George Lucas has never been a household name to compare with Disney or Spielberg. But Christopher Tookey argues that the maker of "Star Wars" is the most important figure in world cinemaby Christopher Tookey / March 20, 1997 / Leave a comment
Published in March 1997 issue of Prospect Magazine
Twenty years after the release of Star Wars, the force is with us again-the sales force, that is. George Lucas and Twentieth Century Fox have spent $10m improving the sound and special effects of the trilogy, even adding new scenes. Over the next two months, it is being released with a $20m advertising campaign and a $2 billion Pepsi tie-in. Some Star Wars fans are outraged, accusing Lucas of tampering with their childhood dreams. Even so, the re-release has outgrossed every new movie in the US. Plans are also well advanced to shoot a second trilogy (mainly in Britain) for release in 1999, 2001 and 2003. Why all the interest? A cynical but accurate reply is: because there is a merchandising opportunity. The first trilogy drew more than $800m at the box office and over $3 billion in licensed merchandise. Star Wars merchandise has continued to sell over the last 20 years. Since 1990, Bantam Books have sold 15m Star Wars-based novels. Last year, Fox re-released the trilogy as a video set and sold 22m copies in six months. Star Wars is that rare combination-a mass market blockbuster and a cult hit. The internet has 12 web sites devoted to a minor Star Wars character, Boba Fett, a bounty hunter who appears for eight minutes, speaks five lines and dies. The film’s melodramatic view of the universe even-arguably-destroyed communism. President Reagan liked to call the Soviet Union the “evil empire,” and commissio-ned the “Star Wars” defence policy which broke the Soviet economy. But not many critics in 1977 recognised this low-budget sci-fi film as any kind of classic. John Simon wrote: “O dull new world!… It is all trite characters and paltry verbiage.” Molly Haskell called it “childish.” Pauline Kael lamented that “it has no emotional grip.” Most critics missed the appeal of Star Wars-that it was a fairy tale for a generation growing up without them. Lucas thought of it as a children’s film, then found that his odd collection of ideas from Arthurian legend and old movies appealed to adults too. Star Wars is certainly derivative, even Lucas admits that he pinched the plot from Kurosawa’s 1958 film, The Hidden Fortress. It does not contain terrific acting-although Harrison Ford has energy, and Alec Guinness adds gravitas. The dialogue is banal, and the mysticism about “the force” pretentious. Even the special effects are poor by modern standards. Nor has its influence been altogether benign. Star Wars is blamed for ending that “golden age” of American auteurism which created movies such as Nashville and Five Easy Pieces. However, the spectacular if superficial, narrative-based films of Lucas and his colleague Steven Spielberg (who went on to collaborate as producer and director on the Indiana Jones trilogy) did reinvigorate mass interest in the cinema, reversing its apparently inexorable decline into a minority art form. And the Lucas films are as revealing in their way as the more obviously “personal” films of an Altman or Scorsese. The Star Wars trilogy is a throwback to those other underrated films of the 1940s, The Wizard of Oz and It’s a Wonderful Life, in the way it celebrates the conservative values of home and hearth. The good versus evil war within the trilogy represents a revulsion against the moral relativism of the 1960s. And the end of war celebrations in Return of the Jedi can be interpreted as a myth designed to heal the US after Vietnam. Star Wars’ most important cultural legacy, however, is the foremost special effects company in the world, Industrial Light & Magic, created by Lucas in 1975 because he could not find anyone to do special effects which would match his imagination. A film editor by training, he was frustrated by the limitations of film and did something about it. His company made Jurassic Park, Forrest Gump, Terminator 2 and The Mask feasible. Half of all American movies now employ digital visuals of some sort, and 90 per cent use digitally recorded sound. Lucas has freed creators’ imaginations and cut costs by removing the need for expensive sets, location shooting, and stuntmen. Virtually everyone in the digital effects industry learned his craft at Industrial Light & Magic. Even Pixar, the company which made last year’s most innovative film, Toy Story, is a spin-off from the Lucas empire. (Lucas has retained 100 per cent of LucasFilm, a parent company whose worth has been estimated at $5 billion.) Star Wars inspired-and still symbolises-the start of that technical and creative explosion, which is why it has an almost religious significance for nerds the world over. Among Lucas’s current projects is the removal of film from film-making-a real possibility given advances in digital cameras. Delivery of “film” to cinemas and homes will soon be feasible digitally as well, cutting the cost of distribution and breaking the oligopoly of the Hollywood majors. Lucas is also working towards a point where virtual reality actors and scenes will be digitally accessible at the touch of a keypad. Before long, live actors could find themselves surplus to requirements. Star Wars may turn out to mark the beginning of the end of the Hollywood “star system.” George Lucas is not a household name, in the way that Walt Disney and Steven Spielberg are; but he is the most important and influential figure in world cinema-and all without having run a major studio, or directed a movie for 20 years.