Science-fiction fans and movie buffs in general have cause to celebrate on this day in 1977, when 20th Century Fox releases George Lucas’ space odyssey Star Wars.
After Lucas’ second feature film, American Graffiti (1973), became a hit, Fox agreed to put up $9.5 million for the writer-director’s next project. After four years in production, including location shots in Tunisia and Death Valley, California, Star Wars was ready for its release. Its relatively unknown cast featured Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, who teams with the roguish Han Solo (Harrison Ford) to rescue Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from captivity on a space station commanded by the menacing Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones). The alien creatures, massive space station, elaborate space battles and other special effects came courtesy of Lucas’ company, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM).
Though Fox released Star Wars in only 42 theaters, it primed its target audience of science-fiction fans with a massive publicity campaign. By the end of its first week, the film had made $3 million, and by the end of the summer it would rake in some $100 million. Adjusting for inflation, its box-office haul was second only to Gone With the Wind. In addition to its commercial success, Star Wars was well received by critics and was nominated for 10 Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won in six categories, mostly technical, and received an additional Oscar for Special Achievement in Sound Editing.
The success of Star Wars was credited with reviving the science-fiction film genre, which had previously been considered highly unprofitable, and–along with Steven Spielberg’s 1975 hit Jaws–with introducing the concept of the summer blockbuster. It also sparked a Hollywood trend away from smaller films and toward big-budget action movies targeted at young audiences. Lucas would follow up on the success of his hit movie with two sequels, The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983), fueling a huge marketing juggernaut that included clothing, toys, videos and other merchandise. The popularity of the Star Wars franchise lasted well into the 1990s, and was encouraged by a theatrical re-release of the trilogy in 1997.
Starting in the late 1990s, Lucas released a new series of Star Wars movies, set in a time period before the original trilogy and featuring a new, younger cast (notably Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen) and an updated arsenal of special-effects technology. Though the three newer films–Stars Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999), Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)–were all huge-box office hits, they failed to match the critical acclaim garnered by the original series.