How 'Star Wars' Changed the World

Worlds with Double Sunsets Common
After discussing his future plans with his Uncle Owen, Luke Skywalker leaves the Lars Homestead and heads towards the vista to watch the twin suns of Tatooine set while he reflects upon his destiny. © Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

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

Increasingly, the impact of "Star Wars" is not limitedto pop culture or even world politics. As science and technology advance, theworld 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 inOrlando, Fla., this week, where devotees from around the world are expected tocongregate for the StarWars Celebration V convention. The four-day convention runs Thursdaythrough Sunday at the Orange County Convention Center.

Thecultural 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, some390,000 people stated their religion as Jedi, making it the fourth largestreligion surveyed. Just last month, members of the performance art group ImprovEverywhere filmed themselves re-enacting Princess Leia's capture by Darth Vaderon the New York subway, and the automotive navigation systems company TomTom recently made "StarWars" voicesan 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 movietrilogy, leading the way for "Lord of the Rings" and "TheMatrix," among others. It also showed that merchandising can make evenmore money than the movies do ? the deal that "Star Wars" creatorGeorge Lucas made with Pepsico over merchandising rights for the prequel filmswas estimated to be worth roughly $2 billion.

New Age thinking

In the year "Return of the Jedi" first came out, "StarWars" unexpectedly became drafted into a high-tech controversy in a realand different kind of war ? the Cold War.

TheStrategicDefense Initiative, created by Ronald Reagan in 1983, aimed to use ground-and space-based lasers, missiles and other weapons to help protect the UnitedStates 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 forthe first film six years earlier.

Astranger link to "Star Wars" lay in the New Age ideas that U.S. ArmyLt. Col. Jim Channon had for a "First Earth Battalion." As detailedin the book "The Men Who Stare at Goats" and fictionalized in thefilm of the same name, the U.S. military researched the idea of super-soldiersthey called "Jedi warriors," who could, among other abilities, adoptcloaks of invisibility, pass through walls, precognitively sense knowledge ofthe future and, yes, kill goats and others just by staring at them.

Asoutlandish as those notions were, the advance of science and technology areincreasingly producing inventions that, intentionally or not, recall the films.

Duringelection night in 2008, CNN famously ? or infamously ? presented correspondentsand musician will.i.am as"holograms" much like in scenes from "Star Wars,"complete with partial translucence and a glowing blue haze around them. CNNpolitical correspondent Jessica Yellin even noted, "It's like I follow inthe 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.)

Ona more serious note, bionic hands like the ones sported by heroes and villainsin "Star Wars" are now finding use by amputees. Indeed, during an NPRinterview earlier this month concerning a man with a bionic hand, his daughternoted: "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 wayinto real life, as well. AHong Kong company recently made an ultra-powerful handheld laser that lookslike a lightsaber.?Walkingrobots resembling the giant AT-ATs that Imperial forces used to attack rebels are being developedfor the militaryto carry equipment where conventional vehicles can't go. The U.S. Army's FutureSoldier Initiative went as far as to draft plans for armor that looked muchlike what Imperial stormtroopers wore, although in light of the probable cost, theyface an uncertain future.

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

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