Vengeance and rebellion drove George Lucas to create a classic. Can J.J. Abrams live up to a legend? By PAUL BYRNES
Achuta outmians, an chowbasa. And if you know what that means, you speak Huttese, the language of Jabba the Hutt - although you would seldom hear the big guy utter such a cordial greeting as "Hello and welcome Outlanders". You would also know that Sunday is Star Wars Day, celebrated each year on May the Fourth (be with you).
Star Wars fans have many reasons to be excited. The first of the new sequel series, Episodes VII-IX, has begun filming in Britain and will soon move to Iceland, under the direction of Hollywood wunderkind J. J. Abrams, who brought us the successful reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise. Since George Lucas sold Lucasfilm and the rights of his epic space series to Disney for $US4.05 billion, there has been endless speculation about who would be starring, what would they do, how could they remake it better, and why would they try such a thing? As everyone knows, try not. "Do or do not," as Yoda said in The Empire Strikes Back. "There is no try."
The new series kicks off 35 years after the end of Episode VI; that's all we know. That would mean Luke Skywalker is in his 50s, Han and Leia probably in their 60s and 70s. The obvious strategy would be to make a film about Luke's children, but first he would have to fall in love with someone other than his sister.
Lucas is an adviser on the new films, the first of which comes out in December 2015. He wrote outlines for a series of prequels and sequels way back. One idea then was to follow the original characters as senior citizens, returning to the fight against the Empire. The Return of the Geriatric Jedi doesn't quite sound right but who knows?
What is more certain is that the personal motives that drove Lucas to start writing in February 1972 will no longer apply. Lucas was then 28. He had completed American Graffiti a month earlier, but it would not become a hit for another six months. His only feature film THX-1138, made in 1970 for Warners Bros, had been taken away from him and recut, then dumped. That film had driven a wedge between Lucas and the man he idolised as a creative mentor, Francis Ford Coppola.
Coppola and Lucas had shared a dream. As residents of northern California, they hated everything Hollywood stood for, and they thought they could do something about it. The two directors formed American Zoetrope in San Francisco in late 1969, a new studio in the hub of the counter-culture that would be driven by filmmakers and artistic principles, rather than money and greed. Coppola had secured the funding for THX-1138 - a dystopian science fiction art movie - from Warners at a time when the Hollywood studios were struggling to work out what young audiences wanted. The failure of THX-1138 broke the dream of American Zoetrope, and put an end to Lucas' resolve to be an artistic filmmaker, at least of the sort that Coppola would soon become with The Godfather.
Lucas hated Hollywood even more after THX-1138, and he held grudges against the Warners executives who humiliated him. Star Wars was to be his revenge. The success of American Graffiti made him a player but Star Wars made him King - and the King was not benevolent. John Baxter claims in George Lucas: A Biography, published in 2000, that Lucas demanded a personal apology from Warners executive Ted Ashley for THX-1138 before he could bid for Raiders of the Lost Ark in late 1979 (which Lucas produced for Stephen Spielberg). Ashley duly apologised, but Lucas gave the film to Paramount anyway. Star Wars went to 20th Century Fox, where Alan Ladd jnr saw its potential.
Star Wars is the product of many forces other than The Force, some of them entirely negative. Lucas needed a big box-office hit to facilitate his vengeance. Yoda would never have approved but Yoda did not exist in the first draft of the script, nor The Force.
Baxter claims Lucas' interest in Joseph Campbell's idea of universal mythologies came late in the writing, as did the script's spiritual elements. This contradicts the official story, that Lucas conceived Star Wars after an exhaustive study of world anthropology and religion, and with a purpose in mind: the creation of a modern mythology "to give kids a sense of values, to give them a strong mythological fantasy life", as Lucas put it later.
In fact, the project's roots were much closer to home - specifically Modesto, California, the farming town in the Central Valley east of San Francisco where Lucas grew up. Lucas' small-town US origins, and his fascination with cars, are much clearer in American Graffiti, but they're major factors in Star Wars too. Luke Skywalker's home on Tatooine is just like Modesto, a deserted backwater where a bored kid who loves to race Speeders has to choose his destiny - stay there and rot, or follow Obi-Wan Kenobi and become a Jedi Knight. In Lucas' case, the choice was to take over his father's stationery business in Modesto (Spanish for "modest") or go to USC Film School in Los Angeles. After he nearly killed himself in a car accident, that choice became easier. Modesto was Nowheresville. Funny then that it became the single biggest element in his creative life, the wellspring of his two best films - American Graffiti and Star Wars.
Star Wars is a brilliant work of pastiche. Almost all of it is borrowed, and from odd sources: the pace and action of 1930s movie serials such as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers, the atmospherics of Jean-Luc Godard's dystopian classic Alphaville (1965), the graphic sweep of Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958), in which the story progresses through the fortunes of two bedraggled comedic peasants caught up in a rebellion. They were the models for C-3PO and R2-D2.
What's less acknowledged is that Star Wars is also the result of intense competition between a group of friends, and an almost revolutionary zeal to tear down a corrupt system - not the government, but the studios.
The movie is also in part a reaction to the Vietnam War. When he wrote it, Lucas was developing another script with fellow USC alumnus John Milius, an adaptation of Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Coppola would eventually take it over but Lucas was originally to direct Apocalypse Now. Like most of his friends, Lucas was against the war. Unlike most of them, he saw what it was doing to the American psyche and to American movies and he didn't like it. By 1976, when he began shooting Star Wars at Elstree Studios near London, US cinema had been dominated for a decade by portraits of American corruption, most of them made by his contemporaries or people they idolised - from Bonnie and Clyde in 1967, through The Wild Bunch (1969), The Godfather and its first sequel, The Exorcist (1973), Chinatown (1974) and eventually All the President's Men, made the same year as Star Wars. These were highly politicised, angry and accusatory feel-bad movies. Lucas thought the American public was in the mood for some fun. Star Wars was a war picture too, but the "good guys" won, unlike what had just happened in Vietnam, and they did it with dash and flair, in highly technological space worlds that were weird and entertaining to the eye. When he grafted on the religious aspects of The Force, the movie became mythological, but in a simple way that would appeal to teenagers and even small kids. Nobody, including Lucas, had any idea of how powerful that combination was.
In that sense, Star Wars does not come from a long time ago, nor a galaxy far, far away. It comes from close to home and a specific time in Lucas' life, and a series of powerful personal drivers, not all of them nice. No director, even one as gifted as Abrams, will be able to recreate those same powerful creative impulses in a different time. Abrams may do something interesting, but the weight of expectation for him to do something the same will be oppressive. Patience we must have, as Yoda tells us.
[Source: Canberra Times, May 03, 2014, p19]