AC Douglas is at it again, posting a provocative shot across the bow of our mass conceptions and trying to provoke a response. In this case, it is about Star Wars a movie which he feels (to put it mildly) is a big steaming pile of horse crap. In his blunt yet eloquent manner- "dialogue so mindless... George Lucas' pretentious and risible... acting so excreable... special effects so tacky..." you can almost see the vein in his forehead throb,"- he offers his assessment of a cultural phenomenon that has left him behind. And asks of us, his readers, I would be most grateful to any weblogger reading this who's a fan of the Star Wars series who would provide on his weblog a cogent and non-fan explanation as to why these supremely dumb movies are as widely popular as they are and have been for the better part of the last quarter-century.
Now of course there are a lot of givens to this particular framing of the issue that one must accept in order to discuss it. The first is that the Star Wars movies are bad. AC Douglas is asking "why do people like these bad movies" essentially, which is a different question from "why do people think these movies are good" or "why do you think these movies are good" or whatever. Hence the "a cogent and non-fan explanation". Although at the same time, he wants a fan to provide a non-fan explanation. Which may be a bit difficult.
I am an erstwhile Star Wars fan. I grew up watching the movies, and (last time I saw them) still love The Empire Strikes Back. I think Star Wars is okay, and Return of the Jedi is fine except for the parts that George Lukas' propensity for treating children like brain-damaged chimpanzees didn't ruin. I hate the new ones. In fact, i would go so far as to say the new Star Wars movies are fairly indicative of absolutely everything wrong with Hollywood filmmaking today. But that is an argument for a different day.
There are two kinds of Star Wars fans, and the appeal to each needs to be treated separately. The first are the younger folk, like myself ("Return" is the only one I was alive to see in the theater) who grew up on the movies and I think, AC, that their attachment can simply be explained by that fact. These movies have the pull of nostalgia, and let's face it, we grade the movies of our youth on a curve. Why else would anyone like The Wizard of Oz or It's a Wonderful Life? (please address your hatemail to firstname.lastname@example.org).
These movies of our youth can still involve us today. I get teary eyed and passionate trying to defend The Dark Crystal from its detractors. And it was due to this sense of nostalgia that I got talked into seeing all of the "Special Editions" of the first trilogy of the Star Wars movies and it is probably why at some point I'll get suckered into seeing "Revenge of the Attack of the Clone Sith Wookies" or whatever the fuck the new one is called.
So really, it is a very specific subset we're trying to explore here-- people who were old enough to know better, essentially. And I think it was a mix of several things:
1) Visual spectacle. Say what you will about the cheesiness of the special effects, but my parents remember the packed theater applauding the first time they saw hyperspace. Sure, it's a screen saver now, but back then?
2) Alternate worlds. This is the appeal of sci-fi. Even unimaginative sci-fi is pure imagination. Lukas created an alternate world filled with fantastical creatures, an alternate mythology (ripped off, sure, but who cares?) weird technology and people with British Accents.
3) That mythology. Sure it's a bit of the hero myth and some hokey spiritualism, but it really spoke to people. Can't really explain it, but it did. My dad taught Sunday School classes about "the force" and its relationship to Christian Science. People were fascinated by all of this stuff.
4) It is about a teenage boy who becomes an almost-all-powerful man. Mark Hamill (whose performance in the films I actually think is a little underrated) journeys from whiny little boy to bad ass over three movies. Not bad.
5) Carrie Fisher. Bikini.
6) It spoke in simple terms of black and white morality at a time when we were probably a bit tired of all the shades of grey around. This is why the Lord of the Rings movies are so immensely popular right now. 1977. Post Watergate, post Vietnam, post the Great American Moral Ambiguity Films. I think people may have wanted some certainty. Some good-vs.-bad, some old fashioned Grendel and Beowulf that they could play around with. This film gave them that.
You can argue that all of this is bull crap and people should know better but at least with these movies, they didn't and they don't. Certainly, AC is right that aesthetically these films fail the smell test (with the exception perhaps of Empire) so the answer must be somewhere culturally.