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How 'Star Wars' changed everything

From household robots to bionic hands to CNN holograms, the world is looking more and more like that galaxy far, far away.

By Charles Q. ChoiSPACE.com Contributor / August 10, 2010

Attendees dressed as "Chef Vader" and a stormtrooper from Star Wars arrive at Comic Con in San Diego last month.

Mike Blake/Reuters/File

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It's been more than 30 years since "Star Wars" first exploded into theaters, but the swashbuckling sci-fi films from writer-director George Lucas have left a legacy no other blockbuster has surpassed.

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Increasingly, the impact of "Star Wars" is not limited to pop culture or even world politics. As science and technology advance, the world is little by little growing more and more like that galaxy far, far away.

A taste of the science fiction franchise's impact is landing in Orlando, Fla., this week, where devotees from around the world are expected to congregate for the Star Wars Celebration V convention. The four-day convention runs Thursday through Sunday at the Orange County Convention Center.

IN PICTURES: 'Star Wars' droids

The cultural influence of the six "Star Wars" films, plus the novels, comics, television shows, games, toys, spoofs and documentaries linked with "Star Wars," is such that, in the 2001 United Kingdom census, some 390,000 people stated their religion as Jedi, making it the fourth largest religion surveyed. Just last month, members of the performance art group Improv Everywhere filmed themselves re-enacting Princess Leia's capture by Darth Vader on the New York subway, and the automotive navigation systems company TomTom recently made "Star Wars" voices an option for its GPS devices.

"Star Wars" also has had more-subtle influences on Hollywood. It pioneered the modern special effects blockbuster as well as the modern movie trilogy, leading the way for "Lord of the Rings" and "The Matrix," among others. It also showed that merchandising can make even more money than the movies do — the deal that "Star Wars" creator George Lucas made with Pepsico over merchandising rights for the prequel films was estimated to be worth roughly $2 billion.

New Age thinking

In the year "Return of the Jedi" first came out, "Star Wars" unexpectedly became drafted into a high-tech controversy in a real and different kind of war — the Cold War.

The Strategic Defense Initiative, created by Ronald Reagan in 1983, aimed to use ground- and space-based lasers, missiles and other weapons to help protect the United States from attack by nuclear missiles. Critics derisively referred to it as "Star Wars." Reagan himself may have drawn upon "Star Wars" for inspiration when he dubbed the Soviet Union "the Evil Empire," echoing the use of "evil Galactic Empire" in the opening crawl for the first film six years earlier.

A stranger link to "Star Wars" lay in the New Age ideas that U.S. Army Lt. Col. Jim Channon had for a "First Earth Battalion." As detailed in the book "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and fictionalized in the film of the same name, the U.S. military researched the idea of super-soldiers they called "Jedi warriors," who could, among other abilities, adopt cloaks of invisibility, pass through walls, precognitively sense knowledge of the future and, yes, kill goats and others just by staring at them.

As outlandish as those notions were, the advance of science and technology are increasingly producing inventions that, intentionally or not, recall the films.

During election night in 2008, CNN famously — or infamously — presented correspondents and musician will.i.am as "holograms" much like in scenes from "Star Wars," complete with partial translucence and a glowing blue haze around them. CNN political correspondent Jessica Yellin even noted, "It's like I follow in the tradition of Princess Leia." (In reality, these were "tomograms," made by capturing images of a person from all sides, reconstructing them with computers and displaying them on screen.)

On a more serious note, bionic hands like the ones sported by heroes and villains in "Star Wars" are now finding use by amputees. Indeed, during an NPR interview earlier this month concerning a man with a bionic hand, his daughter noted: "Darth Vader just pops into my head. And so does Luke Skywalker, 'cause they both have robotic hands."

Weapons and robots from "Star Wars" are making their way into real life, as well. A Hong Kong company recently made an ultra-powerful handheld laser that looks like a lightsaber. Walking robots resembling the giant AT-ATs that Imperial forces used to attack rebels are being developed for the military to carry equipment where conventional vehicles can't go. The U.S. Army's Future Soldier Initiative went as far as to draft plans for armor that looked much like what Imperial stormtroopers wore, although in light of the probable cost, they face an uncertain future.

Even the Death Star is beginning to appear, albeit in far miniaturized form. At this year's Technology, Entertainment and Design conference in February, Nathan Myhrvold, former chief technology officer for Microsoft, demonstrated a "Death Star" bug-zapper designed to use lasers to shoot down mosquitoes in flight. The hope there is not to crush microscopic rebels, but to help prevent malaria. This means if all goes well, a future influenced by "Star Wars" could go on to save millions of lives. May the Force be with it.

IN PICTURES: 'Star Wars' droids