Who hasn't seen Star Wars? Chris Taylor opens his book, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise, pointing out that while not everyone has seen Star Wars, most people in the United States and around the world know elements of the series.
Phrases like 'Death Star', 'May the Force Be With You', and 'No, I am your father' and words like 'Jedi', 'Lightsaber', and 'Sith' are so prevalent in our culture that it's nearly impossible to escape them. The only way, he found, was to live in relative isolation and speak a different language. This was true, he found, until a group of translators who took A New Hope and translated it into Navajo for the first time. The number of people unaware of Star Wars shrank just a bit smaller.
How Star Wars Conquered the Universe is an excellent look at the genesis of Star Wars — how it went from a vague collection of ideas in George Lucas' head to a major franchise spanning films, comics, books, television shows and more. Along the way, Taylor explores the impact of Star Wars on society, from the aforementioned worldwide cultural penetration to the people who kept the story alive over all these years.
In the beginning, there was a young George Lucas, son of a well-to-do store owner. He was introverted, loved comic books, and eventually racing cars. A fateful car accident almost killed the future director and multi-billionaire, an incident that Taylor highlights as pivotal: it was the point where he began to examine his life, and where he decided to go to school, eventually ending up at the University of Southern California, where he studied film, eventually producing a handful of short films, such as Look at Life, Herbie, 1:42.08, The Emperor, Anyone Lived in a Pretty (how) Town, Filmmaker, and 6-18-67. Taylor looks at how Lucas began to develop his style of filmmaking: a sort of documentary style which would stay with him for the rest of his career as a filmmaker. One of his final student films, Electric Labyrinth: THX 1138, brought together two interests: science fiction and film, and he later expanded it into a full-length feature, his first. The dark, intelligent thriller didn't do well in theaters, so he turned to another love, cars, which led to his first major success, American Graffiti.
Lucas would be best known for his third feature film: Star Wars, which has enjoyed its own sort of creation myth since its release. In some quarters, it's been said Lucas created his own story after failing to acquire the rights to Flash Gordon, and that this was a retelling of Akira Kurosawa films, which he had laid out a series of three trilogies, starting right in the middle. This is where Taylor's book shines: it's not exactly a "making of" story - there's other books that have laid that out in fairly comprehensive detail, such as J. W. Rinzler's three-book Making of Star Wars: A New Hope / Empire Strikes Back / Return of the Jedi, which examines the trilogy in exhaustive detail. Taylor goes for the narrative approach, tying in underlying film history, pointing out that science fiction films traditionally hadn't done well, and it wasn't until 2001: A Space Odyssey and Planet of the Apes did well at the box office that production companies began to warm to the idea that science fiction movies might be worth taking the risk on.
Similarly, Taylor uses his time to trace the early 20th Century history of science fiction, examining some of the basic roots of space opera. Authors such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and E.E. 'Doc' Smith to Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, and from literature to comic books, had an incredible influence on Lucas as he was beginning to put his story together and he borrowed these influences from everything around him, swapping concepts in and out, as we see as Taylor takes us through the various drafts of Star Wars. What's surprising is not where all of the influences came from, but at how Lucas and a close-knit group of individuals really worked through the pile of ideas to the final product. The end result was nothing like what Lucas had originally envisioned.
Taylor pays a lot of due to two individuals who really created the vision of Star Wars as we now know it: John Williams (with his iconic Star Wars fanfare somewhat cribbed from the theme from the movie Kings Row), which set the sonic feel for the series, and Ralph McQuarrie, whose artwork really grounded all of the ideas in Lucas's head. Frequently, Taylor punctures the notion that Star Wars was primarily a one-man operation, and emphasized the work that a group of people (with Lucas at the center) took those ideas and ran with them, creating the basis for the franchise.
Over the course of the book, we look at what happened from there: there's a look at the production of Star Wars, and the aftermath: what happened when you have a surprisingly successful movie on your hands? This is where the serial roots of Star Wars began to take form. Lucas and others worked to keep the momentum up, branching into merchandising and television programming. Looking at the origins of these projects, Taylor shows us that the Holiday Special might not have been such a horrendous mess it was if not for the creation-by-committee process that it underwent, which ultimately led to a positive result: Lucasfilm determining that they would have a firm grasp on all of their intellectual properties.
From there, Taylor looks at the development of Star Wars II (which would eventually become The Empire Strikes Back), written by SF author Leigh Brackett, and the entire production process that made The Empire Strikes Back one of the few films to really surpass its predecessor. By the time we reach Return of the Jedi, we begin to see how Lucas's controlling work habits impacted the conception and production of the final film - he was too big to say no to, which impacted the selection of the director and interactions on set. The book is loaded with tidbits about the creation of the films, worth the price of admission alone.
This isn't a story of just the films, however, but the entire Star Wars Franchise. In the in-between years, we take a look at the work that went into the early novels and comic books, to the work that went into building the entire Expanded Universe, starting with Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire trilogy, and how that really kept a fan movement alive for fans who wanted more from a Galaxy Far Far Away. This is a key point for the book, as Taylor dives into the history of how fans have reacted to the Star Wars trilogy over the years. We see chapters on the 501st Legion and its formation, of the fans who waited in line for The Phantom Menace in 1999, and of the R2 Builder's Club and how these groups have not only kept Star Wars alive in the interceding years, but actively contributed to the creation of the franchise. The 501st's name is now enshrined in Star Wars Canon, and two members of the R2 Builder's Club have provided astromechs to the Episode VII production.
Taylor enters the last leg of the race by examining the prequel trilogy: started in the early 1990s when Lucas realized that technology was finally at the point where he could bring his vision to the screen, we see how the Expanded Universe and pressures to keep the lights on really pushed Lucasfilm to look at new stories. The tipping point for Star Wars becoming a global phenomenon, Taylor notes, was the decision to re-release the trilogy as the Special Editions, pulling in hundreds of millions of dollars in 1997. As he covers the prequels, he looks at Lucas's desire to produce some truly experimental films on a technical level, while leaving his actors in a lurch as they acted against green screens.
The story of Star Wars as Taylor presents it is one that's inextricably tied to its creator: Star Wars is the story that Lucas could never quite escape from, nor one that he could easily let go of. It's in these arguments that I think that I've found the most plausible explanation for the lesser quality of the Prequel Trilogy: Lucas had gone from Hollywood rebel to the Emperor of his own film empire. This worked well when Star Wars was originally filmed with a smaller budget and crew, but problematic when he was in charge of a sprawling operation that covered sound, special effects and film production. Furthermore, his tendency to change things up with little notice caused problems in operations such as LucasArts, where simple switches meant months or years of work were thrown out. Furthermore, Taylor describes Rick McCallum as the perfect producer for Lucas: he kept the production on track and on budget, but couldn't (or wouldn't) say no to The Creator. The early years of pushback had a positive effect on the early Star Wars films: eroding away the ideas which everyone except Lucas recognized as terrible or a poor fit for the film. Lucas's management style outgrew the operation he himself created, ultimately providing a real cause for some of the major problems with the latest installments.
How Star Wars Conquered The Galaxy is a really excellent overview of how the franchise grew to its present overwhelming importance. What surprised me was just how unlikely a story it is: a small science fiction story that exploded out of nowhere, which continued on by the skin of its teeth throughout much of its history. Thinking about the prevalence of Star Wars in the world around us, you might think the saga's influence would be a sure thing. But the credit, according to Taylor, belongs to the one person that fans love to hate, Lucas himself, who's had a complicated relationship with the franchise himself. Along the way, Star Wars has become one of the most innovative film franchises throughout the last four decades: on a technical, merchandising, and cultural level. And, while Lucas and fans have had a complicated relationship with the movies over that time, Taylor has set up a story that encapsulates the history of the first Era of Star Wars, the foundation for everything that Disney's going to throw at us in the coming years and decades.
In doing so, he's put together a volume that's honest and interesting — and one that's completely reignited my passion for Star Wars. Bring on December 2015.