May the 'Star Wars' geek be with you

Three decades after the original film was released, the George Lucas creation is still influencing the tech community and pop culture. Photos: 'Star Wars' in pop culture Images: What 'Star Wars' tech is real?

There are two sides to Star Wars, but it's not light versus dark or good versus evil. Rather, it's the franchise's dual role as cinematic masterpiece and geeky-but-still-cool pop culture milestone.

On one hand, there's the Star Wars that ranks high on the American Film Institute's ubiquitious "Top 100" lists. The Star Wars franchise, which marks its 30th anniversary Friday with celebrations to commemorate the original release of Episode IV: A New Hope, has an appeal that's been analyzed countless times over the decades. Typically, the conclusion is that George Lucas' creation is one of those rare works of fiction that literally has something for everyone.

But then there's the other Star Wars, the phenomenon that's the subject of countless jokes, allusions and references in everything from episodes of the cartoon sitcom Family Guy to endless us versus them ("them" usually being Microsoft portrayed as the evil Empire) metaphors from tech executives.

It's the lasting pop-culture phenomenon that has inspired spin-offs, from the 1987 Mel Brooks parody Spaceballs to the 2006 Web video series Chad Vader: Day Shift Manager, which chronicles the misadventures of Darth Vader's less successful younger brother as he works in a supermarket and attempts to run the place as though it's the Death Star.

Any television or film writer trying to make something come across as an obvious reference to geekiness can throw in a Star Wars allusion. In the cult TV drama Freaks and Geeks (1999), for example, when one nerd was trying to explain to another nerd why it was socially impossible for him to invite the cutest girl in school to the homecoming dance, all he needed to say was, "She's a cheerleader. You've seen Star Wars 27 times. Do the math."

True, Freaks and Geeks was set in 1980, when seeing Star Wars 27 times would've meant actually going to the movie theater that many times. But to this day, the connotations remain: pranksters at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (where the smartest geeks in the world tend to go to college) decorated the university's iconic campus dome to look like R2-D2 in 1999 just before the first Star Wars prequel was released. In more recent years, a clip of a pudgy high schooler imitating villain Darth Maul became one of the most widely circulated viral videos on the Internet.

But no mention of Star Wars geekdom is complete without a nod to its role in the tech community, even at the highest rungs of the industry's corporate ladder: AT&T employees famously nicknamed their company logo the "Death Star" due to its resemblance to Darth Vader's space station. One of Enron's shady electronic trading plots was code-named "the Death Star strategy," and, of course, there are the Microsoft digs. Though he's toned it down in recent years, Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy once had a penchant for labeling Microsoft as both "evil empire" and "dark side."

"I think it's definitely something that's associated with nerds," said Matt Sloan, who co-created Chad Vader with Aaron Yonda. But the catch is that a reference to Star Wars is the kind of geekiness that everyone understands and loves, regardless of whether they collect the tie-in action figures or not. "More so than Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica or Dungeons and Dragons, I think Star Wars is something that goes beyond all of those things as being something that's a little more ingrained in everyone's consciousness."

Technology's starring role
Of course, Star Wars has had a significant influence on Silicon Valley and the surrounding area. Before the movie was made, special effects were limited, certainly not computerized, and done mostly in Hollywood. But Star Wars paved the way for two generations of Bay Area computer experts to become animators and moviemakers, with the sprawling Lucas empire opening huge facilities in Marin County and San Francisco and tech companies ranging from Silicon Graphics to Hewlett-Packard selling high-end computers to animators. Across the bay in Emeryville, Steve Jobs' Pixar, which is now owned by Disney, has knocked out a series of computer-animated movie hits such as Finding Nemo.

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