Star Wars was a movie once. This is a basic fact that we all know. It was a single film released in theaters: A story with a beginning (kind of), a middle, and an end (kind of). There was a relatively small cast, composed of up-and-comers, unknowns, and one well-regarded British actor overdelivering on what looked to him like thin material. The film, released in theaters in 1977, had a simple story. There was a MacGuffin (The Death Star Plans!) and there was a Rescue Mission (Help Me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, You’re My Only Hope!) and there was a Final Battle. It was shot on actual sets. It was filmed on film. It had a working title (The Star Wars). It was a movie; they made a lot of them, back then.
And yet, try to think of Star Wars as just a movie. It’s difficult. 37 years later, Star Wars is a galaxy unto itself: A shadow universe, evolving right alongside our own. It has defined pop culture, and perhaps also actual culture. (Cue Reagan, applying phrases like “Evil Empire” and “Star Wars” to real-world politicking.) There were two more Star Wars movies, and then books, videogames, TV shows, comics. (Fun fact: The first Star Wars book was actually released six months before the movie.) Name a medium: Star Wars was there. There are generations of Star Wars fans who were born long after the original film arrived in theaters. Ask yourself: What’s your first Star Wars memory? Is it a movie? Is it John Williams’ score? Is it a Star Wars toy? (If Proust wrote In Search of Lost Time today, he’d probably replace the madeleine with the Ewok Village.)
Star Wars was a movie. But the movie never really had to end. George Lucas curated his franchise into a mythology, for better or for worse. It’s hard to conceive of Star Wars as a film, because Lucas redefined the whole concrete reality of what used to define a movie. Star Wars isn’t called Star Wars anymore; the official literature will always refer to it as Star Wars: Episode IV–A New Hope. The first Star Wars movie isn’t the first Star Wars movie anymore: Lucas went back and told the story before the story. There are different versions of the original film: The Special Edition, the Blu-Ray special-er edition.
When I was a kid obsessed with Star Wars, it was possible to watch the first film and only see everything that wasn’t quite onscreen: To look around the Mos Eisley Cantina and know the backstories of every alien; to focus on the casual introduction of Wedge Antilles, who went on to star in about nine more books than Jay Gatsby; to hear a certain musical cue and recognize it from long hours spent playing one of the Star Wars videogames, Rebel Assault or Dark Forces or Shadows of the Empire.
And yet: There was a movie called Star Wars. It hit theaters in May, 1977. It starred the bad guy from American Graffiti and Debbie Reynold’s daughter and Mark Hamill — you remember him, he was Doobie Wheeler on The Texas Wheelers! It was a movie about gigantic spaceships and alien dive bars and fussy robots and fighter pilots flying space-jets shaped like letters from the end of the alphabet. It was written and directed by a 33-year-old dude from Modesto. Many people involved in the making of the movie barely understood it — have, in the decades since, gone on the record as saying they thought it was going to be a flop.
It was not a flop.
Release Date: May 25, 1977
The Competition: Star Wars opened in theaters a month after Annie Hall, the movie that would ultimately defeat it for the Best Picture Oscar. It arrived the same weekend as Smokey and the Bandit. In those bygone days, Star Wars opened in relatively limited release and then expanded…and then kept expanding, essentially owning the theaters for most of the summer. (According to BoxOfficeMojo, Star Wars‘ biggest weekend came in early August.) In the years since, director William Friedkin has implied that the overwhelming success of Star Wars inadvertently caused the failure of his expensive auteurist thriller Sorcerer — which could just be a myth, but which could also help explain why there aren’t too many expensive auteurist thrillers released in the summer months (unless Christopher Nolan is involved). Martin Scorsese’s musical New York, New York also struggled at the June box office. In July, the James Bond franchise released The Spy Who Loved Me; it made money, but the producers quickly decided to make their next movie the spaced-out thriller Moonraker, which is sort of like Star Wars remade by your fussy British uncle.
Box Office: $265.1 million domestic ($1.5 million opening weekend), although re-releases in the ’80s and the Special Edition in 1997 have pushed its Domestic total to $461 miion, with a total worldwide gross of $775 million — although measuring Star Wars just by its box office profits was maybe always besides the point.
What Time said: “A grand and glorious film that may well be the smash hit of 1977, and certainly is the best movie of the year so far. … The result is a remarkable confection: a subliminal history of the movies, wrapped in a riveting tale of suspense and adventure, ornamented with some of the most ingenious special effects ever contrived for film.” –Gerald Clarke
Cultural Impact Then: Six months after it hit theaters, Star Wars was the highest-grossing movie of all time. Audiences loved it. Critics generally swooned. The film won six Oscars at the Academy Awards, sweeping up the technical prizes and earning John Williams his third Oscar. Toys flew off the shelves. Marvel published a tie-in comic book. According to Marvel head honcho Jim Shooter, the series “single-handedly saved Marvel.” Is that true, or is that hyperbole? Does it matter?
The success of Star Wars gave Lucas carte blanche to create a new kind of filmmaking empire. He built up Industrial Light and Magic. He prepared to work on another Star Wars movie, one that would be bigger, one that would finally capture his vision. (The tragedy of George Lucas is that he never ever seems particularly happy with Star Wars.) There was an infamously terrible holiday special. That couldn’t stop Star Wars. How many other movies released in 1977 could lay claim to inventing a whole universe?
Cultural Staying Power: As I write this, one of the most-read stories on our website is about Star Wars. Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford have been spotted in London. They’re probably filming some kind of role in Star Wars: Episode VII, a movie which has become one of the most talked-about movies of all time, even though it’s not even a movie yet. This is part of the staying power of Star Wars: It’s still here. Return of the Jedi ended the trilogy in 1983. Fourteen years later, Star Wars: The Special Edition was the eighth-highest-grossing movie at the domestic box office. (Tomorrow Never Dies was number 10; Bond, beaten again.) And then there were the prequels. Hate them, love them, whatever: The money was there. The money is still there. Disney wants to release three more Star Wars movie, or five more. Why put a number on it? Why not just make Star Wars movies forever?
The influence of Star Wars outside of Star Wars is harder to measure, because it’s hard to know what is outside of Star Wars. Luke Skywalker is everywhere. You can find him in any story that takes a regular kid and turns them into a Hero With A Grand Destiny: He’s there in Harry Potter, there in The Matrix, there in practically every videogame ever made. And you can see Star Wars everywhere. Sometimes literally: The brokedown-futuristic aesthetic pioneered by Lucas and his collaborators pretty much became the de facto visual style of movie science-fiction. (You could argue that Star Wars was one of the first “gritty-realism” fantasies.) It’s rare for a movie spaceship to not look like a Star Wars spaceship.
With great success comes great counterargument. People blame Star Wars for so many things. It is a symbol for how movies aimed at children became the only kind of movies Hollywood makes anymore. It is a symbol for how Hollywood turned away from the real world into ever more fantastical realms, built by special effects with ever-more-tenuous ties to the concreteness of reality. It is a totem of fandom, and a totem of fan rage.
And yet Star Wars was just a movie, way back when. When you watch it today, what strikes you is the incongruous weirdness of it all: The sense that Lucas was organizing a whole series of curious fascinations into a whole. It shouldn’t be coherent, this cuckoo cocktail of Akira Kurosawa and WWII dogfights and Errol Flynn, fantasy and science-fiction and gearhead action and far-out mysticism, Han’s cool-kid cocksure cynicism and Luke’s dreamy yearning and whatever weird accent Carrie Fisher was trying out, a six-foot-five wizard general with the voice of James Earl Jones and a seven-foot-tall sasquatch with a voice that sounds like a dinosaur yawning.
It was madness. It was perfect. It is with us, always.
The Best Summer Blockbusters of All Time
29. The Hangover
28. Rambo: First Blood Part II
27. There’s Something About Mary26. Shrek
23. Saving Private Ryan
21. Independence Day
20. Toy Story 3
19. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl
17. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
16. The Avengers
15. Back to the Future
14. Superman II
13. The Lion King
12. The Sixth Sense
11. Top Gun
10. Terminator 2: Judgment Day
9. Animal House
7. Forrest Gump
6. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
5. Raiders of the Lost Ark
4. The Dark Knight
3. Jurassic Park
2. Star Wars