Why Star Wars Still Matters So Much

In the hours after Disney announced their acquisition of Lucasfilm and plans to launch a new Star Wars trilogy earlier this week, fans on the Internet started to go crazy, and they haven't quite stopped yet.

Dozens of rumors prove it. Sudden, spontaneous interest in Mark Hamill's gym habits proves it. Every website reporting not one but ten rumors about the future of the franchise tells you that it's driving enough traffic to overshadow things like Iron Man 3 and The Walking Dead at the moment.

A lot of what you can see out there right now is skepticism. It's easy enough to see why some fans might not be immediately enthusiastic about the news; not only were the most recent trilogy of Star Wars films sharply divisive, with many long-term fans declaring them to be the worst thing since the Holocaust, but for years the "Disneyfication" of something has been a derisive pop culture shorthand that refers to dumbing it down, making it more corporate and accessible at the expense of quality. For some people, handing Disney the keys to something that's as important to them as Star Wars is a slap in the face and basically guaranteed to churn out subpar sequels. This feeling was probably bolstered by Disney's claim that after the first trilogy, they expect to continue making Star Wars movies every two to three years.

For others, there's nearly boundless optimism. A lot of those people look at Disney's successful acquisitions of Pixar and Marvel and feel there's nothing much to worry about. After all, Disney has done a pretty good job so far of stepping back, letting those people do what they do best and then just collecting the checks, their thinking goes. There's some hope, then, that by removing the notoriously anal-retentive George Lucas and his sometimes misguided vision from the equation, they can take what works from his vision and eschew what doesn't, leaving many fans with the first truly satisfying Star Wars film since Return of the Jedi.

Lost in all of this discussion by the faithful is an interesting question posed to me this week by a reader who doesn't particularly care for Star Wars: Who the hell cares, and why?

The answer is really pretty simple, and it explains not only fans's feelings about this upcoming trilogy, but some of the anger directed at the prequels and the seemingly endless supply of enthusiasm that people can drum up whenever they hear that a new Star Wars movie is coming, always hoping it'll be better than the one that came before.

Star Wars is a moment in time as much as it is a movie, or even a franchise. In the 1970s, both the culture of Hollywood, and what kind of stories it was willing to tell, changed forever. In addition to giving us things like Taxi Driver and The Godfather, the revolutionary changes made to film in the 1970s created a series of "indie" hits that endure to this day.

This is likely in part because the business of entertainment journalism had just begun to really take the shape that it still resembles today. Everyone remembers reading interviews, or seeing TV news magazine pieces, detailing the struggles of movies like Star Wars and Rocky, where the filmmakers made something spectacular out of nothing and were rewarded for their hard work with more money than any reasonable person could ever have expected. The franchises also lasted for another thirty years and each made a total of six movies, including three of dubious quality, but that's for another article on another day.

The success of the Star Wars trilogy was linked to that event in a way that makes it impossible to truly duplicate by just making a good sequel. If someone comes in and makes objectively the best science fiction movie ever made, and it's a Star Wars film, then the original movies--particularly Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back--would remain head and shoulders above that film and anything else ever put to celluloid or pixel, to a lot of Star Wars fans.

The odds are good, too, that a big part of culture at large would agree with them. While Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight is unambiguously the best Batman movie ever made for most people, there are those unable to let go of the notion that nobody will ever touch the 1989 version from Tim Burton. Part of that is tied up in the pop culture cache of that film and the way it so completely embodied its time and place. It was an entry point for many viewers who later became huge fans--watching the movie and the cartoon, reading the comics, whatever.

Star Wars is the same way. As long as that generation of us who grew up on it in the late '70s and early '80s are still alive, it will remain one of the most vital and engaging entertainment properties in the world. Because we can't let it go.