The new Star Wars movie is in production, and this has occasioned a round of revisionist writing on the film, with lots of people saying, "Wait a minute—Star Wars sucks!" As the resident Gen-Xer here, I feel it is my duty to address this matter, and offer some thoughts about why Star Wars had the cultural power it did, and maintains so much of it to this day. In some ways, it did suck. The dialogue was awful, the acting was mediocre at best (Carrie Fisher's intermittent British accent is just one of the many sins), and there are some glaring plot holes. We can debate whether its ultimate influence was positive or malign, but even with its weaknesses, the film's success, and its persistence, were no accident. It has to be understood in the context of the moment at which it arrived.
The first reason Star Wars made such an impact when it was released in 1977 was that it just looked so spectacular. Even though today we might see the special effects as primitive and some of the creatures as silly, they went way beyond anything that had been seen before. From the opening shot traveling underneath a star destroyer to the cantina scene with all its different alien species to all the different costumes and sets, it added up to a level of cinematic world-building that had never been seen before.
The richness of that world enabled all the ancillary products that have been created from that original film—not just the other movies, but the TV series, comics, novels, and all the rest of it. Avatar may be the highest-grossing film of all time, but if you tried to create that many stories set in its world, it would get boring and repetitive really fast.
Secondly, Star Wars was fun, unlike just about every science fiction movie that came before it. Sci-fi can be a bleak genre, and the sci-fi films up to that point had been the aliens-slaughter-or-enslave-us-all movies of the fifties (like Invasion of the Body Snatchers), the post-apocalyptic nightmares of the sixties (Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green), or the intense but sterile 2001: A Space Odyssey. There had never been a sci-fi film that was such a rollicking good time, with space pirates and space dogfights and a space princess and so much action and adventure.
Thirdly, lightsabers. The most absurdly impractical yet incontrovertibly awesome weapon ever imagined. Don't even.
Which leads me to my final point. There are some pieces of culture that "hold up," meaning that even as their medium evolved, they don't seem dated or cliched even when experienced for the first or hundredth time years later. Star Wars may not be one of them. But for those of us who saw it for the first time as kids, we'll always be kids whenever we encounter it. While a certain Prospect editor says it's a bit ridiculous to quote yourself, I want to reiterate a point I made a couple of years ago on the only other occasion I wrote about this topic:
I was 9 years old when the first movie came out, and it wasn't just a great movie or something that meant a lot to kids my age. It was the most incredible thing we had ever seen. It blew our frickin' minds. It planted a little nugget of joy in our brains that pulses to this day. I like to consider myself a reasonably intelligent person, but you could make a movie that was nothing but a bunch of monkeys fighting with lightsabers for two hours, and while I might not pay to see it, if I came across it I'd at least watch it for a few minutes. Because hey, lightsabers! I even enjoyed watching The Phantom Menace, without question the worst of the Star Wars movies, not because it wasn't terrible (it was), but because hey, lightsabers! For those of us who were infected with Star Wars at the right time, it's like heroin.
So yeah, if you're a 25-year-old and you watch Star Wars for the first time, you'll probably think, "This is pretty cheesy." You won't be wrong. And it has lots of other problems worthy of critique, from its gender politics to its fundamental lack of ideas. But when you hear someone's phone go off and realize they have Darth Vader's imperial march as their ring tone, just remember: you had to be there.