The Empire is a lot like a soda company. They've come out with many different flavors of evil, and while they all seem popular across the galaxy, they really aren't good for anybody. Their more popular flavors of evil include: murder, coercion, torture, more murder, genocide, regicide, jingoism, political strong-arming, extrajudicial sentencing, still more murder, and censorship. Did you notice any news networks in the film? Exactly.
Lucas doesn't mince with characterization in Star Wars. You won't find a scene where Grand Moff Tarkin wonders if he's doing the right thing, and it isn't until the sequels that we witness a side of Darth Vader that isn't a coldblooded killing machine. The Imperials are bad guys in the purest, most Saturday morning cartoon sense of the word.
While it is obvious that the Empire represents evil, it can be less obvious what the Star Wars universe specifically considers evil. What real world ideas and events are symbolized to the tune of the Imperial marching song?
We receive our first clue regarding the Empire's brand of evil in the film's establishing shot. As the shot pans down over Tatooine, we see a Rebel cruiser fly overhead, immediately followed by an Imperial star destroyer. The differences between the ships are immense, and this shot tells us everything we need to know about the Empire.
The Imperial ship is much larger than the cruiser, so it takes longer to pass by, its presence dominating the screen as it does so. We feel the power and the size of the Empire wrapped up in the imagery of the ship.
Before we meet the characters or the dialogue catches us up on current events, we already know everything we need to. The Empire's power and size prevails over the Rebels just as their ship prevails over the shot.
As the story progresses, we see how that power and size becomes a source of fear throughout the galaxy. The Empire uses both to make people obey and, like the cruiser, it destroys those who resist. As Grand Moff Tarkin says,
"The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line—fear of this battle station."
It's not just the Death Star they need to fear, though. It's the Empire itself that has its hands on the Death Star's trigger, and it is there that the fear is properly placed.
Wait a second: an oppressive regime supported by a military complex that uses power and fear to force people to follow them… while killing any who resist. Doesn't that sound familiar?
Oh yeah, the Imperials are Space Nazis, or more to the point, space fascists.
The imagery of the Empire clues us into this one. The marches of the stormtroopers remind one of the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will . Also,as Cole Horton points out, the design of the Imperial officer's uniforms was based on Prussian and German military uniforms from the Nazi era.
Darth Vader also serves as a type of Imperial Gestapo, or Nazi secret police. After capturing Princess Leia, Vader and an Imperial officer have the following exchange:
OFFICER: Holding her is dangerous. If word of this gets out, it could generate sympathy for the rebellion in the senate.
VADER: I've traced the rebel spies to her. Now she is my only link to finding their secret base.
OFFICER: She'll die before she'll tell you anything.
VADER: Leave that to me. Send a distress signal and then inform the senate that all aboard were killed.
Several unspoken implications here point to Vader's Gestapo-like qualities. The first is that Vader's capture of Princess Leia and her ship isn't strictly legal. If word reaches the senate, it will cause problems, which suggests this isn't part of the normal operations of the law. Indeed, Vader creates a cover story to hide his activities. Vader also implies that he's a-okay with killing Princess Leia if it leads to that. His justification for his actions is that Princess Leia is a traitor to the Empire for siding with the Rebels.
Given this, consider what the Jewish Virtual Library has to say about the Gestapo:
On April 26, 1933, Hermann Göring became the commander of this new force that was given power to shadow, arrest, interrogate, and intern any "enemies" of the state."
You can certainly draw parallels here with Vader.
The Gestapo also took part in the Third Reich's "Final Solution," the Nazi plan to extermination the Jews. While nothing so dark ever graphically appears in Star Wars, the destruction of Alderaan certainly has genocidal undertones to it, and certainly Vader had his hand in that.
In addition, the Empire is also anti-democratic. In a side comment, Grand Moff Tarkin points this out during his meeting with the Imperial commanders:
GRAND MOFF TARKIN: The Imperial Senate will no longer be of any concern to us. I have just received word that the Emperor has dissolved the council permanently. The last remnants of the old Republic have been swept away.
IMPERIAL COMMANDER: That's impossible. How will the emperor maintain control without the bureaucracy?
TARKIN: The regional governors now have direct control over their territories. Fear will keep the local systems in line—fear of this battle station.
The Empire has opted for a much easier, if seriously less fair, form of government: do as we say or we will blow you up. Hardly seems in keeping with the democratic ideals of freedom of speech, elected representation, and governmental restraint, now does it?
The Empire symbolizes evil, but the ideas and imagery used to construct that evil stems from the nationalistic and fascist governments of Western society during the first half of the 20th Century—with the Nazis being the most obvious source of inspiration.
However, we've had a lot of evil empires, ruled by a lot of evil guys, in history. Why draw from this source specifically? A lot of reasons perhaps, but one we found fascinating claimed the decade Star Wars was made is responsible for the Nazi parallels found in Star Wars.
In 1977, America was still enmeshed in the Cold War. Fifteen years before, the Cuban Missile Crisis had brought the world as close to nuclear destruction as it likely has ever been. The Vietnam War had only ended two years before, too, and the war brought social turmoil in the form of a culture questioning the morality of the war. In response, the films of the 1970's tended to be super-gritty, and super-pessimistic.
The Empire harkens back to a time when the evils of the world were easier to understand—or, at least, when America was solidly on the side of 100% right. By drawing on the villains of the first-half of the 20th Century, Star Wars makes it easy to root for the heroes and desire to see the villains defeated.
Using this imagery to create the Empire, Star Wars creates a world lacking moral ambiguity. Who wants to see the Nazis win? No one. It is safe to assume the same goes for Space Nazis, a.k.a. the Empire, too.
As we mentioned in the Symbolism analysis on the Empire (go check it out, if you haven't already), the Imperials are basically Space Nazis. They're big. They're bad. They goose-step.
So it's pretty obvious to see how the Rebels would represent the forces of good. After all, they are the guys fighting the Empire, and we can all agree that fighting Space Nazis helps your rating on the morality meter.
But there are as many ways to be "good" as there are to be "evil." So, how does the movie define goodness?
For starters, the Rebels value individuality over conformity and the state. This is evident even down to the uniforms worn by their foot soldiers. Whereas stormtroopers wear identical uniforms and helmets that make them all look the same, the Rebels all sport helmets that allow the audience to see their faces and recognize them as individuals.
The Rebel's support of individualism ultimately leads them to success against the Empire. As the Rebel Commander notes:
"[The Death Star's] defenses are designed around a direct large-scale assault. A small, one-man fighter should be able to penetrate the outer defense. […] The Empire doesn't consider a small, one-man fighter to be any threat or they'd have a tighter defense."
We see in the climactic battle. The Empire's favoring of conformity results in the TIE fighter pilots being interchangeable. We certainly couldn't tell them apart. Meanwhile, the X-Wing fighters have individual names and distinct personalities. Ultimately, it is one of these individuals, Luke Skywalker, that manages to take down the behemoth battle station and save the day.
The Rebels also value diversity. The Empire only accepts humans into its ranks— specifically white men. The Rebels, however, accept people from all backgrounds, including nonhuman species like Chewbacca.
To be honest, this isn't all that evident in A New Hope —the Rebels are mostly played by white American and British actors, and the diversity of the Rebel forces is mostly limited to their acceptance of Chewbacca and the droids. But this quality of the Rebellion becomes more evident in the sequels. By Return of the Jedi, we see the actors of various ethnicities among the Rebel ranks as well as many different species of aliens. The Empire, however, remains as white and male as ever.
Finally, the Rebels accept religion while the Empire is anti-religious. This one is a little subtler but definitely present. During the meeting of the Imperial commanders, Vader and one mouthy Imperial commander have the following exchange:
DARTH VADER: Don't be too proud of this technological terror you've constructed. The ability to destroy a planet is insignificant next to the power of the Force.
COMMANDER: Don't try to frighten us with your sorcerer's ways, Lord Vader. Your sad devotion to that ancient religion has not helped you conjure up the stolen data tapes or given you clairvoyance enough to find the rebels' hidden fortre—
DARTH VADER: I find your lack of faith disturbing.
The commander's tone makes it clear that the Empire doesn't respect religious thought. He finds it "ancient" and "sad." Sure, they keep Darth Vader around, but it seems clear this has more to do with his ability to choke a guy from across the room than his religious convictions.
The Rebels, however, believe in the Force. The Rebel Commander ends the strategy briefing by saying, "Then man your ships, and may the Force be with you." The power of the Force also aids Luke during the Death Star assault. Even the initially skeptical Han Solo has a change of heart when he tells Luke, "May the Force be with you." We doubt Han's going to go pious on us, but he isn't openly mocking the idea as he was earlier.
All of these facts—individualism, diversity, and freedom of religion—point to Star Wars infusing the values of modern Western democracies into the Rebel forces. These forms of government value an individual's right to choose how to live their life without fear of government coercion. They value the diversity, accepting different cultures and lifestyles. And they value freedoms such as those of religion and speech.
It also makes sense. If you are going to give your villains the authoritative traits of fascists, you want your heroes to exhibit traits that are the opposite. And these qualities of the Rebels do just that.
The Rebels are also underdogs, giving audiences more incentive to root for them. From Mighty Ducks to the American Revolution , we all love a good underdog story.
The Rebel's underdog status is particularly evident in the film's imagery. In the film's establishing shot, we see a rebel cruiser being pursued by an Imperial Star Destroyer. The size difference of the ships alone tells us all we need to know about the difference in the power of the Rebel and Imperial forces. The Rebels are outgunned and outmanned. Then, of course, we have the Death Star assault where the small, one-manned ships go against a space station so big that Han Solo mistook it for a moon.
All of this leads audiences to understand the odds the Rebels face empathize with their plight, leading to louder cheers when they succeed at the end.
The Force may be with you, but what exactly is the Force and why is it so clingy? Obi-Wan tells us a lot about it, yet it remains a mysterious part of the Star Wars mythos, meaning viewers are likely to have unique conceptions about what the Force symbolizes in Star Wars.
Given its ineffable nature, we may not be able to tell you what the Force represents, but we can share a few qualities we noticed to get the discussion going.
Speaking about the Force in a 1977 documentary, George Lucas says,
"It's sort of boiling down religion into a very basic concept. The fact that there is some deity or some power some… force that controls our destiny or works for good and also works for evil is always been very basic in mankind."
The quote suggests the Force represents religion broadly rather than a specific one—that it has boiled away the imagery, tenets, and hierarchies to focus on the core of religious beliefs. And it is true that the Force isn't a one-to-one analogy for a real world religion. For example, the Force isn't this universe's equivalent of Catholicism. There's no Space Pope. Nor does the Force correlate with Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, or Taoism. The force is religion, not a religion.
So in what ways does the Force symbolize religion? The Jedi for starters. As Grand Moff Tarkin says to Vader: "You, my friend, are all that's left of their religion." The implication is that the Jedi were a religion organized by a creed and not a movement of vagabond priests bound by a loose central philosophy.
We don't get a clear sense of the religion's structure, but Obi-Wan tells Luke, "the Jedi knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the old Republic" (Star Wars). The line conjures images of crusading knights of yore, so we can easily picture a council of Jedi making decisions, warrior Jedi on the front lines, and squire Jedi learning the trade.
The prequel films fill in this hierarchy, but for our purposes, we understand that the Jedi aren't masterless warriors just doing their thing: they're an organization dedicated to fighting evil and studying the Force—after all, it's difficult to defend peace and justice when everyone isn't on the same page.
The reason that we say "study" and not "worship" because it remains unclear whether the Jedi worship the Force. The Jedi's relationship with the energy field seems a bit more equitable than that. Obi-Wan tells Luke that the Force "obeys your commands," making it something he can use like a talent or tool.
Yet Obi-Wan also puts his faith in the Force. He believes that it'll control his actions in a beneficial way and that the Light Side of the Force will ultimately lead Luke to his proper destiny.
Speaking of faith—that's another quality the Force shares with religion. Many people in Star Wars don't believe in the Force. Han Solo begins the film as pretty dang skeptical:
"I've seen a lot of strange stuff, but I've never seen anything to make me believe there's one all-powerful force controlling everything. There's no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It's all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense."
Obviously Han Solo is mistaken; how else would Darth Vader be able to choke someone from across the room? Yet belief in the Force remains a faith-based proposition. Those who don't believe can't sense the Force—in much the same way those who don't believe in religion aren't prone to having religious experiences. Luke doesn't seem able to use the Force until he's told about it by Obi-Wan, and he personally chooses to believe his mentor's words. Only then can he access this special energy field. There are no agnostic Jedi.
The Death Star really should be called the Death Moon—it's a space station about the size of a moon. It can carry legions worth of Imperial soldiers and officers, and it comes with a laser beam powerful enough to destroy an entire planet in an instant.
The Death Star is an instantly recognizable image in our culture, but have you stopped to think about what it might symbolize? We did, and this is what we came up with.
Much like the Empire represents fascist ideology, but can be read as being a specific fascist group (such as the Nazis) the Death Star represents the dangers of military technology in general, but it can be read as specifically the dangers of an advanced military technology… like the atom bomb.
Despite its sci-fi veneer, Star Wars has "back in my day" vibe to it and technology is mostly frowned upon—ironic given the then-advanced technology that went into making the film As Walter McDougall puts it:
Americans delight in such futuristic epics as Star Trek and Star Wars precisely because the human qualities of a Captain Kirk or Han Solo are always victorious over the very technological mega-systems that make their adventures possible.
One example of this is Obi-Wan calling blasters "random" and "clumsy" and preferring the more dated technology of the lightsaber. Sure, to us it's some super sci-fi awesomeness, but in their universe, it's like preferring a sword to a gun. Another example is Luke trusting his faith in the Force, and switching off his targeting computer. The message is clear: It's better to put your faith in instinct rather than scientific know-how.
The Death Star takes this anti-technology bent and gives it a great big villainous symbol. Unlike the shots of Luke's home world or the Rebel base, there is no nature to be found on the Death Star. Its denizens don't even act naturally. Everything about it is artificial.
Basically, the Death Star represents the evils of military technology, specifically the atomic bomb. Like the bomb, the Death Star has been designed with the purposes of deterring retaliation with the promise of mass destruction.
When Tarkin orders Princess Leia to name the Rebel base, she lies, saying it is on Dantooine. Tarkin decides not to make Dantooine his target, saying the planet is "too remote to make an effective demonstration." It's been argued that one of the reasons America decided to drop the atomic bomb was to demonstrate its military power to the Soviets, reasoning with eerily parallels to Tarkin's.
Obi-Wan's haunting account of the destruction of Alderaan—"I felt a great disturbance in the Force as if a million voices suddenly cried in terror and were suddenly silence"—could as easily describe the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Lightsabers are cool. Everybody wants one—or, at the very least, they want to be filmed doing cool things with one. But does the lightsaber represent something more than fictional awesomeness?
It does. But before we get into that, we'll let Obi-Wan explain what a lightsaber is:
[It] is the weapon of a Jedi knight. Not as clumsy or random as a blaster. An elegant weapon for a more civilized age. For over a thousand generations, the Jedi knights were the guardians of peace and justice in the old Republic. Before the dark times. Before the Empire.
As you can tell, Obi-Wan pines for the good old days when things were simpler and world made sense to him. And it isn't just Grandpa Obi-Wan; Star Wars has waves of nostalgia running throughout it. The present is considered the dark time and the past is looked up as a better time to be alive.
As such, the Jedi and lightsabers take the place of knights and swords and represent the good old days. We look back on the age of errant knights and think of it as a time of chivalry, courage, and decorum. Who needs hygiene when you have propriety, right?
Granted, this image of the Middle Ages comes more from legends and fairy tales than the bubonic-ridden reality of the era. Living in the olden times was filthy and insanely dangerous—as any Game of Thrones fan can tell you.
However, by co-opting the imagery of knights, Star Wars creates a symbol that draws us into the nostalgia trip. The Jedi and lightsaber—not to mention Obi-Wans poetic waxing for the snows of yesteryear—don't bring reality to Star Wars. They infuse the film with the luster of myths and legends.
Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
Luke begins his adventure in the Ordinary World of moisture farming on the desert planet Tatooine—which is normal for him, at least. We learn that Luke is still a child when he whines about those power converters, but we also see that he yearns for a life of adventure and not the safe, uneventful one his Uncle Owen has planned.
Note: The hero's journey really kicks off when we meet Luke, but there is a lot of movie before that. These sections are all about exposition, telling us what we need to know about this odd universe and the galactic war.
Luke's call to adventure comes when he finds a message stored in R2-D2. After Leia famously says, "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope," we know that the ripples of the galactic war have found their way to Luke's ordinary world. Luke may not realize it, but his life has changed.
Initially, Luke refuses the call to join the rebellion and save Princess Leia. When R2-D2 runs off, he wants to retrieve the droid more because he doesn't want to be in trouble than a sense of duty. After finding Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke still refuses to join as he has work to do on Tatooine.
Luke doubts his ability to be of any help, saying, "It's all such a long way from here." At the end of this stage, Luke returns home to discover his Uncle and Aunt murdered and their farm a smoldering ruin.
The third and fourth stages blend a bit in Star Wars. Luke meets Obi-Wan Kenobi after a run-in with Sand People chasing R2-D2 into the desert. Obi-Wan explains about the Jedi, the Force, and Luke's father, but when the wise old man offers to teach Luke the ways of the Jedi, Luke refuses.
After discovering his home burned and his family murdered, Luke returns to Obi-Wan and says, "There's nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father." Luke has agreed to accept Obi-Wan as a mentor who will guide him on the next stage on his journey.
Luke leaves home and crosses the threshold of his journey in the form of Mos Eisley spaceport. The spaceport is a new world for Luke. He stops and stares at all the activity in the Cantina and doesn't know how to handle himself when a pig-nosed hooligan picks a fight. Luke is out of his element, but Obi-Wan's guidance and Luke's commitment to the journey see him through.
Luke gathers more allies to his cause, Han Solo and Chewbacca. Well, "gathers" is the wrong term; he technically hires them. When Luke and company prepare to leave Tatooine, stormtroopers attempt to stop them. With the help of his new allies, Luke succeeds in escaping the planet with the droids. He is on his way to Alderaan.
On the way, Luke makes preparations for the difficulties ahead as Obi-Wan begins teaching him about the Force and how to wield a lightsaber.
However, they don't make it to Alderaan. They discover the planet has been destroyed and replaced with the Inmost Cave, a place of danger and conflict, represented by the Death Star. Fear and doubt return to Luke in the face of such a seemingly insurmountable obstacle. In his words, "I have a bad feeling about this."
After Obi-Wan leaves to turn off the power to the tractor beam, Luke begins his ordeal. The ordeal is a test that the hero must overcome, usually by drawing on his skills to defeat an enemy. The rescue of Princess Leia represents this ordeal. Luke and his companions draw on their skills to mount a successful rescue of Leia.
However, the minor success is not without loss as Luke witnesses Obi-Wan's death at Vader's hands.
Luke emerges from his ordeal a worldlier, more adult hero. His reward isn't a sword—Obi-Wan already gave him that—but he does join the rebel fleet as a pilot, just like he wished back on Tatooine. As a bonus, he skips all the student debt he would have accrued going to the Academy. Luke is now ready for the last part of his journey.
At this point, the hero typically begins his journey back to the ordinary world from the beginning. Luke begins this stage, too, but he isn't heading back to Tatooine. Instead, his ordinary world is one without the Empire and the threats of the Death Star. As such, Luke's road back requires that he join the rebel offensive and destroy the Death Star.
At this stage, Luke must also choose between his needs and the greater good of the rebellion. When Luke turns down Han's offer to leave, he chooses the greater good.
The climactic final battle takes place, the attack on the Death Star. The consequences have never been higher: if Luke fails, the Rebels will be destroyed and the Empire will rule the galaxy through fear. The odds are against him and his Rebel companions, and several pilots die during the attack, including Luke's childhood friend, Biggs.
Ultimately, Luke succeeds in destroying the Death Star thanks to an at-the-buzzer save by Han Solo.
While Luke isn't physically reborn here, we do see him undergo a change. Remembering Obi-Wan's words, Luke trusts the Force and comes into his powers. He takes his first steps toward becoming a Jedi.
An elixir is a magical potion that is meant to bring about a positive effect. While Luke doesn't bring back a vial of super-juice, his return signifies that his friends and the Rebels will survive to fight another day. That's a good compromise, if you ask us.
The elixir also represents the success of the journey, and we see Luke's success when he is presented the medal by Princess Leia. Luke wanted to leave the farm, join the larger universe, and make a difference that mattered. The ending scene shows us that he did just that. This galaxy isn't so far, far away for Luke any more.
That pretty much says it all. The setting for Star Wars is indeed a galaxy far, far away and this tale happened there a long time ago. In some ways, that's the extent of the story's development of the setting. As Jonathan Rosenbaum notes in his analysis of the film:
Nothing incidental or scenic is allowed to retard the rapidly paced narrative, but is merely packed along en route (like the twin moons of Tatooine or the binoculars Luke uses while scouting for R2-D2). A rare exception is made for diverse beasties in the inventive Mos Eisley Western saloon sequence, where spectacle momentarily triumphs over event.
In other words, Star Wars sprints through its plot, moving characters from place to place, action scene to action scene, and doesn't devote much time to world building. The various locations Luke and company travel to come and go so quickly that they feel more like video game levels—desert level, forest level, and industrial level—than explorations of a coherent world.
We get some exploration, but these moments come in brief snippets, such as Rosenbaum's examples, bits of dialogue, and, of course, the famous title crawl.
Why set Star Wars a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away? Given how the phrase has entered our cultural consciousness, it seems blasphemous to say this, but Star Wars didn't need this setting. It could have been set in the year 3249 C.E. or in the Quasar Galaxy, but it isn't, and here's why we think that is.
As we discuss in our Genre section, Star Wars is more of a fantasy than a science fiction film. Science fiction stories focus on how technological advances and the expansion of our knowledge of the universe will affect humanity, both on an individual and societal level.
We're oversimplifying for the sake of argument, but if you look at the stories and settings of such classic science fiction as Star Trek and 2001 : A Space Odyssey, or even newbies like Interstellar, you'll see what we mean.
Despite spaceships, lightsabers, and faster-than-light travel, Star Wars is the exact opposite of this definition. Its story follows a classic hero's tale where a young man is thrust into a dangerous world and must defeat a dark evil. This story has more in common with myth and modern fantasies. The tale of Perseus and Lord of the Rings both follow this story structure.
The phrase "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away" plays off the classic fantasy opener "A long time ago, in a land far, far away." Despite the swapping of "land" for "galaxy," the repetition of words and the mirrored structure conjure images of fairytales and fantasies when read. By using this opening phrase, the film presents its setting honestly to the audience. This is a fantasy world.
Consider: this universe boasts advanced technology but it doesn't affect the characters or the story. Luke may ride on the Millennium Falcon and not Pegasus, but the Falcon's ability to fly the vast distances of space is equivalent to a winged horse. It's a magical way for the hero to spring quickly from one place to another.
In some instances, the film's fantasy world provides an antithesis to science fictional tropes. Luke's journey isn't to further the knowledge of the universe. Quite the opposite—Luke learns to rely on faith and magic (read: the Force), rather than empirical knowledge, to see him through.
Lightsabers replace swords, Jedi sub in for knights, the Death Star is a dark castle with a princess held captive in the tallest tower. Although they may come with a hi-tech coat of paint, these are the elements and tropes of a fantasy world, one from the distant past of a distant land.
We tend to think of the past as a bit dirty and rundown. After all, by the time the past reaches us, it's been around for a couple hundred years, weatherized into ruin or collecting dust in a museum. Since fantasy stories occur in the past, their worlds are imbued with a sense of antiquity.
However, since most science fiction films occur in the future, their worlds are conceived to be the opposite of the past. Everything gleams and has that out-of-the-box smell. Spaceships and the cityscapes invite us to explore technological wonders that we would buy today if someone could just invent them. (Still waiting for that hoverboard, Mattel.)
Star Wars' setting plays with this distinction. Taking place in a galaxy far, far away, the technology on display is certainly futuristic for us. They have A.I.-powered droids and spaceships that travel through space effortlessly, and we'd love to get one of those monster chess games for game night.
However, the technology is also dirty and rundown, lacking the shiny, new feeling of a sci-fi future. The Millennium Falcon is cool, but only Han's engineering skills are responsible for it being in one piece. Han admits, "She may not look like much." Luke goes a bit further, calling it a "piece of junk." Hey Luke, don't forget you just sold a speeder that looked like the galactic equivalent of an abused '71 Ford Pinto.
Even the droids look like they've been through the ringer. C-3PO and R2-D2 are filthy when the Lars family purchases them, and 3PO bemoans, "With all we've been through, sometimes I'm amazed we're in as good condition as we are."
Giving the setting this dirty, rundown quality really makes the Star Wars universe feel used and lived in, like an artifact from the past rather than a glimpse into the future. This further establishes its link to the fantasy genre while still having fun with the science fiction elements.
Star Wars follows a classic three-act narrative structure… and that's a good thing because this film is weird. Good weird but weird all the same.
It's hard to grasp this today because the film's images have become ingrained in our culture, but can you imagine being a first-time viewer back in 1977? You'd be sitting there thinking, "What's a Wookiee and how is it different from a Jedi?" "How are the Empire and the Imperial Senate related?" "Who keeps a monster in a trash compactor? Did someone throw it away?"
Now imagine wrestling with all those questions while trying to follow a plot structure like Pulp Fiction's and you have a recipe for exploding head syndrome.
Wanting to keep its audience alive and able to purchase merchandise, Star Wars uses the three-act structure because it is simple to follow. This decision allows audiences to follow the plot almost subconsciously while putting all their brainpower into understanding the Force, the menagerie of odd characters, and the universe that encapsulates them.
The first act of a three-act structure provides the audience with exposition. Exposition is the information we need in order to understand the story. Who are these characters? What world do they inhabit? Are their special rules to this world or is it fundamentally different than our own? These are some of the questions Act I answers.
In Star Wars, Act I runs from the start until the point where the Millennium Falcon is captured by the Death Star. During these scenes, we learn about Princess Leia's capture and the Rebel's struggle against the evil Empire. We meet Luke and see he is anxious to discover the universe beyond his childhood home. Obi-Wan Kenobi teaches about the Force and the Jedi knights of the past, and, of course, the film's famous text crawl provides whole heaps of exposition to ruin an audiences' eyesight.
By the time the heroes are captured, we have all the information necessary to enjoy the adventure, so the adventure can get underway.
Act II is called the "rising action," and the action does indeed rise as the protagonist tries to resolve the conflicts introduced in Act I. Obi-Wan tries to shut down the tractor beam's power so the Millennium Falcon can escape. Elsewhere, Luke mounts a rescue of Princess Leia with Han and Chewie's help. After some missteps, the group escapes, solving some of the problems while the major conflict—the threat of the Death Star—remains.
Luke's character arc also kicks into gear. He continues to grow into the warrior he wants to be while also suffering further loss when Obi-Wan is murdered. Ultimately, the lessons he learns during this act will help him bring resolution to the conflict and complete his transition from lost youth to warrior with a purpose.
Act III brings us the climax and a resolution to the conflicts that escalated in Act II. The film's climax—read: the most intense part of the story—sees the Death Star orbiting the planet of Yavin, waiting for an opportunity to destroy the rebel base. At the same time, Rebel starfighters mount an offensive against the battle station. Resolution comes when Luke manages to blow up the Death Star, defeat the Empire, and save his new friends, all with a well-placed torpedo shot.
Luke's character arc also sees a nice resolution. Sure, he's not a Jedi Knight yet, but he's also no longer the young moisture farmer he was at the film's outset. He's grown in to a warrior among the Rebel forces.
The film's final shot provides a happy ending with the heroes enjoying their triumph over the evil Empire. Roll them credits!
Surprised science fiction wasn't first on our list? It might have been if looks were the only way genre struts its stuff. Genre is more than skin deep, though, and at its narrative core, Star Wars is a fantasy.
In his analysis of the film, Jonathan Rosenbaum noted, "If Kubrick's central subject [in 2001 ] was intelligence, Lucas' is predicated on blind instinct…"
The characters in Kubrick's 2001 —the epitome of science fiction films—seek intelligence and knowledge as a means of power and then apply reasoning to solve their conflicts. Star Wars doesn't follow this science fiction mode, and its characters apply faith and belief in an external Force as a means to resolve conflict.
The Force is described as a mystical "energy field created by all living things" and what "gives a Jedi his power." The powers of a Jedi are never explained as anything but supernatural, and they act like magic.
The Jedi practice is more like a religious belief than a study of the universe, and the film's Jedi master, Obi-Wan Kenobi, has more in common with Merlin or Gandalf than a scientist. The result: the film's insistence on trusting the Force is in the same wheelhouse as the fantasy trope of believing in the supernatural.
Other story tropes more familiar to the fantasy genre than science fiction include a young hero on a quest, rescuing a princess from a tower, and the dark lord in need of a thrashing. Substitute a "dragon" for "Death Star" and "spaceship" for "trusty steed," and you see the fantasy within.
With that said, Star Wars does dabble in science fiction. The film is populated with space ships, extraterrestrials, and interplanetary settings. All around, the technology is more advanced than anything we have currently developed, and people utter phrases like, "It's the ship that made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs." Parsecs? Kessel run? That certainly sounds science-y (and fictional).
However, science fiction stories typically focus on technological advances in our society or the societies of imagined futures. While Star Wars certainly has advanced technology and an imagined society, neither of those are its focus.
The film's rapid-fire pacing sets the alien society at the periphery, and we never get a chance to see how it operates. Also: the film is not about our future. As the famous opening suggests, it took place a long, long time ago.
Now let's consider the lightsaber. In a History Channel documentary, scientists point out that the lightsaber can't exist. Sorry, everyone. If the lightsaber emitted lasers, then the blades would pass through each other, which hardly makes for an exciting duel. If the blades were plasma, the lightsabers' magnetic fields would repel each other, making for excellent dueling—but it would have to be 200 million degrees to slice through a door.
In the end, these scientists have put more thought into the lightsabers tech than the film did. In Star Wars, technology and societies don't need to be explained; they simply need to be.
Ultimately, the science fiction elements of Star Wars exist more as set dressing. Consider them a visual upgrade to the fantasy core of the film—Fantasy v2.0.
Some people have played moderators and dubbed Star Wars "science fantasy" along with other stories that have elements of both genres such as Edgar Rice Burroughs's A Princess of Mars and later entries in the Final Fantasy video game series. You can go that route, too, if you wish.
Adventure time! Star Wars also draws inspiration from Hollywood's golden age of adventure, when handsome actors played swashbucklers who included sword fighting and derring-do on their resumes.
It is easy to see Star Wars' adventurous heritage. The purest example comes when Luke and Leia are cornered by stormtroopers with an inoperable bridge between them. Thinking quickly, Luke latches a grappling hook to a structure above. Leia kisses him and says, "Good luck!" right before the two swing across the chasm. That's so Errol Flynn.
Like any good adventure, the movie provides escapism for the audience. You know the heroes won't die during their escapades, so you're free to relax and enjoy the excitement. Luke and Han perform courageous deeds that should have gotten them killed several times over, but no matter the odds, the obstacles, or the setbacks, they manage to come out okay.
This is because Star Wars is a card-carrying member of the adventure genre—that or the Imperial Stormtrooper Marksmanship Academy needs to step up their game.
This one's going to be straightforward, Shmoopers. The main conflict of the film centers on a war between an evil empire and some underdog rebels. The story also takes place among the stars, a.k.a. outer space. Put them together, and you get Star Wars.
Sure, it's simple but that doesn't mean it's not a good title. It's catchy, memorable, and makes one heck of an eye-catching logo. Also, the name Star Wars provides the story with a sense of the epic—it's going to take a big ol' war to fill all the stars.
Imagine if the title had been The Adventures of Luke Skywalker—which is close to one of Lucas' actual working titles. The entirety of the story's purpose would be to tell the story of Luke Skywalker. While he's the protagonist of the film, Star Wars implies that Luke's story is one part of a much larger universe. That implication proved important later as the Star Wars story expanded with sequels, novels, and video games that focused on a cavalcade of characters, many of which never appear in the original movie.
During its original theatrical run, Star Wars was just Star Wars. During the 1981 re-release of the film, something peculiar happened, though, and from then on, Star Wars would be known as Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.
The Episode IV addition plays toward the science fiction serials of the 1930's, which served as inspiration for Lucas. By adding this, Lucas showed the world that he couldn't count sequentially. Just kidding.
He was letting fans know that the story of Star Wars wasn't one or two films but a sprawling saga broken up into various parts. The fact that it's the fourth episode means Lucas was laying the groundwork for the prequels as early as 1981. Considering the first prequel, The Phantom Menace, would be released eighteen years later, that's pretty impressive planning.
The A New Hope addition is a reference to Luke. As we learn from the prequels, the original hope was Anakin Skywalker, a.k.a. Darth Vader, but he became a tyrant/slayer of the innocent. Not exactly savior material, so the new subtitle is informing us that the task of saving the galaxy has been passed on from one generation to another, one trilogy to the other.
Star Wars serves up a classic adventure ending. The hero stands victorious, the enemy is defeated, and the conflict resolves with wrongs being brought to right. It's a good place to roll the credits, and filmmakers have been ending their movies here since they started telling heroic tales. Take it from the Greek myths: You don't want to hold the camera on the heroes for too long, or things start to get weird.
Let's recap: After an intense battle, Luke destoys the Death Star and Grand Moff Tarkin with it. The Empire has suffered a shattering defeat, and Luke and Han return to the Rebel base as heroes. During the medal ceremony, both men stand next to the friends they shared the adventure with. The music swells triumphantly, the Rebels applaud, and there is an all around sense of accomplishment. Good has defeated evil.
As a bonus, all of the character's arcs have come to satisfying conclusions as well. Darth Vader, the cyborg who killed Obi-Wan, has been defeated… for now. Han Solo, who only cared about himself, selflessly returned to help Luke, whom he's grown to care for. Leia, whose mission was to save the rebellion, brought the information that did just that.
Most importantly, our protagonist, Luke, has succeeded in his goals. He wanted to leave Tatooine, become a pilot, and fight the Empire, and he's done exactly that. He also used what Obi-Wan taught him about the Force to defeat the enemy. As Obi-Wan said earlier, he has taken his "first steps into a larger world."
In other ways, the film's ending broke the mold—or at least what was the mold before Hollywood decided every movie needed to fit the Star Wars model.
Before Star Wars, films didn't typically end with cliffhangers promising sequels. Sequels weren't held in high regard in the film industry, being considered little more than cash-in films. To be honest, a good sequel is still a rare thing, but that's another topic.
George Lucas knew he wanted to make other Star Wars movies, so he planted little moments to foreshadow the next film. First, and most obvious, Darth Vader survives the Death Star battle and flies into space to regroup with the Empire. Remember: Obi-Wan Kenobi said that Darth Vader killed Luke's father, so there's still a plot thread left to resolve.
Also Luke has used the Force and taken a step toward his goals, but he hasn't become a Jedi yet. There's still much for Luke to learn before he can claim the title of Jedi knight, and ending the story here would kind of be like ending the story of King Arthur before he became, you know, king.
Therefore, while Star Wars ends with a classic adventure ending, it also leaves the doors open for other adventures to come.
Star Wars mostly plays with the sanitized violence of a blockbuster film. Characters shoot blasters at one another, fireworks fly, and occasionally a stormtrooper or rebel trooper falls down with an exaggerated "Argh!" It's so schoolyard-playful you expect to hear someone scream, "I got you!"—followed by, "No, you didn't. I dodged it."
While this fantasy violence is enough to make the film a PG affair, there are a few more intense scenes. Darth Vader chokes the life out of a rebel captain with an audible crackle of bone and tendon. In another scene, Obi-Wan Kenobi goes all back-alley surgeon and amputates an alien's arm with his lightsaber. Although these scenes of more intense violence are few and far between, parents should be aware of them.
Also, just think about how many people Luke Skywalker kills when he blows up the Death Star. Some of them were probably independent contractors, right? Seriously unsettling.