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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.

Indeed, the same people who would laugh at the prospect of someone who had seen the original movie 27 times have quite possibly seen it three or four times themselves. At the very least, they almost certainly know what "May the Force be with you" means and could tell you what color Luke Skywalker's lightsaber is--and if they can't recognize Darth Vader, they probably really have been living under rocks.

And when it comes to the "Star Wars Kid" video, who's really the true geek--the 14-year-old showing off his Jedi skills, or the hordes of casual Internet video watchers who saw a clip of a kid in khakis and a plaid shirt swinging around a golf ball retriever and immediately knew it was a Darth Maul impression?

"Star Wars is something that reaches across so many different cultural lines that I wouldn't say it's just something for geeks," said Chad Vader co-creator Sloan. "It's become so pervasive in the culture that it's become something more akin to mythology. It's so ingrained in everyone. Everyone knows what Star Wars is." So pervasive, in fact, that former President Ronald Reagan could name his missile defense program after it. (Could he have done that with anything from Star Trek?)

Mark Piccirelli, the operator of Star Wars news site YodasNews.com, agreed, bringing up a point that had been raised in a recent History Channel documentary about the phenomenon. "Everywhere in the world, you can say 'may the force be with you,' and someone knows what you're talking about," he said.

Piccirelli, who admits to having a 900-square-foot room in his house filled with Star Wars memorabilia, said that one of the greatest things about the franchise is that it can be enjoyed on so many levels.

"You don't really need to know anything to tell it's Star Wars. It's good versus evil. It's basic." And that's why everyone, not just the hard-core fans, can understand most of the countless Star Wars references in TV shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy. Plenty of Star Wars fans know the names of every kind of Imperial spacecraft, but they are by no means the only ones who laughed when Jennifer Aniston dressed up as Princess Leia in an episode of Friends.

Perhaps that's what makes Star Wars as unusual as it is. Few other movie franchises can boast both an iconic cinematic reputation (regardless of what you thought of the prequels) and a pop-culture legacy that puts just about every other "quotable" movie to shame. You could say that the Lord of the Rings series comes remotely close in the cultural imagination, but it's still nothing like Star Wars.

To top that off, Piccirelli says, the Star Wars hitmakers at Lucasfilm have a remarkable aptitude for keeping Star Wars newsworthy.

"You have the hard-core audience, which keeps anything going, but it seems like every time it starts to taper off, something else happens," he said. The last of the original Star Wars movies came out in 1983. But then there were the digitally remastered versions, novelizations and new lines of action figure tie-ins. "And then they made three more (movies)," Piccirelli added.

And considering this weekend's anniversary festivities will see details revealed regarding a new Star Wars TV show that will pop up in the next few years, it looks like the Star Wars momentum will keep on rolling.