When George Lucas first brought Star Wars to the screen way back in 1977 it was for most of us only the first tiny glimpse into a universe which has, since then, only continued to expand. Nearly every scene in all six Star Wars films hints at a wealth of background detail. Heroes and villains ride in starships (both gleaming and grimy), aliens wield uniquely crafted weapons, and the histories of various cultures are indicated by distinctive architecture on numerous worlds. Although many background characters, devices, vehicles and structures were not identified by name on screen, most have acquired names and back-stories by way of the ‘Expanded Universe’ of Star Wars novels, reference books, comics, toys and games. Much has transpired to illuminate the various nooks and crannies of that far away galaxy that Lucas first revealed back in 1977. The much-loved classic Star Wars trilogy introduces an unlikely hero in the form of the ‘farmboy’ Luke Skywalker, who has never left his sleepy desert home planet of Tatooine. He has grown up in a dark time in a galaxy gripped in the iron fist of Emperor Palpatine and his foremost disciple, Darth Vader. In contrast, the much-maligned prequel trilogy travels back to the beginning of the Skywalker family saga, when the Old Republic still stands. This is a time populated with new characters, whose worlds are replete with gleaming spacecraft, intricate clothing, and exotic-looking robots. With the forthcoming release of a new sequel trilogy, the universe of Star Wars promises to expand still further, so who knows what the future holds for the franchise?
Comparing the urban and natural environments pictured in Star Wars, it appears that the cities are places of danger and corruption, while the forces of good find sanctuary in the natural world. The retro-futurist cities depicted in the film series are places of great beauty but dubious moral character – an ambivalence towards urbanity which perhaps reflects series creator George Lucas’ own feelings about cities and urban environments. A world enveloped in a single city, Coruscant is the home of the galactic government and the effective centre of the known universe. Beneath its civilized veneer, however, this city-planet is (as Obi-Wan Kenobi might have said) a wretched hive of scum and villainy. Rumbling with machines that serve the elite above, Coruscant’s underlevels are haunted by criminals and vigilantes, its walls are riddled with weird vermin and its urban canyon floors never see the light of day. A more complete contrast with the provincial and little-populated planet of Naboo could scarcely be imagined. Within an idyll of serenity, Naboo decorative architecture expresses the planet’s philosophy of arts and a harmonious way of life (the design of the planet’s capital city of Theed purposely evokes a Renaissance feel similar to that of Rome or Florence in our world). It has to be said that some commentators have been moved to criticize The Phantom Menace for this reason, saying that it improperly associates third world buildings with conceptions of innocence and the primitive in a way that is discriminatory and demeaning (it should also perhaps be said that this is the least of the criticisms that has been levelled at the film, but that’s another story!).
Iconic locations abound in the other films in the series. Hoth, an inhospitable ice world, is inhabited by few native creatures other than the hardy Tauntauns and the ferocious Wampa ice creatures; the gas giant of Bespin houses a sophisticated cloud mining operation based in the ethereal beauty of Cloud City; Dagobah is a remote planet of swamps and mists; and the primeval forests of the emerald moon of Endor are home to creatures that live in harmony with the natural world around them. But the most familiar and iconic of all the planets in the Star Wars universe is the desert world of Tatooine. Beyond the reach of both the Republic and the Empire Tatooine is one of the worlds of the Outer Rim, a frontier where extremes of freedom and slavery exist. Ruled by wealthy trading barons and gangsters, the adobe architecture of the planet looks as rugged and primitive as Tatooine itself, while hiding sophisticated technologies from another age. On Tatooine, not everything is what it seems – as you might expect from the home planet of both Anakin and Luke Skywalker. Of course, the locations of the Star Wars saga are only one aspect of what has made the series so successful. There are also the plots, characters and the deeper story, which is drawn from a wide variety of themes, not the least of which is Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Aside from its well known science fictional technology, Star Wars features elements such as knighthood, chivalry, and princesses that are related to archetypes of the fantasy genre. The Star Wars universe, unlike fantasy and science-fiction films that featured sleek and futuristic settings, was portrayed as dirty and grimy. Lucas’ vision of a “used future” was further popularized in the science fiction-horror films Alien, which was set on a dirty space freighter; Mad Max 2, which is set in a post-apocalyptic desert; and Blade Runner, which is set in a crumbling, dirty city of the future. Star Wars contains many themes of political science that mainly favour democracy over dictatorship. Political science has been an important element of Star Wars since the franchise first launched in 1977. The plot climax of Star Wars is modelled after the fall of the democratic Roman Republic and the formation of an empire. More recent real-world analogues to the conflicts depicted in the Star Wars films include the Vietnam War, in which two sides at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of technological advancement nonetheless battled on relatively even terms; and the War on Terror, which parallels in some ways the Clone Wars conflict between democracy and terrorism, with parties on both sides have their own individual agendas. Another major inspiration for Lucas in creating the storyline of the first film in the Star Wars series was the influence of the legendary Japanese film-maker, Akira Kurosawa. Like Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, A New Hope is told initially from the point of view of the least important hero-characters, and features a knight-like Samurai figure, adhering unswervingly to his Bushido code of honour.
Much of the classic trilogy’s success relied not on advanced visual effects, but on the simple, direct emotional appeal of its plot, characters and, importantly, music. Star Wars often is credited as heralding the beginning of a revival of grand symphonic scores in the late 1970s. One technique in particular is an influence: John Williams’s revival of a technique called leitmotif, which is most famously associated with the operas of Richard Wagner and, in film scores, with Max Steiner. A leitmotif is a phrase or melodic cell that signifies a character, place, plot element, mood, idea, relationship or other specific part of the film. It commonly is used in modern film scoring as a device for mentally anchoring certain parts of a film to the soundtrack. Howard Shore made use of the leitmotif concept to arguably even greater effect in his Oscar-winning soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings film trilogy. The main theme of the Star Wars saga is undeniably one of the most distinctive aspects of the entire franchise, as well as being among the most widely recognized scores in motion picture history. The anthem of the saga is variously associated with the hero’s journey, romance and adventure. The reasons for Williams’ tapping of a familiar Romantic idiom are known to involve Lucas’ desire to ground the otherwise strange and fantastic setting in well-known, audience-accessible music. On this count alone the Star Wars theme was a resounding success – even today it is almost impossible not to think of Williams’ score whenever any of the films are mentioned.
Looking ahead, what do we know so far about the sequel trilogy? Not very much, and even most of that is guesswork. It’s said that Episode VII will begin roughly 20 (or perhaps 30-40) years after the end of Return of the Jedi. The main theme of the trilogy, according to Lucas, will concern moral and philosophical problems, such as the necessity for moral choices and the wisdom needed to distinguish right from wrong, justice, confrontation, and passing on what you have learned. Main plot points might concern the rebuilding of the New Republic and the rise of a new Jedi order. What does seem fairly clear is that the new films won’t be based on the galaxy of Expanded Universe novels and will therefore cover new ground (a view given some support by the Writers Guidelines for the novel series, which explicitly inform them of themes, plots and eras to avoid writing about). It’s commonly agreed that, although the original line-up of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Han Solo, may all appear at some point in the sequel trilogy, the main characters will be their children – Star Wars‘ very own ‘Next Generation’. With future non-trilogy films in the pipeline, as well as more cartoons, comics and novels forthcoming, the Star Wars universe has seldom looked in better health.