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Popular Culture Without... Star Wars

By Ryan Fleming

On the 25th of May 1977 Star Wars was released in the United States, it was a film almost every studio in Hollywood had turned down and even the one that did was not convinced it would be a success. It became the highest grossing film of all time shortly after it’s release, and by 2019 was the third highest grossing film worldwide adjusted for inflation spawning nine subsequent films and counting. What if it had never been made? Within a year of its release its effect on film and television production was already impactful, it ushered in a slew of blockbusters throughout the 1980s that are the guiding light for film studios today, and its effect on the science fiction genre of films in particular was profound. None of this would have come to pass had George Lucas never received the backing to produce his homage to old film serials. With no Star Wars released in 1977, effects would quickly be felt in the world of television as one franchise would not get a chance to make it off a ground and another would not see a change of tactic, as well as in a world of film where a prominent studio would not see a way to change their rudderless direction and a longstanding series of spy films would not feel the need to venture out of this world.

No Star Wars means right away that the US film and television scene of the late 1970s is radically altered. William Friedkin’s Sorcerer does not become the box office flop it was in our history where it had the rotten luck to open in cinemas the month after Star Wars, but on the other hand The Star Wars Holiday Special is never produced – so there are some small mercies here.

Star Wars was not the only science fiction idea struggling to get off the ground in 1970s Hollywood. Amongst what are no doubt many others never produced and lost to the sands of the time is Glen A. Larson’s Battlestar Galactica. Drawing from his own Mormon faith as well as the ancient astronaut theories of Erich von Däniken, Larson would finally find a willing backer in NBC Universal for his science fiction concept following the release of Star Wars. The pilot telemovie “Saga of a Star World” was at the time the most expensive television pilot produced and was released theatrically in some international markets. The series would be short-lived being cancelled after only one season, ironically becoming caught up in a plagiarism lawsuit between 20th Century Fox and Universal over similarities between it and Star Wars. Universal for their part countersued Fox citing similarities between Star Wars and their own Buck Rogers serials of the 1930s. The idea would be reimagined in the 2000s and go on the garner incredible critical acclaim and becoming one of the rare science fiction television series to meet with both critical and commercial mainstream success, and it never would have happened without Star Wars blazing a path for its predecessor to be made.

It might seem odd that Star Wars could have such a profound effect on a British series of spy films, but Bond series producer Albert ‘Cubby’ Broccoli was nothing if not an astute businessman with an eye for trends. The end credits of 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me promised “James Bond Will Return in For Your Eyes Only”, but the release of Star Wars convinced Broccoli to take Bond on a space themed adventure for his next film and thus Moonraker was made. It would become the highest grossing film in the series at the time but would garner some criticism for its outlandish plot, necessitating the next film (For Your Eyes Only) becoming a much more conventional thriller. Without Star Wars, Bond never goes into space and For Your Eyes Only is made instead likely as a smaller scale film following The Spy Who Loved Me. A lack of Moonraker may also mean Roger Moore does not return for a fifth performance as 007, as he had been negotiating his participation on a film-by-film basis since The Spy Who Loved Me. In our own timeline before For Your Eyes Only in 1981 there was speculation he might not return and Broccoli considered other actors including Lewis Collins, Ian Ogilvy, Michael Jayston, perennial candidate Michael Billington, and future Bond Timothy Dalton. Dalton nearly got the role in For Your Eyes Only but did not care for the direction the series was going in following Moonraker. Without Star Wars to inspire the success that Moonraker became, the 1980s may never have saw Roger Moore return to the role of James Bond and Timothy Dalton take the reins approximately six years before he did historically in 1987’s The Living Daylights.

Star Wars was not the only big science fiction phenomenon when it was released in 1977; though no new live-action material had been produced for the better part of a decade Star Trek still commanded a large and loyal following. So much so that its fans were able to lobby the US government to name their inaugural space shuttle after the fictional spacecraft from their favourite television programme. The 1970s had seen several failed attempts to make a film based on the television series and by 1977 these efforts had turned to bringing Star Trekback to the small screen. Phase II was intended to be the flagship programme of Paramount’s new television service but plans for the latter soon fizzled out and studio executives decided the pilot for Phase II would work better as a theatrical film. By now Star Wars had proven their earlier doubts over the viability of a science fiction film were incorrect. Without Star Wars, it is likely that the Star Trek franchise would have stuck with the small screen and gone ahead with Phase II. When that programme ended, the viability of both a Star Trek film and a series without the original cast would still be unknown. It was the success of Star Wars that made Star Trek: The Motion Picture and Star Trek: The Next Generation possible on the big and small screen, respectively, as well as all their subsequent sequels, prequels, and spin-offs.

In the absence of Star Wars, some of the biggest franchises in film and television would either not exist or would exist in radically different formats. Historically the next highest grossing films in 1977 were Smokey and the Bandit, directed by Hal Needham, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, directed by Steven Spielberg. How would American cinema have developed if these were the two highest grossing films of the year and there was no Star Wars earning almost twice as much as both combined?

Star Wars was not the progenitor of the blockbuster phenomenon, that distinction belongs to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. What Star Wars proved though was that there was a potential for science fiction blockbusters that would go on to define a decade of cinema. It also proved that the success of Jaws was not unique, going so far as to dethrone its piscine predecessor as the highest grossing film in history up to that time, and between the two of them saw the transition from the New Hollywood era of the 1970s to the blockbuster era of the 1980s and beyond.

There were a slew of blockbuster science fiction and fantasy films ushered in by the release of Star Wars. These include its sequels The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as Alien and its sequel Aliens, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Ghostbusters, and the Back to the Future trilogy. Would any of these have been made without Star Wars blazing a trail for the science fiction blockbuster? Alien was only released in 1979 thanks to the success of Star Wars, and without it perhaps it might linger further in limbo and even if it was still produced it would likely be on a much more modest budget. Even if it still got a sequel and James Cameron still directed, he would not be able to prove his capabilities as a blockbuster director with it, which might lead to no Terminator 2: Judgment Day, no Titanic, and no Avatar. E.T. had begun life as a horror sequel to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, without Star Wars perhaps it is not re-tooled as a heart-warming blockbuster. Perhaps Ghostbusters would be made more low-key in line with earlier 1980s comedy films like The Blues Brothers, Stripes, and Trading Places. Perhaps Back to the Future is forced to adopt a more risqué tone in line with other teen films at the time to go into production, an issue that saw it originally turned down by every studio in Hollywood (except for Disney, who turned it down for being too risqué). Like many other films in the 1980s, it was eventually given a chance by Steven Spielberg.

Steven Spielberg is perhaps the most significant filmmaker of the late twentieth century. Coming off a string of television successes like the telefilm Duel and the first episode of Columbo (“Murder By the Book”) Spielberg broke into Hollywood and would later change its trajectory forever with the release of Jaws in what would become the first summer blockbuster. He was also a great personal friend of George Lucas and with the two at the height of their successes in the early 1980s together they would create another homage to film serials in Raiders of the Lost Ark and subsequent Indiana Jones films. Without Star Wars, we might never have seen Harrison Ford in the fedora wielding the bullwhip. Spielberg badly wanted to make a James Bond film and lobbied series producer Cubby Broccoli several times for the role in the late 1970s. Broccoli turned him down, and Lucas presented the concept of Indiana Jones as an alternative. With the idea of a successful film inspired by old serials not a proven concept perhaps Spielberg would have continued to lobby Broccoli for the opportunity to direct a Bond film. With the success of Raiders of the Lost Ark and then E.T. Spielberg was practically granted carte blanche in Hollywood as a director, producer and executive producer. Failures like 1941 were forgotten and the films overseen by Spielberg would dominate the box office for the 1980s with his name prominently displayed on the poster. Amongst these were Poltergeist, Gremlins, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Young Sherlock Holmes, An American Tale, Innerspace, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and The Land Before Time. In giving these films a chance to be made he made the careers of a diverse range of directors like Don Bluth, Chris Columbus, Joe Dante, Barry Levinson, and Robert Zemeckis. None of them may have made it big without Spielberg. For both Lucas and Spielberg, perhaps without Star Wars they are able to make more adult films throughout the 1980s without fear of compromising their family friendly image. This was the reason Lucas took his name off the erotic thriller Body Heat as producer, perhaps in this world he or even Spielberg direct the film. Perhaps with different trends in Hollywood Body Heat could prove a very successful film without Star Wars.

Star Wars did not create the summer blockbuster, but it did alter the trajectory of the new trend in Hollywood filmmaking. Without it proving that so many people would be willing to pay for a science fiction blockbuster the blockbusters in an alternate 1980s might be more down to earth. Jaws proved the potential for success of a high concept, if not fantastical, blockbuster. It might be this that sets the trends for future blockbusters rather than Star Wars. It saw a plethora of imitators in any case, most of them taking the central conceit of an animal or group of animals running amok in a small town. Would we still have seen blockbusters entirely replace New Hollywood with Jaws as the only example of one by the late 1970s? It is very possible, even without Sorcererbombing at the box office against Star Wars the knives might still come out for New Hollywood with the excesses of Michael Cimino’s film Heaven’s Gate. There might also be another new trend of blockbuster to take the place of Star Wars. Superman was only the second highest grossing film of 1978, second only to the musical Grease. Without Star Wars, Superman might become the standard for science fiction films of the 1980s perhaps even kicking off the trend for comic book adaptations in earnest much earlier than we saw historically. Though it might be that the special effects required to bring some of the characters of DC and Marvel to the big screen might not be advanced enough without the countless innovations of Star Wars. The graphics department of Lucasfilm that worked on Star Wars would go on to be spun off as its own company in 1986, becoming Pixar Animation Studios and making many successful computer animated films like Toy Story, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Up, and Inside Out. Without Star Wars the trajectory of this division and later company would be radically different.

Without Star Wars as the success it was the trends it started that dominated most of 1980s cinema there would be a very different film industry. Blockbusters as they existed might be more down to earth, but still high concept, and might carry forward more of a New Hollywood legacy than we saw historically. Conversely, superhero films might have taken the place of these science fiction blockbusters inspired by Lucas’s Star Wars and championed by Steven Spielberg. With the superhero genre having a different heritage than other science fiction the success of these films might not have such a profound effect on the genre as a whole than Star Wars did.

The popular culture landscape without Star Wars would be a very different place from immediately after its historical release through to the present day. It’s huge success immediately saw properties like Battlestar Galactica and Alien enter production and established franchises like James Bond and Star Trek change direction. The trend of science fiction blockbusters that was so prolific in the 1980s might never come to pass, nor would the myriad of films that can be traced to the shared success of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg in the post-Star Wars industry. The trends that saw a move from director driven New Hollywood films to studio driven blockbusters may already have been in place by 1977, but without Star Wars subsequent films may owe more to Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Superman, or even Smokey and the Bandit than to monomyths and film serials. Further from this the number of filmmakers inspired by either the story and character of Star Wars or by its technical innovations is insurmountable, without George Lucas’s silly space movie many of them would go on to have radically different careers or not enter filmmaking at all.



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