How Star Wars changed the world of film and beyond

20 Apr 2016 BY Joe Ursell in Film Features

8 mins
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

With the enormous success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the biggest film franchise of them all has been given a new lease of life by ingeniously introducing the saga to a whole new audience whilst still keeping its army of existing fans happy. To celebrate the film's DVD release this week, we're taking a look at where Star Wars all began, its influence on other cinema, and delving into some of the science and technology seen in the films.

George Lucas was heavily influenced by Japanese cinema when creating the original saga, in particular the work of legendary director Akira Kurosawa. The Hidden Fortress, a Kurosawa film that combined swashbuckling action, comedy, civil war, princess-led rebellions, and mysterious battle-weary generals - all told from the perspective of two lowly, bickering peasants - had a massive influence on the plot and characters of Star Wars. In particular the two robots, C3P0 and R2D2, were direct updates of the bickering peasants. Kurosawa's Seven Samurai was also key in the creation of the Jedi warriors, with wider Japanese culture influencing many of their key aesthetics and mythology.

Star Wars' influences can also be detected in a huge range of American titles, such as science fiction classics 2001: A Space Odyssey and Metropolis; World War Two adventures like The Guns of Navarone; Westerns, such as Once Upon A Time In The West; and even the infamous Nazi propaganda documentary Triumph Of The Will. There are many more, although it is perhaps Joseph Campbell's book Hero of a Thousand Faces and its examination of the archetypal hero (or monomyth) across history and mythology that was perhaps the greatest inspiration for Lucas.

Star Wars is one of the few films to genuinely change Hollywood. Following its unprecedented success, the industry became focused on producing special effects-led titles and event pictures targeted at younger and family audiences. Much more attention was given to films as brands, rather than stand alone movies. As a result, far more sequels and franchises were developed, complete with accompanying fandoms, spin-offs, extensions into other media, and of course, merchandising - which was a famously a minor concern for film studios before Star Wars

The relatively dormant science-fiction genre was resurrected and paved the way for the comic-book films that dominate today, many of which have their special effects produced by Lucas' own company, Industrial Light & Magic. A game-changer in the effects industry, Star Wars was a milestone in allowing future films to take the next steps in ground-breaking technology, including future bench-marks like Terminator 2Jurassic ParkThe Matrix, and Avatar - right through to the recent The Jungle Book adaptation.

The extraordinary sound of the films also resulted in Lucas creating THX, a sound company named after his cult experimental first film THX 1138, and which revolutionised speaker systems in cinemas and home entertainment. These new facilities then appeared in multiplexes, and later - with the revenue generated from Star Wars and the industry's new focus on family audiences - began to appear in towns around the world. These new cinemas then needed more titles in order to fill their multiple screens, resulting in a wider range of films being made.

And it's not just technology - the characters of Star Wars have also massively influenced the templates of other huge franchises. For example, Luke Skywalker can clearly be seen in the depiction of other 'chosen ones', such as Harry Potter, Neo in The Matrix and Frodo Baggins (although JRR Tolkein had of course already written The Lord of the Rings books). Traces of sci-fi cowboy Han Solo are seen in Guardians of the Galaxy's Star Lord, while the strong female action heroine of Princess Leia has influenced Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games and Mad Max: Fury Road's Furiosa. The influence extends to non-human characters too, whether it's the loveable robot mascots seen in Wall-E and Short Circuit, humanoid robots like The Iron Giant, or a character like Groot with his resemblance to Chewbacca.

Not everybody sees the Star Wars model of characterisation as being positive however. While The Force Awakens has been praised for its diverse cast and focus on highlighting strong black and female characters in lead roles, some argue that the franchise's focus on resurrecting supposed medieval concepts of heroism - which often involving male knight figures rescuing helpless women - is in itself problematic and regressive.

And while Star Wars has always been more concerned with dealing with storytelling, philosophy and allegory, there are nevertheless fascinating discussions to be had around the science and technology depicted across the saga.

Inevitably, the series employs a large amount of dramatic licence when it comes to depicting science. Traveling through hyperspace at the speed of light, like the Millennium Falcon does, is of course impossible. We also don't know how characters are able to breathe freely and move about with ease on multiple planets with differing gravities, or why these locations do not have sufficiently different climates that would render them at least partly inhospitable to their many visitors. 

Space itself is a vacuum, meaning that the audience shouldn't be able to hear any sound during the film's epic battles, but of course the series is full of spectacular explosions, space engines and iconic laser-fire sound effects. There is fierce debate amongst the scientific community about whether planets would be able to form around binary stars - like the two suns of Tatooine - since the gravity of one star may prevent planets from developing around the other. And sadly, lightsabers should not clash in the sword-like manner that they do, since they are composed of lasers and light, which have no mass or substance. It is, after all, science fiction.

In terms of technology, however, Star Wars is on slightly surer footing. Its advanced robotics have clear parallels with the current robotics technology of today, and the division of robots into those with military and civil occupations (like C3PO and R2D2) links in with real technological advancement. The films have made frequent use of force fields - energy shields designed to protect soldiers, machines and spacecraft in battle. Very similar technology has recently been patented by American aerospace companies. The use of levitation technology (such as hover-bikes) has also been developed for military purposes, while holograms - so famously deployed in many of the series key scenes - are looking increasingly less like the world of science fiction. Cloning practices and genetic engineering are also seen throughout the saga, albeit in far more advanced technological forms than we've developed to date.

As the franchise continues, future films will look to build on the mixture of old fashioned storytelling and filmmaking with ground-breaking technology that has characterised Star Wars, from A New Hope right through to The Force Awakens. Always looking to take filmmaking onto new frontiers, there are even rumours that Episode IX will involve sequences that are actually shot in space, bringing the worlds of science and fantasy closer than ever before!

Portrait picture of Joe Ursell

Joe Ursell, Film Curator

Joe has a BA in Film & American Studies from the University of East Anglia and an MA in Contemporary Cinema Cultures from King's College London. He has worked with the BFI London Film Festival and on the production of ITV documentary 56 Up.

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