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  • Ben Poulten

The Secret of Star Wars’ Success

Updated: May 10, 2021


The original 1977 Star Wars logo in white on a starry background

Star Wars has been a global cultural phenomenon since it first premiered in 1977, and while not every pop-culture sensation retains its popularity consistently, Star Wars has. Despite poor reviews, the prequel films made massive amounts of money, and they are still talked about and fiercely debated today, and the better-reviewed sequel trilogy and its spin-offs are likely to do the same. Over four decades after the original film’s release, children today are still likely to grow up captivated by Star Wars, which is a rare and impressive achievement.


Some of Star Wars’ blockbuster contemporaries, like Superman or Star Trek, are still hugely popular, but this popularity has waxed and waned over the years, going through multiple reboots and reinventions. It remains to be seen if more recent successes, like the Marvel Cinematic Universe, will continue their hold over the public imagination in the decades to come. For now, in terms of consistent popularity over several decades, Star Wars stands alone.


What is the secret of Star Wars consistent popularity? One common explanation is George Lucas’ adherence to Joseph Campbell's idea of the “monomyth” or the “hero’s journey” when writing his original screenplay. But the hero’s journey has never been unique to the franchise, so even if it helps explain its original success, it doesn’t explain its longevity. What about its groundbreaking special effects? Nobody had seen anything like Star Wars when it first came out, and each subsequent release has featured state-of-the-art visual effects work. But this is no longer unique to Star Wars either; nearly every Hollywood blockbuster today is a state-of-the-art effects showcase. Star Wars’ secret has to be something it still does better than any of its competitors. While it does a lot of things brilliantly, there’s only one thing that it does better than any other franchise, only one thing that still makes it stand out.


The real secret of Star Wars’ success is that it has a bunch of really cool spaceships in it.


 

At a glance, this obviously sounds ridiculous, but let's look a little closer. What is the most memorable moment in the Star Wars franchise? There's a lot to choose from, but a very common answer would be the very first shot from the very first film. What is the first thing we see in this shot? A really cool spaceship flying above a desert planet. That ship, the rebel alliance vessel Tantive IV, is a weird-looking thing, a bizarre mish-mash of blocks and conical frustums backed by a panel of eight glowing lights. It’s fascinating to look at, which helps to make this a great opening shot.


But then something else appears which elevates the shot from great to legendary. It’s an Imperial I-class Star Destroyer, the Devastator, a spaceship that dominates the Tantive IV in both size and coolness. You don’t need me to describe it, you’re already picturing it in your head - I’ll only note the genius of its long, triangular shape, allowing its massive size to grow more and more apparent as it slowly enters the shot. At this point, we don’t know who any of the characters are. We’ve never heard of Luke Skywalker and we’re certainly not invested in his hero’s journey. All we know is that a really cool spaceship is being chased by a much bigger, much cooler spaceship. Some people would argue that Star Wars has never topped this moment, and they have a strong case.


George Lucas behind-scenes on the set of Star Wars standing next to a model of a Star Destroyer
In reality, the Star Destroyer model was about half the size of the Tantive IV model

Many other candidates for Star Wars’ best moments also involve spaceships. The breathtaking attack on the Death Star, Holdo ramming Snoke’s cruiser at hyperspeed, the AT-AT assault on Hoth [1]. Are there other things going on in these moments that make them great? Yes. Would they even come close to being great if they didn’t feature really cool spaceships doing really cool things? No, they wouldn’t. Of course, there are iconic moments in Star Wars that don’t have a single spaceship in them, like Han and Leia’s exchange before he gets frozen in carbonite, Vader’s reveal of Luke’s true parentage, or an older Luke enjoying a very fresh glass of milk. These are great moments of drama, romance and comedy, but a lot of films provide moments like that. The great moments in Star Wars that are unique, that you would never be able to find in any other film series, all feature really cool spaceships.


No other major franchise featuring spaceships comes close, either because their spaceships are secondary to other elements of the franchise (Avatar, the MCU) or they are grounded in a greater level of realism (Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica). Because Star Wars is not a work of science-fiction but of science fantasy, its spaceships are gloriously unrealistic phantasmagoria, its closest analogues to be found only in animation [2].

What’s more, many iconic elements of the series that don’t feature spaceships are nonetheless spaceship-adjacent in the way they combine technology with wonder. Boba Fett famously became a beloved character because his high-tech armour looks cool. Even Darth Vader, often cited as the most iconic and famous villain in the world, wouldn’t be nearly as popular if his armour wasn’t incredibly cool. Another key element in Star Wars’ appeal that it does better than anything else? Lightsabers. Several of the best parts of Star Wars are its lightsaber fights. What is a lightsaber, if not the spaceship of swords? And what is high-tech armour, if not the spaceship of clothing?


 

To put it a bit less flippantly, the most memorable parts of Star Wars succeed not just because of the power of their storytelling, but because of the power of their design. Design has been an integral element of Star Wars since the beginning; of the many people credited with making Star Wars a success, concept artist Ralph McQuarrie is right up at the top with people like composer John Williams, special effects artist John Dykstra and sound designer Ben Burtt. McQuarrie was responsible for Star Wars’ unique visual aesthetic, adding a lived-in, grounded texture to the wondrous and bizarre machines, creatures and planets of the Star Wars galaxy. His work proved that visual design should not be treated as window dressing or an afterthought, but as something that can make or break a film’s success.


I’m not for a moment suggesting that great design should be prioritised over great storytelling. There are countless beautifully designed films with poor storytelling that have failed critically and commercially, while countless beautifully told stories have succeeded despite poor or generic design. However, while great design cannot make a film work on its own, it can make something that’s already good into something phenomenal. The design is something that enhances the story, deepens it. In some cases, great design is the same thing as great storytelling. The scrappy, junkyard look of the Millennium Falcon helps to tell the story of Han Solo and Chewbacca, giving insights into their histories and underdog personalities that makes us want to root for them. We can immediately understand the monstrous threat of the Empire before we know anything about them, thanks to the imposing, foreboding designs of its machinery and armour. The storytelling influences on Star Wars from Westerns and Samurai films are enhanced by the costume designs for Han Solo and Darth Vader, helping the audience to understand and believe that one of them is a charming rogue and the other is a disciplined warrior. In short, there’s nothing good in Star Wars that great design hasn’t made better. For any designer, or anyone planning to work with a designer, that’s something to keep in mind.


An actor dressed in a cowboy outfit next to a poster for the film Seven Samurai featuring a prominent Samurai in a helmet
Westerns and Samurai films were huge influences on Star Wars in their themes, storytelling and design

But this all raises an important question: which Star Wars film has the coolest spaceships? Could there be some sort of ranking, possibly in listicle form? And would such a list track closely to a ranking of the films overall quality?


Find out next week, when I rank all 11 live-action Star Wars films by spaceship coolness.


 

[1] AT-ATs are spaceships. A spaceship is defined as a vehicle that travels through outer space. The AT-ATs are vehicles designed for travelling on the surface of planets. Where are those planets located? Outer space. Q.E.D.


[2] The stunning airships and machines in Studio Ghibli films, like Castle in the Sky and Howl’s Moving Castle, make me wonder what a Miyazaki space opera would look like.