It’s a compelling question. But in the end, it’s an impossible question to answer because of the widespread impact that Star Wars has had on business franchising, copyright licensing, pop culture, and now officially in the U.S., even religion. Yes, ‘Jedi’ will officially be an option to check on the next census. No more write-ins, my Jedi brethren! But the question remains, in an age where Star Wars fans are divided between defenders of the Prequel Trilogy and old guard assailants of George Lucas’ maligned Episodes I-III, are Prequel fans’ criticisms of the Original Trilogy right in saying they were overrated to begin with? That they would be outdated and laughed at today? Although I know the answer to those questions is ‘no’ from any learned film fan, its still an interesting thought: What impact would the original 1977 ‘Star Wars’ have at today’s box office? And I consider this question separate from analyzing the subsequent sequels, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, both of which created the religion and franchising property that we know today. So, in considering only the 1977 original Star Wars release…my answer is simple, it would still be a film held in high regard for its editing, ensemble cast of characters, outlandish setting, sound, and score.
First of all, Star Wars is a space opera. You cannot name a film of the space opera genre that has had both the commercial success and critical acclaim that Star Wars had in 1977. It quite simply was the first AND ONLY of its kind. Subsequent space opera films, including stories that inspired the making of Star Wars in the first place, can only attain cult classic status within genre fans like myself. Flash Gordon (1980), the original target of George Lucas and Gary Kurtz, is a mostly terrible film that attained cult status as a terrible film with awful special effects. Sales of Flash Gordon film merchandise are only here today because of its mention in Seth Macfarlane’s Ted. Frank Herbert’s Dune (1984), another huge influence on Star Wars (George Lucas’ early drafts appear to be right out of Herbert’s universe), is a Sci-Fi channel throwback shown on slow weekend afternoons to take up 4 hours of programming time. Disney’s own John Carter (2012) comes from one of the defining works of the space opera genre, Princess of Mars, written in 1917 and it, along with Chronicles of Riddick (2004), was a huge flop. These are epic flops and mostly terrible movies. Even Joss Whedon’s Serenity (2005) was a commercial flop, even though its a solid film of the space opera genre.
Yoda is not impressed with other space opera films.
The only space opera film to put together excellent filmmaking to achieve commercial success close to 1977 Star Wars is Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Critically, it put together the ensemble cast, notable if not original soundtrack and outlandish setting and editing pace to put it in a similar ballpark of successful space opera films, and that ballpark is small, but notable. And Star Wars gets there without the ‘Marvel’ stamp on it. Notable indeed.
Although its impossible to compare visual effects, its clear that George Lucas would have tried to push the barrier of visual effects no matter what the era. Strange Magic (2015) is said to have incredible animation, even if it doesn’t make up for lack of coherent story. And while George Lucas isn’t the director that we all wish he was, he did come up with the idea to cut together stock film of World War II dogfights to inspire his visual effects nerds to create the Death Star dogfights. That was unique in science fiction. Hell, the dogfight sequences in Star Wars are better than ones in Top Gun (I’m dead serious about this, look at the awful stock footage used in Top Gun).
Also, nothing, seriously, NOTHING, sounds like Star Wars. From Chewie’s growls, to Vader’s respiration, to the iconic ‘snap-hiss’ of a lightsaber, there is no movie that sounds like Star Wars. The sounds of Star Wars are all familiar to the audience, but foreign at the same time. That is a lauded feature of Star Wars that often gets overlooked.
Don’t get it twisted, Chewie’s got growl game.
There is a similar uniqueness of the ‘weathered’ or ‘lived-in’ galaxy that George Lucas created. Prior space films’ environments are sterile. From the Star Trek television series to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), space was a sterile, hospital-like world. George Lucas was the first one to create a dirty, industrial, weathered look for a space civilization to live in.
Star Wars was unique in these aspects and its tough to say that ‘Oh some other filmmaker would have thought that out in 40 years since 1977′. That’s a cop out. If a similar film would have come out today with the uniqueness of Star Wars, even without the cultural moment and subsequent impact of the original film, we would praise it for originality and uniqueness and difference from darker and more technical space films like Interstellar (2014) and Gravity (2013). Those films did not have the editing style as quick as Han Solo’s wit and soundtrack that creates the uniqueness of the Star Wars galaxy.
Some Clone Wars fans weren’t even born in 1998. Damn.
So yes, although we can pick apart the flaws of George Lucas’ direction and writing today, the 1977 Star Wars is an impressive combination of editing, characters, sound and score that no other space opera has ever put together. It’s not without flaws of course. Its not the most intricate storyline. Carrie Fisher’s accent is puzzlingly inconsistent. The camera direction isn’t groundbreaking outside the Death Star dogfights. But overall, there is a uniqueness and quality that earned it several Oscar nominations and a win for Best Editing. We may argue over the prequels, which we shouldn’t, they’re not good films. But the original film released in 1977 is a true cinematic masterpiece that we can’t take for granted. It could have easily been Flash Gordon. But it’s not. It’s Star Wars.
AND EITHER WAY, IN THE IMMORTAL WORDS OF BART SCOTT: “CAN’T WAIT!!!”