The Birth of the Hero: How ‘Star Wars’ Changed Sci-Fi

Even as we approach fifty years since the release of ‘Star Wars: A New Hope’, we can still see its clear impact on the science fiction genre.

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When Star Wars, now known as Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, hit theaters in 1977, science fiction had barely wedged its way into the limelight. Films like Fantastic Voyages (1966) and Space Odyssey (1976) had gained traction as monumental science fiction stories, but it was Star Wars‘ debut that completely revived science fiction and sparked a craze. The public was familiar with tin robots and flying saucers from the 1950s, but no one had ever seen an epic, fantastical space opera like Star Wars.

Shortly after Star Wars‘ release, director Steven Spielberg released Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which was also another science fiction film. The two films broke the box office, and for the first time in so long, the biggest movies of the year were science fiction and reshaped the entire genre of sci-fi.

Storytelling to be Studied

Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi in Star Wars: A New Hope

So many of your favorite novels follow the traditional, well-known “hero’s journey“. Divergent, The Hunger Games, and even Harry Potter closely imitate the outline crafted by Joseph Campbell. While many scripts also follow Campbell’s outline, including The Matrix and The Lion King, Star Wars was the piece of media that most broadly popularized the template. After four drafts, creator George Lucas read Joseph Campbell’s outline and edited Star Wars to match Campbell’s structure. The outline turned the protagonist into a complex, unique hero in which the fate of the galaxy rested upon only his shoulders. Stakes were heightened, conflicts amassed, and a hero — the chosen one — was born.

Until Campbell told us what Star Wars meant […] we regarded it as a Saturday morning space movie.”

John Williams
Joseph Campbell's The Hero's Journey

With the Cold War coming to a close, the late 1970s was a time period when America desperately needed a hero. Star Wars presented a hesitant farm boy, shoved a laser sword in his hand, and delivered.

In an era when Americans had lost heroes in whom to believe, Lucas created a myth for our times.’

Andrew Gordon

Due to Star Wars’ incredible success and Lucas’ close work with Campbell’s notes, Star Wars is often used as an example for young writers learning about the “hero’s journey”. Just as George Lucas respected Joseph Campbell’s outline, Lucas unknowingly legitimized Campbell’s structure and created what would go on to be an industry standard.

The Special Effects Revolution

All Terrain Armored Transport (ATATs) from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

Visuals are essential to a compelling sci-fi story. From laser beams to space crafts, technology, unlike our current advancements, has always been a staple in science fiction. The portrayal of these futuristic technologies had not evolved in films since the 1950s until Star Wars came along. Computer-generated imagery had little to no place in film and science fiction, but the crew’s use of CGI made tremendous waves in the industry. Because of this, entire production companies were created solely based on Star Wars’ impact. For the second movie of the original trilogy, these companies were hired to craft more realistic special effects through miniatures, puppets, and CGI.

From the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back

All the sets and props were mostly handmade and physically rendered with just a touch of game-changing CGI. The increased investment in computer-generated imagery shifted the bounds of special effects and paved the way for CGI in science fiction, adding that hint of inventiveness that many other science fiction stories lacked.

The Worldbuilding of a Franchise

The view from Padme's apartment as the Jedi Temple burns from Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

Every great franchise usually comes in groups of three. Alien, Back to the Future, and The Terminator are only three of many iconic science fiction trilogies. But the form of a trilogy was not at all common before Star Wars. Even sequels were often seen as lesser films that never quite lived up to their predecessor, and yet George Lucas was determined to have a set of three to tell his story.

Many filmmakers at the time were inspired by George Lucas’ tactic. Steven Spielberg, in particular, was excited by the introduction of the trilogy, and it encouraged him to turn Raiders of the Lost Arc into the beginning of his infamous Indiana Jones trilogy.

Ahsoka preparing to battle Maul from Star Wars: The Clone Wars

And so, one film became a trilogy, which led to a prequel trilogy, and eventually a sequel trilogy with everything in between. Comics, television shows, and novels covered stories within the world of Star Wars and proved there was an audience for science fiction in every form of media. Toys, collectibles, and other forms of merchandise were made and sold in numbers never seen before. So even with large gaps between Lucas’ trilogies, he had merchandise and smaller stories on the side to engage fans and keep them invested in the franchise.

Rebels are gathered in Star Wars: A New Hope

No matter how you feel about Star Wars, you cannot deny its role as a pioneer in science fiction and film. With new Star Wars television shows and films still on the way, viewers are left to wonder what other molds Star Wars will shatter and continue to redefine in the near future.