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Oy, been back from Australia for nearly a week and I'm still jet-lagged and groggy. So naturally it's a perfect time to handle a deep and existential question that has come into my mailbox:
Can a science fiction movie change the world? Has a science fiction movie changed the world?
Whoa, dude. I'm suddenly back in my college dorm room, with the black light on, listening to Dark Side of the Moon. That's, like, heavy, man.
But it's also an interesting question, although, as with so many things, we have to define our terms. "Changing the world" is a highly fungible phrase, since, if you want to get really pedantic, any action changes the world, although generally in a highly trivial or specific manner, the effects of which may not be obvious. For example, the film The Adventures of Pluto Nash is not generally considered to be a world-changing science-fiction film. But it did lose about $100 million of movie studio Warner Brothers' money, and that almost certainly did have consequences. For example, director Ron Underwood, who had previously helmed the hits Tremors and City Slickers, hasn't made a major movie since Pluto, nor has screenwriter Neil Cuthbert. Would the world be different if Pluto hadn't cratered and Underwood and Cuthbert had other movies out there? Well, at the very least, their worlds would be different. In any event, every action has a reaction, no matter how small. But let's talk about films that really changed the world.
The common use of "changed the world" implies that the world as most people know has been altered in a substantial and nontrivial way: the Nazi invasion of Poland in 1939, as an obvious example, qualifies as a world-changing event, as do the atomic-bomb drops on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The moon landings were world changers. (Changers of two worlds, actually.) On a rather lesser scale, you could argue that the Beatles appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show changed the world, as did the release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the world's first full-length animated film (and, when adjusted for inflation, still one of the top ten film releases of all time).
I don't think that there's any film, much less a science-fiction film, that has ever had the same world-changing qualities as the moon landing. As much as I love film and the stories it tells, it doesn't reach the level of a man leaving the planet and stepping foot on another world. But certainly it's possible for a science-fiction film to have the same level of cultural impact as the Beatles or Snow White.
And, in fact, I can think of two off the top of my head. The first was the very first science-fiction film: Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), created in 1902 by Georges Méliès. This fourteen-minute film literally set the template for science-fiction spectacles -- heavy on effects and adventure, light on story and sense -- that is, for better or worse, still employed today. But beyond that, it woke up both filmmakers and audiences to the magical possibilities of film as a medium and the fact that one could do in film, through effects and effort, what had previously been achievable only in imagination. Over a hundred years on, Le Voyage is delightfully quaint, but at the time audiences were saying, "I've never seen that before." That's a world changer.
The second is Star Wars, although not for anything that's on the screen. Despite its awesome technical freshness and innovation and the fact that Star Wars was a fun film at a time when science-fiction films had generally gone off the dystopian deep end, everything that Star Wars is is begged, borrowed, or stolen from other films, starting with those of Méliès, moving on to the Flash Gordon serials, and ending up with Akira Kurosawa's. In that regard, Star Wars is a synthetic rather than an original masterpiece.
No, the way Star Wars changed the world was in how the film and its series, through extraordinarily savvy marketing (particularly to children and nerds), found its way into nearly every possible nook and cranny of our culture to an extent that it's very nearly impossible to avoid. There have been other massively popular films and other films with an extensive reach into common culture, but none with the same relentless pervasiveness as the Star Wars films. Likewise, the Star Wars films and their creator, George Lucas, have had a huge impact on nearly every aspect of filmmaking, from how sound and visual effects are produced to how film studios package and promote films to how theaters themselves exhibit those films.
Bluntly put, if Lucas had been hit by a car the day after he finished American Graffiti and Star Wars had never been made, the cultural and cinematic world we live in would be vastly different, so much so that it's a little hard to imagine what it would be like. Would it be better or worse? That's a matter of personal taste. But it's a simple fact that Star Wars changed the world.