The first Star Wars Celebration was held at the Wings Over the Rockies Air and Space Museum in 1999, three weeks prior to the release of The Phantom Menace. Despite the dreary spring weather, Star Wars fans from around the country flooded into Denver to get a peak at the most anticipated movie since 1983. I sat for a screening of “Duel of the Fates” with my three best friends and a frenzied mix of people not as costumed or nerdy as one might expect. A few lightsabers danced around as the room dimmed and the epic operatic intro blasted through the hall. I had never known excitement like that in my life because I had never seen a new Star Wars movie before.
A lot of Star Wars has happened since that day. TPM was followed by seven more movies, three animated series, and a live-action series. Star Wars has been featured in games, books, comics, Lego sets, snack foods, memes, and endless online debates. At least one movie is in pre-production, as are at least three more series for Disney+. Star Wars is as pervasive a cultural touchstone in America as baseball and strip malls. Yet, while I still see every Star Wars movie on opening night—and again that night (and then again the next day)—with the same amount of giddiness as I did when I was 16, a growing number of moviegoers, fans, and critics would just as soon keep that galaxy far, far away at this point.
I know there are legitimate complaints about where Star Wars has gone since 1999. I know The Last Jedi ruined your childhood. I know it just doesn’t “feel” like Star Wars anymore. I’ve heard you, Twitter, Reddit, the comments section of every Star Wars blog. We have all heard you. But, in this fan’s humble opinion, there are still plenty of reasons to celebrate Star Wars on this May the Fourth. Here are five of them.
Yes, there are a lot of universal themes in Star Wars that resonate with people of all ages. Yes, the Hero’s Journey is a storytelling tradition that seems to be ingrained in our collective psyche. Yes, the aliens are fun, the worlds are inventive and immersive, and Darth Vader is iconic. The Force, the Jedi, that blue elephant mashing his sausage fingers into a circular keyboard in Jabba’s Palace. I know all about all of it. (His name is Max Rebo, by the way.) But I have believed for years that the primary reason—above everything else—that Star Wars remains more or less as popular today as it was in 1977 is lightsabers.
Lucas didn’t invent the idea of a laser sword, but Apple didn’t invent the MP3 player or smartphone, either. Post-1977, it is impossible to see anything like a lightsaber and not connect it with Star Wars. And that means Star Wars is synonymous with the one thing every single American male born in the last 30 years would use two of his three wishes on (we need a backup, obviously).
This might sound overly simplistic, but think about Star Wars without lightsabers. Imagine Vader and Luke fighting with actual swords on the Death Star. Or picture Luke screaming “Noooooo!” and running at Vader with a blaster. It actually makes me uncomfortable just visualizing it. Or, try it another way: imagine how much better basically any epic fantasy would get if you add in lightsabers. Even John Carter could’ve been saved. Now try this: think of another weapon/implement/item that could embody “ancient” and “elegant” as well as “sci-fi” and “futuristic” while also being cool. (If you come up with something let me know because I’m writing an epic space fantasy and could use some ideas.)
The fact is Star Wars owns the most iconic, most visually arresting symbol in the history of cinema. Take it away, and Lucas’ space opera may never have been anything more than a cheap Flash Gordon knockoff.
For many of us, the Star Wars themes are practically the soundtrack of our childhoods. For others, they hit the nostalgia feels like a shot in the arm. But whoever you are, you know and can associate the music instantly, and that makes it unique among pop culture phenomenons. Put the “Imperial March” to a video of a Pop Tart, and you’ll have a viral TikTok in a few hours.
Just for comparison’s sake, hum a song from the highest-grossing, hugest movie in the history of movies, Avengers: Endgame. Got it? Me either. Any Avengers movie? Guardians of the Galaxy if I can cheat and hum 70s songs? How about Lord of the Rings? That’s getting a bit better for me. I can hum probably two songs: the main theme and the Shire theme. Jurassic Park? Indiana Jones? Yes, and yes—and also John Williams.
When I think about how much of Williams’ music our entire society can instantly recognize and identify, it makes me wonder why more movies—even great ones—have such forgettable music. Not every genre lends itself to sweeping classical arrangements with bombastic themes, obviously, but plenty do. Whatever their reasons are for using bland arrangements, many modern filmmakers are reducing their movie’s emotional resonance.
But maybe there’s a reason for that ...
Sincerity in an Age of Cynicism
Star Wars gets ridiculed on occasion for it’s simplistic presentation of good and evil, right and wrong, black and white. Unquestionably, stories that dig into the murky middle with more brutal honesty can provide greater suspense and drama. In fact, most of the series sidetracking Zoom meetings these days deal with the difficulty of navigating choices that aren’t just murky but impossible to moralize (see Ozark). Even escapist media, though, has gotten cynical. The Marvel “bathos”—cutting tension with a joke—is just a wink to modern audiences who seem to be increasingly skeptical of or uncomfortable with movies attempting to portray genuine emotion.
Star Wars, though, is nothing if not sincere. Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker, Rey ... Skywalker — all earnest heroes who are pure in their motivations and true in their intentions. There was a need for a hero like Luke Skywalker in 1977, a time when the country was in a post-war funk. And there’s a need for sincere heroes today, too—heroes whose efforts aren’t the setup for a punchline but an admirable path to follow. When so much of life right now sucks for so many people, Star Wars has an honest message of hope. That may be hokey, but it’s also very welcomed.
An Open Sandbox
Not only is Star Wars the greatest sandbox in cinema due to its scale and lack of source material, but it has traditionally introduced new faces and voices in an industry that often relies too heavily on star power. Beginning with Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and George Lucas, Star Wars has been a vehicle for stardom. Heck, even the special effects techniques had to be invented just to make the first movie. This tradition is alive and well under Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy.
Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Domhnall Gleeson were all basically unknowns prior to The Force Awakens. In fact, the most famous actor not to appear in the Original Trilogy was probably Max Von Sydow, and he’s recognizable but not a movie star. Lucasfilm also continues to give opportunities to new writers and directors, specifically in their live action series.
Again, compare this to the MCU, which casts a superstar in almost every on-screen role and has decades of source material to pull from. Star Wars may have more inconsistency because of this experimentation, but the unknowns also make the experience of seeing a new Star Wars movie relatively unique among big budget fantasy epics.
Thanks to Reddit, Prequel memes are everywhere. So much so, in fact, that the Prequels are growing in popularity since the days of The People vs. George Lucas. But the meme-ing certainly doesn’t start or stop there. Here are a few of my favorite Star Wars-related viral clips, in no particular order, just as a reminder of the many, many ways that Star Wars entertains us long after the credits roll.
The Best Parody Song of All Time
The Best Bad Lip Reading of All Time
The Best Commercial of All Time
Han Shooting First (for all of our Gen Z friends who have never actually seen the real version)
The Most Ambitious Fan Film Ever
Star Wars may be nearing the end of its life. The kids of today and tomorrow will decide that. But it’s been dead before. The first time it died was in 1983 when Return of the Jedi was panned by a portion of the fandom as “The Muppet Star Wars.” It died again after the prequels disappointed a lot of critics and sour Gen Xers. Disney killed Star Wars yet again in 2012 when they declared all novels and comics noncanonical “Legends.” And since Star Wars wasn’t dead enough, apparently, it was killed again by Rian Johnson, or by J.J. Abrams, or both of them.
Yet here we are celebrating another May the Fourth. You just read 1557 words written 21 years after a movie with Jar Jar Binks was actually released to a mass audience. I think Star Wars is going to be just fine.