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The Starstruck Vision of George Lucas’s Star Wars: A Long Time Ago …
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the big bang occurred. “At its simplest, [the big bang theory] says the universe as we know it started with a small singularity, then inflated over the next 13.8 billion years to the cosmos that we know today.”1
It’s the perfect metaphor for what filmmaker George Lucas accomplished when he set out to film a space fantasy, which he originally planned as a reboot of Flash Gordon from the 1930s, from which he borrowed the famous opening text crawl that we first saw in Star Wars (1977), later retitled A New Hope.
A New Hope was, as Lucas himself explained, “built on top of many things that came before. This film is a compilation of all those dreams, using them as a history to create a new dream.”2 As Slate elaborated,
Ask what Star Wars actually is, however, and you’ll receive as many answers as there are scoundrels at the Mos Eisley Cantina.3 Star Wars is a Western. Star Wars is a samurai movie. Star Wars is a space opera. Star Wars is a war film. Star Wars is a fairy tale.… The original Star Wars seems notable mostly as the foundation upon which an empire has been built—the sequels and prequels, the heavily indebted franchises, indeed the whole blockbuster economy.
But, initially, it didn’t look as if a blockbusting franchise was in the making. As Dale Pollock pointed out in Skywalking: The Life and Films of George Lucas, after Lucas initially screened A New Hope in 1977 to a select few, including his closest friends and fellow filmmakers and a movie critic, he said, “They all thought it was a disaster.… They were all my real close friends and they felt sorry for me more than anything else. There were a lot of condolences, which is even worse than saying you don’t like the movie.”
Lucas had hoped his friends would be the wind beneath his wings, but instead they took it out of his sails. He concluded, “I figured, well, it’s just a silly movie. It ain’t going to work.”
As Pollock pointed out, Lucas soon discovered that most of his friends were off the mark. He got his first inkling of that when he and his wife at the time, Marcia, went to a burger joint in Los Angeles. It was across the street from the famous Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, which was jam-packed with people. Like a blaster set to stun, Lucas’s “silly movie” was set for fun—and also set to make a fortune for everyone involved. As Pollock wrote:
“Jesus Christ, what’s going on here?” Lucas wondered. As they rounded the corner, he and Marcia saw Star Wars in giant block letters on the theater marquee. “We just fell on the floor,” Lucas remembers. “I said, ‘I don’t believe this.’ So we sat in Hamburger Hamlet and watched the giant crowd out there.… It wasn’t excitement, it was amazement. I felt it was some kind of aberration.”
But it wasn’t an aberration. Star Wars, an entertaining family film with something for everyone, was a celebration. It was a time when the public badly needed an escapist movie in which to lose themselves, because the Vietnam War had just ended the month before and left a bitter aftertaste.
Star Wars paved the way for another summer blockbuster a month later: Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Together, they swallowed the competition whole.
The back-to-back escapist films made it clear that the public had a voracious appetite for popcorn movies that took their minds far, far away from the rice paddies of the Vietnam War, which they had seen unfold and, later, unravel, during the nightly news. We were losing, not winning, the war, no matter what the White House reassuringly said. We learned that our government could no longer be trusted.
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Lucas’s modest expectations for his “fairy tale in space guise,” as he told Starlog magazine, exploded in a big bang, spreading out in every direction across the world. As Chris Taylor pointed out, “Star Wars is an increasingly global phenomenon, perhaps the first mythos all cultures can get behind without hesitation.”
Years later, Star Wars, a multibillion-dollar franchise, drew the Walt Disney Company, like a tractor beam, into its orbit. Having previously spent $9 billion for Pixar and $4 billion for Marvel, WDC’s $4.05 billion for Star Wars was clearly a prudent investment, as Wired pointed out: “Just how do those billions stack up, though? While the exact math is fuzzy, the long-term picture is clear. Disney immediately started making money on an investment that will continue to pay off in a huge way—likely for years to come.”4
Disney—the most accomplished entertainment company in the world in terms of orchestrating multiple streams of income from diverse sources—found that the Star Wars franchise was a cash cow, waiting to be milked right from the beginning.
The worldwide box office gross of Disney’s first Star Wars film (The Force Awakens, 2015) took in more than $2 billion worldwide; a year later, Rogue One took in half that. Given that the plan is to release a new Star Wars film every year—alternating between its historic plotline and stand-alone stories—the investment was, as Wired observed, “the deal of the century.”
George Lucas, who ruled with an iron fist as the founder, chairman, and chief executive officer of the Star Wars franchise for decades, was now free to get on with the next chapter of his life. He spoke longingly about going back to his roots, making artistic films. But his immediate concern was finding a permanent home for his pop culture museum.
In the end, after finding himself in a frustrating and losing battle with various groups in Chicago, where he initially had planned on building it, Lucas’s billion-dollar Museum of Narrative Art finally found a home in Los Angeles’s Exposition Park. To be encased in a futuristic-looking building—not unlike those found in the Star Wars universe—the museum, stated National Public Radio, “will display his personal collection of fine and popular art, including Norman Rockwell paintings, Mad magazine covers, photography, children’s art, as well as Hollywood props and visual effects from his famous movie franchise, Star Wars.”5
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Walt Disney himself wryly observed that his eponymous company had humble origins: “It all started with a mouse.” Similarly, with Lucas, it all started with a pair of droids: R2-D2 and C-3PO. They escaped from Princess Leia Organa’s Tantive IV to safety on the nearby planet of Tatooine, putting Lucas’s space fantasy into high orbit. The Frodo Baggins of our time, R2-D2 proved that even the smallest of us can change the world.6
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Beyond the phenomenon it created and its pop culture roots, Star Wars also can be seen in a more serious light, through the lens of multiple social, economic, and military perspectives.7
In my case, in this book, I see Star Wars through the lens of military science, in as broad a way as possible. By now, you’d think that print publishers would have mined every possible nook and cranny of the Star Wars universe, but that’s not so. Disney is continuing to explore new territories and countless new worlds.
The expanding Star Wars universe has room for official and unofficial books, for text-only books and massively illustrated books, for merchandising of all kinds, and for fan fiction that ranges from the imaginable to the unimaginable (don’t ask). There’s room for all of these things and more.
John Lassiter—chief creative officer of Pixar Animation Studios, Walt Disney Animation Studios, and DisneyToon Studios, and principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering—explained the importance of immersive storytelling:
Ask yourself why? Why is this here? Does it further the story? Does it support the whole? The world of your story should feel perfectly natural to the audience. As soon as something looks wrong or out of place, your audience will pop out of your story and think about how weird that looked and you’ve lost them.
The goal is to create a storyline that will suck your audience in and keep them entertained for the length of your film. When a film achieves this goal, the audience will lose track of time and forget about all their worldly cares. For all that any audience truly wants is to be entertained.8
Likewise, that’s what this book is all about: to entertain you, to not take things too seriously, to make you smile, and to provide food for thought. But most of all, to have fun.
So strap on your armor, grab your weapon, make sure your helmet’s on tight, and step inside my armored multipurpose vehicle, because it’s time to roll.
Copyright © 2018 by George Beahm