Why the 40th Anniversary of 'Star Wars' Matters | NBC Southern California

Why the 40th Anniversary of 'Star Wars' Matters

The pop culture milestone arrives amid the revival of a series propelled by a new hope.

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    Why the 40th Anniversary of 'Star Wars' Matters
    Corbis via Getty Images
    Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in 1977's "Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope."

    This month marked the one-year anniversary of the "Late Night with Seth Meyers" recurring character "Anniversary Guy" dressing up as Darth Maul to honor the 17th anniversary of "Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace."

    Anniversary Guy (show writer Conner O'Malley) occasionally spouts obscurities from the studio audience to parody the media’s obsession with manufactured and overblown pop culture benchmarks. He most recently showed up in green to celebrate the seventh anniversary of “Shrek Forever After.” 

    But not even O'Malley would dare mock a milestone that matters more than most, by a far, far away margin: the 40th anniversary of "Star Wars," which was released May 25, 1977.

    Sure, George Lucas's space opera changed film, ushering in the era of special effects-driven fantasy epics that have only grown in number and spectacle with technological and storytelling advances he seeded.

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    But the strongest allure of the series is the dual "Star Wars" saga – an underdog tale that's long played out on and off the screen. 

    The original installment sprouted two more classics, followed by a 16-year layoff and a troika of underwhelming films that began with "The Phantom Menace," now nearly two decades years into its stint as a punch line.

    But the series came back full force under Disney’s ownership with 2015’s “Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens,” J.J. Abrams’ masterful melding of the old and new. Last year's “Rogue One,” the missing link between Episodes III and IV, blasted its way into the top four of the "Star Wars" canon.

    The 40th anniversary arrives less than seventh months before the slated opening of “Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi,” which heralds the return of Luke Skywalker and the likely bittersweet final bow of Princess Leia, following Carrie Fisher's death.

    That fans desperately want “The Last Jedi” to be great speaks to the enduring pull of a series with a deeply committed intergenerational base of followers. Likely among them is O'Malley, whose goofy, know-it-all character celebrates, mirrors and lampoons the outsized passion of pop culture enthusiasts looking for any excuse to relive past glories. 

    “Stars Wars” may take place a long time ago, but it’s rooted in a new hope – the kind that makes it okay for all of us to be Anniversary Guy for a day.

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    Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.