With The Force Awakens looming on the horizon and Disney soaking in barge-loads of revenue, I wanted to take a minute to thank the one who got this whole crazy Star Wars thing going.
To call George Lucas “That one dude who created Jar-Jar Binks” is to ignore the mindblowing effect this particular filmmaker has had on the film industry. People have a tendency to only focus on a few of his missteps and ignore all the fantastic stuff that he did, preferring to cast him as obsolete and out of touch. And with Disney doing its best to shove him completely offstage while people pelt them with million dollar bills, I wanted to give George Lucas his due. He’s always been a personal hero of mine, and while I’ll do my best not to turn this into a “leave Britney alone” rant, I can’t make any promises.
Hollywood Before Star Wars
Before Star Wars, sci-fi on film was bleak. Think of Planet of the Apes (1968), Soylent Green (1973), and Logan’s Run (1976). Lucas’ first film, THX 1138 (1971), a dystopian story based on an experimental student film he made in college, is clearly a result of this film landscape. This era was marked by a fixation on brutal realism instead of fantasy. A great many high-concept classics with complex characters were made at this time, but sci-fi tended to exist in the fringes, its grim subject matter not doing much to inspire the general population.
Lucas wanted something else. His second film, American Graffiti (1973) was actually suggested to him by his friend and fellow director Francis Ford Coppola who noticed that studios marketed their movies to adults or to children, and there was a niche of films made by younger directors and aimed at younger audiences (in their teens and twenties) that was being largely ignored. Graffiti was actually his first film, in that it was made before THX 1138, but inexperience with studio politics meant that it languished in purgatory before getting an actual release. Graffitti was a big hit and gave Lucas the studio cred needed to work on his biggest and most important project, a grand space opera in the style of the old Buck Rogers serials which was not only going to be made for younger audiences, but was going to bring some optimism back into sci-fi, drawing inspiration from his in-depth study of the writings of Joseph Campbell who explored commonalities of world mythologies..
Lucas’ pre-Star Wars films were produced by American Zoetrope, a private studio Co-founded by Lucas and Coppola, something that was important to Lucas who was hesitant when dealing with big studios. American Zoetrope also produced all of Coppola’s greatest films (except The Godfather). The private studio model suited Lucas who wanted complete creative control over his work, and it influenced the creation of his own production company Lucasfilm in 1971.
Four years later, while working on Star Wars, he also created Industrial Light and Magic, one of the first special effects companies in the industry (since Fox’s in-house special effects division was basically dead at the time). This was born of his desire to create effects nobody had ever seen before, and it evolved into one of the most respected and successful companies of its kind in history. Along with blowing up the USS Enterprise in Star Trek: The Search for Spock (1984) and bringing the Enterprise D from Star Trek: the Next Generation to life, they melted Nazis and ripped out hearts in the Indiana Jones movies , sent Doc and Marty through time in the Back to the Future series, resurrected dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993) and its sequels, and brought the worlds of Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter, and the Marvel Cinematic Universe to life. ILM is also the company that gave birth to Pixar prior to Steve Jobs and Apple assuming control of it in 1986. Along with ILM, Lucas founded THX, LucasArts, and Skywalker Sound, all of which set industry standards of their own.
Hollywood After Star Wars
The credit for creating the huge summer blockbuster actually goes to Lucas’ friend and mentor Steven Spielberg with Jaws (1975), but Star Wars not only proved that a sci-fi film could be a blockbuster, but that merchandising and tie-in media could be a big moneymaker for studios (something few had considered). For Lucas, it was a shrewd business decision, but Hollywood would later take this model and blow it to obscene heights, turning big summer releases into grotesque money-making monsters, absorbing revenue like obese amoebas made out of billion dollar bills, something Lucas hadn’t expected. In one interview, he expressed his dismay that, in many ways, his massive success turned him into the very thing he was fighting to avoid at the beginning of his career: the head of a massive corporate machine that crowds out independent filmmakers.
It’s even more ironic when you consider that he created his empire by funding the Original Star Wars trilogy largely out of his own pocket so as to keep it out of the hands of studio executives who would have wanted some measure of creative control in exchange for financial backing. Now, overall, it is Star Wars that, in part, turned Hollywood into the money-hungry monster it is now, but it’s pretty impressive when you consider that this is all the result of Lucas’ dogged independence and vision.
He never imagined Star Wars would be a hit and many of the cast and crew expressed a lack of enthusiasm for the film’s success. Kenny Baker (R2-D2) in one interview remarked how strange the production felt. The whole tone and attitude that went into making it was different from anything they’d seen before. For Lucas, it was never intended to be a moneymaker; it was just a passion project. He was so determined to make the movies he wanted without interference that he basically ignored all normal channels and took an insane risk that, in the hands of anyone else would have been a complete disaster, and created one of the biggest pop cultural juggernauts of the modern age. This is one of the reasons why many don’t understand why he kept going back and updating the films, even after everyone already declared them classics.
When Star Wars was first released (prior to its A New Hope title) it was, in Lucas’ eyes, a rough draft. The project was running over budget and the release date had already been pushed back once. Lucas’ vision for what the effects were supposed to look like were so beyond the current technology (even the technology he himself invented on the fly) that even the “incomplete” film blew audiences away. But Lucas still had the idea of what the films were supposed to look like and so, when he got the chance, he did his best to update the effects to match what the films looked like in his head.
This is where his fierce possessive attitude towards the films created some issues. Before the films were released, his obsession with making the films exactly how he wanted worked to keep studios out of the way, but after they were released, they were no longer really his. They belonged to the adoring fans who adopted the whole Star Wars galaxy as their own. It’s like showing a patron a sketch of a painting and they love the sketch so much that they buy it on the spot, and you have to beg them to give the sketch back so you can actually finish the painting, but then the patron is disappointed because the woman in the picture is wearing a red dress and he always imagined it as blue. There’s something to be said for leaving an unfinished film unfinished if the public likes it enough as is, but I can totally understand why Lucas wanted to update the films because, to him, they were still just a sketch and not an actual painting.
Aside from two or three changes that didn’t sit right with me, the cleanup work done on the original films in general is spectacular, especially regarding the dynamic backdrops.
Sure, they didn’t need to be changed, but the crisp aesthetic of the updated films has kept them from being relegated to “cheesy old sci fi” status. A good example of this would be Jason and the Argonauts (1963), one of my favorite movies. It’s a good movie in its own right, but all people think about when they remember it is its claymation creature effects (which were groundbreaking in their day), so it isn’t the sort of movie that would gather lots of new fans today. Star Wars isn’t considered a retro classic, beloved only by the folks who saw it the day it first came out. Its updated look has captured the attention of young folks (the original film’s original audience) for decades after other films from that era receded from the pop culture limelight.
But regardless of our opinions of the post-release changes Lucas made to the Star Wars films, there’s no denying the impact of the series overall. John Williams’ brilliant scores brought orchestral music back to Hollywood films in a big way (after catching everyone’s interest with his groundbreaking score for Jaws). Before that, orchestral scores were rare, with films favoring popular or synthesized music (which was new and exciting at the time).
Star Wars also affected the visual appearance of sci-fi films that came after it. The lived-in quality of the technology (what has come to be known as the Used Future aesthetic) influenced everything from Blade Runner and Alien to Terminator and The Matrix. It had such a big impact that when Apollo 13 came out, the filmmakers made the exterior of the ship grimier than it actually would have been in real life because audiences wanted it that way (an example of what is called the Coconut Effect).
Even the prequels, which didn’t have the gloss of nostalgia protecting them from criticism from older fans, created a whole new generation of fans who are now going to be in their late 20’s and eager to see The Force Awakens. Sure the first fans of the Original Trilogy have pointed out a great many blunders in the prequels, but who cares? The Original Trilogy isn’t perfect, either. Also, the prequel films reintroduced the Original Trilogy to younger fans. Also, let’s not forget that the resurgence of fanaticism for Star Wars that accompanied the release of the prequel trilogy gave us Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, one of the greatest Star Wars video games (and dare I say video games in general?) ever made.
The prequels also spawned the Clone Wars series (as well as an earlier animated micro-series) which started out as a kid’s show with lots of explosions and goofy antics and became a legitimately interesting expansion of the Star Wars universe and its mythology as the show matured. The success of this series led to Disney trying their hand at something similar with Rebels, which has actually been pretty decent. And then there’s the Expanded Universe of novels and comics, an entire universe of its own (regardless of what is considered officially “canon” now). Star Wars is huge because of the spirit of the original films, a spirit that has never been lessened or stifled. Even when it became a massively commercial entity, the die-hard fans still connected with the optimism and universality of the story.
So, the next time you complain that Han not shooting first has ruined your entire universe, just remember that Star Wars will be relevant and important for centuries thanks to the crazy fun brain of the man who created this whole galaxy for us to play around in. The fact that Star Wars exists at all is because Lucas ignored the current film trends and, creating his own special effects company from scratch because his ideas were beyond what current technology could accomplish, made movies that he wanted, because he wanted to entertain younger audiences whom Hollywood was largely ignoring at that point. In doing so, he created not only a classic trilogy of films (and then another trilogy which really isn’t as terrible as movie snobs like to think it is), but also the current Hollywood model that is still in use today. Admittedly, he’s hardly some sainted figure drifting about in gleaming robes and distributing magical action figures to adoring fanboys that cure all ills, but he deserves a whole lot more than to be forgotten or ignored.
So while you’re sitting there, hugging your The Force Awakens tickets while building your Lego Milennium Falcon and listening to John Williams’ scores, you should think twice before you rag on George Lucas for giving us Jar Jar Binks. Because he gave us a whole lot more than that.
So thank you George Lucas.