If you Google “Best Science Fiction Movies” Star Wars is bound to show up on every list. Why wouldn’t it be? It was revolutionary when it first came out, creating a worldwide cult with millions of followers. Few movies have stood the test of time the way Star Wars has.
Still, it doesn’t belong on any of those lists.
Not that it isn’t one of the best movies ever made. It just isn’t sci-fi. Science fiction has three major elements:
- Takes place in the future
- Based firmly in science and technology, making things seem possible for the future
- The futuristic and science based world created is unlike anything that’s happened in the past
Star Wars doesn’t exactly fit that criteria. The very first thing audiences found out in 1977 was that this story takes place “a long time ago.” It may seem futuristic to us, but Luke Skywalker’s journey was meant to be a tale that was passed down from generation to generation. There’s also the whole “science and technology” piece to this. Yes, there’s a battle station that can destroy a planet, a ship that travels faster than the speed of light, and even weapons that cut through any material with no match. These gadgets and technologies are novel ideas to us. But they’re just that- ideas. This isn’t like 2001: A Space Odyssey where the tech we see can (and in some cases, did) become real. And it certainly isn’t the main point of Star Wars. So what is? We’ll get to that.
Let’s go for the hat trick. The third element doesn’t hold up, either. A world we’ve never seen before? It might be a larger scale, but an Empire that oppresses certain groups of people, allowing for no social mobility, rules through fear, and diminishes an entire religion. That’s a world we’ve seen over and over and over. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
So if Star Wars isn’t sci-fi, what is it? It’s a story passed down from generation to generation about good and evil in a universe that seems all to familiar.
It’s a fairy tale. (I didn’t believe it either, at first.)
Fairy tales have a few more than three elements:
- There are special beginning or ending words (Once upon a time…)
- The story is about good vs. evil
- There’s royalty…
- …and also poverty
- There’s a reoccurring pattern, usually a number or a phrase
- At it’s core, the story is about a universal truth
Right away, we have a match. There are people who have never seen Star Wars (no, really) who still know the phrase “A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away…” Those words are just as well-known as “Once upon a time…” And of course, they kick off two hours of good vs. evil as Luke Skywalker helps the Rebels defeat an unprecedented evil. He even joins a princess, despite being a poor farm boy. Most of the first act is focused on Luke’s poverty. He can’t go to the Academy since his family can’t afford to replace him, he trades with smugglers, and finds a way to get off planet with no means to do so.
Reoccurring lines are no stranger to fans either. Whether it’s “May the Force Be With You” or “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” there are certain phrases that are just to be expected.
Moreover, when you look past the surface of patterns and settings and words, Star Wars has the most important element of a fairy tale. At it’s core, it’s a story about good triumphing over evil when people come together. A little corny? Maybe, but still something we’ve all come to accept.
Aside from the six elements fairy tales need, there are some common motifs and plot devices in fairy tales:
- Talking animals
- Traveler’s tales
- Origin stories
- Triumph of the poor
- Guardians and protectors
- Impossible tasks or quests
Once again, Star Wars bats a thousand.
One of the most jaw-dropping moments for the original audience is Chewbacca, a furry, growling, bear-like creature, making a deal with Obi-Wan. He quickly becomes one of the most important parts of the story, but that doesn’t change that he’s a talking animal. The entire concept for the character was even based off George Lucas’s dog.
Chewbacca and his buddy also get to tell their share of traveler’s tales. Whether it’s making the Kessel Run or about some “hokey religions” they’ve come across, they’re also itching to brag about the things they’ve done and seen. For as entertaining as their tales may be, they aren’t nearly as important to the story as the origin story- what happened to Luke’s father? How does Obi-wan play into all this? How did the fight between the Empire and the Rebellion get started? If the origin story wasn’t important, Star Wars as we know it wouldn’t exist.
Once the mystery of the characters’ origins is firmly planted, the rest of these elements grab hold. Luke Skywalker, poor farm boy, finds a guardian in a wise old man and takes down the ultimate symbol of power. Of course, this isn’t easy. He needs to find a smuggler, a ship, a princess locked away, face waves of challenges and gunshots, only to eventually come across his ultimate idea of a villain, the one he believes killed his father. It’s every fairy tale of a poor boy rescuing a princess from a locked tower, just in a different setting (and of course better characters).
Anyone who saw the Star Destroyer come into view in the opening shot in 1977 will tell you how they were immediately transported and it was nothing they’ve ever seen before. The visuals of the movie felt so new and fresh, they were almost science fiction themselves. It’s often that freshness that gets credited for creating the worldwide cult it’s become. In reality, it’s the exact opposite that first attracted people to the story and keeps them coming back for more, even 40 years later. It’s the familiarity of the timeless story and the way it does it that keeps people loving Star Wars.
Featured image by Jennifer Heddle.