It was a day like any other but a film like nothing we’d ever seen. 39 years ago today, on Wednesday, May 25, 1977, viewers in just 32 theaters were transported to a galaxy far, far away for the first of many times when Star Wars began its theatrical run. A common misconception is that everyone believed the film would fail. Despite its small initial run, which was actually typical for its time, Lucasfilm knew in those early days that they’d created something special, after three and a half weeks of overwhelmingly positive test screening reviews. But there’s no way anyone could’ve predicted that almost four decades later I’d be sitting here writing about how it has completely transformed my life.
With its uplifting, archetypical mythology up against a nihilistic, postwar slate of innovative but bleak American films in the late 1970s such as Logan’s Run and Rollerball, it’s not hard to see how Star Wars became the greatest cinematic cultural touchstone the world has ever seen. The Empire was evil, but we focused on the optimism of Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance more than Imperial atrocities. Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin were some of the most chilling villains of all time, but our heroes outweighed them. This story wasn’t about how bad their galaxy was, but how good it could be. It was the fairy tale no one knew they were starving for.
The true success of George Lucas, however, lies in how the success of that film was immediately spun into a sequel most consider to be even better, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, a darker, bleaker film in its own right without losing the spirit of the original, and then the more fun and daring 1983 Return of the Jedi, also sharing today as an anniversary. 1999 to 2005 saw the somewhat controversial prequel trilogy. For all their flaws, the prequels brought Star Wars back into the spotlight for my generation and doubled the size of the universe, leading to dozens of books, comics, games, and most notably The Clone Wars, an Emmy-winning animated show detailing the period between the second and third prequels wherein the galaxy is gripped in a conflict first alluded to in the original Star Wars film.
With last year’s The Force Awakens perched as the third highest grossing film of all time, the future is bright for a new trilogy of Star Wars films, in addition to the Star Wars Anthology, a collection of “spinoff” feature films about the supporting cast of the universe. This December’s Rogue One tells the tale of Jyn Erso, the mercenary whose offscreen theft of the Death Star plans sparks the action of the original film, and 2018 gives us a film about a roughly twenty-year-old Han Solo’s first adventure with Chewbacca. Interspersed with these in the odd-numbered years are Episode VIII and Episode IX, a continuation of the main Skywalker story. With Star Wars Rebels, something of a sequel to The Clone Wars, currently telling the story of the rise of the Rebellion, there is a Star Wars story for everyone. The galaxy far, far away has never felt more alive.
The success of Star Wars was incited by George Lucas and is now masterminded by Lucasfilm under Disney. Maybe I’m biased, but I think this global phenomenon status is being truly perpetuated by the fans. It’s hard for me to remember a time before joining this global community of devotees. When I was seven years old, I went to see The Phantom Menace in theaters with my mother, an admirer of Luke Skywalker since seventh grade (which is a little weird sometimes … more on that in a bit). You might be disappointed to know that Jar Jar Binks was my favorite part of that film, but I hope I redeem myself with the fact that I didn’t truly fall in love with the universe until shortly thereafter when we rented A New Hope and I watched it for the first time.
At age ten, I went to my first Star Wars Celebration convention in Indianapolis and first encountered the Rebel Legion and the 501st Legion, then small internet communities having one of their very early meet-ups but now international costume groups numbering over ten thousand members on every continent between the two clubs. From my first encounter in a hotel corridor with an imposing crimson Royal Guard to a photo of me chatting with Artoo-Detoo that is one of my most prized possessions today, I was hooked. The movies were amazing, like nothing we’d ever seen, but even they did not compare to this culture of people united by the story of good versus evil and rebellion against tyranny.
It was through Star Wars that I made most of my friends in life, from playing Jedi on the playground to debating Expanded Universe lore in the college cafeteria to speculating about Episode VII at work. Star Wars, particularly that very first film we celebrate today and the underdog story of George Lucas, inspired me to believe that anything was possible and anyone could make movies, which is why I work in the film industry today. I was able to move to LA from Pennsylvania because of friends I made through Star Wars, and I met my girlfriend at a gathering after a convention. My black Kia Soul sports the paint job of Poe Dameron’s iconic X-wing Black One and over half of my wardrobe consists of Star Wars T-shirts. Several years ago, I decided to channel all this passion into something greater.
As a Rebel Legion member, I’ve been able to use my love for this movie that touched my life to spread my joy to so many others. In addition to constructing screen-accurate costumes and attending conventions, the Rebel Legion and the 501st Legion don our galactic gear to help those in need. When a young boy with terminal cancer was unable to do Walt Disney World’s Jedi Training Academy due to renovations, my friends and I taught him the ways of the Force and prepared him for a confrontation with Darth Vader less than two weeks before he passed away. As Luke Skywalker (remember how I said my mom has a crush on Luke? “You look like post-car-accident Mark Hamill, though, so it’s different,” she reassures me) and Ezra Bridger from Rebels, I, along with dozens upon dozens of friends, visit children’s hospitals, community fundraisers, animal shelters, military bases, and more. As a thank-you and a recognition of our service, hundreds of us were able to attend the red carpet premiere of The Force Awakens at the invite of Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy. Wherever we travel, we do so spreading a Force of joy and wonder, helping others recapture the thrill we felt as we first heard the blaring horns of John Williams’ iconic Star Wars opening. As I look into the wide eyes of children meeting Luke, Chewie, Vader, and the gang in the flesh, I always see a bit of myself watching A New Hope on that battered, rented VHS for the first time.
I wouldn’t even be on this website without Star Wars; it was through fellow Legion members Shawn “Obi-Shawn” Crosby, Colleen “Kaylee” Crosby, and Jeff “Solo” Donoho that I joined the SCIFI.radio family as a recurring guest host on Docking Bay 94, our two-hour geek talk show on Thursdays from 7PM to 9PM Pacific time.
I find myself channeling the optimism of Luke Skywalker, the patience of Yoda, the loyalty of R2-D2, the wit of Han Solo, and yes, even the humility of Jar Jar Binks, deal with it, I still love him, whenever I must in my daily life. These characters are a modern pantheon of demigods who have inspired generation after generation, and I truly can’t imagine who I’d be without them. At the end of the original Star Wars film, when the spirit of Sir Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke, “Remember, the Force will be with you, always,” he might as well have been speaking to all of us.
Happy 39th birthday, Star Wars. You’re almost over the hill, but have no fear: you’re immortal.