Go up to a random person and ask them to name a few planets from the Star Wars universe. Sure, you'll probably get your fair share of blank stares and a handful of people telling you to go away, but plenty of people will be able to tell you about Naboo and Tatooine and Coruscant. A few people will say Endor (and a few among them will correct themselves as they remember that we only saw a moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi). Hell, more than a few people will be able to tell you that the Wookies hail from Kashyyyk.
That's the thing about Star Wars -- everyone knows what it is. Everyone can tell you a thing or two about it. The characters of George Lucas' sci-fi saga have become a cultural touching stone, but the universe they inhabit has, too. And for good reason. It's a detailed, stunningly realized world that's specific enough to demand further attention, but it's big and vague enough to leave plenty to the imagination. It answers just enough questions to demand more questions. It's sublime world building. There's reason this franchise has survived and will see a seventh chapter in a few years: people love it and it's easy to get lost in it.
But let's be honest with ourselves here. Star Wars is more than 30 years old at this point and it's actually a little sad that nothing has come along and supplanted it as the sci-fi universe that everyone always talks about. In fact, the only science fiction world that even comes close to rivaling Star Wars is Star Trek, which is even older. Run out and ask some strangers to name some Star Trek planets and everyone will tell you Vulcan and Klingon. If you're brave, you can tell them that the Klingons actually hail from Q'onoS.
So this begs the questions: when is the next major science fiction world arriving? And when it does, will audiences actually care about it enough to become invested outside of a single film?
It's a question that demands to be mulled over after the disappointing box office for Pacific Rim, a movie that many film fans suggested could become the next Star Wars in terms of scope and depth. However, audiences seemed to disagree. Guillermo del Toro's terrific monsters-vs.-robots adventure has its fair share of fans, but further exploration of its universe will probably be relegated to the occasional comic book spin-off or prequel. It's doubtful that anyone outside of those already converted will discuss the differences between various Kaiju or brainstorm new Jaeger names.
And it's a shame. Like the first Star Wars film, Pacific Rim offers a small glance at a universe that is simply too big for one movie to handle. It's a great science fiction world that's boiling over with possibilities, but it's not going to catch on. It's not going to be a thing you can bring up to anyone and have them immediately understand. If anything, Pacific Rim feels like Blade Runner. People are going to love it, and filmmakers are going to take cues from it for decades to come, but that single two-hour glimpse of a seemingly deep sci-fi world is all that we're going to get.
So here's your brainstorming activity for the moment: which sci-fi universes have come the closest to inspiring true fervent passion to a wide audience in recent years?
Avatar seemed like it would -- with its enormous box office and all -- but it seems to have mysteriously faded into the background. Same with The Matrix, which demolished all of its good will with its two lackluster sequels. The TV series Firefly and its movie spin-off Serenity have a passionate fan base now, but they weren't powerful enough to keep the show on the air or help the film turn a profit. The Hunger Games franchise feels like it could be on the way, but its world is a little too derivative of other fictional dystopias to scratch the "new and unfamiliar" itch.
Interestingly, while new science fiction worlds have been struggling, the genre's closest cousin has been thriving. The world of fantasy has caught on in a huge way in the past decade, with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings films making traditional fantasy cool for the first time ever and the Harry Potter series inspiring a fanbase that may actually eclipse Star Wars in terms of passion. Heck, millions of people will gladly tell you the differences between House Lannister and House Tyrell after three seasons of Game of Thrones -- and some will even be able to tell you the strategic importance of holding the Neck if you want to successfully invade or defend the North.
What can we glean from this? Why are people so ready and willing to embrace new fantasy but incapable of embracing science fiction that doesn't have "star" and "wars" in the title? Perhaps it's because the mere existence of Star Wars is what has made it okay to embrace new and geeky stuff in recent years and we're all afraid to let it go. Are sci-fi fans just afraid of change? Whatever it is, it's time for something to come along and blow the socks off of the entire world. We just need to let it happen.