The Star Wars films are deeply derivative in terms of plot and character, and they are completely reliant on generic conventions of storytelling—and saying so isn’t insulting. After all, the original Star Wars film began as a deliberate attempt by George Lucas to capture the feel of the old science fiction and adventure serials that used to run before the feature films in movie theaters. A hallmark of these serials was that the audience usually had not seen the two or three preceding episodes of the story and had to be caught up on the action. So when Lucas begins his film trilogy with Episode IV: A New Hope and with a long, scrolling explanatory text, he is clearly trying to evoke that same sense of being thrown into the middle of the action. However, one problem Lucas faced in trying to do a big-budget science-fiction film was in fact a lack of generic models on which to draw for inspiration—there had simply been no similar films made except for the very B-movies whose corny look Lucas was striving to avoid. The only previous respectable science-fiction films Lucas could conceivably turn to for inspiration were Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and the Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972). Both of these films, however, were slow-moving, philosophical art films, not at all the kind of high adventure Lucas was after.

The genre that seemed to offer the best combination of high adventure, expansive setting, and classic characters was the western, a genre that includes both serial shoot-’em-up adventures and epic tales set in a grand landscape. For example, the rowdy cantina at Mos Eisley spaceport is a setting—the frontier saloon full of gamblers and rowdies—that could have been lifted from any number of western films. Han Solo himself bears a strong resemblance to the classic western gun-for-hire, with Chewbacca, perhaps, standing in for the sidekick. And of course there is a strong whiff of the black-hat/white-hat morality of a generic western in the opposed figures of Luke and Darth Vader, especially in the earlier parts of the trilogy. The western isn’t the only genre Lucas draws upon. In the end, the Star Wars films are in a sense a collage of elements taken from several genres, with the laser guns and rockets of serial sci-fi, the gunslingers and dusty towns of the western, and the dogfights and radio chatter of Hollywood fighter-pilot flicks.

Part of the reason Lucas is so comfortable poaching from these disparate sources is that “originality” in terms of plot and character was, in fact, the last thing he was after. Lucas was going for classic situations and a mythic sort of resonance, and he was able to attain this effect by keeping close to his generic models. He could then place these familiar sorts of characters—the young, unproven hero; the wise counselor; the villain—with their familiar motivations, in incredible, highly unfamiliar settings, while still packing an emotional punch in his story.