Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens will be released this December, and fans are anticipating the continuation of the beloved movie series. Many fans, myself included, are wondering if director J.J. Abrams will be able to capture that special something about the original trilogy of films released in late 1970s and early 1980s that managed to capture the imaginations of audiences on opening day, as well as audiences for decades to come.
This leaves an important question; what is so special about these movies? What causes them to resonate with such a wide demographic of audience members? What is it about these films that has people continuing to fall in love with a series nearly 40 years after its original release?
The Star Wars trilogy follows the adventures of a young man named Luke Skywalker. The plot is fairly simple. Luke needs to help the Rebel Alliance defeat the tyrannical Galactic Empire to restore peace and freedom to the galaxy. Meanwhile, he trains to become a Jedi Knight, a member of the now-extinct guardians of peace and justice in the galaxy made powerful by a mysterious energy called “The Force”. Following this, he must go head to head with the powerful Darth Vader. The premise is almost elementary. It can quite accurately be boiled down to “good guys fighting bad guys”, but I think that the simplicity of this allows the films to be accessible, and thus inclusive. Having an easy to follow, yet exciting plot makes it easy for people of all ages to enjoy the movie. Furthermore, addressing the classic struggle of good versus evil makes the central conflict relatable for people of all backgrounds; there’s something in us that wants to see our heroes prevail against all odds.
Furthermore, common moral dilemmas are explored on an epic scale. Everyone has experienced the struggle of doing the right thing, being strong in the face of adversity, and making sacrifices for the people they love. Star Wars contextualizes these struggles and ups the ante in a way that excites the imagination and appeals to the viewer personally. We aren’t seeing trope subversion and genre deconstruction here. This can be described as textbook storytelling, but it’s textbook for a reason. It works.
As the opening sequence tells us in every film, Star Wars takes place “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”, and the world building does a great job of letting the viewer know that they’re not in Kansas anymore. There are several details that convey this information to the audience. First is the sense of scale. Scale is used to show power and significance in these films. The difference in size and scale between the Galactic Empire and Rebel Forces is effectively used as a tool in world-building. The film can’t show the audience every facet of the Empire’s evil activities, but these individual confrontations are used to symbolize a bigger conflict. The audience takes what they see and uses their imagination to extrapolate to a larger scale, therefore assigning significance beyond what is shown on screen. From massive space ships called Star Destroyers, to moon-sized space stations that blow up planets and tanks the sizes of skyscrapers, the sheer size of the Empire’s weapons and operations lets the viewer know about the sheer strength of the heroes’ opponents, and how high the stakes are in this conflict. Intrigue is created when the extent of consequences are understood; our heroes are fighting over planets and space stations instead of cities or countries.
Another important factor is a sense of mystery. A lot of things about this universe are left unexplained. Characters casually include throwaway references to places and events that are never detailed to the audience. The exact nature of the Force, and the rules of what one can and cannot do with it are never explained in full. I could understand how some viewers may find this off-putting, but in my experience, leaving some details out engages one’s natural curiosity. By leaving the audience wondering about the specifics of the universe, while hinting towards the fact that there’s a lot more to this world that meets the eye, it creates a rich and living atmosphere. I was so fascinated by what the film permitted me to see, that I wanted to watch more and more. I wanted to know how powerful the Force could really be, what all the aliens might look like, and generally what else was out there. My imagination was invoked by this ambiguity. Although the story had closed, many fans weren’t ready to say goodbye to the universe. It’s a delicate balance that successfully struck a chord with its audience.
Interesting and likable characters are an important element of any story. They are a story’s heart and the avenue by which the audience emotionally connects with the events on screen. The central cast of Star Wars are incredibly memorable and well balanced. Han Solo is the morally ambiguous smart-ass of the group with a heart of gold. Princess Leia is the capable, hands-on, somewhat uptight leader of the Rebel Alliance. Luke Skywalker is the good-hearted, talented, and immature hero figure. Chewbacca, C-3PO, and R2-D2 round out the cast dynamic as comic relief. Of course, these tropes aren’t taken to the extremes that they could be. We never truly lose faith in Han. We never see Luke as nothing more than a goody two shoes. C-3PO and R2-D2 aren’t merely obnoxious joke machines. These traits are balanced and the characters change and evolve as they confront new situations, so we are able to like and root for these people.
Luke’s role as a main character is pivotal to the storytelling. At the beginning of the series, Luke is just a simple farm boy from the desert planet Tatooine who finds himself thrust in the midst of a war that will determine the fate of the galaxy. This background is important because he almost acts as a surrogate for the audience members. At this point, Luke knows little more about the world than the viewer, so it’s easier to empathize with him and experience the story from his perspective. We learn about the Force at about the same rate that Luke does, so when he duels Darth Vader for the first time, we experience his uncertainty with him. We don’t know how the fight is going to turn out because we weren’t pre-emptively shown the full scope of Darth Vader’s abilities. When he loses his mentor Ben Kenobi, the audience is able to empathize with his loss because we feel his loneliness and fear. Luke doesn’t know what dangers await him in the galaxy or how he will become a Jedi, and neither does the viewer. If the film had given us Ben’s knowledge and we knew that Yoda was still out there, we wouldn’t have felt the same concern. The emotional link would be severed, and immersion wouldn’t be as effective.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of what makes Star Wars so special for so many people. I, along with many other fans, could speak for hours about all the things I love about this franchise. These movies, while not perfect, have the uncanny ability to stand the test of time and connect with audiences over generations. As we anticipate Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens, fans wonder if this winning formula can be recreated and if we will be drawn back into the world of Star Wars once again, with all the wonder and excitement it brings. Maybe the formula can be duplicated successfully. Maybe it doesn’t have to be. After all, there are many ways to tell a story. We’ll just have to wait and see.