So rumour has it there’s this movie coming out this week… about a war? Or possibly more than one? Anyway, the original Star Wars has a few things wrong with it, but it also deserved its success. In some ways, the new film is coming into an atmosphere similar to the atmosphere that made the first film a hit. Star Wars was huge in part because it filled an underserved market niche: escapist popular entertainment. Yes, there really was a time when big Hollywood movies weren’t escapist enough.
One reason the early 1970s is looked back on as a golden age of cinema is that it was a time when the old escapist tropes seemed to be dying out. There was a sense that audiences, in North America and around the world, had grown up. Even old establishment movie figures, who had mostly been peddling beautiful heroes and happy endings for decades, believed this. When Alfred Hitchcock released Frenzy in 1972, he explained to his admirer François Truffaut why the film mostly did without the once-obligatory romance plot: “The public has developed. There’s no more need for the final kiss.” Perhaps the biggest blockbuster hit of the early ’70s was The Godfather, a rather bleak movie with a depressing ending. It was common to hear that, in the wake of Vietnam and Watergate, audiences no longer believed in the old comforting myths of classic Hollywood.
This was basically wishful thinking on the part of artists, or at least a misreading of public taste. Things like wholesome, heroic characters and happy endings are just too appealing to go out of fashion for long. Before Star Wars, Sylvester Stallone had already recognized this by getting his screenplay for Rocky produced. That movie had a coating of ’70s realism—Rocky isn’t a conventional-looking hero, and he doesn’t win the fight—but it was still a conscious throwback to movies where you could root for the hero without irony, where the main character was unambiguously a good guy. It was a huge hit that won the Oscar a few months before Star Wars came out. The mood was one of longing for the old clichés that Hollywood had supposedly left behind. This was especially strong in the U.S., where the bicentennial year had brought back old-fashioned patriotism—or, rather, revealed that it never really went away; artists and writers just assumed patriotism was impossible after Vietnam and Watergate, but most people never got the memo.
So it was a perfect time for Star Wars. Star Wars was an unabashed throwback movie, full of references to old serials, American Westerns, Japanese sword-fight movies, and virtually any other kind of old-fashioned genre film. But most of all, it was a movie with morality that was black-and-white, sometimes literally (the old cowboy villains wore black hats; Darth Vader is like a black hat that can walk). There are good causes, and there are bad causes. Good will triumph over evil because good is nicer; Han Solo pretends not to care, but takes up arms against the bad guys the way Bogart took up arms against the Nazis in Casablanca. The many references in the film all point backwards to a time when movies were simpler, and life seemed simpler. Even the music tells you exactly what to feel at all times, the way classic Hollywood scores directed our emotions through Wagnerian leitmotifs.
In other words, Star Wars did all the things movies supposedly didn’t do any more in the 1970s, and it brought back all the things that the audience was supposedly too mature to enjoy. The modern audience loved it. Kids were happy to have a movie that was for them, and talked to them instead of down to them. (The ’70s were mostly a dismal time for “family friendly” movies, with Disney churning out a lot of modestly budgeted, modestly inspired cartoons and live-action films. Star Wars brought a decent budget and big-league craftsmanship back to that type of film.) Grown-ups enjoyed the throwback to the movies of their childhoods. Everyone liked the heroes and happy endings, because, well, people have always liked those things, and probably always will.
That’s why it’s a mistake to say, as it used to be said, that Star Wars brought an end to the ’70s golden era of mature filmmaking. That era was probably already ending before Star Wars came along, but in any case, it ended because the idea of a “mature” or “developing” audience was a myth. Audience taste can change, and stories don’t have to be escapist to find a wide audience, but the basic desire for escapism never really goes away. That meant the New Hollywood approach was not sustainable. If it hadn’t been Star Wars it would have been something else. People had suffered through the ending of Chinatown, or watched glumly as one movie after another told them that the world was terrible. What they wanted to hear was that good guys will defeat bad guys, that the killer shark will die in the end, that underdogs can go the distance. All they needed was to see those traditional ideas presented well in movies like Star Wars, and they would react with gratitude.
There may be something similar going on when it comes to the big movies of 2015. It’s not a comparison that holds up too strongly, because most of the big movies these days are escapist; it’s on television that bleakness and darkness reign. But the unexpectedly huge performance of Jurassic World may have had something to do with how much of a nostalgic throwback the film was, albeit a throwback to the good old days of Spielberg and Lucas, rather than the good old days when Spielberg and Lucas were kids. Now Star Wars: The Force Awakens is being sold as a throwback to a simpler time: the time of the first three films, before Lucas’s prequel trilogy. The prequels are more confused in their morality, and follow a story progression that is downbeat and depressing: more like the ’70s movies that the original Star Wars was rebelling against. Whether it’s 1977 or 2015, people will always want to see a movie that rebels against bleakness and anti-heroism. The audience may change, but it never really “develops.” That’s not such a terrible thing.