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Stop The Universe (We Want To Get Off)

A long time ago, in movie theaters not-too-far away, George Lucas gave us a story that left space for our imagination and dreams. But that was a long time ago.

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

Originally published May 16, 2002

"STAR WARS" VS. LUCAS INC.: Imagine you've never heard of "Star Wars." Never seen an action figure or a book or a party favor or a bedsheet with Han Solo or Leia or Darth on it. Don't know what a Jedi is. Don't know what a Jawa is. Think the word "stormtrooper" is a reference to Nazis with guns.

Now, take another look at the first movie, once known as "Star Wars," now known as "Episode IV -- A New Hope."

A little baffling, isn't it?

The crawl at the beginning tells you a little bit about what's going on, but not much, and that first shot is a doozy. Space, then a ship, obviously involved in combat. And then another ship, a much, much, much bigger, wedge-shaped ship. The big ship swallows the small ship. But not before a girl in a white robe talks to a robot in the shape of a trash can. Then we're on a desert planet, in what looks like the middle of nowhere. And there are robots walking around.

Is this Jedi thing a religion or what? And what's up with that bar full of aliens? And why does that giant hairy guy carry a crossbow?

But something feels . . . familiar about the whole enterprise. The Jedi aren't too different from samurai. The scene in the bar is just like any number of bar fights in a western. That guy in the black armor with the deep voice kind of looks like a samurai, too. The plot isn't too different from your standard swashbuckling adventure tale. Those dogfights in space look straight out of a World War II picture, laser beams and swirling constellations aside.

And somewhere in the movie's first hour, these two streams come together. You might not even notice them merging, and then, if you're really good at this pretend game of fresh-scrubbed eyes and especially if you happened to be born between 1967 and, say, 1977, you'll find yourself saying, "This is the coolest thing I've seen in my young life." (Of course, if you're having trouble pretending, you might also think, "Sweet fancy Moses, this is some of the clunkiest dialogue in the history of the dramatic arts." But more on that later.) And the reason it's cool -- besides the ships and the sabers and the droids and the science-fiction tech combined with fantasy tropes -- is that very balance between utter dislocation and vague familiarity.

George Lucas's ability to navigate the space between "What is going on here?" and "Where have I seen this story before?" enabled Lucas Inc. to sell millions and millions of toys and inspired fans to keep the "Star Wars" franchise alive during the late '80s and early '90s, when post-"Jedi" sequel films were just a vague promise. And the inability to replicate that sensation is one reason '99's "The Phantom Menace" and the brand-new "Attack of the Clones" were more fun to think about than to actually sit through.

A RUN-DOWN GALAXY: Now, it's well known that George Lucas drew on all sorts of source material for "Star Wars" 's narrative bedrock: the films of Akira Kurosawa provided a skeletal plot, sci-fi writer E.E. "Doc" Smith provided the transgalactic scope and Joseph Campbell's work with myths provided the Jungian motifs -- and that's leaving out westerns, the Grail Quest, Flash Gordon serials and much more. This would be the stuff your lizard brain recognized in the film, archetypes gleaned from lost media or, as Jung would have it, our collective unconscious.

But the primary way Lucas Inc. accomplished its dislocating sleight-of-hand was by telling the audience only part of the story, withholding a tremendous amount of information -- even when it was far from a sure bet that the audience would be interested in a sequel at all. The details Lucas left out of the universe in which "Star Wars" takes place are at least as important as what he did reveal in the first three films. (And perhaps most significant for a science-fiction movie, Earth wasn't even discussed. All this took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.)

The very first shot of Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars" shows him looking up at the sky, as baffled as we are: What is that battle taking place out in space? What did it mean? Luke looks as confused and intrigued as we are.

But though Luke shares some of our bafflement, he serves as a perfect emissary to our world because he is also comfortable with the rest of his strange environment. Take the cantina scene from the first film. Structurally, it's not all that different from any bar-fight scene in any western: two different scuffles, one guys loses an arm, an incompetent bounty hunter loses his life.

But name another science-fiction movie prior to "Star Wars" that gives you so many aliens in so small a space without any explanation of how those aliens related to the protagonists. Luke and Obi-Wan don't even blink their eyes as the audience's are popping out their heads. The galaxy's diversity is a given. And even when we figure out the relationship between a walk-on and a protagonist (the hapless Greedo coming after Han Solo to collect a bounty) the details are left tantalizingly vague. Who is this Jabba guy they keep talking about anyway? And for a bunch of people so technologically advanced, everything looks really dirty.

Which brings us to the second aspect that made the first two (and to a lesser extent, three) movies so effective. This is a universe that's been lived in, with a long and tumultuous past. You can see it in the Millennium Falcon's decrepitude and the middle-of-nowhere landscapes of Luke's farm and the nearby town (landscapes that Lucas foolishly cluttered with more buildings and creatures in the 1997 Special Editions; Mos Eisley no longer looks like a tough, rural spaceport, it looks like a mini mall). You can spot it in Obi-Wan's seen-it-all mug (or is that just Alec Guinness wondering how he went from "Kind Hearts and Coronets" to spouting this sort of balderdash?) and hear it in the offhand references to "the Clone Wars" and the "Old Republic" and "the ship that made the Kessel run in less than 12 parsecs." (Huh?)

Lucas Inc. even kept your curiosity and your imagination going in "The Empire Strikes Back": This pipsqueak Yoda is a Jedi master? And what exactly does one do in Cloud City, besides mack on Leia and sell your pals out to Darth Vader?

But by "Return of the Jedi," this sense of bafflement was beginning to slide, mediated out of existence by careful marketing (the Ewoks never transcended their obvious origins as Care Bears competition) and recycled plot ideas (would the Empire really build an ultimate weapon with the same weakness twice?).

Besides, nothing about the series was mysterious anymore. There's nothing left to chance, no sense that ideas are being tossed off for sheer novelty power. "Return of the Jedi" was a pro forma adventure in a universe that suddenly seemed too familiar. The brand had become too valuable to take chances. By that point, the sense of dislocation had done its primary job: It sold about a zillion toys and kept fans thinking about these movies long after Lucas stopped making them.

BUILDING A WORLD ONE PIECE OF PLASTIC AT A TIME: From 1977 to around the middle of 1984, "Star Wars" toys pretty much leapt off the shelves, as did every other product you could put a SW logo or a character on. But the bedsheets and the lunchboxes served a very different purpose than the action figures. The former is just branding; the latter encouraged the consumer to fill in the Star Wars past. Your couch became the planet that Han and Chewie visited years before they met Luke; your back yard stood in for the time the Empire landed on Dagobah looking for Yoda. There's a very funny and useful tome called "Star Wars: the Action Figure Archive" that's essentially a big coffee-table book full of photos of toys. What becomes rapidly apparent, even to someone who prided himself on his collection of Star Wars figures, is that every character with even a walk-on in those first three movies got their own figure. Everyone is in here, from random droids to Imperial dignitaries to all of those dudes from the cantina. Clearly, Lucas Inc. realized that kids wouldn't just buy Han and Luke and Darth, they also would buy Admiral Ackbar and Hammerhead and the Death Star Droid and someone named Prune Face. Kids didn't buy them just to re-create scenes from the movies. Most of these rubber aliens didn't have actual scenes in the movies. They were visual background noise or cannon fodder at best. No, kids bought them to fill in the gaps in galactic history that the films cannily opened up.

The best example of this is the bounty hunters. These six guys were around for all of 30 seconds in the "The Empire Strikes Back," Boba Fett was the only one who had any lines, and yet you couldn't stop thinking about them for the rest of the movie. Who were these galactic warriors, and where did they come from? They must be pretty tough if Vader, the Emperor's chief enforcer, a guy with a galactic fleet at his disposal, would seek their help. These guys oozed mystique; no wonder Fett became an overnight favorite, a building block of the remaining movies and a dude with a critical role in the sequel that opens today. No wonder kids tried to find all six action figures. No wonder trading this guy named David a couple of stormtroopers for a bounty hunter named 4-LOM was the single most thrilling transaction I have ever made.

EXPANSIONISM: Now, you can find evidence as far back as 1978 that Lucas Inc. understood that a lot had been left unexplained and that there were holes to fill. The movie "novelizations" dropped details here and there. The NPR radio dramatizations filled in even more gaps. Then came the first few waves of books: Han Solo's earlier adventures, a stop-gap book about Luke and Leia called "Splinter of the Mind's Eye." Then a comic strip. Then a comic book. Then a one-volume encyclopedia incorporating information from all these sources. Then the geekier debates start: What is "canonical"? What isn't?

By 1985, an interesting thing starts to happen. Lucas stops making movies, but the books and the comic books keep the fans talking about this stuff. Fan clubs, conventions and, eventually, mailing lists keep the franchise alive. By the mid-'90s, all this nonmovie stuff is lumped under the term "Expanded Universe," endorsed by Lucas Inc.

As Will Brooker puts it in "Using the Force," his just-published study of the "Star Wars" fan phenomenon:

"With no primary texts forthcoming between Jedi and Phantom Menace, it was arguably up to the faithful longtime fans to become curators of the mythos . . . to sustain it both through their financial investment in all the secondary texts (the EU material) and . . . participating in folk activity like fan fiction or amateur digital cinema. Lucas' return as omnipotent author therefore puts him in the ironic position of reclaiming control over an Empire, stamping his own vision of the 'Star Wars' universe . . ."

In other words: We, the fans upon whom we thought your favor rested, obsessed over this little slice of nonsense more than it possibly deserved, continued when it looked as dead as Nixon, and handed over an ungodly amount of money. The best you can do is give us Jar Jar Binks?

SPACE, THE FINAL FRONTIER: But it wasn't just the terrible script, the wooden acting and a noticeable lack of coherent plot that made "The Phantom Menace" such a bummer. The original "Star Wars" had the first two in spades and it still holds up. No, "The Phantom Menace" was a disappointment because it showed us too much.

Fans probably should have seen this coming when Lucas Inc. chose to update the first three films with new effects and a few restored scenes. This improved nothing, and actually closed some loopholes in which kids' imaginations once lived.

Again, the franchise had become too popular to not control down to the pixel. Unlike the first three movies, with their wide-open cosmic vistas, sense of galactic history and a whole mess of unanswered questions, there's no room to breathe in "Menace." When you're not flying along into battle or being bombarded with an incredible amount of visual and expository information, you're being told that something in little Anakin Skywalker's genes makes him a great Jedi. (The last thing "Star Wars" needed is the notion that biology trumps faith and discipline: Lucas might as well have told the fanboys that they will never, ever find girlfriends.) There's a reason so many "Menace" toys went unsold (according to Newsweek, Hasbro "watched 25 percent of its stock die on the shelves") even though "Menace" seemed like one long toy ad. "Menace" left nowhere for kids' imaginations to go. Thinking about what Lucas, with all of his resources, would deliver was a lot more fun than what he actually did deliver. Of course, that's true for almost everything.

Just think about Luke looking over the desert, John Williams' stunningly manipulative score wafting behind him, longing to be far from his home at the edge of the galaxy. He and his story are pure potential energy. The first trilogy left fans with the feeling that absolutely anything could be taking place just off-screen, that there was a vast universe waiting for their interest. Contrast that with the airless digital action scenes in the "Phantom Menace," which seem to admire their own CGI density in the mirror. It's all kinetic energy going nowhere fast, noisy proof positive that Lucas Inc. had no idea just what made the mythos fun.

Imagine you've never heard of "Attack of the Clones."

jgross@statesman.com; 912-5926