The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 1
Star Wars was a work of accidental genius. I mean both the original film that we now know as A New Hope and also the entire saga – although each is its own accident. George Lucas himself never understood the true reasons for their respective successes, and that’s why he wasn’t able to replicate it with the prequel trilogy.
First, let’s consider the original 1977 film. But let’s be clear about it: I don’t at all think that Lucas was slacking off when he made this film. The tales of how difficult the film was are famous and many. Lucas spent four years just writing the script, and then he famously fought sandstorms, studio executives, budget issues, and technical issues. And don’t forget that he spawned an entire industry to create the special effects that couldn’t previously be done.
Star Wars was a labor of love – or at least a labor. But go watch that original film all over again. Unless you’re a male, nerdy member of my generation – in that case, you probably already know the film word for word. You guys can stay with me if you like. The rest of you, go watch it again.
What kind of film is it? At the end of the day, all you’ve really got is an adventure romp. Now, it’s a really solid one. It’s tons of fun. It was set in a world that felt lived in and real – and also massive. It hinted at enough outside of the core story to suck you in and let you lose yourself in what was going on. And it did all of this while providing scenes of space battles and laser swords in ways that were completely unheard of before the film’s release.
But still, all you’ve really got is an adventure romp – deliberately styled after the pulp serials of the 1930s. George Lucas admits this straight up in interviews. Indeed, that’s a large part of the charm of the film. Many people I know still list it as their favorite of the series specifically because it’s just a fun adventure romp.
But it’s also a really strange film – and I don’t just mean its revolutionary special effects and kinetic space dogfights. The structure of the film is really bizarre, and it doesn’t map to standard storytelling conventions. It spends half an hour following the story of two minor characters, when it hasn’t even introduced the main protagonist yet. The near universal consensus is that said protagonist is whiny and annoying and is overshadowed by the rogue of the series. Everyone remembers that crazy pace of the Death Star assault, but the first half of the movie is almost painfully slow – I remember as a kid fast forwarding through the droids in the desert on my Betamax video cassette.
But the visuals are stunning. And quite a bit of the film was heavily experimental in its day: the special effects, of course, but also the narrative structure, the heavy reliance on an orchestral soundtrack, and the raw pacing of the aforementioned Death Star assault.
In short, it was a gigantic art house film.
It’s the most successful art house film of all time. George Lucas got really, really lucky with it. But because the film he was actually trying to make was an art film, he never truly understood why it resonated with everyone.
Forget Empire and Jedi for a moment, since they weren’t directed by Lucas himself. Besides, we’ll be discussing those later this week. Think about the prequels – and think about them as the most expensive art house films ever made.
The reason they didn’t resonate well with audiences is because Lucas never understood what made the Star Wars films so popular. He thought – and still thinks to this day – that everybody loved his little art house film because it was an art house film. That’s basically how all art house directors think. What he never realized was that the universal appeal of it was a happy accident.
He managed to get just enough right – and at just the right time – to appeal to a vast, previously untapped audience. Laser swords? Check. Aliens? Check. Spaceships? Check. David vs. Goliath story? Check. A frenetic pace that nobody had ever seen before? Check. Visuals unlike anything previously done? Check. Giant spaceships more awesome than anything… except for that even more giant space station that could blow up entire planets? Check. An awesome toy line in a world that hadn’t been merchandised to death yet? Check.
The thing is, even this entire package wouldn’t have had the appeal that it did if any of it had been well done before. But it hadn’t been. And on top of all of that, there were just enough hints of a cosmic half-magic, half-religion, half-philosophy underlying his universe to suck everyone in to the mythological side of his accidental genius.
But that’s for tomorrow’s story, when we look at the accidental genius of the saga as a whole.