In 1987 the Library of Congress accepted Star Wars among iconic films like The Maltese Falcon and Citizen Kane into its archive for its “cultural, historical, and aesthetic significance.”
Back in 1973, just a few years before its release, most executives could not fathom a science-fiction film entertaining a major audience. The franchise would shatter records on that front. But Star Wars wasn’t just popular. It engineered a cultural phenomenon.
Even though it relied heavily on a canon of science fiction, from John Carter of Mars to Flash Gordon, Star Wars felt like something totally new in its time. It brought the thrill of Westerns of cinema-past to an audience.
“We had westerns, pirate movies, all kinds of great things. Now they have The Six Million Dollar Man and Kojak. Where are the romance, the adventure, and the fun that used to be in practically every movie made?” creator and director George Lucas once said. “The word for this movie is fun.”
It wasn’t just fun, of course. His film was a classic good-versus-evil story, crafted using Joseph Campbell’s analysis of myths, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this universal framework of eternal struggle, it gave the American people a cathartic experience.
“[When] ruminating about the mythical stories,” writes Bruno Bettlenheim, author of The Uses of Enchantment, “certain inner tensions which are the consequence of events long past may be relieved.” At its release in 1977, the Cold War was well into its third decade. The public lived through acts of aggression, proxy conflicts, espionage paranoia, routine bomb drills, nuclear bunkers, and probably most drastic, the Cuban Missile Crisis.
“That’s no moon,” Ben Kenobi (played by Allan Guinness) says ominously introducing the Death Star to the movies heroes on the Millennium Falcon. And throughout the duration of the film, it wasn’t just the Death Star. In American minds, it represented the nuclear bomb.
The Emperor uses the Death Star to tighten its grip on star systems that would dare oppose him, we learn as Princess Leia and Grand Moff Tarkin debate the Empire’s sovereignty. Minutes later, he demonstrates the station’s power of mass destruction.
The parallels to the atomic bomb are immediately present. The weapon cannot be stopped except through a supernatural use of the Force, and it destroys targets completely. The Soviet Union used nuclear weapons to establish its power over the Eastern Bloc and check the United State’s influence abroad, while the US used the atom bomb to destroy two cities entirely and definitively end a conflict.
But Lucas’ point was not based in allegiances. He made a universal point against the mutual assured destruction doctrine of the day. He depicted Alderaan, a planet in a galaxy far, far away, with oceans, land mass, and an atmosphere like our own.
Imagine, the year is 1977 (maybe you remember) and you are an American watching a zany, campy space opera that probably looks like nothing you have seen. The terrain is shot in foreign countries, the spaceships are not just futuristic, but other-worldly, and aliens and droids share just as much screen time as humans. All of a sudden, this fantastical universe presents earth’s twin and within minutes, it’s destroyed. Whether conscious or not, Star Wars showed the cost of the political and military maneuvering of the age.
Then why does the Death Star come back just one movie later? Perhaps Lucas suffered the same lack of new ideas that The Matrix would later when it just added more Agent Smiths. Or did it mirror reality once again?
In 1980, President Ronald Reagan won the nation’s highest office on a platform against the detente of Jimmy Carter’s previous administration. The hard stance came in response to fears that the USSR would secretly rebuild its nuclear arsenal and the U.S. would no longer be able bring balance to the two ideological forces. By 1983 and the end of the original trilogy, the Rebel forces had once again destroyed a Death Star, this one in the process of being rebuilt.
However, Star Wars didn’t just mirror reality. It influenced reality. After its run in the late 70’s/early 80’s, the films instantly became a source of political language for the very Cold War it had depicted in art. In a series of speeches that escalated Cold War rhetoric, Reagan called the USSR an “evil empire” and described the nuclear struggle as “an extension of the age old struggle between good and evil.”
Beyond just words, Star Wars inspired the research of a new type of warfare. Intrigued by the film’s weaponry, Reagan created the Strategic Defense Initiative, nicknamed the “Star Wars Program,” that ran experiments to determine the viability of using lasers to defend against Soviet nuclear attacks. However, the laser technology never came to fruition and the apocalyptic battle station never came to earth.
In reflecting American anxiety over nuclear warfare, the Death Star’s presence and absence is telling. The second series of trilogies began in the decade of peace between the Cold War and the War on Terror. In keeping with reality, the initial conflict involves economic competition between the Trade Federation and the Republic similar to increasing Sino-American trade differences. The casualty count is low, though a swarm of droids are disposed of far from the Capital.
Similarly, the second episode, Attack of the Clones, pits proxy clones versus drones. The real developments involve Chancellor Palpatine (future Emperor) surreptitiously grabbing power and Anakin Skywalker (Darth Vader) growing out of a gifted youth and into a troubled teen.
Revenge of the Sith is the violent cap to the prequel trilogy, largely predetermined by the plot of the original movies. Even so, Lucas’ vision turns especially dark, featuring a scene where Anakin personally kills the youngest padawans in the purge of the Jedi.
This third episode is the only movie in its trilogy to be developed after the attacks of September 11 and the loss of innocent American lives. For a nation that identified with the light side, one can see the parallel between the surprise-targeting of Jedis by the defeated Sith and a war taken to American soil in a time of peace.
For all of the conflict of the early 2000s, America’s fear of the atom bomb had been replaced by acts of terror. That is, until 2011, when Iran opened the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant and North Korea conducted a series of increasingly serious tests. In July 2015, President Obama made a deal with Iran to limit their nuclear program much to the dismay of Ronald Reagan’s party. North Korea has not been deterred at all.
In 2015, the highly-anticipated reboot, The Force Awakens, featured new heroes, new villains, but a similar, aggrandized weapon of mass destruction. The First Order that filled the void of the Empire and Luke Skywalker didn’t build a Death Star, but created a Starkiller base. The super-weaponized ice planet would have produced the same results if not for Poe Dameron’s heroics. Now, three generations of Star Wars fans share adventures through space and a fantastical catharsis over nuclear warfare.
Will a symbol of mass destruction live on in the Star Wars‘ universe? Just this year, we experienced the latest scare of nuclear warfare as President Donald Trump and Supreme Leader Kim Jong Il swapped threats of annihilation. We, the American public, need it. We haven’t had a Luke Skywalker to disarm our governments and militaries of planet-killing weapons.
We can take a parable from the first film, A New Hope. As the Millennium Falcon is pulled in on the Death Star’s tractor beam, Han Solo vows, “They’re not going to get me without a fight.” Ben Kenobi replies, “You can’t win. But there are alternatives to fighting.”