Star Wars celebrates 40 years of escapism, influence, and cultural currency today. The founding chapter of this now colossal property was released May 25, 1977, across a pittance of screens. Popularity ignited like a house on fire and before anyone could blink this thing was obliterating contemporaries like A Tale of Two Critters, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, and Viva Knievel!. Only Smokey And The Bandit gave Star Wars any kind of run for its money, and there’s still a gap of about $180 million in domestic gross between the two. Burt Reynolds just couldn’t charm his way around Chewbacca.
There’s a documentary feel to the 1977 Star Wars which helps it resonate deeply, a framing where the audience isn’t following narrative but observing environment; the awkward broth of fantasy exposition is dismissed and we’re allowed to ferret out details as we witness events in these alien realms. This is especially true of desert planet scenes where the robots fumble along, get swooped up by the junk dealers, and are unceremoniously dumped into Luke Skywalker’s life. This fly-on-the-wall style counters so many other sci-fi films that desperately want to impress upon you their grandiose, mythical nature. Star Wars just drops you in there and lets many fantastical moments unfold nonchalantly, because these characters see lasers and blue milk every day.
Pivoting on that point, one of the best decisions George Lucas ever made was to insist this beginning Star Wars is actually the fourth installment of a who-knows-how-long saga. That let our imaginations go purple trying to fill in the priors. As incredible as the visuals and characters in Star Wars are, they suggest much more with that context. On the other side of the ewok, one of the dumbest decisions George Lucas ever made was giving in to temptation and actually filming the first three chapters, bluntly extinguishing the dreams we spun for ourselves across several decades.
Star Wars numbers four and five came before one, two, and three; there are probably those who also believe the immediate sequels—1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of The Jedi—should have never been made, allowing the 1977 film to remain the purest of entities. Foolish mortals! Star Wars made so much fucking money it was never going to be singular. Let’s just count our blessings over the miracle of The Empire Strikes Back, that rare sequel which bests its founder in pulp, artistry, and thrill. Star Wars 6 and 7 (and Rogue One) are great too, but there’s just something about the dreamy nightmare of Empire that cannot be equaled.
Of course, Star Wars at 40 is more of a conglomerate than ever, absorbed by Disney so they can have Darth Vader roaming the halls of their luxury hotels with minimal overhead. Star Wars belongs to our entire planet but it’s a U.S. invention and there’s nothing more “American” than celebrating a successful business. So rats off to maximizing profits and creating a global brand. And thanks for being so lenient with the fans who have restored and distributed the theatrical versions of the ’77 movie and its two sequels; this must be an admission of guilt or disagreement regarding “the vision” George Lucas suddenly decided he had for the original trilogy in 1997.
What else is there to say? Nanu nanu, put more Greedos in Star Wars 8.
Here’s a nugget of Star Wars history you never hear much about: In 1990 Canadian writer Dean Preston sued George Lucas for copyright infringement and “breach of implied contract” to the tune of $128 million, claiming Lucas swiped the idea for Return Of The Jedi’s famed ewok characters from a script Preston authored in 1978 entitled Space Pets.
Preston sent his script to Lucas the year he completed it but heard nothing back. A half decade later, Preston’s “heart sank” when he spotted a car on a Northern California highway with the vanity license plate “EWOK.” Preston tailed the car until it pulled over; a pair of little people emerged, explaining their plate was a reference to recent work on a Star Wars film.
In addition to claiming invention of the term “ewok” (an abbreviation, Preston said, of “he walks”), the Calgary-based scribe argued Space Pets contained “a full description of [the ewoks’] nature, characteristics, habitat…and way of life in general.” The case actually went to trial in Canadian Federal Court, where Lucas took the stand to explain no unsolicited materials sent to him were ever opened and that ewoks were in fact an offshoot of his beloved wookiee character Chewbacca.
“It’s the price of success, I guess,” Lucas told reporters outside the court house. “Anytime you have a successful movie you have a lot of lawsuits.”
Some drama erupted during George’s testimony—at first he stated that he had pulled the term “wookiee” out of thin air, but under cross examination the director admitted disc jockey Terry McGovern had first presented the word (McGovern did ADR work for Lucas’s debut, THX 1138; after flubbing a line, the dj remarked, “I think I ran over a wookiee back there!”).
A bigger bombshell, though, came via University of Calgary drama professor James Dugan, who told the court had the plaintiff and defendent been his students, with Preston submitting Space Pets as a final project prior to Lucas submitting Return Of The Jedi, he would “bring Lucas before the dean on a charge of plagiarism.” In response, Lucas’s lawyers doubled down on the “we’ve never opened strange mail” defense.
It worked—Preston ended up losing this battle of Endor, and the powers that be have done a pretty good job of shoveling dirt on the entire story. Still, you have to wonder about the actual reality. Who would go toe-to-toe with Star Wars without a shred of merit? What are the odds of two people independent of one another dreaming up roughly the same alien mythology? Wouldn’t those vanity license plates have violated a non-disclosure agreement?
All I know for sure is Dean Preston’s Space Pets script included a character named Chi Chi Gomez. Ay Carumba.
Something to ponder: If Return of the Jedi had never been made, the highest grossing film of 1983 would have been Terms of Endearment. Terms was the only other film that year to hit the nine figure mark, whalloping Flashdance, Trading Places, and even Tom Cruise’s breakout hooker comedy Risky Business. People in ’83 really wanted to watch Debra Winger die (SPOILER ALERT).
Of course, the concept of Return of the Jedi never being made is ludicrous. I recently read an interview where George Lucas was asked what he would have done if Mark Hamill had died in that famous car accident just before Star Wars came out, and King George said something to the effect of, “Oh, I would have introduced another young mystical Jedi person and centered Empire and Jedi around them.” Piss off with your dying, Luke Skywalker. You think you can stop this fucking Star Wars juggernaut? You think being the “main character” means anything? Try again.
I’m sure not even the combined deaths of Mark Hamill, George Lucas, the rest of the cast, and every unnamed talent at Skywalker Ranch would have prevented a franchise. The original SW made too much money—“fuck you” money, as my father would call it. 20th Century Fox would have given us something, even if it was pure z-level schlock that followed Doug McClure around Tunisia as he searched for C-3PO’s evil clone with Chewbacca’s “force sensitive” second cousin at his side. Star Wars was a license to print money. Hell, it still is. How else do you explain those prequels?
Still, I’m fascinated by an alternate universe where, for whatever ungodly reason, Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back exist yet Return of the Jedi doesn’t, leaving fantasy film’s greatest cliffhangers forever unresolved. It would have to be the result of some complicated legal thing, right? Some Day The Clown Cried situation? Imagine if our rigid American copyright laws prevented anyone from ever seeing Darth Vader without his mask, from ever meeting and/or complaining about an Ewok, from ever hearing Admiral Ackbar bellow, “It’s a trap!” If you think Star Wars nerds are fussy now…
An even crazier scenario: George Lucas, burnt out from Empire, vows to never complete the trilogy and has it written into his contract somehow that no one else can ever make Star Wars III. I mean, he’d be assassinated like two days later, right? None of Boba Fett’s helmet polishers would put up with that.
The real question is: in a world without Jedi, does Kenner switch their focus to produce Terms of Endearment action figures? I’d buy a Debra Winger toy in a heartbeat. Like a twelve inch doll of her smiling like she is on the poster? Oh, that’s going right next to my Gremlins bubble gum machine.
I think it’s fair to have reservations about Walt Disney spending quadruple the amount of Ireland’s annual defense budget for the complete rights to every entity in the Star Wars galaxy. I mean, this is the company that once decided an ewok dressed as Slash was a brilliant idea. To me that doesn’t exactly scream “respect for the source material.” Then again, Lucas himself had chickens wandering around those two mid-eighties ewok movies, and that makes about as much sense as Teebo putting on a top hat and playing air guitar to a Guns n’ Roses song. I guess no one really knows what to do with these characters anymore.
People crow about the success Disney’s had with the Marvel brand since swooping it up in 2009, but the truth is Paramount did most of the leg work setting up the long-gestating and now massively popular Avengers—the Mouse just kinda waltzed in later and bought the distribution rights. They haven’t proven themselves there (yet). Also, in the eight years since Disney bought the Muppets they’ve given Henson’s brood dick to do, cramming them into a Wizard of Oz remake and one original theatrical release (2011’s Muppets, an experience that must not have been amazing for human star Jason Segel as he’s already dropped out of the sequel).
Maybe I’m being overprotective of my Luke Skywalkers. It just seems like Walt Disney’s retaining stewardship of several high end brands right now (Marvel, Muppets, Pixar, now Star Wars and Indiana Jones) and I’m concerned about their juggling skills. Of course, who else could afford the Lucasfilm catalog? Wal-Mart? The catch-22 is any film / entertainment company willing to devote all their time and passion to our favorite galactic saga probably doesn’t have pockets that deep. And still, some people are saying Disney underpaid, considering they bought Pixar several years ago for $7 billion. Buzz Lightyear > jawas, obviously.
Of the explosive Episode VII announcement tacked on to the end of this news I’m even more dubious. Lucasfilm has always been resoundingly awful at keeping secrets; if they began seriously considering the start of the next live action trilogy five months ago those of us who keep our ears to the ground probably would have heard rumblings before yesterday. Let’s also note that Disney and Lucas announced their deal—arguably the biggest business news of the past five years—on a day when Wall Street was unexpectedly closed due to disastrous weather. They could have said anything and it wouldn’t have affected stocks one way or the other. Of course, only an idiot would dump their Disney shares as the company suddenly had a stake in the next Star Wars cash cow.
Smells to me like in the final hours before completing the deal Bob Iger said, “Fuck it, we’re gonna announce Episode VII in 2015, maybe for some financial insurance, but mostly for the goddamn ‘wow’ factor,” and Lucas said, “Okay, I guess I’ll start telling people there’s a treatment even though I’ve spent the past zillion years saying I had no interested in Episodes VII–IX.” I could be wrong, certainly. Maybe Lucasfilm really did decide to start hacking out the new trilogy last summer and through divine miracle managed to keep the news in-house. It doesn’t seem likely, though, considering the company’s history amongst rumormongers.
There is a perverse insanity to the fact Disney’s allotted themselves just two years to fully realize the sequel to Return of the Jedi, but I suppose The Phantom Menace proved over-thinking these movies for half a decade can be detrimental. Now we fans get to chew our fingernails off in the interrum waiting to hear plot leaks and who the director is and if Mark Hamill will reprise his role as Tatooine’s favorite son. Just when I thought I was done for good, they pull me back in. Namaste, Disney. Namaste.
Super def rhymes aside, the greatest thing about the late Adam Yauch was his ability to somehow balance earnest activism with heaping doses of wacky-ass bullshit. Sure, he founded a non-profit dedicated to the liberation of Tibet, but he also interrupted R.E.M.’s acceptance speech at the 1994 MTV Music Video Awards dressed in lederhosen and a fake beard so he could angrily declare that George Lucas had ripped him off. Who else could pull that off but one of the Beastie Boys? Nay, the toughest Beastie Boy? Adios, Nathanial Hörnblowér. We’ll miss you dearly.
Hey Star Wars fans: If 3-D Phantom Menace isn’t enough raw pain and confusion for you, check out the latest dribble of crazy from King George’s hair-ensconced mouth. Lucas just told the Hollywood Reporter the reason he tinkered with the Han Solo/Greedo cantina scene in Star Wars so many years after the fact is because Greedo always fired first—we just couldn’t see it in the original cut of the film because he screwed up the framing. Take it away, Pudding Boy:
The controversy over who shot first, Greedo or Han Solo…what I did was try to clean up the confusion, but obviously it upset people because they wanted Solo…to be a cold-blooded killer, but he actually isn’t. [The 1977 scene] had been done in all close-ups and it was confusing about who did what to whom. [In subsequent editions] I put a little wider shot in there that made it clear that Greedo is the one who shot first, but everyone wanted to think that Han shot first, because they wanted to think that he actually just gunned him down.”
Interesting. Just last month George did some gum-flapping where he claimed the contentious cantina showdown was altered because the initial presentation was a “violation” of his “own naïve style” (and not because he had no clue how to block his shots). And what purist could forget the brazen fashion choice our beloved director made a few years ago when he was prepping Indiana Jones & the Holy Shit Look At All The Zeros On This Check? Guess he was just trollin’ us on that tip. Or maybe he’s trollin’ us now.
Of course, none of this would matter if Lucasfilm would bite the goddamn bullet and release remastered Blu-Rays of the original Star Wars trilogy sans computer diddling. The most intelligent, insightful thing Harry Knowles ever said was that updating these films was akin to correcting your math homework from middle school. Yeah, you know it’s a mess, but your mom doesn’t care. She’s hung on to it anyway because it means something to her, despite all its flaws.
What I’m saying is I don’t care if the ghost of Norman Fell commanded George Lucas to scribble all over his creations—they were all stupid changes and any attempts to justify them now are moot. Give us the real movies back and we’ll stop referring to you with cruel monikers like “Pudding Boy” on the Internet.