Book Review: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe

Great title, huh? It leaves the author, Chris Taylor, with a helluva lot to live up to, but I was more than willing to give him a chance. As usual, most of my review will be through quotes, but I can tell you there’s lots of playful trivia, not just about the movies themselves, but plenty on the making of. There’s a whole chapter on its opening, and how no one expected it to do anything money-wise, all stuff I didn’t know. Even the insights on George Lucas’s early career were fascinating, with the funniest part being the merchandising chapter.

Not only are there interviews with Lucas and others who worked on the movies, especially the special effects people, there’s also talks and info on some of the fans,like the guy who came up with the stormtrooper brigade that’s seen just about everywhere.

The book starts with a quest to find someone–anyone–who hasn’t seen any of the movies, or doesn’t know any of the references. The author finds himself on a Navajo reservation in Arizona, where the movie has been translated into that language. He thinks he found his target with a Code Talker (and if you don’t know what that means, go Wiki it–the review will wait, you really need to find out).

   James’ wartime story was enough to make my jaw hit the floor when I met him. But there was something else about him that was almost as incredible. George James was the first person I’d met, in a year of searching, who seemed to genuinely not know the first thing about the movie we were going to watch: something called Star Wars.

   “When I first heard the title I thought, ’The stars are at war?’” James shrugged. “I don’t go to the movies.”

Sadly. . .

Here’s an example of what the author means when he states that Star Wars had become general knowledge the way no other entertainment in any form has.

   I began to notice how Star Wars-saturated modern life is; references crop up in the oddest places. If you’re into yoga, you know that the technique of ujjayi breathing is commonly described by teachers as “breathing like Darth Vader.”

There’s also a story about a Facebook executive explaining how Yoda would see different Facebook posts from Luke as opposed to what Darth and Leia would see on theirs, and nobody thought this was strange. Love it. And by the way, the founder of Facebook had a Star Wars-themed bar mitzvah; now THAT’S a geek!

Trivia break: the roar of TIE fighters is actually a slowed-down elephant call.

In an interview Lucas said, “I was afraid science fiction buffs and everyone would say things like ‘you know there’s no sound in space.’ I just wanted to forget science. That would take care of itself.”

In space, everyone can hear you go pew pew.

Yes, I like this writer. . . we would be friends. . .

In talking with one of the first to make a Stormtrooper outfit, there’s a story about the first attempt, saying he had no line of sight in that helmet, which leads the author to snark, No wonder Stormtroopers were such poor marksmen.

Yeah, sounds like something I would say, which makes me a little sad. . .

More info I’m glad to know

There’s an annual worldwide contest for the best lightsaber video on YouTube called Sabercomp. (the results are spectacular and well worth looking up.) In Germany I met the Saber Project, a large and earnest group of fluorescent lightsaber makers that performed a mass battle demonstration before a thirtieth anniversary screening of Return of the Jedi.

Something else I didn’t know about, though I’m surprised by this one.

It’s hard to estimate how many people have seen the video, universally known as “Star Wars Kid.” Visit it on YouTube today, and you’ll see it has racked up almost 29 million views, adding a million views every six months or so. It went viral two years before there was a YouTube.

(update: I looked it up and it turns out I had seen it before; not sure if I should be happy about that. And according to the Wiki, it‘s estimated it’s been viewed nearly a BILLION times.)

“To not make a decision is to make a decision.”

Sounds like Yoda, huh? It’s Lucas, though it also sounds like a lyric from Rush’s Freewill.

My two favorite science-fiction writers are both mentioned in this book: Alan Dean Foster–because he ghost wrote the book version of the first movie as well as the first expanded universe offering–and Harry Harrison, who passed away recently. Here’s a quote I love, from the time when Lucas was working on the original Star Wars script:

Lucas had never been a particularly avid reader of science fiction novels. But he made a serious effort now. There was one author for whom he had always made an exception: Harry Harrison, a former illustrator and former Flash Gordon comic strip writer. Harrison offered stories that could be read on two levels: rollicking space adventures and satires of the science fiction genre. Bill the Galactic Hero spoofed Robert Heinlein’s masculine tales of space soldiers. The Stainless Steel Rat was a series of novels whose protagonist, Jim DiGriz, is a charming rogue and interstellar con man: a proto-Han Solo.

As a huge Stainless Steel Rat fan, that gave me chills. . . wonder why it never occurred to me. . .

Trivia break: Did you know the original name for Luke Skywalker was Luke Starkiller? The studio complained that people would assume the movie was about a serial killer who took out Hollywood stars.

The studio’s market research, which consisted of posing 20 questions to passers-by in a mall, also concluded that people would confuse the title with Star Trek.

Nice quote here:

Star Wars remains one of the best examples of the storytelling dictum that it is best to begin in the middle of things.

And if you take into account the three prequels, Star Wars starts at the exact midpoint of the saga!

Collectible alert: there’s apparently a plush puppet of slave bikini Leia. (I could not find it on eBay.)

My fave line from the book:

To be the ultimate fan–yet to still retain a finely tuned sense of the ridiculous. To shake your head at the folly and still love every second of it. This is a big part of the idea of Star Wars.

There’s a piece that explains the famous line in Empire when Leia tells Han she loves him and he answers, “I know.” Lucas didn’t get why people laughed at that, and had to be told, “Laughter was the only way you get an emotional release in what is clearly a very powerful and difficult scene.”

There’s an indictment of USC film school. . . (said the Bruin.)

This is awesome:

James Earl Jones himself, reading Vader’s line “I am your father,” had this reaction the moment he said it: “He’s lying.”

There’s also discussion about the hundreds of books that have been written in what is called the expanded universe. I read some of these a long time ago, so I don’t remember them well, but I do remember Grand Admiral Thrawn, from one of the first books, written by Timothy Zhan: He was a brilliant tactician who studied the art of any species he was in conflict with in order to understand their culture and thus outsmart them.

And you can tell by the name of this blog why I’m a fan of Mara Jade:

With her vibrant RED hair, green eyes, and full-figured leather jumpsuit, Mara is fast becoming one of the more popular Star Wars costume choices for women on the comic convention circuit: she offers all of the feisty fiery personality that Leia should have had but ultimately lacked.

Trivia break: Phantom Menace made more money in foreign markets than in the US. It made most of its money in countries where most of the audience were reading subtitles and didn’t care about the delivery of the dialogue anyway. The gross in Japan alone almost equaled the entire budget.

If that’s a dig as to the quality of the acting. . . actually, what else can it be?

A great moment from the new lady in Lucas’s life:

When he took her to meet the some of the employees at the Skywalker Ranch, she gleefully shouted, “Hello boys, it’s take your girlfriend to work day!”

How crazy is Japan for Star Wars?

This is the country where you can watch Darth Vader hawking Pacific League baseball, Nissan cars, and Panasonic electronics. You can visit Nakano Broadway, a six-floor mall in the heart of Tokyo, and find rare Star Wars toys and trinkets for sale on every floor. When George Lucas came to open the original Star Tours at Tokyo Disneyland, he was chased around the park by hordes of Japanese schoolgirls. {Shades of James Bond 40 years earlier.} Then fifty-five, he joked that he wished he were 20 years younger. Schoolgirls (and the occasional boy, but mostly schoolgirls) are still there, lining up in great numbers for the new Star Tours, which is the most popular exhibit in Tokyo Disneyland.

And we end the quotes with. . .

Visiting the island of St. Maarten in the Bahamas? You’ll want to stop in at the Yoda Guy Movie Exhibit, run by one of the creature shop artists who worked under Stuart Freeborn on The Empire Strikes Back; it’s one of cruise line Royal Caribbean’s most popular destinations on the island.

The book even includes a piece on how Disney bought Lucasfilm, which makes it pretty current.

These were just a few of literally hundreds of awesome behind-the-scenes moments. Even if you don’t consider yourself a Star Wars fan, this book is well worth the read.

P.S. Due to fat finger syndrome, I kept writing “Star Warts.” {Don’t take that as anything more than a joke. . . and don’t catch ‘em, they hurt like hell. . .}

;o)

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