George Lucas’s 1977 feature Star Wars had a massive cultural influence. Released at the end of a turbulent decade for the West, it was a space age fairy tale filled with visual spectacle and feel-good escapism. Star Wars exploded into the perfect pop-cultural storm; it was a refreshing distraction from a decade tired of serious issues and scandals: a messy war in Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, a recession, and the energy crisis. The 1970s was a decade greatly defined by somber and serious cinema – The Deer Hunter, Taxi Driver, The Exorcist, The French Connection, The Godfather, A Clockwork Orange, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Chinatown – although all great movies, they don’t exactly fit the ‘Fun for all the Family’ market. The 1970s film previously closest to capturing the buzz of Star Wars was probably Steven Spielberg’s 1975 feature Jaws, a tension-filled monster-movie featuring an exaggeration of a real world shark terrorizing a small community and eating several inhabitants (including children) in the process. It’s no wonder audiences devoured the bubble gum escapism of Star Wars.
Lucas’s film takes as inspiration the 1930s and ’40s sci-fi serials such as Commando Cody and Flash Gordon (he initially wanted to produce a re-make of Flash Gordon, but couldn’t acquire the rights). It also borrows liberally from several comic book sources, most notably Jack Kirby’s New Gods, with its all-encompassing power ‘the source’, which Lucas copied and re-named ‘the force’. Frank Herbert’s novel Dune, first published in 1963, also provided a strong source of inspiration for Lucas’s Star Wars saga. Herbert himself took as inspiration Shakespeare, Greek tragedy like Oedipus Rex, and the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky. Star Wars displays its fairy tale template gleefully; the opening caption ‘A Long Time Ago in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…’ is an obvious play on the ‘Once Upon a Time…’ phrase often found at the start of children’s stories. Its use of a Princess held captive by a Black Knight (Darth Vader) in a castle (in this case the Death Star) plays with classic fairy tale motifs. Dashing young peasants (like the farm boy Luke Skywalker) must rise to become noble Knights (or Jedi in this instance). Magical old wise men (like mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi) have supernatural powers, as do the evil villains of the Dark Side. Although such conventions are often subverted, adapted into a science fiction language, or used playfully, the fairy tale influence upon Star Wars is strongly evident, and indeed intentional.
The period around 1977 ushered in a new phase in the exploration of space: by 1975, the United States and the Soviet Union had achieved the first international human spaceflight with the Apollo-Soyuz Project, 1977 saw the launch of Voyager 2, and 1981 saw the launch of the space shuttle, the first re-useable spacecraft. Star Wars clearly fit the mood of the time and soon became the most financially successful film of the decade, spawning an almost unprecedented wave of imitators, with an influence that spread beyond cinema into everything from toys, games, books, clothing, music, political speeches and breakfast cereals. Pop culture went space crazy. The aesthetic of Hollywood was fundamentally changed as a new emphasis was placed on spectacle and increasingly impressive special effects. Movies with a space theme remained dominant for a number of years after the release of Star Wars, including films such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Alien, ET: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Black Hole, Moonraker, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Flash Gordon, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Last Starfighter, Flight of the Navigator and the first of the Star Wars sequels, The Empire Strikes Back.
It is not a surprise such a phenomenon had an impact on UFO sightings. The rise in popularity of triangular-shaped UFOs following the release of the film and into the 1980s probably has more to do with the general shape of spacecraft depicted in Lucas’s movie as it does sightings of any advanced military aircraft. The Imperial Star-Destroyer, the main transport of the evil Galactic Empire, was designed to be a visual combination of weaponry and military prowess. The resulting model was based on a combination of a dagger and a World War II era battleship, creating an iconic triangular looking craft quite different from the traditional space rockets often seen in previous science fiction movies. Triangular UFOs quickly became a more common occurrence following the summer of 1977.
As early as July that year, three young boys, all aged around twelve, witnessed what they described as a triangular shaped craft in the skies above Connersville, Illinois. Their account reported the UFO to have a military-like appearance and to produce a loud low-toned hum as it passed over them. Another case from November 1977 involved a couple from Plymouth, New York, who spotted a huge triangular shaped craft. Moving slowly overhead it made a loud noise like a rocket and had four glowing engines at its rear. Such descriptions match the iconic opening scene of Star Wars, as a giant triangular-shaped Star-Destroyer passes menacingly overhead, eventually filling the screen with a number of bright, roaring engines.
Again, in 1978, brothers Gary and David Oickle observed a huge triangular UFO with large windows moving very slowly above Patapsco State Park, Maryland, and in January 1979, Albert Chop witnessed a triangular UFO moving slowly over the mountains southeast of Palm Desert, California. The object was described as extremely large and much brighter that the stars in the background, much like the large, light grey Star-Destroyer designed to stand out vividly on screen against its dark space backdrop.
Other distinctive designs, characters, motifs and scenes from Star Wars had also begun to creep into UFO accounts from the late 1970s. A series of sightings involving white suited men that, again, began appearing following the summer of 1977, resemble many features that can be attributed to the Stormtroopers of Star Wars, with their distinctive white armour, helmets and featureless black eyepieces. In July 1977 near Minley Manor Woods in England, Hannah Green and other members of her family observed what she described as a group of tall men, all dressed in white, with matching headgear, who she saw as some sort of alien ‘troops’. In September that year, again in England, but this time at Hainault Forest near Essex, a number of otherworldly figures in white one-piece suits, white helmets and full-face visors were spotted.
Over in South Middleton, Massachusetts, a spate of sightings concerning mysterious figures clad in white, complete with matching white helmets with dark eyeholes where spotted in November and December 1977 and then again in January and April 1978. A month later, in Rio Grande Do Sul, Brazil, a witness claimed that he was grabbed by two humanoids that had disembarked from a metallic craft. The aliens wore shiny white suits with head enclosing helmets with closed visors.
Another example, often known as the Spanish-Turis landing case of July 1979, describes a sighting of alien beings dressed in shiny white suits with helmets featuring protruding black spectacles. Though these sound very much like the Star Wars Stormtroopers the drawings provided by Spanish farmer Frederico Ibáñez make the beings look more like the movie’s Jawa traders, however, the source is clear: these are Star Wars-inspired creatures.
These Jawa traders, dwarf-like desert hermits who deal largely in the sale of second-hand ‘droids, again feature in a case from September 1977. In Caserta, Italy, a student claims that he passed a tall figure in a metallic outfit, which he thinks may have been a robot, being followed by a number of short dwarf-like humanoids. Such a description seems to strongly reference a scene from Star Wars when a group of Jawa traders parade a number of robots, including the tall metallic figure of C3P0, along a patch of wasteland ready for auction.
The iconic cantina scene from Star Wars, which features a host of fantastical aliens partaking in drinks in a spaceport bar is also paralleled in a report from July 1977, when an account of aliens drinking in a local bar emerged from Thoissey, L’Ain, France. Another scene from the movie is evoked in a case from June 1978. In Middlesbrough, England, Mike Burley was struck on the head by a rugby ball, when he came to he found he was being cared for by a mysterious figure wearing a brown monk’s cowl, he was then dazzled by a bright light and found himself back on the rugby field. His account somewhat mimics the scene in Star Wars when protagonist Luke Skywalker is knocked unconscious through an encounter with several Tusken Raiders, only to be revived by a mysterious figure in a brown monk’s cowl, who is then revealed to be Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Several more distinctive motifs from the movie also relate to a number of other UFO related accounts. In February 1978, near Braintree, England, a bright light was spotted in the sky, a witness observing it shooting above him described it ‘like something out of Star Wars, with the same type of light as the light saber would make’. Light sabers may have appeared again in March 1978 in a case from Petrozavodsk, Russia, when a strange pair of suited figures were spotted, each brandishing some sort of powerful flashlight that they were able to manipulate into energy beams. Another light saber wielding character may also be at the root of an encounter from September 1977, in Colares, Brazil, when a young man by the name of Luis apparently witnessed a figure descending from a craft. Described as muscular, wearing dark clothing, with a large headpiece, the figure proceeded to produce a red beam of light from one hand which then illuminated the surrounding area; a most Darth Vader style entrance indeed.
In the same month, a different character may have been seen, this time in Cadogan, Pennsylvania, when reports of a tall creature, covered in brown hair with broad shoulders and no neck was seen on a road near woodland. The similarities in description between Bigfoot and Chewbacca, the large hairy companion to smuggler Han Solo, may be obvious, but the connection that some now see between sightings of UFOs and sightings of Bigfoot or other similar cryptoids may be as a consequence of such a similar creature serving as first mate onboard the Millennium Falcon. Indeed beyond some retrospective speculations, no real connection was made between UFOs and Bigfoot encounters until after Star Wars was well established within the popular consciousness.
Although with diminished frequency after the late 1970s the Star Wars franchise continues to influence UFO sightings and related encounters. The Millennium Falcon itself, another iconic Star Wars spaceship, makes occasional appearances as a UFO. One example, often known as the Tether incident, involves the debris spotted around Space Shuttle 75 during a February 1996 mission, which included a sort of Millennium Falcon shaped UFO, providing you allow a liberal dose of artistic licence.
In June 1999 in Sydney, Australia, a witness described seeing some non-human entity moving over the fence of his property. The entity was some sort of rounded blob, but specifically the witness described it as shaped like Jabba the Hut, the large rotund alien gangsta from the third Star Wars movie Return of the Jedi, who looks like a cross between a giant slug and a toad. A distinctive character, Jabba had recently made a cameo appearance in the first of the Star Wars prequel trilogy films, The Phantom Menace, released just a month before the sighting.
Anticipation for The Phantom Menace was especially high, and it may have been responsible for a small flap of alien related reports following its release. An encounter during the autumn of 1999 in Roslindale, Massachusetts, concerned a strange hooded figure spotted moving un-naturally fast through Arnold Arboretum. Much like the robe wearing Obi-Wan Kenobi and his mentor Qui-Gon Jinn as they force-dashed away from a pack of Droidekas in the opening battle of the movie.
A new villain introduced in The Phantom Menace, Darth Maul, wears a black hooded robe, has a distinctive red and black patterned face with red eyes and a circle of horns around the top of his head, and is known too for wielding a double-ended lightsaber. Such a character may well also be related to several otherworldly sightings. In summer 1999, in Portland, Maine, a witness claimed he was abducted by a human-like figure who had a black handheld device which produced multiple energy beams, much like Darth Maul’s multi-blade lightsaber. Again in December 1999, in South Windsor, Connecticut, Debbie Summer reported seeing a tall humanoid, with spikes on his head, glowing red eyes and wearing a black cape.
Cultural phenomena like Star Wars superficially influence other things for purely commercial reasons, but also indicate a wider appetite from a society hungry to engage with the themes of that same cultural trend. Society feeds pop cultural trends, but equally fashionable pop cultural trends influence inclinations within society. This concept relates to what is known by some as cultural tracking. This broadly means that the beliefs, customs and folklore that people hold tend to follow the culture in which they are immersed. As cultures change, so do customs and beliefs, and vice versa. As a result, philosophical, ethical, and social customs and beliefs inform the culture produced and consumed during any particular era and, in turn, that same cultural product can impact on beliefs and customs.
The designs that frequent Star Wars and its sequels often reference or draw heavy inspiration from other things in Science Fiction, history, foreign cultures or folklore. It is a very postmodern assemblage approach to story making. For example, the design for Darth Vader and the Stormtroopers resembles, amongst other things, the designs used for the villain The Lightning and his henchmen in the 1930s Republic movie serial The Fighting Devil Dogs. The Millennium Falcon is in part a reference to The Maltese Falcon, with Humphrey Bogart’s portrayal of private investigator Sam Spade being a primary influence on the character of Han Solo, and the parallels between elderly Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi and the wizard Gandalf from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are numerous.
Culture repeats itself by assimilating ideas from the past and reinterpreting them for a contemporary audience. Star Wars is a prime example of this, and the similarities that can be found between it and various aspects of the UFO phenomenon is another example of society reusing existing cultural references in new contexts. Referencing imagery from science fiction is an ongoing pattern in UFO and related alien sightings and abduction accounts, and there are numerous examples that can illustrate this beyond the Star Wars franchise.
As a brief example, another influential science fiction film released at a similar time to Star Wars was Steven Speilberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Again a series of UFO accounts relate to ideas and motifs presented within the movie. A large ‘mother-ship’ type UFO was spotted in the skies above New Zealand during December 1978. Often known as the Kaikoura lights incident, the description of the UFO craft, with its bright large flashing lights, parallels the design shown in Speilberg’s film. The sighting described by Constable Jim Blackwood at Clarenville, Canada, in 1978, borrows a method of communication used between earthlings and aliens seen at the end of the movie, as Jim claims he used the lights of his patrol car to converse with a UFO. The following year a Mother and Son from Krugersdorp, South Africa, re-enacted the final act of the movie, when they claimed an encounter with a group of human-like entities standing beside a spacecraft, who then encouraged the mother to depart with them permanently.
Spikes in UFO reports often parallel releases of thematically relevant movies. For example, in December 1996, a few months after the release of Independence Day (a movie that featured huge UFOs hovering over North America), claims of a huge UFO mothership were reported by a number of witnesses over the skies of Yukon, Canada. The report by Allison Reed, first documented in 1998, concerns her abduction by aliens, during which time she was shown tanks containing bodies showing various stages of alien-human hybridization. Her account is very similar to a scene in the film Alien: Resurrection, released the year before.
In 2010, all six Star Wars movies were re-released in theatres in a 3D format, and rumours began to circulate about the possibility of further installments to the series. Later that same year, UFO enthusiast Scott Waring claims to have found what looks like a Millennium Falcon-shaped craft partly obscured by a hangar in part of Area 51. The image was obtained by a study of Google Maps, and can only be viewed by following specific instructions allowing the viewer to travel ‘back in time’ through the viewer to 1989. In June 2011, an account was made of a UFO shaped like the Millennium Falcon discovered at the bottom of the Baltic Sea. Claims made by the Swedish Ocean X Team who discovered it, Peter Lindberg and Dennis Åsberg, include its ability to disable any electronic equipment when divers approach within 200 feet. Geologists have suggested it most likely is a natural formation or sediment dropped by a fishing trawler.
Following the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012, and the subsequent release of new Star Wars movies from 2015 onward, predictably there has been a new wave of UFO related claims particular to the series. Even before the first of the new films was released, trailers for the upcoming seventh installment in the series seemed to have had an impact. In April 2015 the second trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens was released, which opens with a panning shot of a Star-Destroyer crashed into a desert landscape. By August that year Russia Today had published an image captured on Mars, featuring a rather Star-Destroyer shaped rock, supposedly an alien spacecraft crashed into the Martian landscape. In the month that The Force Awakens was released a witness in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, claimed to observe a solid triangular object with a number of non-blinking lights. Again in August 2016, a couple in New York filmed a UFO that they claimed looked just like the Millennium Falcon.
Mimas, one of the moons of Saturn, has upon its surface a huge crater making it look similar to the design of the Death Star when photographed from certain angles. The details of such a crater were originally discovered in November 1980, just a few months after the first Star Wars sequel The Empire Strikes Back had hit theatres in America, cementing the comparisons. Such associations began to resurface in 2016 in the build up to the release of the spin-off movie Rogue One: A Star Wars Story; itself based around the backstory of the construction of the original Death Star and the band of rebels who steal its plans. By early summer this year another of Saturn’s moons, Iapetus, was compared to the Death Star, due to a distinctive central ring that again parallels design of the fictional space station. Rather than just a quirk of coincidence, some now believe such moons to be genuine alien space technology. Conspiracy theorists, such as Tyler Glockner, have suggested Hollywood is simply drip-feeding the masses through movies such as Star Wars and its sequels, in a bid to prepare humanity for the reality of alien civilizations.
With Star Wars: The Last Jedi set for release December 2017, and at least three more movies planned for the successful franchise over the coming years it will be interesting to see if future installments influence any further aspects of the UFO phenomenon or such related experiences.