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Film & Media Studies’ Bob Rehak Explains the Enduring and Evolving Impact of ‘Star Wars’

Bob Rehak

“I still love [Star Wars] as a fan,” says Rehak, who dressed up as Luke Skywalker on a Star Wars cruise in 2018 for a screening of The Last Jedi. “I’m particularly happy when I look at what’s out there now to see things that are Star Wars not just in name but in character, in spirit."

The trajectory of Bob Rehak’s life changed one day in 1977 when, at age 11, he saw Star Wars: A New Hope.

“I was lucky enough to have an older brother who took me to the theater, where I had a mind-blowing experience,” says the associate professor of film & media studies, who went on to study and write about visual effects, both as world-building and storytelling mechanisms, rooted in his instant connection to the film.

Forty-two years later, the franchise is still making headlines and new fans with its new streaming show, The Mandalorian, and this week’s release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, the ninth film of the Skywalker saga. And, undeterred by viewing the franchise through an academic lens for many years, Rehak can still be found at the front of the line.

“I still love it as a fan,” says Rehak, who dressed up as Luke Skywalker on a Star Wars cruise in 2018 for a screening of The Last Jedi. “I’m particularly happy when I look at what’s out there now to see things that are Star Wars not just in name but in character, in spirit. For a long time, the franchise seemed to lose its way, but perhaps counterintuitively, the Disney era of Star Wars has brought back something of the fun and awe that were originally present.”

Rehak recently sat down, beneath the A New Hope poster in his office, to explain Star Wars’ enduring appeal, his thoughts on the new show (and the “Baby Yoda” phenomenon across social media), and what it’s been like sharing his passion for the franchise with his kids.

To what do you attribute Star Wars’ enduring appeal and prominence in culture?

There’s a ready-made answer supplied by [creator] George Lucas and [the mythologist] Joseph Campbell early on, that the saga draws on myths and archetypes, reinventing deep cultural preoccupations through popular genres of science fiction and fantasy. It appeals because it has roots in our collective unconscious and plays on our ritualized storytelling needs. That's a pretty grand vision.

But what has also become clear is that there is a profound generational logic to the franchise’s longevity. We’ve arrived at a handover moment when the original set of Star Wars fans can take in the new stories while introducing them to their children in a way that virtually ensures the passion and commitment will continue. As long as more Star Wars keeps coming out—which seems inevitable with Disney feeding the hunger for new content—our children may well end up introducing the work to their kids in 20 or 30 years.

What are your thoughts on The Mandalorian?

Although I was skeptical before starting to watch, I’ve been really impressed. The show has done something I consider key to the franchise’s survival and growth: adapting to streaming platforms and protocols of home viewing that break from the rhythm and magnitude of Star Wars we’ve grown accustomed to in movie theaters. The Mandalorian is surprisingly nimble, and it’s willing to take chances.

Doing my homework for The Rise of Skywalker, I watched The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi with my family over Thanksgiving, and found myself overwhelmed and exhausted; there was just too much going on, all of it so busy and operatic. But The Mandalorian smartly scales all that down. By peering into literal and figurative back alleys of the Star Wars universe and focusing on sideline elements like Jawas and the AT-ST “chicken walker,” the series takes aspects of this imagined universe that were almost trivial or comical and reinvents them as significant players — indeed, formidable and menacing ones.

The Mandalorian has an intimacy and simplicity suited to consumption on the small screen in 40-minute chapters. As transmedia storytelling of the type Star Wars pioneered becomes a dominant industry practice, I think we’re going to see more and more of this kind of reformatting. And by bringing in genres like the samurai film and western, with their renegade anti-heroes who are actually figures of moral justice, The Mandalorian revisits the mythic structures that Lucas always claimed were there in the story and invests them with new authenticity and urgency. It’s deeply satisfying to see Star Wars filtered down and recalibrated in this way, making it more manageable and demonstrating how capably it can reinvent itself.

Along that line, did all the buzz and social media memes for “Baby Yoda” surprise you?

Baby Yoda really was a master stroke. If we had encountered the character in one of the films, it might have gone down in flames, like Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace, or the liberties some accused [director] Rian Johnson of taking on The Last Jedi. But in the context of a streaming series, it really took off. 

It’s a new approach to explore the concept of Yoda through another member of his species. And in a cute, adorable, cuddly form, which Disney has always been very good at doing. I don’t know how much its viral spread online was anticipated by series creator Jon Favreau, but Baby Yoda certainly lends itself to meme-ification. I guess that’s where the sparks that fly off our media can unpredictably catch fire and kindle subfandoms of their own.

What’s it been like to share your passion for Star Wars with your kids?

As an academic who studies things like animation, video games, and special effects, I’ve always had to resist the urge to simply press my interests on my two boys, 5 and 8. That said, to see them becoming fascinated with all the things I’ve always been fascinated with, and for them to take this stuff into their imaginations and their play, is really gratifying. And, to be honest, it feels good to be seen as an expert on something in our household [laughs].

But in another way, it’s been disquieting. It’s hard to pin down, and is maybe something the older generation always suspects of the younger generation: that in some way, our heirs’ experience just can’t be as full or as genuine as what we experienced when younger. But I try to see past my own ambivalence and remember that as people have always done, children absorb culture early, and whatever they start with will change throughout their lives to become something unique and personal. I choose to have faith that my kids will grow with the franchise, which in turn will grow with them.

In what ways is the franchise ensuring its relevance with new audiences?

I’m in a transracial family built through adoption. So Disney’s decision to make Star Wars more diverse in terms of the faces on screen has been wonderful to see. Now my kids invest themselves in characters played by John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran, and not just people who look like Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher. That move toward inclusivity has received some highly toxic pushback within Star Wars fandom, but I think the battle is largely over. Star Wars has learned, to the degree one can speak of a franchise as “learning,” that it must evolve to thrive, not just as a commercial juggernaut but as an ongoing, meaningful influence in popular culture, with consequent commitments to social justice, if only in the realm of representation.

Again, the question is one of staying nimble and remaining open to change. The sheer pervasiveness of Star Wars across culture, the plenitude of content new and old, the ubiquity and complexity of fandom, ensures that there will be lots of ingredients to combine and experiment with for years to come. Although the roles of child and adult, Baby Yoda and Mandalorian, will swap over time, I have faith that together we’ll all have a blast exploring it.

Bob Rehak teaches popular courses on special effects, animation, videogames, fan culture, and conspiracy media, among others. His monograph, More Than Meets the Eye: Special Effects and the Fantastic Transmedia Franchise, was published by New York University Press in 2018. 

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