How Star Wars Conquered the Universe
2014 • 450 pages • Basic Books
Sometimes, I feel for George Lucas.
As a fan, watcher of cinema, and eighties freak, I am, of course, absolutely infuriated by Lucas’ long history of “improving” his films and refusing to release the original theatrical cuts on DVD. (I know, I know, they’re available as “special features” in one of the Special Edition’s DVD releases. But let’s be real, that feels like a slap in the face.) But I do feel for the guy. I’ve always gotten the feeling that Lucas’ career got railroaded by Star Wars in a spectacular way, a feeling that How Star Wars Conquered the Universe confirms.
It’s easy to forget that the story of Star Wars is not just a story of a film franchise and its fandom, but also the story of Lucas’ career up until the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney in 2012. But Chris Taylor’s well-balanced How Star Wars Conquered the Universe makes sure to tell all three in remarkably readable fashion. And by readable, I mean that I started tearing up a little when Taylor concludes the book by describing the only things we could know about Star Wars: The Force Awakens: the iconic introduction. Damn you, John Williams! You can get me even when I’m reading something in perfect silence!
To be sure, there is a definite Behind the Music quality to Taylor’s coverage of Lucas’ early life (including analysis of a piece of literature Lucas wrote in the third grade), but that, thankfully, is jettisoned as soon as we hit the production of Star Wars—er, A New Hope. It’s amazing that such well-covered territory is still utterly fascinating, but it is, between the horror stories (poor Anthony Daniels, being sliced to ribbons in that C-3PO suit!), the drama behind the scenes, and Lucas’ own struggles making the films. It’s hard to believe, on this side of history, that Lucas was so convinced that Star Wars would bomb horribly that he and his then-wife fled the continental United States for the premiere of Star Wars. Taylor teases out the usual questions—like whether or not Lucas had a grand plan for the series all along (absolutely not, why would he make people root for incest for six years?)—but returns consistently to exploring the distant and private Lucas as he evolves from scruffy young Turk to well-established independent director, a filmmaker whose films are adored for reasons other than the ones that inspire his filmmaking. It’s so poignant that I almost screamed when a chapter on fan culture interrupted a stretch on the production of The Empire Strikes Back.
Taylor takes the tack of alternating Lucas and production chapters with fan culture chapters, leading to the above near-screaming fit. It feels awkward at first, but pays off in the harrowing chapter about the fans who camped out for a month at the now defunct Coronet theater in San Francisco, where The Phantom Menace had its world premiere. The chapter is practically a thriller, as the audience knows something that the fans, waiting in line in shifts, developing lasting friendships, and even generating a marriage, don’t: the movie sucks. (But fandom is forever.) Taylor covers the various eras of Star Wars fandom—the aftermath of Return of the Jedi, the dawn of the Expanded Universe, and the explosion the release of A New Hope: Special Edition in theaters caused—in a casual, accessible way. Despite his occasional stumbles regarding fandom proper (slash has never been heterosexual, friend), this isn’t a bad way to get acquainted with the contours of Star Wars fandom’s history and why Star Wars has spawned such a persistent fandom.
Taylor does betray the occasional whiff of shame around fandom and nerd culture, of the same variety that soured my reading of Marvel Comics. (Pro-tip: when your target demographic includes fandom, don’t talk down to fandom. We are right here and we are watching you.) But he ends up making up for it in, of all things, a chapter on Boba Fett. It could have been trying (look, Boba Fett’s just not cool, okay?), but it ends up being absolutely charming, due to Taylor’s interaction with a little kid while cosplaying as Boba Fett. I’d still prefer for that whiff of shame not to be there, but How Star Wars Conquered the Universe is such a fascinating and accessible overview of the entire Star Wars phenomenon that I really do recommend it.
I rented this book from the public library.