Monday, July 13, 2015

Book Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor

With most of the civilized world anxiously waiting for the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a few recently published books have taken stock of the uber pop culture phenomenon, foremost among them How Star Wars Conquered the Universe by Chris Taylor.

The book chronicles the creative journey of George Lucas, including chapters on the global influence of Star Wars.  Everything is covered from the inception of Star Wars in the early 70s, the heady process of making the original trilogy, and the fan backlash to the prequel trilogy.

The final section covers recent developments in the Star Wars universe, namely, Lucas's decision to sell the rights to Star Wars over to Disney, a move that will change the course of pop culture for decades to come.

A few chapters examine the "fandom" subculture surrounding Star Wars. The 2011 documentary, The People vs. George Lucas, marked the apotheosis of Star Wars fan outrage.  They love Lucas for creating the stories, but feel betrayed at his choice to alter the original films with CGI effects and their hatred of Jar Jar Binks and numerable other creative missteps made in the prequels.

Taylor, a journalist by trade, is at his best when tracing the life of Lucas in his triumphant and melancholy journey from experimental filmmaker to media mogul.  When his low budget 1973 film American Graffiti became a box office smash, Lucas found himself in a position he never expected: financial backing from a major studio to make his own movie.  

So he wrote a space opera against the advice of everyone around him.  By going against the grain, making a crowd pleasing movie in an age of cynical downers, Lucas tapped into an entirely new audience crazy for comic book space adventures sprinkled with the subtext of the hero's journey.

The book also does a great job of deconstructing the myth Lucas had a master plan of nine movies. The story went as follows: the original script had enough material for nine films so he took the middle section and made that into a movie. The truth is far more complicated.  

To make a long story short, Lucas has made conflicting statements on the issue over the years.  While it appears he had an epic story in mind, most of the details and plot developments remained sketchy and unwritten.

While the making of the original Star Wars trilogy is an often told tale, Taylor fills in some of the gaps. After the release of Return of the Jedi in 1983, Lucas eschewed making personal films in favor of being a producer. In a way he became the very thing he was always against - a micromanaging CEO consumed with financial issues.

After the final installment Revenge of the Sith was completed in 2005, Lucas declared the Star Wars saga finished.  Plans for a TV show, Star Wars: Underworld, a darker take on the universe, never materialized.

Now the lion in winter, Lucas has stepped aside and is now "creative consultant" for the new films. As his former mentor Francis Ford Coppola once observed, Star Wars overtook Lucas's life and we'll never see those other movies he planned to make.  When revisiting THX-1138 or American Graffiti we see an artist with a vision of amazing depth, and one cannot but wonder if Lucas had decided direct his other pet project which went to Coppola, Apocalypse Now.  Ironically, he got trapped in a universe of his own making.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe tells the saga of Lucasfilm with wit and clarity, a worthy purchase for any Star Wars fan.