The world has changed since the first of the Star Wars movies — confusingly retitled Episode IV: A New Hope — was released in 1977. Back then, the Soviet Union still existed, the threat of nuclear war loomed over every “cold” confrontation between the two superpowered blocs, the US had just emerged from a bruising and dispiriting war in Vietnam, the internet didn’t exist, and neither did wifi — which maybe explains why Princess Leia took the Millennium Falcon to the rebel base, even though she knew it was being tracked by the Empire. Nobody had seen anything quite like George Lucas’s Star Wars before, with its cutting-edge special effects and charming use of the “hero’s journey” narrative so succinctly identified by Joseph Campbell as essential to modern mythmaking.
But what explains its longevity and immense popularity today, when the possibilities of CGI have far transcended the original Star Wars trilogy and space operas show up even on television (see Firefly, Battlestar Galactica)? Why has Episode VII: The Force Awakens smashed box office records, now that it has landed from a galaxy far, far away to a cinema near (almost) all of us? It isn’t, after all, every three-decade-old trilogy whose creator has squandered much of his goodwill with his constant revisionism and terrible Movies That Must Not Be Named that remains so beloved it inspires Hillary Clinton and Ted Cruz to try to acquire a certain cachet by name-dropping the force in presidential debates. Star Wars is a pop culture phenomenon that, remarkably, appeals even to the children to whom R2-D2 and C-3PO must seem rather quaint — a truly trans-generational experience.
Perhaps it’s the hokey dialogue, somewhat wooden acting or the simple-but-appealing Manichean interplay of good (Luke Skywalker) and evil (Darth Vader). It’s certainly more than just archetypal storytelling, great special effects and better marketing. For a certain generation, Star Wars is the myth that binds, creating frameworks for shared references that resonate across cultures and places.