Every Star Wars film begins the same way: With the words "A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away...". But super-fans crave a bit more detail: What year does Star Wars take place?
It's important to note that the sense of time and place established by the opening crawl is part of what gives Star Wars its epic feel.
George Lucas' original film was influenced by the samurai films of Akira Kurosawa, and the "long time ago" setting helps place the Jedi order alongside the samurai and other honor-bound warrior classes, from Homer's Greeks to Arthurian knights. (The way these groups are represented in legend and cinema isn't always historically accurate — but the Jedi, being fictional, don't have this problem.)
This is all very satisfying, in a broad sort of way. But neither Star Wars nor its fans have ever been much into broad answers.
For instance, after the first film, Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker, of course) learned that fans expected him to know all about the makes and models of the starships in the movies.
And Lucas himself went back and re-worked the series with an increasing focus on specificity in his world-building — he even renamed the original film, changing Star Wars to Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. So it's not surprising that the specifics of Star Wars' place in time is a hot-button issue, almost as controversial as the 'right' Star Wars watch order.
When does Star Wars take place in Star Wars years?
There are two ways of looking at time in Star Wars. One is to ask what year the characters in Star Wars think it is. The other is to ask what year it is in Earth years. The first question is geeky, but fairly straightforward.
In the Star Wars films, residents of the universe have different years depending on which planet or system they call home. But the known Star Wars universe as a whole also has a "standard year," or SY.
That measurement is tacked to the length of a year on the planet Coruscant, the galactic capital. And, as luck would have it, Coruscant's year is 365 days long, and days are 24 hours apiece. In other words, just like Earth — convenient, right? (Okay, there’s one technicality: Coruscant doesn't need leap years to stay on schedule like we do on Earth. Still, though, we can pretty much just think of Standard Years as Earth years.)
In the Star Wars universe, the Battle of Yavin is the center of the year-numbering system.
As fans know, the Battle of Yavin is the one that led to the destruction of the first Death Star. That means that the first film, A New Hope, takes place in the year zero. Everything after year zero is noted as “BBY” ("Before the Battle of Yavin”), and every year before it is “ABY” ("After the Battle of Yavin").
From this starting point, we can use different methods to work out the whole timeline of Star Wars films (and TV shows, and books, and so on). Some sources give us the exact SY, which is easy. Other times, we can work things out based on references to events in other sources, or using the ages of characters, and so on.
Let’s take a quick look at the numbered episodes of the Star Wars saga and the standard years they take place in:
· Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace: 32 BBY
· Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones: 22 BBY
· Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith: 19 BBY
· Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope: 0 BBY/0 ABY
· Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back: 3 ABY
· Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi: 4 ABY
· Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens: 34 ABY
· Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi: 34 ABY
· Star Wars: Episode IX - Rise of Skywalker: 35 ABY
That's all well and good, but what does this mean for Earth years? How long after the birth of the universe does Star Wars take place? Unfortunately, the canon timeline has pretty limited answers to these questions.
When does Star Wars take place in Earth years?
Bad news: There is absolutely nothing significant in the Star Wars movies that would suggest what year it is on Earth, other than the vague "long time ago."
This is, after all, a galaxy "far, far away." Earth presumably exists in the Star Wars universe (that's what all this stuff is far, far away from, right?), but we never see it in the movies, and nobody seems to be aware of it. From the movies alone, the most that we can say is that Star Wars happens in the past, and not particularly recently.
But we're free to speculate. If "a long time ago" serves to connect Star Wars to samurai films, we could guess that it means sometime between the 1600s and the 1860s (Earth years), which would correspond to Japan’s Edo era, the setting of most samurai films.
If we want to get geekier with it, we could look for signs of the age of the universe itself — assuming, as we already have, that this is our universe (just far, far away from our particular galaxy).
But this produces mixed results, as Patrick Johnson fo und in his book The Physics of Star Wars. Star Wars appears to take place in a relatively "mature" universe in which billions of stars have already formed, but this isn’t a very precise measurement.
And this doesn’t even mean for sure that that Star Wars is (galactically speaking) relatively recent stuff, because it’s possible that Star Wars could take place before the Big Bang even happened, in a past universe that later contracted and Big-Banged its way back out again (physicists theorize that universes like ours expand, contract, and "bang" their way back into existence cyclically).
Besides, Star Wars is a movie with sound effects in space, so perhaps physics aren’t what should guide us here.
Is there any other way to figure out the Star Wars chronology? Not really, unless you're willing to go off-canon. Den of Geek tied the Star Wars chronology to Earth's by using crossover characters in the video game SoulCalibur IV and concluded that A New Hope took place in 1593 AD. That’s pretty close to the samurai film era.
But this logic doesn't work too well unless we agree that Darth Vader really did pop over to Earth for a sword fighting tournament as depicted in SoulCalibur IV. Within the “real story” of the Star Wars canon, he clearly did not, so we're back to square one.
Speaking of non-canon sources, another option is to look at the comic books. Star Wars Tales #19 is a Han Solo/Indiana Jones crossover story that depicts Han's non-canon death by arrow wound on a strange planet that, as it turns out, is Earth. Indiana Jones discovers the body a couple of hundred years later.
Seeing as Indy worked primarily in the 1930s, this pegs A New Hope's setting at sometime around the early- to mid-1700s, depending on when we're guessing Han made this fated trip and whether Indy was in his working prime at the time that he found the body.
But if we're sticking strictly to the canon, the simple fact is that there are no satisfying or specific answers. Canon events date back to more than 20 millennia BBY (remember, that's "Before the Battle of Yavin"), but that's a mere 20,000 years, which is a drop in the bucket compared to the billions of years that it takes life to evolve.
How quickly did life emerge on the Star Wars planets? That's the bigger question we need to answer in order to peg the Star Wars timeline to ours, and it's not answered in the Star Wars canon. Without knowing when life emerged, no amount of the Star Wars universe’s recorded history can help us — we could easily be off by billions of years, depending on how long the planets of Star Wars spent as lifeless husks or primordial soups.
So, in the end, the question of when Star Wars is set in Earth years is pretty much unanswerable. Perhaps, we just need to say Star Wars is timeless.