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1 June 2015

Want to understand Star Wars fans? Start here

It’s junk cinema but, like the Millennium Falcon, it’s fast junk – and don’t you dare call it junk unless you’re a fan, for only its fans can criticise it.

By Tom Shone

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: the Past, Present and Future of a Multibillion-Dollar Franchise
Chris Taylor
Head of Zeus, 458pp, £20

Trash-talking Star Wars is a favourite occupation of a certain class of cineaste. The accusations are familiar: it turned movies into amusement rides, brought to an end the auteurist experiment of the 1970s and ushered in our endless summer of blockbusters. Without it, Chris Taylor writes, “If we had summer blockbusters at all, they would be more disaster movies in the style of Jaws and less science-fiction or fantasy spectaculars. There would probably be no Star Trek on the big screen and certainly no Battlestar Galactica on the small one. It’s distinctly possible that 20th Century Fox would have gone bankrupt after 1977 . . . and Rupert Murdoch might not control it today.” So there you have it. Star Wars is responsible for Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II and Rupert Murdoch. Is there no end to its evil?

This is the magic bullet theory of film history, the idea that but for one film we would all be sitting around watching John Cassavetes movies, rolling doobies, sticking it to the men in suits. The problem with this argument is that it gives Star Wars both too much credit and too little: too much as a harbinger of cinematic destiny and too little in terms of its qualities as a film. In reality, New Hollywood directors had been retooling old genres as blockbusters all decade long – The French Connection, The Exorcist, The Godfather. Martin Scorsese had been sniffing around Philip K Dick for years. Brian De Palma had his eye on a sci-fi property. Six months after Star Wars came out, Steven Spielberg released Close Encounters of the Third Kind, using its own version of the Dykstraflex cameras that George Lucas used to liberate the X-wings in Star Wars. Watching rapt in the front row were Ridley Scott, Robert Zemeckis, John Lasseter and James Cameron. Anyone who thinks that were it not for Lucas’s lightsabers the creator of The Terminator would have upped sticks and called it a day is dreaming.

Taylor’s great achievement is to combine two seemingly contradictory narratives: that Star Wars was an idea whose time had come and that no one had seen it coming. The film was an embarrassment to Alan Ladd, the executive who had shepherded the project, a mess right until the moment when an exhausted Lucas said “print”, at which point a thousand and one hands seemed to guide it into the shape we know today. Taylor does a good job of untangling the spaghetti in Lucas’s head as the film went through its countless iterations, taking us from the “lightsword” in the 1933 pulp story “Kaldar, Planet of Antares” by Edmond Hamilton (the husband of Leigh Brackett, who later wrote a draft of The Empire Strikes Back) to the mention of “some kind of force” in Arthur Lipsett’s short film 21-87, which Lucas saw while at the University of Southern California. (Lucas elaborated on the notion. There were “Ashla” forces and “Bogan” forces, before the film’s producer, Gary Kurtz, told him to simplify it.)

What’s important is that Lucas listened. The 33-year-old director, an introvert, was almost broken by the shoot but he was also stretched and loosened up by it, sucking up the many accidents, improvisations and suggestions that came to him from his production team – a generation of sci-fi geeks who had emerged from the woodwork, including the effects maestro John Dysktra, the sound man Ben Burtt and the conceptual artist Ralph McQuarrie, who hit upon the combination of samurai helmet and gas mask for Darth Vader and whose juxtaposition of desert sands and inky-black space helped to sell the film to Fox. By the time of the prequels, this porousness to suggestion on Lucas’s part had all but disappeared (“Now he’s so exalted that no one tells him anything,” lamented Mark Hamill, who played Luke Skywalker), which is why those films are what they are: smooth, frictionless dreams of Jedi omnipotence, from which all struggle has been banished; films born of a thousand yeses.

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Stars Wars was a battle that landed Lucas in hospital and it shows. There’s fight in the picture. Everywhere you look, you see marvels – hammer-headed aliens, high-speed dogfights, lightsabers and landspeeders, twin suns and an exploding planet – all filmed by a director who couldn’t wait to get from one end of his freshly summoned universe to the other. The characters treated these wonders with the disdain that you or I might reserve for our crappy old cars. “What a piece of junk!” Luke exclaims. “She may not look like much,” replies Han Solo, “but she’s got it where it counts, kid. I’ve made a lot of special modifications myself.” It’s a piece of dialogue that provides such a neat summary of the critical opinion on the film that you wonder why critics in 1977 didn’t put their feet up and leave the film to review itself.

Junk is everything in Star Wars. The ­Jawas deal in junk. The droids are sold as junk. Our heroes are delivered as junk into the Death Star’s trash compactor. That the Death Star is the only new piece of technology on display is sign enough of its nefariousness: those serving the empire are the only people in the galaxy not to have heard of recycling. Everyone else tinkers, modifies, retrofits, recycles and retools. If the vast, multibillion-dollar franchise that Star Wars spawned can be boiled down to a single insight on Lucas’s part, it is this: that the slightly crabby, proprietorial fondness that Han Solo nurses for the Millennium Falcon would be something that people would be feeling a lot more in the years to come. They would feel it for their computers, their Ataris, their Apples, their Xboxes, their iPhones and their iPads. That we could have a relationship with technology was, in 1977, news. Lucas took that feeling and on it he built an empire.

And we have come to feel the same way about Star Wars. It’s junk cinema but, like the Millennium Falcon, it’s fast junk – and don’t you dare call it junk unless you’re a fan, for only its fans can criticise it. “Love and hate are the twin verities of every true Star Wars fan,” Taylor writes. “If you run into somebody who tells you they thought the franchise was quite enjoyable and they very much liked the originals as well as the prequels,” he quotes one fan as saying, “these impostors are not Star Wars fans.” He finds an echo of this in something he heard in the halls of Lucasfilm: “To make Star Wars, you’ve got to hate Star Wars.” That means you can’t treat it so preciously as to inhibit you from building on top of it. The makers of the latest instalment, Episode VII: the Force Awakens, out in December, will have to strike a delicate balance. May the force be with you, J J Abrams.

Interleaved into his account of the making of the films – the most accurate and detailed we have yet had – is a series of Taylor’s peregrinations into the hearts, minds and dioramas of the fans. We meet those who formed a stormtrooper legion and got a namecheck in Episode III and the New Zealanders whose campaign to get Jedi accepted as a religion drew 53,715 signatories, making it the country’s second-largest faith. “To shake your head at the folly and still love every second of it is a big part of the idea of Star Wars,” Taylor writes. He is one of a rare breed: the clear-eyed enthusiast who approaches the franchise with an unbeatable mixture of seriousness and levity, effervescence and scholarly rigour. Star Wars is unlikely to get a better book any time soon.

Tom Shone’s “Scorsese: a Retrospective” is published by Thames & Hudson

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