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'Star Wars: The Force Awakens': How sci-fi and fantasy films have changed since 1977

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(Read caption) 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' stars John Boyega.

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When the newest “Star Wars” film comes to theaters, it will arrive almost 40 years after the release of the original film. 

The new movie “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” will come to theaters on Dec. 18 and features the return of actors such as Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill who starred in the original 1977 movie as well as newcomers like Daisy Ridley and John Boyega. 

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Movies have changed a lot since filmgoers first learned the names Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. Some of the changes were brought about by the “Star Wars” films themselves, which made landmark contributions to the field of special effects. 

But since then, fantasy and science fiction, elements of which are found in the “Star Wars” movies, have become even more popular forces at the box office, with movies that have qualities of each becoming some of the highest-grossing films of all time. 

Prior to “Star Wars,” some of the highest-grossing movies were mostly films set in our own world like “Gone With the Wind,” “The Sound of Music,” and “The Ten Commandments.” Disney movies that drew inspiration from fairy tales did well, but those were of course animated.

Live- action science fiction movies gained popularity with movies like “2001: A Space Odyssey,” "Planet of the Apes," and “Logan’s Run,” but these experienced nothing close to the box office success of "Star Wars."

What accounted for the performance of the first "Star Wars" film? Some of its popularity may have come from both its imaginative vision – the new fictional universe shown in the first movie – as well as the familiar characters seen in the movie. Viewers knew and would most likely welcome a story with a wise wizard-like character (Obi-Wan Kenobi), a princess (Leia), a rogue (Han Solo), and an average person who is told he is special and embarks on adventure (Luke).

Because of its popularity, “Star Wars” of course spawned many imitators and increased interest in science fiction film.

Since then, movies with elements of sci-fi and fantasy have become some of the highest-grossing movies of all time and it could be said that the popularity of “Star Wars” paved the way for many of them. The “Lord of the Rings” movies, which were based on the fantasy novels by J.R.R. Tolkien, were adapted for the screen and became extremely popular (and the final movie, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” won the Best Picture Oscar, increasing the prestige of the fantasy genre).

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The “Harry Potter” and “Hunger Games” movies became some of the highest-grossing movies of all time, with the “Potter” movies set in a fantasy world of witches and wizards and the “Games” movies taking place in a dystopian science fiction universe.

Comic book movies, which are perhaps the most popular and prevalent movies coming out right now, have elements of fantasy and sci-fi as well, with their superhero characters possessing unusual abilities. The 2014 movie “Guardians of the Galaxy,” which became a huge hit, reminded many viewers of “Star Wars” with its space setting and wisecracking characters.