Modern nerd culture can be divided into two eras: before May 25th, 1977, and after. Star Wars changed everything.
Of course, there was geek culture before Star Wars became the biggest blockbuster of all time, but for the most part, that culture was on the fringes. In the 1950s and before, the vast majority of science fiction films were B movies, not seriously considered by most adults. Despite occasional sci-fi hits like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet, many considered high concept science fiction and fantasy juvenile.
Throughout the ’60s, the credibility rose slightly for the sci-fi/fanstasy genre, thanks to college students and the counter culture really embracing Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the brand new breed of comic book storytelling over at Marvel Comics. A little show called Star Trek caused a bit of a stir too. But all of these were still viewed as cult properties without mass appeal. While the youth had embraced them, most established critics still dismissed almost all things genre as nothing but fluff, and a waste of time.
1977: The Year Sci-Fi Broke
And then, just like that, the stars aligned. The release of Star Wars was really just the start of it all. In 1977, just a few months after George Lucas’s space epic, Steven Spielberg gave the world Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a completely different kind of sci-fi film. But it was also a huge hit, and suddenly the two biggest films of that year at the box office were sci-fi, and it wasn’t just geeks and kids who were flocking to see these science fiction films. It was literally everyone. Hollywood capitalized on this double whammy success, and greenlit a ton of sci-fi movies, some great, some…well, not so much. But the message was clear. The genre of choice for Hollywood was now the science fiction spectacle, once the laughable pastime of bespectacled geeks.
Star Wars, in unprecedented fashion, made sci-fi/fantasy respectable and extremely profitable. The following years saw big budget sci-fi films like Superman: The Movie and Alien. Of course, the massive success of Star Wars paved the way for the return of Star Trek in film, and from this point forward, Trek wouldn’t ever look bargain basement again. All of these films have Star Wars to thank for that. Of course, there were a ton of bargain basement knock-offs too, like Starcrash, but isn’t that the tell-tale sign of real success?
But how was this one film responsible for so much of the nerd dominated world we live in now, forty years later? There are a multitude of reasons, but lets dissect the main ones, starting with how this film finally got special effects to a level that drew even the most cynical viewers in.
Special Effects Really Got Special
So what changed? A lot of things, but chiefly Star Wars showed that science fiction films could now be done in a believable way thanks to George Lucas’ advancements in the realm of special effects. Lucas wasn’t happy with the state of visual effects in those days, so he created an entire company to develop new technology: Industrial Light and Magic.
Because of ILM, The days of tin foil and glue spaceships on screen were over. Hollywood now had the technology to really make you believe that the fantastic things you were seeing up on the screen were real. Millions of people were knocked out of their seats when the opening crawl ended and that giant star destroyer loomed overhead. No one had seen anything like that before. The other Hollywood studios latched on to what ILM was doing, and the age of the special effects blockbuster was born. As the ’70s gave way to the ’80s, the vast majority of major blockbuster films were done with special effects revolutionized by George Lucas’ company ILM.
Nostalgia Became A Bankable Commodity
An oft-overlooked factor is the incredible nostalgic appeal that Star Wars had on the Baby Boomer generation. The Boomers had a penchant for holding on to their childhoods far more than any previous American generation before them. Star Wars harkened back to a time when they were still wide-eyed kids, watching swashbuckling films on Saturday afternoons.
Their parents and grandparents were generations that grew up fast, and in many cases, left their imaginations behind as they entered the adult world. But for the Baby Boomers, not so much. And of course, their children and grandchildren, the so-called Generation X and Millennials, have zero problem reliving their childhoods in every way conceivable.
Although Star Wars was technically a new property, it harkened back to a million things beloved by an entire generation– old serials, comic books, westerns, fairy tales, and a million other things–but mainly classic sci-fi tales. Today, our movie industry is driven by nostalgia for well known properties, most of which are considered genre fiction. To say this trend started with the original Star Wars is by no means a stretch.
Sequels Became Legitimate, Starting Franchise Culture
Star Wars also made sequels truly legitimate. Of course sequels had always existed in Hollywood, but they were almost always considered cheap knock offs to their superior, original films. Prior to Star Wars, the sequel was seen as not much more than a shameless cash grab, which is why actor Charlton Heston only did a brief cameo in the sequel to Planet of the Apes, which was a rare, major sci-fi hit in 1968. For Heston, a sequel was considered beneath him. Can you imagine a star having that attitude in today’s movie going world?
But with the advent of the first Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back, the idea of spending more money on your follow up film instead of less became the norm, and sequels lost their reputation as lesser knockoffs (It should be noted that the James Bond series was always a major exception to this rule). For better or worse, we live in a franchise movie culture now because of Star Wars, and the vast majority of those franchises are in the science fiction or fantasy categories.
“Binge Watching” Was Born
Before Star Wars, a movie was something you maybe watched once in theatrical release, and then, if you were lucky, caught it again on television when it happened to air. In the era before VHS, “ownership” of movies wasn’t really a thing, because you simply couldn’t own a movie. And seeing it more than once in a theater was a luxury. But Star Wars changed all that. People would see it over and over again, and sometimes buy a ticket and just stay in the theater all day.
In this regard, Star Wars was the original binge watch. According to Chris Taylor’s How Star Wars Conquered The Universe, this was such an issue that for the first time ever, movie theaters started to charge individually for films, where you could once just buy a ticket and stay at the theater indefinitely. Star Wars was one of the first films to became commercially available for VHS purchase, making it one of the first things people watched over and over.
Star Wars Transcended The Film Medium
Because of the merchandising onslaught that Star Wars wrought, it was one of the first movies to truly transcend the film medium in a significant way. Suddenly, Star Wars wasn’t just a movie, it was a breakfast cereal and a clothing line and toys (LOTS of toys) and posters and books and TV specials, and the list goes on. It became a whole world. Almost every genre property since then has done the same thing, to varying degrees of success. But it is now expected in a way, that your big science fiction or fantasy film be more than just a film, it must become a multimedia experience.
Regardless of whether Star Wars was beneficial to movie culture and pop culture at large, the film unequivocally transformed the landscape. It’s impossible to deny its impact even forty years later. Would there be a Comic-Con, a Syfy Channel, and even a Nerdist if not for this one film permanently changing everything? So before we bemoan Star Was for what it didn’t do or inadvertently did, let’s remember that in a way, it’s what brought us all together.
How did Star Wars change or shape your own nerdy tastes? Be sure to chime in down below in the comments.