Star Wars occupies a huge place in the history of science fiction and fantasy. The first movie, in 1977, changed the genre forever. And this year marks the first new Star Wars film in a decade, with revamped continuity. So now's the perfect time for a refresher course. Here's io9's easy-to-read guide to Star Wars.
Welcome to the io9 Guide series, where we write simple but comprehensive guides to the most important universe of science fiction and fantasy. These guides are aimed at lay-people in search of a quick refresher, as well as seasoned fans who want to debate the meaning and essential knowledge of a subject.
The first trilogy of Star Wars films came out from 1977 to 1983, and they represented a huge advance in visual effects as well as a strong focus on thrills over slow majesty. Most science fiction films in the years before Star Wars were either post-apocalyptic or slow and serious. Writer-director George Lucas had just tried and failed to buy the rights to pulp space hero Flash Gordon, and he spent years creating his own saga, workshopping his script with Francis Ford Coppola and other directors.
The first Star Wars movie is actually built around an advance in weapons engineering: The fascistic Empire, which rules the galaxy, has developed a super-weapon called the Death Star, and the anti-imperial Rebels have gotten the secret plans to it, which reveal a single weakness. In the end, the key to destroying the Death Star comes from the film's young hero, Luke Skywalker, who has developed his mystical powers to the point where he can shoot blindfolded. In this way the film's coming-of-age saga winds up dovetailing with its central espionage plot.
Part of the appeal of Star Wars, in fact, comes from its mixing of genres, from epic fantasy to war drama to space opera. Lucas aggressively borrowed from everywhere, but the result wound up being distinctive enough that generations of creators, in turn, borrowed from Star Wars.
In the second movie, the focus moves to the Empire's attempts to crush the Rebels. The evil Darth Vader is also bent on ensnaring Luke Skywalker, who's busy training to develop his supernatural abilities as a Jedi knight in training. In the end, we discover that Darth Vader is actually Luke's presumed-dead father Anakin — the revelation on which the whole trilogy turns. Suddenly, the prevailing fear is that Luke will become like his father.
In the third movie, the Empire once again develops an all-powerful Death Star, and the Rebels once again destroy it. But this time, instead of flying an X-Wing fighter in the attack on the Death Star, Luke is having a more spiritual, emotional battle with Darth Vader and his boss, the Emperor. In the end, Luke manages to defeat the Empire without turning evil, and even redeems his father.
But when most people think of the original Star Wars, they think of space battles and sarcastic dialogue, and cool set pieces. To the extent that Luke Skywalker is the main character of the trilogy, he's eclipsed by the supporting cast, including Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca and the droids, R2D2 and C-3PO. This universe is fascinating in part because it's full of smugglers and bounty hunters — but there's not a lot of professional soldiers, for a story with "Wars" in its title. (We meet a few admirals and other officers, but they're usually hapless.)
A lot of the emotional and psychological impact of the series comes from the Force, which is the mysterious energy that gives the Jedi their power. The Force is described as an energy field that binds all living things together, and its mastery involves some mixture of faith, awareness, and mental discipline.
What is the lesson of the Force? It's not just about mastering anger or passion, but also feeling a connection to living things. The Jedi order is sort of Buddhist and sort of Taoist, and teachers like Yoda and Obi-Wan are shown being contemplative as well as pranksters — much the same way that Zen priests are depicted in the writings of D.T. Suzuki. The vagueness of the Jedi order, in those early films, is always part of its appeal.
As the story of a young man who grows up, masters his power and redeems his father, Star Wars was a self-contained trilogy. George Lucas certainly seemed to regard the Skywalker family as the beginning and end of Star Wars.
But this universe contains too much rich detail to narrow down to just one father and son — Lucas' rich imagination populated it with much more. The genius of Star Wars was not just its "lived in" future, but also the sense that its universe contained a million dark corners where other stories were happening.
To add to this sense of a rich ecosystem, Star Wars had the first toy line that surfaced characters who'd only gotten a tiny amount of screentime. Boba Fett was pretty much a toy before he was a real character. But also, random characters like Bossk and Snaggletooth had their own figures, prompting people to imagine what their adventures could be.
At the same time, it's impossible to understate the importance of cuteness in Star Wars — as much as the series had a "gritty" aesthetic built on dirty, used technology and space fights, it was also full of cuteness, both among robots and among creatures. There had been cute creatures in science fiction for years, but Star Wars' cuteness contained no hint of cheapness or condescension. The opening moments of the first film, with gun battles interspersed with adorably bickering droids, put you on notice about the tone of the saga.
Star Wars is justly credited with helping to launch the era of blockbuster movies, but it was also part of a revolution in entertainment. The rise of Star Wars coincided with the emergence of Dungeons & Dragons, which also had character types that sort of coincided to "Jedi" and "Smuggler," and a moral system not unlike the Force. And it slightly preceded the start of the video-game era. All of a sudden, you could take part in epic adventures yourself, including a lot of Star Wars games.
The rich, complicated universe that you can glimpse in those first three movies very quickly started to take on a life of its own. The "Expanded Universe" of books, comics and games became a huge phenomenon, especially once Timothy Zahn and other writers started telling the story of what happened after the third movie, Return of the Jedi. But the Expanded Universe also grew to cover lots of other characters, times and places in the galaxy far, far away.
Largely thanks to the Expanded Universe, Star Wars went from being a single coming-of-age story to a much larger setting that could encompass a lot of different characters. Star Wars came to include more than one genre, and more than one type of story. You didn't need to use the Force to be awesome, nor did you have to be involved in the struggle against the Sith or the Empire.
George Lucas returned to the Star Wars movies in 1999, creating a second trilogy of films that explain how Luke Skywalker's father Anakin became Darth Vader — basically, a dark mirror image of Luke's storyline. Where the original trilogy deals with weapons development and efforts to crush dissent, this second trilogy is about a trade dispute that turns into a galactic war, which in turn is used to turn the peaceful Republic into the evil Empire.
Even though the prequel films begin in the Clinton era, they find their mission statement under George W. Bush. This is quite possibly the most effective anti-war propaganda of the Iraq War era — the story of a trumped up war that's used as a pretext to take away people's civil liberties. Millions of people who would never go to a Howard Zinn reading happily soaked up Lucas' agitprop.
Advances in computer graphics meant that sense of a rich backdrop in Lucas' worlds could become much more lively and detailed, which was a double-edged sword. He could finally fill the screen with cool creatures and droids, which led to a lot of clutter but also a perfect burst of eye candy.
Meanwhile, some people were upset that Lucas explained the science of the Force. But even more than that, Lucas went out of his way to make the the Jedi seem boring and oppressive — even as Star Trek was doing the same thing to the rational, contemplative Vulcans in its own prequel series, Enterprise. At the same time, the prequel films featured athletic, beautiful lightsaber fights on a scale that the original films couldn't have imagined.
In the decade since the prequel trilogy, the Expanded Universe kept pushing further into the past and the future of Star Wars' galaxy, making the six films a tiny kernel at the heart of a vast chronology that stretched thousands of years into the past and over 100 years into the future. By the time Disney bought the property and shuttered the Expanded Universe, it had become the real Star Wars to many people.
But the most important piece of Star Wars media of the past decade was the Clone Wars, an animated series which told stories set between the second and third movies. The Clone Wars series was arguably the first time Star Wars really dealt with long-term warfare, and soldiers (who were clones, thus literalizing ideas of war stripping way individuality and personal identity.) Clone Wars also gave us the most important Star Wars protagonist whose name isn't Skywalker: Ahsoka Tano, a young Jedi in training who sees her mentor (Anakin Skywalker) go off the deep end, and comes to question the ethics of her side. (And — spoiler alert — we haven't seen the last of Ahsoka.)
By the time Disney acquired Lucasfilm, Star Wars had become something that meant different things to different generations. And Star Wars had become so big that it was hard to see the whole thing from a distance (one reason we decided to do this guide). The saga had become a kind of shorthand for "cool space adventure with mysticism, swashbuckling and robots."
Disney's new plan for Star Wars involves the live-action continuation of the Original Trilogy's story that we've been waiting for since 1984, with new "episodes" directed by J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson. All of the original characters are back, along with a host of new, younger characters. But also, a lot of spin-off movies and other projects, which will finally take that sense of a sprawling universe, with lots of stories, into live-action film-making — these start with a spin-off film called Rogue One.
But just as the original Star Wars coincided with the rise of video games and other computer entertainment, the new era of Star Wars is coinciding with the launch of virtual reality systems like Oculus and Magic Leap. It'll be interesting to see how the ancient farwaway galaxy takes part in our next entertainment revolution — and also, how the meaning of this space adventure saga changes for the next generation.