Friday, May 21, 2010

What If the Empire Never Struck Back?

Thirty years ago today, Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strkes Back made its theatrical debut. For thirty years, this film has turned people to the dork side and provided fodder for endless novels, video games, convention costumes, parodies, and who knows what else.

What if Empire Strikes Back had never been made?

Let's not mess with history just yet; let's assume that 1977's Star Wars was still the same influential hit that paved the way for Empire to be made in the first place. However, let's fiddle around with a few key circumstances that would jeopardize a sequel: unsuccessful contract negotiations, guild disputes, unacceptable scripts, budgetary woes, the utter failure of a spinoff holiday special, or a rare satisfaction with a job well done and no drive whatsoever to make another movie.

There are one-shot movies whose impact is felt as strongly as some of the biggest franchises. Think about The Jazz Singer, Citizen Kane, Psycho, Forrest Gump, or even The Blair Witch Project. Sometimes they're the topic of every water cooler conversation for a month; sometimes they accomplish something that's never been done before; and sometimes they change the face of cinema forever. Whether their time in the spotlight lasts a month or a century, they make their mark--and that's exactly what Star Wars did, even before Empire arrived on the scene.

The only difference is that Empire made that mark a permanent one.

Consider one possible scenario for a world without Empire: Countless filmmakers, toy companies, and anyone else out to make a quick buck try to capitalize on the popularity of Star Wars in every way imaginable--which is what actually happened, mind you--but without a superlative film like Empire to show who the real master is, eventually, one of the knockoffs becomes just unique and popular enough to contend with Star Wars.

But by now, time has distanced audiences far enough from Star Wars that films in the same vein are being compared less and less to the groundbreaking movie. No longer in the shadow of Star Wars, new films are free to be judged by their own merits. Instead of copying Star Wars or going in a completely different direction because they could never hope to compete with Star Wars, films start trying to top each other. A sci-fi revolution begins.

Instead of a single movie franchise spawning legions of loyal followers, sci-fi fans are divided. Every young geek grows up watching different works of science fiction. There are still classics, like Star Wars, that are required viewing, but nothing with the kind of legacy that Star Wars would leave behind with a strong sequel--nothing to trump any other film that's just as influential or unique. Films like Buckaroo Bonzai get thrown around in conversation as much as Blade Runner, which incidentally doesn't star Harrison Ford because a Star Wars sequel didn't help to steer his career in that direction.

Meanwhile, an interesting dichotomy arises: Because there is no Empire, science fiction does not become a mainstream genre. Star Wars is still an enjoyable flick that's accessible to the masses, but it never becomes big enough to convert the generation who missed it in theaters. Yet, at the same time, science fiction carries little or no stigma from the mainstream because everyone's exposure to it is different--there's not a lot of sci-fi that everyone has heard of.

For some, sci-fi consists of mind-bending alternate realities; for others, it's a glimpse into the dystopian future ahead of us. Star Trek is still recognizable enough for many to equate sci-fi with strange aliens and incomprehensible technobabble, but plenty of other sci-fi works offer different definitions of the genre. However, in a world with a universally popular Star Wars sequel, virtually everyone has had the same basic exposure to science fiction--most people know about Star Trek, and everyone knows about Star Wars and Empire, so non-fans look at the similarities between the two most widely known sci-fi franchises and determine that science fiction is nothing but strange aliens and funny names.

If strange aliens and funny names are foolish to you, then science fiction is foolish to you. Congratulations, you have summarily rejected an entire genre because of surface exposure to two examples.

Without Empire to develop the legacy of Star Wars into anything greater than a single must-see movie in a sea of hundreds, there's no consensus on what sci-fi is. Even when sequels and spinoffs are produced from other works of science fiction, the general public has already had enough exposure to genre-blurring films such as The Terminator and Alien that One Big Franchise won't completely dictate their views on what sci-fi really is.

Not that science fiction started with Star Wars, of course. We've already heard about a much earlier sci-fi series called The Lensmen on this very blog, not to mention the work of Isaac Asimov, Gene Roddenberry, and several others. But with Americans, at least, if something is not extensively taught in schools or publicized in news and advertisements, your best bet for exposing the general public to it is through film.
Star Trek gave non-fans a handful of random catch phrases to quote, but Star Wars truly brought science fiction into the mainstream--and Empire made sure it stayed with the masses by topping the movie that piqued everyone's interest in the first place with even more unforgettable scenes and highly identifiable characters.

What if Empire Strikes Back had never been made? I tell ya, it'd make Return of the Jedi really hard to understand.

Just kidding.

Here's to thirty years of mainstream geekery, thirty years of inspiration for some of the finest books, comics, toys, and video games around, and thirty years of all-around impressive piece of American cinema. Long live the Empire.

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