(Photo by Courtesy of Disney+)
Since its debut in 1978, Star Wars has been almost synonymous with pop culture. George Lucas’ Star Wars Saga – the film, TV shows, and franchise – has woven itself into the fabric of just about every aspect of the human experience, both on and off screen. Over 40 years later, audiences still can’t get enough, as evidenced by the absolute rapturous reception of a new trailer for the latest Star Wars series, Obi-Wan Kenobi. That’s right, nearly a half-century after A New Hope first hit theaters, Star Wars is as big as it’s ever been.
In honor of that and to celebrate Star Wars Day, we have broken down our favorite Star Wars references in film. From well known pulls like the “Death Star Contractors” bit in Clerks to Carrie Fisher’s perfectly timed Scream 3 cameo, read on for our picks of the best Star Wars references in film and – May the Fourth Be with You!
Director Shawn Levy wants to make a Star Wars feature. He’s said it during interviews and he repeatedly shows it on screen, packing Star Wars references into his movies. In Free Guy, Levy and star Ryan Reynolds talked Disney into letting them use a lightsaber. Levy boldly doubled down on that offer in his 2022 sci-fi tearjerker The Adam Project. Reynolds’ character, Adam Reed, is armed with an electrically charged staff. At one point, he’s fighting a Stormtrooper-esque security team, and he expands the staff into a humming, double-bladed, electric saber that bears a striking resemblance to the one used by Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace. Adam’s younger self points out, “That’s a lightsaber, dude.” Moments later, the elder Adam leads the security team on a hoverboard chase that’s essentially a cross between Back to the Future Part II and the Endor speeder chase from Return of the Jedi.
Speaking of the comedy sci-fi classic, Back to the Future has one of the great references to Star Wars in any movie. It’s not just a throwaway line. It’s linked to a critical, if absurd, plot point. Marty McFly wants to scare his dad into taking his mom to prom. He knows his dad is a sci-fi fanatic and a bit gullible, so he dresses up in a radiation suit, calls himself Darth Vader from planet Vulcan, and threatens to melt his dad’s brain if he doesn’t ask out his mother. Director Robert Zemeckis packed several more sci-fi references into the scene, but most of it was cut from the original movie. Zemeckis was friendly with George Lucas and utilized his Industrial Light & Magic team to oversee Back to the Future’s special effects. It appears Zemeckis was not interested in directing his own Star Wars movie, though – he reportedly turned down an offer by Lucas to direct one of the prequels.
In Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, writers Ed Solomon and Chris Matheson utilize Star Wars to emphasize a key point of the movie: These two young men are clueless about history. When they travel back to medieval times, Bill and Ted strap on armor and playfully duel with broadswords. Instead of referencing pirates, samurai, the Three Musketeers, or any other archetypal swordfighter, Bill and Ted reference what they know: Star Wars. They call themselves Darth Bill and Luke Ted – at one point Ted taunts Bill with the obligatory “You’re not my father.” You can also hear sound effects reminiscent of lightsabers. There aren’t many steel swords in Star Wars movies but these two don’t have any other sword fighting references to dip into. Instead, they charmingly roleplay a Star Wars scene, just like we all have. The cinematic moment became so popular that t-shirt company Threadless released a design based on Darth Bill and Luke Ted.
In 1977, the captain of the Millennium Falcon wowed young moviegoers, and many wanted to be just like Han Solo, often picturing themselves as the sympathetic scoundrel. One of those fans is Reed Rothchild (John C. Reilly) in Boogie Nights. Reed wants to be cast in an adult movie but never finds himself on that side of the camera. He’s confident but just not what director Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds) is looking for. At no point is the separation between his optimism and reality made more apparent than his reference to the 1977 movie phenomenon. Reed asks his new friend Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg) if he’s ever seen Star Wars. Dirk says, “About four times.” Reed tells him, “People tell me I look like Han Solo.” Dirk musters out a stunned, “Really?” This quick Star Wars back-and-forth shows us exactly who Reed is. It’s character-building through relatable dialogue. No need for an extended info dump – just two guys gettin’ it on with Star Wars.
The Empire Strikes Back came out 42 years ago. That’s a long time. How long? Well, 42 years before that, The Wizard of Oz was in production, the Marx Brothers were still making movies, and Errol Flynn was in his prime. It’s no surprise that in Captain America: Civil War, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) calls Empire “that really old movie.” It elicits a funny exchange between Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), but Peter successfully taps into his film knowledge to find a way to take down the gigantic Ant-Man, prompting the trio to use the same tactic that Luke used on Hoth to bring down an AT-AT walker with his T-47 Airspeeder. The plan works and we get another demonstration on how relevant the original Star Wars movies continue to be despite coming out nearly a half century ago. In fact, they’re so relevant, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Star Wars is on the to-do list of a recently thawed-out Cap – right below the moon landing, disco, and Thai food.
In Star Wars movies, we see ships destroyed, planets obliterated, and bounty hunters unceremoniously gunned down in cantinas. But the movies usually gloss over the real impact of those violent encounters. Enter video store clerk Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson). In Kevin Smith’s Clerks, Randall shares with fellow clerk Dante (Brian O’Halloran) his concerns over worker “casualties of a war they had nothing to do with.” He points out that the first time the Rebel Alliance destroyed the Death Star, it was filled with imperial evildoers. The second time the rebels destroyed the Death Star, it was filled with contracted employees “just trying to scrape out a living.” For the first time in movies, characters had the kind of Star Wars-related conversation that many of us fans had in real life. It made the oddball characters identifiable and built empathy toward their situations (“I’m not even supposed to be here!”). The real kicker of the Death Star scene is the song blasting in the background: ”Chewbacca” by Supernova. Kevin Smith likes to pack his movies with Star Wars references and conversations; you’ll find them in Chasing Amy, Clerks 2, Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno.
Movie tropes are like memes. If done right, they remain unique despite treading the same ground as the tropes/memes (as their fathers) before them. One classic trope is the attractive woman who is into nerd culture. In the real, actual world, it’s not a thing, because nerdiness and attractiveness are not mutually exclusive. In the movie world, women who can quote Star Wars are like divine spirits, sent to men from the heavens – or, as Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) jokes in Deadpool, created in a computer. In the film, Wade is spooning his partner Vanessa Carlysle (Morena Baccarin) and asks if he can hold on and never let go. Vanessa responds with, “Just ride a bitch’s back like Yoda on Luke.” He says, “Oh, Star Wars jokes.” She corrects him, “Empire.” Then he references Weird Science with, “It’s like I made you on a computer.” We’ve seen similar back-and-forths about Star Wars before, but like a good meme, it’s still funny and endearing because of the delivery and the nostalgic imagery it evokes. Many of us have had the image of Yoda riding Luke as he flips through a training course on Dagobah seared into our memories since we were kids. We didn’t need to Google that Deadpool reference to get poked in the gooey parts of our nostalgic hearts.
We all know George Lucas and Steven Spielberg are old friends. They’ve collaborated and supported each other’s films and careers. However, there’s one reference that’s especially indicative of that relationship. It’s an Easter egg so blatant, it’s cracked over our heads, and we love it. Why? Because it features two of the most beloved puppets in pop culture: E.T. and Yoda. In E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Elliot and his brother Michael use Halloween in the suburbs to get a costumed E.T. to a rendezvous point. As the trio slowly plod up the street, E.T. spots who he thinks is a recognizable face – it’s a kid in a Yoda costume. E.T. beelines straight to faux-Yoda and tells him, “Home! Home!” The hilarious and sweet moment stirs your imagination as you wonder if they know each other and, later in the movie, if E.T. uses the force to levitate the bikes. It’s a perfectly executed pop culture gag. Not to be outdone by Spielberg, 15 years later Lucas included beings who look just like E.T. in the Galactic Senate in The Phantom Menace – another Easter egg cracked right over our heads. And, again, we love it.
Creative writing teachers will tell you to write what you know. What if that’s all George Lucas was doing when he came up with the Star Wars universe? In Men in Black, Lucas has a fun blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. When Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) gives Agent J (Will Smith) a tour of MIB headquarters, Agent K talks about the known aliens living on Earth. He brings up a virtual screen of surveillance cams showing several celebrities, including MIB executive producer Steven Spielberg, MIB director Barry Sonnenfeld, and George Lucas – who can be seen writing a new script. Star Wars fans theorize that Lucas was working on the prequel movies. The Phantom Menace came out two years later.
In the Scream series, Wes Craven explored meta concepts using references that broke down the fourth wall. Characters talked about horror tropes and the differences between sequels and trilogies. It effectively told audiences, “You don’t know what’s going to happen in this movie.” In Scream 3, Craven delivered a charming meta-reference of another sort with help from Carrie Fisher. She made a cameo appearance as Bianca Burnette, an actress who bears an uncanny resemblance to the Star Wars heroine, and Fisher reportedly improvised some of Bianca’s lines. One joke is a friendly jab at George Lucas, with Burnette saying she never got the role as Princess Leia because she’s not the one who slept with him. Craven loved to use these kinds of moments to toy with reality in an effort to keep moviegoers guessing about what’s real and what’s not.
Star Wars informed a generation about honor, persistence, and the confidence to be a nerd… eventually. In the ’80s and ’90s, nerdom was perceived as a social disorder (that we all had!), and it’s reflected in certain movies. In Can’t Hardly Wait, the two stereotypical ’90s nerds fight over who gets to be the Boba Fett action figure when planning to crash a party. The two later get into a flashlight-saber duel on the roof of the party. Writer/directors Deb Kaplan and Harry Elfont were both under age 10 when A New Hope debuted, so it’s no surprise they referenced Star Wars in a movie about teenagers. Characters at the time were strongly archetypal, and being a fan of Star Wars helped paint you as a nerd. That changed in the digital era, as movies began to more clearly reflect that we all love Star Wars and have brought discussions about the franchise into all of our parties.
Robert Rodriguez is an unabashed nerd. He makes movies and television he wants to make, and he does it with his own flair. In Spy Kids, Rodriguez honored his beloved Star Wars universe with two nods. First, Juni gets his hands on a small lightsaber. Second, Rodriguez uses one of the most popular Star Wars Easter eggs, the Millennium Falcon’s hyperdrive failure sound effect from Empire Strikes Back. Rodriguez later directed an episode of The Mandalorian and three episodes of The Book of Boba Fett – which included a few of his signature flourishes that angered a handful of Star Wars fans. We’ve gone from an era of fans being starved of Star Wars content to an era when they have such an abundance, they can call for a director’s firing over a spin move.