Monday, August 29, 2016

Ask JKM a Question: Is Star Wars a positive or negative influence on sci-fi cinema?

A reader, Beth, writes:

I recently read your book Science Fiction and Fantasy Films of the 1970s and would like some clarification on a particular point.  

I realize I might be reading between the lines, but do you believe that Star Wars had a negative impact on science fiction cinema?

Hi Beth, that’s a terrific question.

What my book said -- and the idea I stand by -- is that Star Wars dramatically changed the nature of the science fiction cinema (and science fiction TV, for that matter). 

I feel I can make that case without arguing pro or con regarding the value of Star Wars influence.  But since you asked, I will argue my side too.

First, the case that Star Wars changed the sf cinema:

Before Star Wars, the science fiction cinema of the 1970s was concerned primarily with two ideas: apocalypse and dystopia. 

Thus we had films such as No Blade of Grass (1970) the Planet of the Apes sequels (1970-1974), The Omega Man (1971), Z.P.G. (1972), Zardoz (1973), Soylent Green (1973) and Logan’s Run (1976) to name just a few of the titles.

George Lucas himself began his sci-fi career with a film in this dystopian mode: THX-1138 (1971).

Following the blockbuster trajectory of Star Wars, a strong fantasy and swashbuckling component came into the genre. 

Escapism became the key defining factor of sf cinema.

We had films such as Star Crash (1977), Message from Space (1978), and so on. Notice that some of these titles seem to have a grounding not in science fiction, necessarily, but in Western movie tropes translated to the final frontier.

Even James Bond went to space in Moonraker (1979).

Instead of pondering the end of the world, or the future shape of mankind, many post-Star Wars films featured adventure, mysticism and multi-colored laser battles instead.  Politely put, this shift could be described as a dumbing-down; a movement away from big, controversial ideas and towards special effects showcases.

Yet it is undeniable that Star Wars proved that science fiction could succeed at the box office in a big way, and therefore I judge its influence as quite positive.  

The film itself is brilliantly-achieved, a blast of raw energy and hope in a (largely) cynical and down-beat decade. The film is a lot of fun, but let's not forget that it is something beyond entertainment. It presented us, in meticulous detail, the brilliant idea of a "lived in" universe. It re-purposed and re-imagined old serial tropes in a way that made them feel fresh

Without the arrival of Star Wars, additionally, it is doubtful that Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) would have been made.

Without Star Wars, we might not have gotten Alien (1979), a truly magnificent film in terms of production design, and its revolutionary view of space travel (blue collar space truckers, for lack of a better term). 

Even some films from the immediate post-Star Wars era that have been widely dismissed as Star Wars knock-offs had something of value, philosophically, to offer. The trippy and dark ending of The Black Hole (1979), elevates that movie above its juvenile shoot-em-up qualities. 

Similarly, Glen Larson’s theatrical version of Battlestar Galactica (1978) was really a fascinating Cold War allegory worrying that we would sell out our nuclear store for the possibility of a fake peace with the Soviet Union.  It was Peace Through Strength…In Space...with chrome robots.

So a careful reviewer with an eye towards history could say that Star Wars changed science fiction cinema -- moving it into deep space and other galaxies, and elevating the escapist aspect of the genre -- but that it didn’t gut the science fiction cinema of its guiding principle: to comment on mankind, his nature, and his future.

Yes, Star Wars was so successful that Hollywood producers fell all over themselves getting silly, empty-headed “space” fantasy movies into theaters. 

But other, cleverer producers, saw that Star Wars gave them an opening to work in a genre that was suddenly incredibly popular. By the 1980s, the success of Star Wars had laid the groundwork for big-screen, big-budget adaptations of the works of Frank Herbert and Arthur C. Clarke, for example.

So, no I don't judge Star Wars' existence of influence as negative.

On intellectual and critical grounds, I would not want to see Star Wars subtracted from film history.  Not merely because I feel it is a great and worthwhile film, but because I feel it opened the doorway for a lot of great movies, even if its success altered the nature of science fiction for a few years.

On personal grounds, I would also not want to take Star Wars out of film history. As a second grader, the film was revelation to me. It changed the direction of my life in so many ways.

Now, I feel this way today, I might add, as a qualifier. 

We’ll be getting a new Star Wars movie every year for now until eternity. Disney is strip-mining the property, and this will make Star Wars seem less like a special event, and more routine.

Let’s make a date to revisit this discussion. Ask me again in five years if Star Wars has had a positive influence on the cinema of ideas. 

Don’t forget to ask me your questions at


  1. John, excellent thoughts on STAR WARS(1977). As children, when we saw it in 1977 it was just "Star Wars", not Episode IV:A New Hope, yet. I am sure Paramount would have just made Star Trek:Phase II television series, instead of The Motion Picture, without Star Wars arrival in '77. What FORBIDDEN PLANET(1956) did for science-fiction films in the '50s, STAR WARS(1977) did in the '70s. A positive change in the cinema.


  2. I agree with your points. I would also add that Star Wars put the nail in the coffin of what I would term "space age" science fiction. Beginning with films like Rocketship XM and continuing through to 2001: A Space Odyssey, audiences were fascinated with the idea of exploring space using science and technology as we perceived it at the time (e.g., rockets, space stations as launching platforms, planetary colonies, etc.). With NASA's winding down of manned space missions, there was a sense that the race to Mars and other planets would never happen. Stars Wars came along and basically said, "We don't need no stinking science!" It was back to Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, only presented in a way that looked more like the technology we became familiar with during that "space age" era.

  3. Honestly, I feel it had both a major positive and major negative influence on film.