Genre Movie #2: “Star Wars” (1977)
Like Gene Roddenberry, George Lucas had a singular talent: he was very good at finding and hiring other very talented people. For everything that can be said about Lucas as a technician and movie maker — he was mechanically astute and had an exceptional visual eye — he was not a very good director, editor or writer. But he knew people that were. Everything we love about “Star Wars” — the look, the sound, the designs, the special effects, the sweep of the action — all of that was created by other people, who helped Lucas remix and reform the pop culture snippets he grabbed from movies and the pulp sci-fi he devoured growing up. (Heck, even the famous opening scene of the Star Destroyer rolling endlessly overhead was lifted from — or, if you want to be charitable, inspired by — a similar shot from “Space: 1999,” which aired around the time Lucas was in England to began pre-production work on “Star Wars.” As the old adage goes, “Good artists copy, great artists steal.”) Lucas was a visual artist, yet the older he got, the more he forgot the most important rule: Show, don’t tell. The stuff people hate about Star Wars — the terrible writing, the abuse of English, the endless revamping and retconning — that’s all Lucas.
My “Star Wars” can be found in the amazing paintings of Ralph McQuarrie, who Lucas hired to help illustrate the script he was pitching. It was McQuarrie who gave shape to what we now recognize as the lasting legacy of the movie: its appearance. I still get the same sense of wonder each time I see these renderings, 35 years after I first discovered them in a short preview in Starlog magazine. These earliest images are curious too because the details are so different from what eventually was filmed, based as they were on an early draft of the script. In a way, I’m still waiting to see that movie.
(In a grand experiment, Dark Horse Comics recently began publishing a series based on Lucas’ first rough draft. Called “The Star Wars,” it is radically different — almost unrecognizable — from what appeared in theaters. I’m looking forward to reading it, if for no other reason than it, brings me full circle with my Star Wars experience.) As for that experience? Star Wars used to be much higher on this list, in my all-time Top 5 favorite movies, period. It was a massive influence on me as a kid, when I wanted to be a filmmaker, and even later, when it had a huge sway over me as a game designer.
By extension, “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) should be on this list of favorite movies as well. It is widely thought to be better than “Star Wars,” and is frequently held up as the best example of how a sequel could be done. (It should be noted it was not directed by Lucas, but Irvin Kershner.) The Battle for Hoth is still one of the most thrilling cinematic achievements ever. Lucas’ endless tinkering with his ‘baby’ — instead of making new movies, he just kept reworking the same three films past the point where anyone cared — doesn’t take that away.
In the end, people can be very hard on George Lucas — and justifiably so. But the fact remains: he is probably the only director to inspire filmmakers around the world twice — first, when he did “Star Wars” in 1977 and showed everyone how to make a movie; and again in 1999, when he did the prequels, and showed everyone how not to make a movie. How many people can say that?