Books, Film

Just How DID Star Wars Conquer the Universe?

Kasdan: I think you should kill Luke and have Leia take over.

Lucas: You don’t want to kill Luke.

Kasdan: Okay, then kill Yoda.

Lucas: I don’t want to kill Yoda. You don’t have to kill people. You’re a product of the 1980’s. You don’t go around killing people. It’s not nice… I think you alienate the audience.

Kasdan: I’m saying the movie has more emotional weight if someone you love is lost along the way, the journey has more impact.

Lucas: I don’t like that and I don’t believe that … I have always hated that in movies, when you go along and one of the main characters gets killed. This is a fairy tale. You want everybody to live happily ever after and nothing bad happens to anybody …. The whole emotion I am trying to get at the end of the film is for you to be real uplifted, emotionally and spiritually, and feel absolutely good about life.

It has been about three months since I burned through Chris Taylor’sΒ How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, in which time I have continually evaded writing this review. I don’t know why. This was my first book of 2018, and I truly adored reading it. It is an elating, decades-spanning tale of how one man just wanted to make his weird experimental films, and changed the course of western cultural history in the process.

The title doesn’t necessarily clue you in onto it, however, Taylor’s tome is as much a biography of George Lucas as it is an examination of Star Wars‘ pop culture proliferation. We follow Lucas from when he was a little boy, aspiring to be a race car driver, all the way up to the ageing billionaire who sold his children to Disney. Sandwiched between these accounts of Lucas’ personal history are Taylor’s escapades into the beating heart of Star Wars culture – tales of the 501st Legion, the names and identities of the mega-fans who camped outside cinemas to see The Phantom Menace weeks before release, and even of those for who Star Wars has barely made a mark. I was similarly stunned to discover that there are people living in America who have gone their entire lives without knowing a single thing about Luke Skywalker, X-Wings, R2-D2, the Millennium Falcon, Stormtroopers, Darth Vader, Yoda, Ben Kenobi…

The list goes on. Despite the deep-dive chapters about the sheer stress and anxiety which Lucas was suffering under throughout almost the entirety of the Original Trilogy, from the early 70’s when he first put pen to paper, to the mid-80’s, when the paper (appeared to, at least) finally closed, there is never a hint of cynicism coming from Taylor’s prose. How Star Wars Conquered the Universe literally radiates with reverence, fascination, and love for all that isΒ Star Wars. It’s a manner which, I think, only Star Wars fans can truly embody. No other collection of fans is so broad in location, age, gender and profession, nor so fervent in its passion. The closest you can get is literally organized religion. Few franchises can spark multiple books seeking to explain its dominance, particularly when the book in question claims that it has conquered the universe. The funny thing is: Taylor isn’t exaggerating. Rather than making us aware of this for the first time, Taylor is fully aware that we are all fully aware of this fact before we even open the first page. Likely, before we’re even aware of this book’s existence. To put it bluntly, the book is essentially an exercise in cinematic masturbation.

Not that that’s a bad thing. Indeed, it’s the book’s strength. For a few hundred pages, Taylor keeps us in a warm embrace, doling out constant reminders that Star Wars exists, it’s fucking cool and it’s super successful. It’s the kind of warmth which other pop culture rollercoasters, such as Ready Player One (the book and the movie), distinctly lack. While we can often descend into frothing pen-clickers, looking to tick off our iconographic checklists, Taylor hypothesises that Star Wars fans ultimately search for something greater than just visual familiarity and affirmation, which is both our blessing and our curse: it’s a feeling. That feeling of watching Luke Skywalker galavant around the galaxy with Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewie, and the rest of the gang in 1977. It’s how Adam Summers described it in his humorous 2005 essay, aptly titled ‘Why Do Star Wars Fans Hate Star Wars?’: it’s the idea of Star Wars that we love.

Taylor utilizes Summers’ essay and wrestles it. Summers’ assessment – that fans simultaneously claim to adore this universe whilst hating a vast majority of its output – isn’t inaccurate. It’s admirable, then, that Taylor rises above the mud-slinging and crafts a book which leaves you feeling nothing but love toward Star Wars – even the Prequels. Quite literally, one of the chapters is titled, ‘How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Prequels.’ While he doesn’t forgive the Prequels’ numerous faults based on sentiment alone, it is sentiment which encourages him to not want to focus on their faults. Too often we allow ourselves to give in to hatred because a part of us, no matter how buried, wants to, despite this being utterly antithetical to the values of Star Wars.

Which brings me back to the excerpt which opened this review. If anything, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe is a time capsule of what Star Wars once was, and what it has inevitably lost. The same feeling, so inherent in both Originals and Prequels, is absent from the Sequels. I try not to decry this too much because the new movies were never not going to feel different once George Lucas announced his retirement. The essential weirdness and idiosyncrasies which Lucas brought to the universe he fathered cannot be replicated by any other filmmaker, no matter how hard J.J. Abrams tried.

This is as much because J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson and Gareth Edwards are not George Lucas as it is because the world has changed. As is evident in the exchange between Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan, whilst writing Return of the Jedi, Lucas was always battling to keep his fairytale vision intact. It doesn’t matter that it’s unrealistic that Anakin would’ve built C-3PO, and that out of all the events of the Saga not one of them resulted in the death of our beloved heroes because it’s a fairy tale designed to make people feel good. Lucas’ statement that “nothing bad ever happens to anybody” in Star Wars isn’t entirely true (see: every character in Star Wars), but it’s easy to feel that Lucas’ sensibilities are at odds with the realism of Disney’s Star Wars. In a post-Game of Thrones media landscape, Lucas’ harmless fairytales don’t quite cut it. Then again, they didn’t before 1977 either.

This reading of the book was unintentional on Taylor’s part (it was published in 2014), yet unavoidable when reading it now. It does, however, imbue it with an additional layer of sentimentality. Whilst reading, I found myself speculating what a George Lucas-directed Star Wars would look like in 2018 – or even just one which he formed a story for. The biographical elements left me admiring Lucas more than I ever have before, to the extent where I would consider How Star Wars Conquered the Universe essential reading for anyone who is even slightly obsessed with this dumb old space opera. Perhaps now more than ever, Star Wars fans could use a bit of sentiment, a bit of reverence, and a bit of love. As evidenced by the fact that this book even exists – this world is far, far greater than just an idea.

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