How pop culture shaped Star Wars through the decades

Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill in Star Wars (1977). Photo by Sunset Boulevard - ©
Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill in Star Wars (1977). Photo by Sunset Boulevard - © /

Popular culture has undoubtedly had a profound effect on Star Wars ever since A New Hope first blasted into theatres in 1977. George Lucas himself will be the first to admit that the idea of Star Wars came from a wide variety of influences.

From Joseph Campbell’s stories to Flash Gordon and Kurosawa samurai films, Star Wars has many different cultural aspects to thank for becoming the series that we know today. Still, just as the times evolve through the decades, so too does pop culture, include movies. The Star Wars franchise may provide some of the best examples of this evolution.

One of the biggest aspects of change can be seen simply in the way that these films were made. George Lucas was a pioneer in both practical and digital effects. He founded effects studio Industrial Light & Magic in 1975 for the sole purpose of creating the mythology of A New Hope. The ingenuity of ILM’s work can be seen throughout the original trilogy, and since then has gone on to influence the production of numerous other films.

A New Hope is sometimes considered “the most expensive low-budget movie ever made,” even by the creator himself. Mark Hamill noted that everything from his lightsaber to the Force effects were practical shots, something that fans and filmmakers alike appreciate and tried to emulate.

However, just as the times change, filmmaking must move forward as well. This may be most clearly seen in the jump from 1983’s Return of the Jedi to 1999’s The Phantom Menace. While there were still a variety of miniatures and practical effects used in the prequels, the number of digital shots used on The Phantom Menace was astronomical. Animation director Rob Coleman described the visual effects process in an interview with Syfy:

"There was so much work, and to give you a comparison, the previous show I’d supervised was Men in Black and we had 200 visual effect shots in that film. They were projecting at the early stages of The Phantom Menace that there would be 2000. It was a magnitude beyond my ability to even process."

The number of digital effects used continued to climb as the prequels were rounded out. By the time that Lucasfilm released The Force Awakens in 2015, ILM was creating hundreds of digital effects for each scene in the movie. Today, digital animation is a huge part of Hollywood, and the film industry often relies on effects shots in action-heavy blockbusters.

Star Wars has the unique distinction of paving the way for both practical and digital effects. While the original trilogy taught filmmakers how to use the ingenuity of the camera to create the shot they were looking for, the newer films can be seen as a mastery of digital moviemaking. No matter the form, there is no question that pop culture has had a vast impact on the way Star Wars is created behind the camera.

Much more important than what is behind the lens, though, is what the audience views in the theater on opening night. The biggest social change in Star Wars can perhaps be seen through the actors and actresses themselves, especially as the mindsets of Hollywood executives have evolved through the decades.

When A New Hope was released in 1977, there were almost no women in the film. The only woman with a leading role in the entire trilogy is Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia. In fact, a 2015 video by New York Magazine found that, excluding Leia, the original trilogy has exactly 63 seconds of spoken dialogue from women. This is out of three movies with a runtime of 386 minutes.

People of color did not exactly fare much better in the original films, either. The only notable African-American character on screen is Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams. While Darth Vader’s iconic voice is portrayed by James Earl Jones, the actor himself is never seen onscreen and was rarely featured on the set. In fact, Jones was kept so isolated that he never even met Carrie Fisher until 2014 when they both guest-starred on The Big Bang Theory. 

Times changed significantly, though, as the decades passed from the original trilogy. So, too, did the mindsets of many of the filmmakers involved with the new era of Star Wars. By the time the prequel trilogy rolled around, big-name actresses like Natalie Portman appeared in the films, and Ashley Eckstein’s Ahsoka Tano became a beloved animated character. Samuel L. Jackson portrayed Mace Windu, one of the most popular Jedi in the franchise.

However, representation for both women and people of color really took off in the sequel trilogy. Daisy Ridley’s Rey became this generation’s Jedi heroine, and she was joined by many other female talents, including Kelly Marie Tran and Lupita Nyong’o. Carrie Fisher made her triumphant return in all three films as well, even appearing posthumously in The Rise of Skywalker. 

There were also a number of Black actors and people of other ethnicities as well. In the leading cast, we got the addition of Finn, played by John Boyega. And Oscar Isaac became the first Latino actor to have a starring role in a Star Wars film. Other important characters also joined in the later films of the trilogy, such as Naomi Ackie’s Jannah, who appears alongside Billy Dee Williams in The Rise of Skywalker.

However, it does need to be said that even with the largest cast of representation in the newer films, there is still a long way to go for Hollywood to use these characters in meaningful ways. John Boyega has been vocal about his disappointment with Finn’s character arc, and he is not the only one that has spoken out against the treatment of minority characters in the franchise.

Clearly, there is still a lot of work to do before representation in the movie industry is up to the standards that we have come to expect in today’s world. However, there has obviously been an important and major evolution in the Hollywood casting department, and Star Wars is no exception.

Hopefully, with cultural influences continuing to leave their mark on a variety of industries, we will be able to see the next generation of Star Wars films be just as inclusive and groundbreaking as the previous. From the filmmaking processes and effects to the people donning wardrobes, one can only guess what the next big cultural change will be in a galaxy far, far away.

Related Story. Star Wars Day 2021 gift guide. light

For more, keep up with Dork Side of the Force.