The First Skywalker

George Lucas hitched his wagon to the stars, making space fantasy films when no one else believed in them. His vision remains pure today.

Cover Story

May 19, 2002|By Michael Sragow | By Michael Sragow,Sun Movie Critic

MARIN, Calif. -- In the rare piece of writing about George Lucas of which Lucas himself approves -- a 1992 coffee-table book called George Lucas: The Creative Impulse: Lucasfilm's First Twenty Years -- the author, Charles Champlin, borrows a friend's description of the colossally successful writer-director:

"Part Walt Disney, part Thomas A. Edison, part Henry David Thoreau, and, in his financial shrewdness, part A.P. Giannini [the founder of the Bank of America]."

But Lucas is more like a tycoon version of the self-taught craftsmen who fill backyards, storage rooms and cramped city apartments with paintings or gewgaws or wire-hanger sculptures. Fine arts critics have a name for what these characters produce: their quirky private mythology is called "outsider art." Lucas at his most likable has a strain of the outsider artist in him. When he made Star Wars, he was following his own impulses and bucking the studio heads who thought space fantasy and heroic legendry were dead.

Earlier this month, Lucas invited a group of journalists to tour his base at Skywalker Ranch and watch a digitally-projected screening of his latest movie, Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones (which opened nationwide last week.) The morning after, he sat down for six half-hour round-table talks with a dozen reporters at a time, and engaged in interviews one-on-one for the rest of the day. If he was nervous about the reception for the latest -- and fifth -- installment of his projected six-part saga about a distant galaxy's fall from democracy and a young hero's decline into arch-villainy, Lucas didn't betray it.

The Star Wars series has become the kind of pop-cultural event that fuels Internet traffic and stops street traffic. Speculation about whether Attack of the Clones would surpass the disappointing Episode I: The Phantom Menace, which opened in 1999, has raged through webs and fanzines for the last two years. But despite the whitening hair and thickening torso of middle age, Lucas retains the youthful confidence he had 25 years ago, when friends like Brian De Palma predicted that Star Wars would bomb.

Why shouldn't he be confident? The Phantom Menace grossed close to a billion dollars worldwide despite withering reviews. And why should he worry about Spider-Man siphoning off interest in his adolescent fantasy? In 1981, the trade press was trying to get him concerned over Superman II -- but the comic-book hit didn't get in the way of Raiders of the Lost Ark. In person, Lucas has a potent anti-charm. He speaks with the point and energy of a champion school debater: if a reporter asks him about digital technology, he exhausts the subject . He doesn't get personal or wax poetic -- he lets Skywalker Ranch do that for him. It's like the Shire from Lord of the Rings filled with 19th-century-style cottages and mansions housing the most advanced technology in the world.

Handmade notions of virtue

Lucas bristles when reporters press him about the role of Star Wars in creating the Hollywood summer-blockbuster mentality. Big, crowd-pleasing shows have been part of American moviemaking since The Birth of a Nation in the silent era and Gone With the Wind in the Golden Age of talkies. Star Wars opened on May 25, 1977 in a mere 32 theaters. (Later prints gave the full title, Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope.) If the movie had any influence over release patterns, Lucas says, it was in showing that pictures aimed at teen-agers had a better chance of benefiting from word of mouth if they opened when kids were still in school.

You can't help but feel the mogul's pain: pundits often blame Star Wars for the mindless action-adventures that have glutted American movie-making for three decades. But no studio executive today would green-light such a talky script. The movie succeeded because Lucas' handmade notions of virtue connected with America's hunger for an all-purpose, ready-to-wear philosophy.

What could be more heartening than the beliefs of the Jedi Knights, compacted from sci-fi serials, comic books, Westerns and swashbucklers, as well as '60s consciousness-expansion and anthropology? At its best, their pursuit of positive feeling is as thrilling as Green Lantern's faith in willpower. "The Force" -- the mystic current that Jedi Knights home into as a power source and spiritual tuning fork -- is Lucas' variation on the Eastern concept of a vital energy coursing through the universe, capable of fueling good or evil depending on how it's shaped by humanity.

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