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Why is the Force Still With Us?

From The New Yorker
January 6, 1997


I--The Summit

The biannual Star Wars Summit Meeting is an opportunity for the licensees who make Darth Vader masks and thirty-six-inch sculpted Yoda collectibles to trade strategy and say "May the Force be with you" to the retailers from F.A.O. Schwarz and Target who sell the stuff, and for everyone in the far-flung Star Wars universe to get a better sense of "how deeply the brand has penetrated into the culture," in the words of one licensee. Almost six hundred people showed up at this year's summit, which took place in early November in the Marin County Civic Center, in San Rafael, California; Star Warsians came from as far away as Australia and Japan. Those arriving by car were ushered to parking places by attendants waving glowing and buzzing Luke Skywalker lightsabres, which were one of the cooler pieces of new product seen at the summit this year; other arrivals, who were staying in the Embassy Suites next door, strolled across the parking lot in the early-morning sunshine of another beautiful day in Northern California.

It was interesting to stand by the door of the auditorium and reflect that all these people, representing billions of dollars of wealth, depended for their existence on an idea that seemed utterly uncommercial at the time George Lucas began trying to sell it to studios, in the mid-seventies, when his thirteen-page treatment of "The Star Wars" (as it was then called) was rejected by Universal and by United Artists; only Alan Ladd, who was then at Fox, would gamble on it, over the heated objections of the Fox board. When Lucas would get down on the carpet with his toy airplanes and his talk of the Empire and the dark and light sides of the Force and the anthropology of Wookiees, even Lucas's friends thought, "George has lost it," according to the screenwriter Gloria Katz. "He always had this tunnel vision when it came to his projects, but it seemed like this time he was really out there. 'What's this thing called a Wookiee? What's a Jedi, George? You want to make a space opera?' "

The first movie went on to earn three hundred and twenty-three million dollars (more than any previous film had ever earned), and so far the trilogy has brought in about a billion three hundred million dollars in worldwide box-office sales and more than three billion more in licensing fees. Before "Star Wars," merchandise was used only to promote movies; it had no value apart from the films. But Star Wars merchandise became a business unto itself, and it inaugurated modern merchandising as we know it--the Warner Bros. Store, Power Rangers, the seventeen thousand different "101 Dalmatians" products that Disney has licensed so far--although Star Wars remains "the holy grail of licensing," in the words of one analyst. Last year, Star Wars action figures were the best-selling toy for boys and the second over-all best-seller, after Barbie. A large percentage of Star Wars action figures are actually bought by adults--Star Wars merchandise dealers--who are hoarding them, to speculate on the price. As a result, it has been difficult to find Star Wars toys, and some stores have limited the number of action figures that one person can buy. (The "vinyl-caped Jawa" action figures, which sold for around three dollars in 1978, are now worth about fourteen hundred.) In addition, LucasArts, which makes Star Wars CD-roms, is among the top five producers of video games for computers, while Star Wars novels are, book for book, the single most valuable active franchise in publishing. (Most of the twenty-odd novels Bantam has published since 1991 have made the Times hardcover- or paperback-best-seller list.) All this in spite of the fact that there has been no new Star Wars movie in theatres since "The Return of the Jedi," in 1983--although that is about to change.

What is it that makes people crave the Star Wars brand in so many different flavors? Somewhere between the idea and the stuff, it seemed to me--between the image of Luke gazing at the two setting suns on the planet Tatooine while he contemplated his destiny as a fighter pilot for the Rebel Alliance, and the twelve-inch Luke collectibles sold by Kenner--an alchemic transformation was taking place: dreams were being spun into desire, and desire forged into product. Here at the summit, you could feel this process drawing energy from the twin rivers of marketing and branding on the one hand, and from people's need to make sense of things on the other. In a world where the stories and images and lessons provided by electronic media seem to be replacing the stories and images and lessons people used to get from religion, literature, and painting, the lessons of Star Wars--that good is stronger than evil, that human values can triumph over superior technology, that even the lowliest of us can be redeemed, and that all this is relatively free of moral ambiguity--is a very powerful force indeed.


As an alien at the summit, I wasn't invited inside the auditorium, but several participants debriefed me on the goings on. In the morning, Howard Roffman, the vice-president of Lucasfilm Licensing, talked about the coming "Star Wars Trilogy Special Edition," a digitally enhanced version of the original trilogy. The first movie will appear on nearly two thousand screens starting January 31st, followed three weeks later by "The Empire Strikes Back" and two weeks after that by "The Return of the Jedi." Then, in 1999, the first of three new Star Wars films will début, with the second tentatively scheduled to follow in 2001 and the third in 2003. Yes, it is true, Roffman told the audience, that the first of the new "prequel" movies, which, as everyone present already knew, will begin to tell the back story to the original trilogy--what happened before Luke's adventures--will be directed by George Lucas himself, who, as everyone also knew, has not directed a film since the first Star Wars movie.

Roffman warned the licensees not to flood the market with Star Wars merchandise this winter--maybe because he was concerned about damaging the prequel's allure. He admitted that no one knew how well the "Special Edition" would do, because nobody has ever given a trilogy of movies already seen on television and video such a wide theatrical rerelease. Still, he believed that a lot of people would go to see "Star Wars" again, because seeing it for the first time had been such an important event. " 'Star Wars' has a timeless quality," Roffman had told me earlier. "For a lot of people, it was a defining moment in their lives. There is a whole generation that remembers where they were when they first saw 'Star Wars.' Now that original generation has aged, and they'll be looking at the films through different eyes--plus they'll want to take their kids." A movie that was designed to appeal to a feeling like nostalgia in the first place would be revisited by people seeking to feel nostalgic for that experience, in the pursuit of an ever-receding vision of a mythic past.

Roffman told the crowd that he still got chills when he saw the opening shot of the rebel Blockade Runner pursued by the Imperial Star Destroyer. Tom Sherak, a Fox executive vice-president, who followed Roffman to the podium, joked that he got chills a little earlier in the film, when he saw the Fox logo come up on the screen. When Lucas approached Fox with the idea of rereleasing the Star Wars trilogy, Sherak told me, it was "like Christmas." Fox readily agreed to Lucas's proposal that the studio pay for the use of digital technology to fix some things about the original movies that had always bothered him. Along with every other studio, Fox is hoping to win the rights to distribute the three Star Wars prequel movies, and was willing to do almost anything to make George happy. The studio eventually spent fifteen million dollars on the digital enhancements, and will spend perhaps another twenty million marketing the "Special Edition," which is expected to make around a hundred million.

Then John Talbot, the director of marketing for Pepsi-Cola, showed off sketches for its R2-D2 coolers, which will have Star Wars-related Pepsi cans inside their heads and will probably be displayed in convenience stores. He talked about all the different ways the company would promote the "Special Edition": not only through the Pepsi label but through Frito-Lay, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell as well--all part of an unprecedented two-billion-dollar commitment from Pepsi which will help drive the Star Wars brand even deeper into the culture, and insure that even if the story were to fade from the surface of the Earth it will remain buried underground in the form of Luke Skywalker pizza boxes and Obi-Wan sixteen-ounce beverage cups.


At five o'clock, a squadron of Imperial Guards, accompanied by white-shelled Imperial Storm Troopers, took the stage, followed by Darth Vader himself, sporting a costume from Lucasfilm Archives. (F. A. O. Schwarz and Neiman Marcus are actually selling limited-edition full-size Vader mannequins for five thousand dollars each--a Star Wars product that comes close to having the quasi-religious status of a "prop.") Speaking a recorded version of what sounded like James Earl Jones's voice, the Dark Lord of the Sith sternly upbraided the audience for not inviting him to the summit, but then said that it was actually a good thing he hadn't been invited, because he'd been able to spend the day at "the Ranch" with someone far more important than "you mere merchandisers." With that, George Lucas strode onto the stage.

Wherever Lucas appears, he receives a standing ovation, and he got two today--one on taking the stage and the other on leaving it. It isn't simply Lucas's success as a filmmaker that people are applauding--the fact that, having begun his career right here at the Marin County Civic Center (he had used it as a location for his first film, the dark, dystopian "THX 1138"), Lucas had gone on to create in Star Wars and Indiana Jones two of the most valuable movie properties ever, and, with John Milius, had also had the idea for "Apocalypse Now," which Francis Ford Coppola ended up making. Nor is it his success as a businessman: Industrial Light & Magic, which started as essentially Lucas's model shop--a place to do the effects for the original "Star Wars"--has grown into the premier digital-imaging studio in the world, and is responsible for most of the milestones in computer graphics, including the cyborg in "Terminator 2," the dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park," and the Kennedy cameo in "Forrest Gump." No, you applaud for Lucas because he is Star Wars. It's difficult for brains braised in Star Wars from early adulthood to conceive of Lucas in any other terms. The purpose of a myth, after all, is to give people a structure for making sense of the world, and it happens that Lucas's heroic myths are an almost irresistible way of making sense of him. "It's like George is Yoda," Tom Sherak told me. "He doesn't say a lot of words, but as you're listening the passion this man feels comes through. He's talking about his own creation. It's this whole thing that just comes over you."

Earlier, during a break, marketing reps from Hasbro had given all the members of the audience their own Luke Skywalker lightsabres, and at Lucas's appearance people turned them on and waved them around. ("It was like being at a Jethro Tull concert in 1978," according to one participant.) After they'd finished, Lucas said a few words about his reasons for wanting to rerelease the trilogy, which were chiefly that it would allow a new generation of fans to see the movies in theatres. He later told me he had made a point of keeping his own son, who is now four, from watching "Star Wars" on video, so he could show it to him in a theatre first.

Lucas's aura may be almost palpable, but his prana--the Sanskrit word for life force--is oddly blurry behind the looming shadow of his myth. (Of course, his lack of presence is also part of the myth: it's what makes him Yoda-like.) He is slight, and has a small, round belly, a short beard, black nerd-style glasses, and a vulnerable-sounding voice. According to the summiteers I talked to, the only really memorable moment in his ten minutes on the stage came when Alan Hassenfeld, the head of Hasbro, gave him a twelve-inch sculpted Obi-Wan Kenobi body with a George Lucas head, and the crowd went wild. A George Lucas toy! As one member of the audience said later, "What a collectible that would make!" George held up his George toy, and the people all cheered and waved their lightsabres.


II--The Ranch

Skywalker Ranch, the headquarters of Lucas's enterprises, is that part of the Star Wars universe which juts up above the top layer of the myth, into the real world. Deep in the hills of West Marin, the Ranch is a three-thousand-acre detailed evocation of a nineteenth-century ranch that never was. When Lucas was beginning to conceive the place, in the early eighties, he wrote a short story about an imaginary nineteenth-century railroad tycoon who retired up here and built the homestead of his dreams. In this story, the tycoon's Victorian main house dates from 1869; a craftsman-style library was added in 1910; the stable was built in 1870 and the brook house in 1913. Lucas gave his story to the architects of the Ranch and told them to build it accordingly. (He calls this style "remodel" architecture.)

Here, just as in "Star Wars," Lucas created a new world and then layered it with successive coats of mythic anthropology to make it feel used. He has made the future feel like the past, which is what George Lucas does best. "Star Wars" takes place in a futuristic, sci-fi world, but Lucas tells you at the beginning that it existed "a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away." The movie has all the really cool parts of the future (interplanetary travel, flashy effects, excellent machines), but it also has the friendships, the heroism, and other reassuring conventions of the cinema-processed past (outlaw saloons, dashing flyboys, sinister nobles, brave knights, and narrow escapes). It makes you feel a longing for the unnameable thing that is always being lost (a feeling similar to the one you get from Lucas's second film, "American Graffiti," which helped make nostalgia big business), but it's a longing sweetened by the promise that in the future we'll figure out some way of getting that unnameable thing back. This was the deliciously sad desire that was being forged into product at the summit down in San Rafael, but up here at Lucas's domain the desire seemed to exist in a purer form.

To get to the Ranch, you head west from San Rafael on Lucas Valley Road, which was named long ago, for a different, unrelated Lucas. It's just a coincidence, but as you wind through the plump, grassy hills of Marin County--America's Tuscany--you feel as though you were entering a sort of Jurassic Park of entrepreneurial dreams, in which there are no coincidences, only destiny. A few yards beyond the automatic wooden gates, you come to a kiosk with a guard whose arm patch says "Skywalker Fire Brigade," and then you drive past Skywalker Inn, where each of the guest rooms--the John Ford room, the Akira Kurosawa room--is decorated in the style of the eponymous director. (Tim Burton was staying in one of them at the time of my visit, mixing sound for "Mars Attacks!")

As in "Star Wars," so at the Ranch, you get the sense that some all-controlling intelligence has rubbed itself over every element for a long time. The Technical Building, which is filled with the latest in sound-engineering and editing technology, including a full THX theatre and a soundstage that can seat a hundred-piece orchestra, looks precisely like a nineteenth-century California winery. (According to Lucas's story, it was originally built in 1880, and the interior was remodelled in the Art Deco style in 1934.) Trellises of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Merlot grapes are growing outside, and the grapes are shipped to Francis Coppola's real winery in Napa Valley. Then there are the stables and a baseball field and people on bicycles with Skywalker license plates and an old hayrack and mower that look as if they'd been sitting beside the road for a hundred years. Lucas designed the place so that you can see only one building at a time from any spot on the property, and although two hundred people come to the Ranch each day, you see no cars--only bicycles, except for the occasional Skywalker Fire Brigade vehicle. The Ranch has three underground parking garages, which can accommodate two hundred cars.

Some of Lucas's friends told me that they thought the Ranch was George's attempt to recapture not only America's legendary Western past but his own past, especially his golden days at U.S.C. film school, in the sixties, when he was a protégé of Coppola's (they met when he was a student observer on Coppola's film "Finian's Rainbow"). He soon became friendly with Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Brian De Palma. They were all young artists, who just wanted to make artistically worthy films and weren't yet worried about topping one another's blockbusters. ("E.T." and "Jurassic Park" both surpassed the "Star Wars" box-office record; Lucas is hoping to take the record back from Spielberg with the prequel.) But not many filmmakers come up to the Ranch to conceive and write films; they come to use the technology in postproduction. As Spielberg once wrote, "George Lucas has the best toys of anybody I have ever known, which is why it's so much fun playing over at George's house."

From the outside, the main house looks like the big house on the Ponderosa, but the inside is more like the Huntington Gallery in San Marino, which used to be the home of the nineteenth-century railroad magnate Henry Huntington. Covering the walls is first-growth redwood that was salvaged from old bridges near Newport Beach and has been milled into panelling, and hanging on the redwood are selections from Lucas's collection of paintings by Norman Rockwell, another unironic American image-maker, with whom Lucas feels an affinity. To the Lucas fan, the most exciting things in the house are to be found in the two glass cases in the front hall, where the holiest relics are stored. The "real" lightsabre that Luke uses in "Star Wars" is here, and so are Indy's bullwhip and the diary that leads Indy to the Holy Grail. The Holy Grail itself is stored in the Archives Building.

Two days a week, Lucas comes to the Ranch to conduct business, usually driving himself along Lucas Valley Road. He spends most of the rest of his time at home, writing and looking after his three kids. The oldest, a teen-age girl, he adopted with his ex-wife and collaborator Marcia Lucas (she won an Oscar for editing "Star Wars"); the younger ones--a girl and a boy--he adopted as a single parent, after he and Marcia split up. Because my first visit to the Ranch fell on a Wednesday, which is not one of Lucas's regular days, I had been told there would be no meeting with him. But as we were touring the two-story circular redwood library with the stained-glass roof (there was a cat on the windowsill, a fire burning in the fireplace, and a Maxfield Parrish painting hanging over the mantel), word came that Lucas was here today after all, and would see me now. I was led down the back stairway into the dim recesses of the basement, which was sort of like going backstage at a high-tech theatre, and into a small, windowless room filled with editing machines, lit chiefly by light coming from two screens--a television and a glowing PowerBook. There sat the great mythmaker himself, wearing his usual flannel shirt, jeans, sneakers, and Swatch watch. He emerged from a dark corner of the couch to shake hands, then retreated into the dimness again.

Lucas conceived the Ranch as a complete filmmaking operation--his version of the ideal studio, one that would respect human values and creativity, as opposed to Hollywood studios, which he saw as evil and greedy and encouraging of mediocrity. Lucas's famous disdain of Hollywood is partly a result of his father's influence--George Lucas, Sr., was a conservative small-town businessman, who viewed all lawyers and film executives as sharpies and referred to Hollywood as Sin City--and partly a result of his own bitter experience with his first two films, "THX 1138" and "American Graffiti." The dark lords at Universal thought "Graffiti" was so bad that they weren't going to release the film at all, and then they were going to release it just on TV; finally, when Coppola, who had just made "The Godfather," offered to buy the movie, Universal relented and brought it out in the theatres, although not before Ned Tanen, then the head of Universal, cut four and a half minutes from it--a move that caused Lucas terrific anguish. Made for seven hundred and seventy-five thousand dollars, "Graffiti" went on to earn nearly a hundred and twenty million.

"I've always had a basic dislike of authority figures, a fear and resentment of grown-ups," Lucas says in "Skywalking," the 1983 biography by Dale Pollock (to whom I'm indebted for some of the details of Lucas's early career). When the success of the first Star Wars film allowed Lucas to "control the means of production," as he likes to say, he financed the second and third films himself, and he built the Ranch. In the beginning, the films edited at the Ranch were Lucas's own: he was busy working on the Star Wars movies and overseeing the Indiana Jones series (which he conceived the story for and produced; Spielberg directed). But before long people at the Ranch were spending less time on Lucas's films--"Willow," "Radioland Murders," and the "Young Indiana Jones Chronicles" television series have been his main projects in the last few years--and more time doing other people's. Today, Lucas offers a full-service digital studio, where directors can write, edit, and mix films, and Industrial Light & Magic, down in San Rafael, can do the special effects.

Lucas is the sole owner of his companies; Gordon Radley, the president of Lucasfilm, estimated in Forbes that Wall Street would value them at five billion dollars. (Forbes estimated that Lucas himself was worth two billion.) He is an old-fashioned, paternalistic chairman of the board, who gives each of his twelve hundred employees a turkey at Thanksgiving, and who sits every month at the head of the locally carpentered redwood boardroom table in the main house and listens to reports from the presidents of the various divisions of his enterprise.

"My father provided me with a lot of business principles--a small-town retail-business ethic, and I guess I learned it," Lucas told me in his frail-sounding voice. "It's sort of ironic, because I swore when I was a kid I'd never do what he did. At eighteen, we had this big break, when he wanted me to go into the business"--George, Sr., owned an office-supply store--"and I refused, and I told him, 'There are two things I know for sure. One is that I will end up doing something with cars, whether I'm a racer, a mechanic, or whatever, and, two, that I will never be president of a company.' I guess I got outwitted."

Lucas's most significant business decision--one that seemed laughable to the Fox executives at the time--was to forgo his option to receive an additional five-hundred-thousand-dollar fee from Fox for directing "Star Wars" and to take the merchandising and sequel rights instead. The sequels did almost as well as the first movie, and the value of the Star Wars brand, after going into a hiatus in the late eighties, reëmerged around 1991, when Bantam published "Heir to the Empire," by Timothy Zahn, wherein Princess Leia and Han Solo have children. The book surprised the publishing world by going to No. 1 on the Times hardcover-fiction list, and marketers quickly discovered a new generation of kids who had never seen the movies in theatres but were nevertheless obsessed with Star Wars.

Lucas's business success as the owner of Star Wars, however, has had the ironic result of taking him away from the thing that touched his audience in the first place. He told me he'd stopped directing movies because "when you're directing, you can't see the whole picture." He explained, "You want to take a step back, be the over-all force behind it--like a television executive producer. Once I started doing that, I drifted further and further away. Then I had a family, and that changed things--it's very hard to direct a movie and be a single parent at the same time." Then his company became a big business. "The company started as a filmmaking operation. I needed a screening room, then a place to do post, then mixing, then special effects--because, remember, I was in San Francisco. You can't just go down the street and find this stuff--you have to build it. Everything in the company has come out of my interests, and for a long time it was a struggle. But six years ago the company started coming into its own. The CD-rom market, which we had been sitting on for fifteen years, suddenly took off, and digital-filmmaking techniques took off--they are five times larger than six years ago--and suddenly I had a big company, and I had to pay attention to it." He estimated that he now spends thirty-five per cent of his time on his family, thirty-five per cent on movies, and thirty per cent on the company.

Lucas's day-to-day activities in the main house include the management of the Star Wars story, which is probably the most carefully tended secular story on Earth. Unlike Star Trek, which is a series of episodes connected by no central narrative, Star Wars is a single story--"a finite, expanding universe," in the words of Tom Dupree, who edits Bantam's Star Wars novels in New York. Everyone in the content-creating galaxy of Star Wars has a copy of "The Bible," a burgeoning canonical document (currently a hundred and seventy pages long) that is maintained by "continuity editors" Allan Kausch and Sue Rostoni. It is a chronology of all the events that have ever occurred in the Star Wars universe, in all the films, books, CD-roms, Nintendo games, comic books, and role-playing guides, and each medium is seamlessly coördinated with the others. For example, a new Lucas story called "Shadows of the Empire" is being told simultaneously in several media. A recent Bantam novel introduces a smuggling enterprise, led by the evil Prince Xizor, within the time line of the original trilogy. Three weeks before Christmas, he crossed over into the digital realm: he began to appear in the new sixty-four-bit Nintendo playstations. Meanwhile, Dark Horse comics is also featuring the Prince, along with related characters, like the bounty hunter Boba Fett. (Boba had only a few minutes of screen time in the movies, but has become one of the most popular characters among gen-X fans.)

New developments in even the remotest corners of the Star Wars universe are always approved by Lucas himself. The continuity editors send him checklists of potential events, and Lucas checks yes or no. "When Bantam wanted to do the back story on Yoda," Dupree said, "George said that was off limits, because he wanted him to remain a mysterious character. But George has made available some time between the start of Episode Four, when Han Solo is a young pilot on the planet Corellia, and the end of the prequel, so we're working with that now." Although Lucas had once imagined Star Wars as a nine-part saga, he hasn't yet decided whether he wants to make the final three movies, but he has allowed licensees to build into the narrative space on the future side of "Jedi"; the later years of Han, Luke, Leia, and the rest of the characters have been colonized by other media.

"George creates the stories, we create the places," Jack Sorensen, the president of LucasArts, told me in explaining how the interactive division fits into the Lucas multimedia empire. "Say you're watching the movie, and you see some planet that's just in the background of the movie, and you go, 'Hey, I wonder what that planet is like?' There's a lot going on on a planet, you know. So we'll make that planet the environment for a game. In a film, George would have to keep moving, but the games give you a chance to explore."

I asked Sorensen to explain the extraordinary appeal of Star Wars, and he said, "I'm as perplexed by this as anyone, and I'm right in the midst of it. I travel all the time for this job, and I meet people abroad, in Italy, or in France, who are totally obsessed with 'Star Wars.' I met this Frenchman recently who told me he watches it every week. I don't really think this is caused by some evil master plan of merchandisers and marketers. The demand is already out there, and we're just meeting it--it would exist without us. I don't know if I want to say this in print, but I feel like Star Wars is the mythology of a nonsectarian world. It describes how people want to live. People all view politics as corrupt, much more so in Europe than here, and yet people are not cynical underneath--they want to believe in something pure, noble. That's Star Wars."


"Star Wars" still seems pure in some ways, but in other ways it doesn't. The qualities that seemed uncommercial about it at the time Lucas was trying to make it--most strikingly, that the literary elements (the characters and the plot) were subordinate to the purely cinematic elements (motion)--are the very qualities that seem commercial about it now. This is one way of measuring how "Star Wars" has changed both movies and the people who go to movies.

"I'm a visual filmmaker," Lucas told me. "I do films that are kinetic, and I tend to focus on character as it is created through editing and light, not stories. I started out as a harsh enemy of story and character, in my film-school days, but then I fell under Francis's mentorship, and his challenge to me after 'THX 1138' was to make a more conventional movie. So I did 'American Graffiti,' but they said that was just a montage of sounds, and then I did 'Star Wars.' I was always coming from pure cinema--I was using the grammar of film to create content. I think graphically, not linearly."

The first Star Wars movie is like a two-hour-long image of raw speed. If you saw it when you were young, this tends to be what you remember--the feeling of going really fast. Lucas is a genius of speed. His first ambition was to be a race-car driver, and it was only after he was nearly killed in a terrible accident, when he was eighteen--he lived because his seat belt unaccountably broke and he was hurled free of the car--that his interest shifted to film. (His first moving pictures were of race cars.) Perhaps the most memorable single image in "Star Wars" is the shot of the Millennium Falcon going into hyperspace for the first time, when the stars blur past the cockpit. Like all the effects in the movie, this works not because it is a cool effect (it's actually pretty low tech--merely "motion blur" photography) but because it's a powerful graphic distillation of the feeling the whole movie gives you: an image of pure kinetic energy which has become a permanent part of the world's visual imagination. (The other day, I was out running, and as a couple of rollerbladers went whizzing by I heard a jogger in front of me say to his friend, "It's like that scene in 'Star Wars' when they go into hyperspace.") Insofar as a media-induced state of speed has become a condition of modern life, Lucas was anticipating the Zeitgeist in "Star Wars."

The problems arise when Lucas has to slow down. In "Radioland Murders," the characters have to carry the narrative, but Lucas couldn't make this work, so he had to speed up the pace and turn the movie into farce. Also, because Lucas has little rapport with actors, his films tend to have only passable acting in them, which forces him to rely unduly on pace and editing. Mark Hamill once said, "I have a sneaking suspicion that if there were a way to make movies without actors, George would do it." Lucas is well known to be impatient with actors' histrionics, and has little interest in becoming involved in their discussions about method. Harrison Ford told me that Lucas had only two directions for the actors in "Star Wars"; he replayed them for me over huevos rancheros on the terrace at the Bel Air Hotel one Saturday morning, using his George-as-director voice--nasal, high, kind of whiny. The two directions were "O.K., same thing, only better," and "Faster, more intense." Ford said, "That was it: 'O.K., same thing, only better.' 'Faster, more intense.' "


For serious Star Wars fans--the true believers--Lucas's story tends to mingle with Luke's, the real one becoming proof that the mythic one can come true, and the mythic one giving the real one a kind of larger-than-life significance. Just as Luke is a boy on the backwater planet of Tatooine--he is obedient to his uncle, who wants him to stay on the farm, but he dreams that there might be a place for him somewhere out there in the larger world of adventure--so Lucas was a boy in the backwater town of Modesto, California. He dreamed of being a great race-car driver, but his liberal-bashing, moralizing father wanted him to stay at home and take over the family business. (Pollock's book recounts how his father liked to humiliate him every summer by chopping off his hair.) Just as a benevolent father figure (Obi-Wan) helps Luke in his struggle against his dark father, the older Coppola took young George under his wing at film school, and helped him get his first feature film made. And, just as Luke at the end of the first Star Wars film realizes his destiny and becomes a sort of hero-knight, so Lucas became the successful filmmaker, fulfilling a prophecy he'd made to his father in 1962, two years before he left Modesto for U.S.C., which was that he would be "a millionaire before I'm thirty."

But both Luke and Lucas have had to reckon with their patrimony. There's the famous scene on the Cloud City catwalk in "Empire" when Darth reveals that he is Luke's father. He has cut off Luke's hand and tries to turn him to the dark side, saying, "Join me, and together we can rule the galaxy as father and son!": Luke responds by leaping off the catwalk into the abyss. Just as Luke has to contend with the qualities he may have inherited from Darth Vader, so Lucas, in his career after "Star Wars," has stopped directing films and has become the successful, fiscally conservative businessman that his father always wanted him to be.

The scripts for the prequel, which Lucas is finishing now, make it clear that Star Wars, taken as a whole story and viewed in chronological order, is not really the story of Luke at all but the story of Luke's father, Anakin Skywalker, and how he, a Jedi Knight, was corrupted by the dark side of the Force and became Darth Vader. When I asked Lucas what Star Wars was ultimately about, he said, "Redemption." He added, "The scripts to the three films that I'm finishing now are a lot darker than the second three, because they are about a fall from grace. The first movie is pretty innocent, but it goes downhill from there, because it's more of a tragic story--that's built into it."

I said that the innocence was what many people found so compelling about the first Star Wars movie, and I asked whether it was harder for him, now that he is twenty years less innocent, to go back to work on the material.

"Of course your perspective changes when you get older and as you get battered by life," he said.

"Have you been battered by life?"

"Anyone who lives is going to get battered. Nothing comes easy."

I believed him. He was Yoda, after all. He had lived for almost nine hundred years. He had known the sons who triumph over their dark fathers only to find themselves in the murkier situation of being fathers themselves, and that knowledge had made him wise but it had also worn him out. That was the note of loss in his voice--the thing that the Star Wars trilogy didn't allow very often onto the screen, but it was there in the background, like the remnants of blue screens you could see in "Empire," in the thin outlines surrounding the Imperial Walkers on the ice planet Hoth. (These flaws have been digitally erased in the "Special Edition.")

Did Lucas worry about being turned to the dark side himself--did fame, money, or power tempt him? Or maybe it happened more slowly and subtly, with the temptation to stop being a filmmaker and become a kind of master toymaker instead, which is fun until you wake up one day and realize you have become one of your own toys. You could see that starting to occur in "Jedi": the Ewoks, those lovable furry creatures, seemed destined for the toy store even before they helped Luke defeat the Empire.

"The world is all yours," I said to Lucas. "You could have anything you wanted."

"Like what?" he asked. "What do I want? What do you want? Basically I just like to make movies, and I like raising a family, and whatever money I've made I've plowed back into the company. I've only ever been tempted by making movies--I don't need yachts, I'm not a party animal, and holding and using power over people never interested me. The only dangerous side of having this money is that I will make movies that aren't commercial. But, of course, 'Star Wars' was not considered commercial when I did it."


III--The Story

Since "Star Wars" sprang into Lucas's mind first as pictures, not as a narrative, he needed a line on which to hang his images. He studied Joseph Campbell's books on mythology, among other sources, taking structural elements from many different myths and trying to combine them into one epic story. One can go through "Star Wars" and almost pick out chapter headings from Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces": the hero's call to adventure, the refusal of the call, the arrival of supernatural aid, the crossing of the first threshold, the belly of the whale, and the series of ordeals culminating in a showdown with the angry father, when, at last, as Campbell writes, "the hero . . . beholds the face of the father, understands--and the two are atoned"--which is precisely what happens at the end of "Jedi." Lucas worked this way partly out of a conscious desire to create a story that would touch people--it was a kind of get-'em-by-the-archetypes-and-their-hearts-and-minds-will-follow approach--but it also appears to have been an artistic necessity.

"When I was in college, for two years I studied anthropology--that was basically all I did," Lucas said as we sat in his basement den. The glow of the blank TV screen illuminated his face. "Myths, stories from other cultures. It seemed to me that there was no longer a lot of mythology in our society--the kind of stories we tell ourselves and our children, which is the way our heritage is passed down. Westerns used to provide that, but there weren't Westerns anymore. I wanted to find a new form. So I looked around, and tried to figure out where myth comes from. It comes from the borders of society, from out there, from places of mystery--the wide Sargasso Sea. And I thought, Space. Because back then space was a source of great mystery. So I thought, O.K., let's see what we can do with all those elements. I put them all into a bag, along with a little bit of 'Flash Gordon' and a few other things, and out fell 'Star Wars.' "

He said that his intention in writing "Star Wars" was explicitly didactic: he wanted it to be a good lesson as well as a good movie. "I wanted it to be a traditional moral study, to have some sort of palpable precepts in it that children could understand. There is always a lesson to be learned. Where do these lessons come from? Traditionally, we get them from church, the family, art, and in the modern world we get them from media--from movies." He added, "Everyone teaches in every work of art. In almost everything you do, you teach, whether you are aware of it or not. Some people aren't aware of what they are teaching. They should be wiser. Everybody teaches all the time."

Lucas's first attempt at writing the story lasted from February, 1972, to May, 1973, during which he produced the thirteen-page plot summary that his friend Laddie (Alan Ladd) paid him fifteen thousand dollars to develop into a script. Like "American Graffiti," which had been a montage of radio sounds, this treatment was like a montage of narrative fragments. It took Lucas another year to write a first draft; he is an agonizingly slow writer. He composed "Star Wars" with No. 2 pencils, in tiny, compulsively neat-looking script, on green-and-blue-lined paper, with atrocious spelling and grammar. Realizing that he had too much stuff for one movie, he cut the original screenplay in half, and the first half was the germ for the three scripts he is finishing now; the second half became the original trilogy. (Lucas's way of making the future into the past is thus part of the structure of Star Wars. Many people don't remember this, but the first movie was called, in full, "Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope.")

He showed his first draft to a few people, but neither Laddie nor George's friends could make much sense of it. "It only made sense when George would put it in context with past movies, and he'd say, 'It's like that scene in "Dam Busters," ' " Ladd told me, in his office on the Paramount lot. The only characters that Lucas seemed to have a natural affinity for were the droids, C-3PO and R2-D2. In early drafts, the first thirty pages focussed almost entirely on the droids; the feeling was closer to the Orwellian mood of "THX 1138." Based on his friends' reactions, Lucas realized he would need to put the humans on the screen earlier, in order to get the audience involved. But his dialogue was wooden and labored. "When I left you, I was but the learner," Darth says to Obi-Wan, before dispatching the old gentleman with his sabre. "I am the master now!" Harrison Ford's well-known remark about Lucas's dialogue, which he repeated for me, was "George, you can type this shit, but you sure can't say it."

Lucas also borrowed heavily from the film-school canon. The lightsabres and Jedi Knights were inspired by Kurosawa's "Hidden Fortress," C-3PO's look by Fritz Lang's "Metropolis," the ceremony at the end by Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will." Alec Guinness does a sort of optimistic reprise of his Prince Feisal character from "Lawrence of Arabia," while Harrison Ford plays Butch Cassidy. Critics of "Star Wars" point to the film's many borrowings as evidence of Lucas's failure as a filmmaker. (It is said of Lucas, as it was of Henry Ford, that he didn't actually invent anything.) But "Star Wars" fans see this as a brilliant postmodernist commentary on the history of popular film. Lucas uses these references with a childlike lack of irony that Scorsese, De Palma, or Spielberg would probably be incapable of, because they grew up with the movies. The critic and screenwriter Jay Cocks, a longtime friend of Lucas's, told me, "I don't think George went to a lot of movies as a kid, like Marty and Brian. Before arriving at film school, he hadn't seen 'Alexander Nevsky' or 'Potemkin'; I don't think he even saw 'Citizen Kane.' I remember when I went up to this little cabin he and Marcia had in Northern California, and I saw he had some Flash Gordon comic strips, drawn by Alex Raymond, on his desk, and a picture of Eisenstein on his wall, and the combination of those two were really the basis for George's aesthetic in 'Star Wars.' "

But Lucas added many small personal details to the story as well, which is part of what gives his creation its sensuous feeling of warmth. According to Pollock, the little robot is called R2-D2 because that was how Walter Murch, the sound editor on "American Graffiti," asked for the Reel 2, Dialogue 2 tape when they were in the editing room one day, and for some reason "R2-D2" stuck in George's mind. The Wookiee was inspired by Marcia's female Alaskan malamute, Indiana (who also lent her name to Lucas's other great invention); the image of Chewie came to George in a flash one day as the dog was sitting next to Marcia in the front seat of the car. Many of Ben Burtt's sounds for the movie also had personal significance. He told me that the buzzing sound of the lightsabre was the drone that an old U.S.C. film-school projector made. The pinging sound of the blasters was the sound made one day when Burtt was out hiking and caught the top of his backpack on some guy wires.

Shooting of the interiors began in March, 1976, in Elstree Studios, outside London, and lasted four months. The English crew were awful to Lucas. "They just thought it was all very unsophisticated," Harrison Ford told me. "I mean, here's this seven-foot-tall man in a big hairy suit. They referred to Chewie as 'the dog.' You know, 'Bring the dog in.' And George isn't the best at dealing with those human situations--to say the least." Meanwhile, Lucas was struggling with Fox to get more than the nine million dollars that Fox wanted to spend (the movie ended up costing about ten million to make), and he was paranoid that the studio was going to take the movie away from him, or, treat it the way that Universal had treated "Graffiti."

Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote the scripts for "Empire" and "Jedi" and also wrote the script for the first Indiana Jones movie, thinks Lucas's antagonistic relationship with Hollywood is what "Star Wars" is really about. "The Jedi Knight is the filmmaker, who can come in and use the Force to impose his will on the studio," he told me. "You know that scene when Alec Guinness uses the Force to say to the Storm Trooper outside the Mos Eisley cantina, 'These aren't the droids you're looking for,' and the guy answers, 'These aren't the droids we're looking for'? Well, when the studio executive says, 'You won't make this movie,' you say, 'I will make this movie,' and then the exec agrees, 'You will make this movie.' I once asked him, 'George, where did you get the confidence to argue with Ned Tanen?' He said, 'Your power comes from the fact that you are the creator.' And that had an enormous influence on me."

When a rough cut of "Star Wars" had been edited together, George arranged a screening of the film at his house. The party travelling up from Los Angeles included Spielberg, Ladd, De Palma, a few other friends of George's, and some Fox executives. "Marty was supposed to come, too," the screenwriter Willard Huyck told me, referring to Martin Scorsese, "but the weather was bad and the plane was delayed and finally Marty just went home."

"Marty had an anxiety attack is what happened," Gloria Katz, Huyck's wife and writing partner, put in. Huyck and Katz are old friends of Lucas's, who co-wrote "Graffiti" with him, and are the beneficiaries of George's generous gift of two points of "Star Wars" for their help on the script.

"Marty's very competitive, and so is George," Huyck went on. "All these guys are. And at that time Marty was working on 'New York, New York,' which George's wife, Marcia, was editing, and everybody was saying that it was going to be the big picture of the year--but here we were all talking about 'Star Wars.'*"

Here, at this first screening of "Star Wars," a group of writers, directors, and executives, all with ambitions to make more or less artistically accomplished Hollywood films, were confronting the template of the future--the film that would in one way or another determine everyone's career. Not surprisingly, almost every one of them hated it. Polite applause in the screening room, no cheers--a "real sweaty-palm time," Jay Cocks, who was also there, said. It's possible that, just this once, before the tsunami of marketing and megatude closed over "Star Wars" forever, these people were seeing the movie for what it really was--a film with comic-book characters, an unbelievable story, no political or social commentary, lousy acting, preposterous dialogue, and a ridiculously simplistic morality. In other words, a bad movie.

"So we watch the movie," Huyck said, "and the crawl went on forever, there was tons of back story, and then we're in this spaceship, and then here's Darth Vader. Part of the problem was that almost none of the effects were finished, and in their place George had inserted World War Two dogfight footage, so one second you're with the Wookiee in the spaceship and the next you're in 'The Bridges at Toko-Ri.' It was like, George, what-is-going-on?"

"When the film ended, people were aghast," Katz said. "Marcia was really upset--she was saying, 'Oh my God, it's "At Long Last Love," ' which was the Bogdanovich picture that was such a disaster the year before. We said, 'Marcia, fake it, fake it. Laddie is watching.' "

Huyck: "Then we all got into these cars to go someplace for lunch, and in our car everyone is saying, 'My God, what a disaster!' All except Steven, who said, 'No, that movie is going to make a hundred million dollars, and I'll tell you why--it has a marvellous innocence and naïveté in it, which is George, and people will love it.' And that impressed us, that he would think that, but of course no one believed him."

Katz: "We sat down to eat, and Brian started making fun of the movie. He was very acerbic and funny."

"Which is the way Brian is," Huyck said. "You know, 'Hey George, what were those Danish rolls doing in the princess's ears?' We all sat there very nervously while Brian let George have it, and George just sort of sank deeper into his chair. Brian was pretty rough. I don't know if Marcia ever forgave Brian for that."

When the movie opened, Huyck and Katz went with George and Marcia to hide out in Hawaii. On their second day there, Huyck told me, "Laddie called on the phone and said, 'Turn on the evening news.' Why? 'Just watch the evening news,' he said. So we turned it on, and Walter Cronkite was on saying, 'There's something extraordinary happening out there, and it's all the result of a new movie called "Star Wars." ' Cut to lines around the block in Manhattan. It was absolutely amazing. We were all stunned. Now, of course, the studios can tell you what a movie is going to do--they have it down to a science, and they can literally predict how a movie is going to open. But in those days they didn't know."


Dean Devlin, one of the creators of "Independence Day," was fourteen years old when "Star Wars" came out. He remembers being sixth in line on the day the movie opened at Mann's Chinese Theatre, in Hollywood, on May 25, 1977. "I don't even know why I wanted to see it," he told me when I went to talk with him in his office, just off the commissary at Paramount. "I just knew I had to be there." The movie changed his life. "To me, 'Star Wars' was like the 'Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band' of movies. You know how people like David Bowie say that that was the album that made them see what was possible in pop music? I think 'Star Wars' did the same thing for popcorn movies. It made you see what was possible." He added, " 'Star Wars' was the movie that made me say, I want to do something like that." "Stargate" and "Independence Day" are what he has done so far, and the day after we talked he and his partner, Roland Emmerich, were leaving for Mexico, to hole up and work on their next film, "Godzilla."

" 'Star Wars' was a serious breakthrough, a shift in the culture, which was possible only because George was this weird character," Lawrence Kasdan said. "After you saw it, you thought, My God, anything is possible. He opened up people's minds. I mean, the amazing thing about cinema technology is that it hasn't changed since it started. It's mind-boggling. With all these changes in technology, and the computer, we're still pulling this little piece of plastic through a machine and shining light through it. Very few directors change things. Welles did things differently. But everything is different after 'Star Wars.' All other pictures reflect its influence, some by ignoring it or rebelling against it." Every time a studio executive tells a writer that his piercing and true story needs an "action beat" every ten minutes, the writer has George Lucas to thank. "Ransom," the recent movie by Lucas's protégé Ron Howard, is two hours' worth of such action beats and little else.

Huyck suggested that one of the legacies of the trilogy's success is that a movie as fresh and unknowing as "Star Wars" wouldn't get made today. "Truffaut had the idea that filmmaking entered a period of decadence with the James Bond movies, and I'm not sure you couldn't say the same thing about 'Star Wars,' though you can't blame George for it," he told me. " 'Star Wars' made movies big business, which got the studio executives involved in every step of the development, to the point of being on the set and criticizing what the director is doing. Now they all take these screenwriting courses in film school and they think they know about movies--their notes are always the same. Both 'American Graffiti' and 'Star Wars' would have a very difficult time getting through the current system. 'Star Wars' would get pounded today. Some executive would get to the point where Darth Vader is revealed to be Luke's father and he would say, 'Give me a break.' "

These days, Kasdan said, "the word 'character' might come up at a development meeting with the executives, but if you asked them they couldn't tell you what character is." He went on, "Narrative structure doesn't exist--all that matters is what's going to happen in the next ten minutes to keep the audience interested. There's no faith in the audience. They can't have the story happen fast enough."

Twenty years ago, Pauline Kael suggested that in sacrificing character and complexity for non-stop action "Star Wars" threatened to turn movies into comic books, and today, in a week when two of the three top movies are "101 Dalmatians" and "Space Jam," it is easy to believe she was right. (I know which movies are on top because I read last week's grosses, along with the N.F.L. standings, in Monday's Times: another aspect of the blockbuster mentality that "Star Wars" helped to launch.)

When I reminded Lucas of Kael's remark, he sighed and said, "Pauline Kael never liked my movies. It's like comparing novels and sonnets, and saying a sonnet's no good because it doesn't have the heft of a novel. It's not a valid criticism. After I did 'Graffiti,' my friends said, 'George, you should make more of an artistic statement,' but I feel 'Star Wars' did make a statement--in a more visual, less literary way. People said I should have made 'Apocalypse Now' after 'Graffiti,' and not 'Star Wars.' They said I should be doing movies like 'Taxi Driver.' I said, 'Well, "Star Wars" is a kids' movie, but I think it's just as valid an art film as "Taxi Driver." ' Besides, I couldn't ever do 'Taxi Driver.' I don't have it in me. I could do 'Koyaanisqatsi,' but not 'Taxi Driver.' But of course if the movie doesn't fit what they think movies should be, it shouldn't be allowed to exist. I think that's narrow-minded. I've been trying to rethink the art of movies--it's not a play, not a book, not music or dance. People were aware of that in the silent era, but when the talkies started they lost track of it. Film basically became a recording medium."


IV--The Model Shop

When you're up at Skywalker Ranch, it's possible to imagine that the future is somehow going to end up saving the past after all, and that we will find on a new frontier what we lost a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But in San Rafael, at Industrial Light & Magic, this is harder to believe. Down here, where legions of young geeks work in high-tech, dark satanic mills and stare into computer screens as they build "polys" (the polygonal structures that are the basic elements of computer graphics), the future doesn't seem likely to save the past. The future destroys the past.

Take, for example, the I.L.M. model shop--a high-ceilinged space, full of creatures, ghosts, and crazy vehicles that were used in movies like "Ghostbusters" and "Back to the Future." It's like a museum of non-virtual reality. There are books on the torque capacity of different kinds of wrenches, cylinders of compressed gas, tools of all descriptions, and a feathery layer of construction dust covering everything. All the monsters, ships, weapons, and other effects in the original "Star Wars" were made in the model shop--by hand, more or less--by the team of carpenter-engineer-tinkerer-inventors assembled by Lucas. They used clay, rubber, foam latex, wire, and seven-foot-two hairy-Wookiee suits to create their illusions. (The only computers used in making the original "Star Wars" were used to control the motion of the cameras.) The modelmakers were so good at what they did that they unleashed a desire for better and better special effects in movies, which ended up putting a number of the people in the model shop out of work. "Either you learn the computer or you might as well work as a carpenter," one former member of the model shop said.

Today, the model shop survives as a somewhat vestigial operation, producing prototypes of the creatures and machines that will then be rendered in computer graphics for the movie screen. (While I was visiting I.L.M., I saw two carpenters working on a C-3PO, whose head, arms, and legs were spread all over the workbenches--he looked the way he did after the Sand People got done with him--and I asked, naïvely, if I would see him in one of the new movies. No, he was just another prototype.) One model-shop old-timer is the artist Paul Huston, who is still around because he has learned how to use the computer. Huston did oil-on-canvas matte paintings for the original "Star Wars"; he did digital matte paintings for the "Special Edition." (No one does any offscreen matte painting at I.L.M. anymore.) He showed me a tape of some of his digital additions to the first film, which occur before and after the famous Mos Eisley cantina scene, where a "C.G." (computer graphic) Jabba the Hutt will now confront Han Solo in the docking bay where the Millennium Falcon is waiting. (Ford did his half of the scene with a human actor inside a Jabba suit in 1976, but the footage was never used, because it didn't look good enough.) In order to create a crashed spaceship that is part of the background at the Mos Eisley spaceport, Huston actually built a real model, out of various bits scavenged from airplane and helicopter kits--this gave it a kind of ad-hoc, gnarled thingeyness--and he took it outside and photographed it in natural light. Then he scanned that image into the computer and worked on it with Photoshop. A more digitally inclined artist would probably have built the crashed spaceship from scratch right on the computer.

"To me, it comes down to whether you look to the computer for your reality or whether you look out there in the world," Huston said, pointing outside the darkened C.G. room where we were standing to the bright sunlight and the distant Marin hills. "I still think it's not in the computer, it's out there. It's much more interesting out there." He turned back to the spaceport image on the screen. "Look at the way the light bounces off the top of this tower, and how these shadows actually deepen here, when you'd expect them to get lighter--you would never think to do that on a computer."

Huston seemed like kind of a melancholy guy, with sad eyes behind small wire-rimmed glasses. He said he had accepted the fact that creations like the C.G. T. Rex in "Jurassic Park" were the way of the future, and that in many cases C.G. makes effects better. The model shop could never get lava to glow properly, for example, but with C.G. it's easy. Also, C.G. is more efficient--you can get more work done. "The skills that you needed ten years ago to do modelling and matte painting were hard to attain," he said. "Making models was a process of trial and error. There were no books to tell you how to do it. It was catch as catch can. Today, with the computer, you can get modelling software, which has a manual, and follow the instructions."

He gestured around at the monitors, scanners, and other machinery all over the place. "Our company has taken the position that the computer is the future, and we have moved aggressively toward that," he said. "I can see that's what everyone wants. In model-making there aren't many shortcuts. And this is a business of turnover and scheduling and getting as much work through the pipeline as you can. If there is a shortcut to doing something on a computer, and it's going to cost a hundred and fifty thousand dollars, the client will say, 'Oh sure, let's do it.' But if you offer them a model-building project for a third of that there are no takers. Because that's not what clients are interested in. So we're trying to do everything synthetically, with computers, to see how far we can go with that. Part of the interest and excitement is in the surprise--you don't know what is going to happen."

C.G. is supposed to make films cheaper to produce, and its champions continue to promise the nirvana of a movie made by one person on a P.C. for next to nothing. Dean Devlin, a large consumer of C.G., told me about "this British kid who brought my partner Roland and me a full-length film he had shot for ten thousand dollars in a garage." He explained, "It was an excellent film with unbelievably good effects, and the way he shot it you couldn't tell it had mostly been done on a computer, and we looked at each other and said, 'It's coming.' A hundred-per-cent-C.G. live-action film, with no models." But so far C.G. has actually made movies more expensive than ever. When I asked Jim Morris, the president of Lucas Digital, I.L.M.'s parent company, why this was so, he said, "If we did the same shots now that we did in 'T2,' those shots would be cheaper today. The fly in the ointment is that very few directors are trying to do what has already been done. The line we hear ninety-nine per cent of the time is 'I want something that no one has ever seen before.' No one comes in and says, 'O.K., I'll take three twisters.' "

A potential milestone in C.G. toward which I.L.M. is racing its competitors--Jim Cameron's Digital Domain and Sony's Image Works--is the creation of the first "synthespian": a C.G. human actor in a live-action movie. "Toy Story," made by Pixar, a company that grew out of I.L.M. and which Lucas sold to Steve Jobs ten years ago, was an all-C.G. movie, but it starred toys; no one has yet made a believable C.G. human. In "Forrest Gump" audiences saw a little bit of Kennedy: What about a whole movie starring Kennedy? Or a new James Dean movie, in which Dean is a synthespian made up of bits digitally lifted from old images of him?

Recalling Mark Hamill's remark about Lucas--"I have a sneaking suspicion that if there were a way to make movies without actors, George would do it"--I asked Morris if he thought synthetics would ever be the stars of movies. Morris acknowledged that that was "a holy grail for some digital artists" but added that he didn't think a synthetic would be much of an improvement over an actor. "You get a lot for your money out of an actor," he said. "And even if you did replace him with a synthetic you're still likely to need an actor's voice, and you'd have the animator to deal with, so what's the advantage? That said, it does make sense when you're talking about safety. You don't have to have human beings putting themselves at risk doing stunts when you can have synthetics doing them."

One of the lessons "Star Wars" teaches is that friends who stick together and act courageously can overcome superior weapons, machines, and any other kind of technology. At the end of the first movie, Luke, down to his last chance to put a missile in the Death Star's weak spot (a maneuver that will blow up the reactor and save the Rebel Alliance from destruction), hears Obi-Wan telling him to turn off the targeting computer in his X-Wing fighter and rely on the Force instead: "Use the Force, Luke." Clearly, the lesson is that the Force is superior to machines. My visit to I.L.M. made me wonder if that lesson was true. At the very least, the situation seemed to be a lot more complex than "Star Wars" makes it out to be. The gleeful embrace of the latest thing, of the coolest effect, is a force that is at least equal to most other human qualities. The technology to create never-before-seen images also creates the desire to see even more amazing images, which makes the technology more and more powerful, and the people who use it correspondingly less important. And the power of business is not always in the service of human values or of making good films. Lucas has benevolently followed his business instincts into the new world of dazzling, digitally produced effects, and has built in I.L.M. a company that currently earns tens of millions of dollars a year and will probably earn much more in the future--the future! But his success is a sad blow to the fantasy that men are more powerful than machines.

"The possibilities of synthetic characters have grown enormously, and George will rely much more on those in the new 'Star Wars' movies," Morris went on. "People in rubber suits worked for back then, and added a certain charm, but there is only so much you can do with that in terms of motion. In C.G., there really aren't physical limitations. There are only believability issues, and George's sensitivity grounds that--he decides what works on the screen. Yoda was a Frank Oz puppet in 'Empire,' and that worked for an old, wizened Yoda who could hardly move. But in the prequels we're going to have a sixty-years-younger Yoda, and we'll probably see a synthetic Yoda instead."

 

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