One part of that universe is of the most iconic villains ever to appear onscreen. Darth Vader is really quite terrifying, if you let yourself think about it a lot. He towers over everyone else in his all black attire, breathing through an apparatus that makes his voice deep and unmistakable. He can kill a man simply by making a motion with his hand, and his ability to swing a lightsaber is practically unparalleled. He performs these sinister acts in the service of the Empire, and it's hard to believe that he's fully behind it since he ought to be powerful enough to lead on his own. He might not be as demented as The Joker (a character who would later be voiced by Hamill on a number of occasions) or as brilliant as Hannibal Lecter, but he is relentless and not bound by any particular moral code (he gave that up when he turned to the Dark Side).
It might be the little touches that I like best in Star Wars, though. I'm a huge fan of the Cantina scene, with the awesome band and the gruff dude who tells Luke, "He doesn't like you." A lot of the creatures that populate the film are wonderful - the Bantha looks great, and I'll always remember that it's probably a good idea to just let wookies win any games I play with them. And then there's the music, which might be as much of a character in the movies as Luke Skywalker or Han Solo. John Williams has always had an amazing talent for creating memorable hooks that are ideally suited to the movies they accompany. Star Wars is probably his most recognizable work and rightfully so. There's something a little spine-tingling when his brass fanfare opens the film. It still feels fresh today.
Novelist Jonathan Lethem contends in a 1998 Village Voice article that "It's now a commonplace in film criticism that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg together brought to a crashing halt the most progressive and interesting decade in American film since the '30s." I can't necessarily argue the point. The 1970s were full of creative, game-changing films that today might only be embraced by an art house audience if they were to get a greenlight. Certainly, the mentality that there needs to be a big money earner every single week has evolved from the box office performance of Star Wars and its ilk.
It's also my belief that the landscape for science fiction changed with the mass market appeal of Star Wars. One might think that this would mean that it made the genre more accessible, but in fact, I'd posit that if anything, it allowed these types of books and movies to stagnate, with little real exploration of boundaries. Think about every single book you see in the science fiction section of a Borders or a Barnes & Noble. Don't all the covers look exactly the same? Aren't the stories all depressingly similar sounding? I think the audience has certain expectations to be met - much like readers of romance novels, and it's far easier to play it safe and easy. Star Wars was the proof of what a mass audience wants, and the money is in appealing to this mass audience.
But even with those reservations, I still think that Star Wars' impact is so lasting and significant that it's undeniably one of the most important movies ever released. It demonstrated how to create a product that appeals to a wide-ranging demographic - and not necessarily an original product, as it owes much to Flash Gordon, Frank Herbert, Gene Roddenberry, Stanley Kubrick and even The Wizard of Oz. George Lucas was simply a savant when it came to repackaging ideas and presenting them as something new and original, in a story that is just as much soap opera as it is science fiction. Cinema has never been the same, and for that reason alone, this is a film that deserves its high positioning on the AFI list.
Ultimately, I think back to how much my nine-year-old self loved Star Wars (and The Empire Strikes Back). I gleefully returned to the theater again and again to see the space opera played out on the big screen. I begged for Star Wars toys, and eventually (maybe a year or two later), I started watching a little show called Doctor Who because I thought maybe there was something to this space creature stuff. I realize that in the end, Star Wars movies are for kids. If kids love them, then Lucas has achieved everything. If the prequels failed and were huge disappointments to those of us who saw the original Star Wars movies so many years ago, perhaps it was because we didn't watch them with our nine-year-old eyes and brain. It's a little sad that we lose that piece of ourselves that becomes enraptured by such stuff.