A College Project that Launched an Empire
On my last column, we examined the contributions of Gene Roddenberry and the STAR TREK universe he created. This column is devoted to the other visionary, the creator of the STAR WARS universe.
George Walton Lucas, Jr. started his career as a director. In college, he directed a student film, Electronic Labyrinth: THX 1138 4EB, which was later he made into his first Hollywood feature film, THX-1138. His breakthrough film was the 1973 blockbuster AMERICAN GRAFFITI, which launched the adult career of Ron Howard, who because of the popularity of that movie, later reprised his role from a 1972 episode of LOVE, AMERICAN STYLE as Richie Cunningham on the long running series HAPPY DAYS.
In 1977, he wrote, executive produced (uncredited) and directed STAR WARS, giving homage to the serial adventures of the 40's. Lucas drew heavily on the adventures of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers to make STAR WARS the roller-coaster ride of a movie it was. Audiences had never seen anything like it. From the first Blast of the main Title Theme and the serial-like narrative crawl, to the first beauty shot of the Imperial Cruiser to the destruction of the Death Star, audiences were blown away. Audiences would wait in line for hours to see this film. I personally saw STAR WARS twenty times, and was the first videodisc (that's what I said - videodisc) I bought.
From the strength of that movie alone, an empire was created. Lucasfilm, George's personal movie studio on his private estate, Skywalker Ranch, he began making 21st Century movies. The studio created two major companies, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), Lucasfilm's optical effects arm already established for making commercials, and Skywalker Sound, the audio studio and inventor of the THX sound system, to this day, the standard for quality sound in movies. I jokingly say that STAR WARS: REVENGE of the SITH is the most expensive independent movie ever made. Produced, written and directed by George Lucas, visual effects by his Industrial Light and Magic, and audio effects by his Skywalker Sound, funding it almost exclusively without outside backers. If he didn't need people to build scenery, he'd never have to leave the ranch!
Given the strength of the first STAR WARS trilogy, Lucas had the luxury to indulge himself in experimental, vanity projects, like his live-action
fantasy movie WILLOW, and his biggest flop, HOWARD the DUCK. Neither of these movies were critical or financial successes, but it gave Lucas an opportunity to showcase his special effects departments. Soon after, ILM became the premier visual effects company in Hollywood. Many non-Lucas projects would have the ILM stamp, like The GOONIES, SPACEBALLS, and ENEMY MINE. Ironically enough, it was the ILM studios that gave the STAR TREK spin-offs it's distinctive look, and was the resident effects team for the later STAR TREK television shows and movies. STAR TREK, in reality, owes a debt of gratitude to STAR WARS.
The Movie that Launched an Empire
But more than all of this, George Lucas invented The Force, a mystical energy that is in all things. The Force was, by all who had dealings with it, a religion. It had to be studied, mastered until a student became an integral part of the The Force, that it controlled you as much as you controlled it. A student trained in the ways of The Force could manipulate objects, influence minds, and wield the most destructive force. I have issue with the last part, though. In A NEW HOPE, Darth Vader chides one of the Death Star's general by claiming that the power to destroy a planet is insignificant compared to the power of The Force(okay, he choked the crap out of him!). After six movies, we've seen some impressive displays of The Force, but the series has yet to impress me with its "full power." Coming back from the dead is a nice trick, but take out a planet? Now THAT'S some Force! It is my only issue with the franchise.
Lucas' world was also darker, always in conflict. The ragtag rebel forces against the sleek and well-equipped Imperial Fleet was the main theme of the STAR WARS series. And though The Force was supposed to be an equalizer to balance Good, it's destructive power, the Dark Side, seems to have driven the entire series. The Emperor himself foresaw Anakin's entire life, even before he was born (some speculators say that the Emperor was his father), except for that last part where Vader chucked him down the exhaust shaft. And even though Luke was "the Hero," it was Anakin who drove the entire series, and it was Anakin who was in every movie.
Another facet of STAR WARS that goes against every Trekkie psyche is that NOTHING is explained. No one knows the power source of the Death Star, or how a landspeeder
works, or the capabilities of a lightsaber. No one really knows what a TIE fighter is (Twin Ion Engine, was what I was told). But STAR WARS fans didn't care. They weren't there to dissect their entertainment; why they were there is immerse themselves in Lucas' universe, to absorb the teachings of The Force, and to just enjoy the action. No one questions how the original Death Star took over twenty years to build, but the second one was almost complete, but still fully functional in a little over four. No one cared how or where midichlorians came from, and the flimsiest explanations for the happenings in the STAR WARS universe were taken at face value. That's not what the STAR WARS fan wanted. The important lesson learned in the STAR WARS series is that Good will always triumph over Evil, and that might does not make right. This point was driven home by the entire might of the Galactic Empire taken down by teddy bears (Ewoks).
The Movie that Launched -uh- Well, Ya Can't Win Them All!
Where budget was the main constraint of the STAR TREK series, caricaturization was the weak point of the STAR WARS series. Lucas' universe, though fantastic and amazing, always created his characters in terms American movie goers could understand and/or relate. So you would have these broad, stereotypical alien caricatures, some say stereotyped to the point of being racist. This was more evident in the second trilogy, with the loping, slang-talking Jar Jar Binks, the (literally) hook-nosed junk shop keeper Watto, even the heavily-tattooed Darth Maul. You KNOW he's a bad guy - look at his prison tats! Though very visual, many were taken aback by these cartoon-like caricatures.
The two franchises never synced with each other. When STAR TREK was going gangbusters, STAR WARS was lounging, then came back while TREK slowly died away, and now with the second trilogy of WARS over, the re-boot of TREK has revitalized the franchise. And though Gene is dead, his legacy lives on. STAR WARS, unfortunately, may never come back, to the theaters; George has expressed no interest to finish the third trilogy and has shifted his focus to the small screen, where THE CLONE WARS is currently thriving, with a STAR WARS sitcom(??????) in the works.
In the end, George Lucas has made an impact on the way movies are made, and each year, the visual effects are becoming more realistic. Industrial Light and Magic and Skywalker Sound Studios have changed Hollywood forever.
In wrapping up this Battle for the Stars, I have tried to be as impartial as possible. But though my personal feelings towards both franchises seem to lean me towards the Roddenberry camp, STAR WARS' influence is just too overwhelming currently. STAR TREK
created a universe; STAR WARS created an empire (no pun intended). As the first franchise to take ownership of their merchandising, STAR WARS merchandise often out-stripped the box office takes of their movies. As one entrepreneur once quipped, "That's where the REAL money is!" STAR TREK, no slouch at merchandising themselves, has centralized their products. You may see the occasional phaser or a Kirk action figure out there, but their website, startrek.com has pretty much a stranglehold on the merchandising. They are both well-represented on the convention circuit, and each franchise has their own "road show," STAR WARS with their orchestral extravaganza touring the country, and STAR TREK still conducts their national convention in Las Vegas, even though the exhibit at the Hilton has been closed for several years. In truth, if I pitted the music themes of Alexander Courage (STAR TREK theme music author) against the music of John Williams, there would be no contest. Even STAR TREK movie music composer Jerry Goldsmith can't measure up to the baroque-like onslaught of the "Main Title Theme" or "The Imperial March" of STAR WARS.
Changed the Face of Hollywood Forever
Which is better? Ironically, it's my opinion that George Lucas will make the bigger contribution in the long run. Although STAR TREK has in my opinion the most fervent fans and has had a significant impact in everyday society, it is George's effects companies that sustain the industry, and the STAR TREK franchise.
But, like Politics and Religion, everyone has their own opinion on this issue, and, and with apologies to Robert Heinlein, it's just like trying to teach a pig to sing; it wastes your time and it annoys the pig.
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This column will explore my taste in film. I watch all kinds of movies - all kinds - but likes science fiction/fantasy - action, animated, funny, even stupid. He will speak of his experience and his encounters with science fiction and the way it colors his - and our - everyday life.
Mike Thomas was introduced to science fiction when he first watched 2001 - A SPACE ODYSSEY, and was hooked ever since. But he doesn't just watch the gee-whiz, gollee-gee special effects. He watches the costumes quirks, evaluates the musical scores, even identifies favorite actors of directors. He collected comic book, but has moved on to weapons: he currently owns the Mj?llnir - the Hammer of Thor, Electra's Ninja Sai's, Mace Windu's Light Saber, and a couple of Batarangs.|
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