in the original film — he seemed to be having way more fun and way less stress than everyone else. Well, he’s still dashing at 73. And he’s prominent in the new film.
Characters to relate to
Solo’s one of the best, but the whole “Star Wars” universe presented characters people could relate to and remember. “In the end, characters and story are at the heart of the films, not the special effects,” argues USC’s Jenkins. “They have so many dimensions. Compare that to ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ (which also came out in 1977). Most of us don’t remember those characters.”
Fathers and sons
What “Star Wars” line is more iconic that “I am your father?” (And to satisfy purists out there, it’s “No, I am your father,” not the oft-quoted “Luke, I am your father.”) The father-son dynamic is “a motif that goes back to the ancient Greeks,” says Levinson. Fans will be happy to know the motif figures again in the new film.
The lure of the saber
Quick, name a movie-related toy that’s had more staying power than the lightsaber. “I turned everything into a lightsaber as a kid — wrapping paper rolls, flashlights,” says Gerry Canavan, a professor of English at Marquette who specializes in science fiction. Canavan was born after the first movie came out, but feels like he entered the world knowing the story — and the saber. “The noise, that hum — there’s something awesome about it,” he says.
AND THAT CRAZY HAIRSTYLE
Call it cinnamon buns, bagels, doughnuts — we’re talking about that crazy original Princess Leia hairstyle. Where the heck did it come from? Lucas told Time magazine in 2002 that he was looking “to create something different that wasn’t fashion” — he certainly got that right — and went with “a kind of Southwestern Pancho Villa woman revolutionary look.” Whatever. It’s hard to forget.