[Note: This review appeared in the Washington Independent Review of Books in December 2014. I am reproducing it here with some minor formatting changes.]
Seminal moments in our popular culture arrive less often than we claim, and their impact on our lives often requires time to manifest. Chris Taylor, deputy editor of Mashable and an undeniably rabid “Star Wars” fan, presents a compelling argument that the premiere of “Star Wars” was just such a moment, touching the entire human population. His new book, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present, and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise, is a social history of the franchise. More than a chronicle of movie production or an inventory of licensing agreements, it is a far-reaching examination of how the six-movie (and counting) film series changed the world and how the world shaped the franchise.
Taylor weaves his story through many short chapters, and he is not afraid to wander afield when necessary. He starts at the beginning with the founders of the science-fiction genre – H.G. Wells and Jules Verne – to illustrate the distinction between fantasy and science fiction. Later, this legacy explains the divergence of George Lucas’ space opera and Gene Roddenberry’s (the creator of “Star Trek”) futurist vision. Taylor discusses the influence of serial science fiction from the 1940s and 50s, including Lucas’ favorite, “Flash Gordon.”
As any good history demands, this is not simply a story about the movies or George Lucas. We are not only given a cohesive picture of Lucas’ formative years and social influences at home and in school, but also an adequate look at the cultural influences that preceded “Star Wars.” Film school social networks suggest how the Creator – Lucas’ self-proclaimed title – moved toward the realization of his childhood dream of creating a space fantasy/opera. Even Alejandro Jodorowsky’s stillborn “Dune” project demonstrates how failures liberated ideas and talent to change the direction of science-fiction filmmaking by cross-pollinating writers and special effects people. George Lucas may have occupied the watershed position for science-fiction cinema, but he was the product of hundreds of incremental forces.
The cornerstone of any franchise is the fan base, and multiple stories throughout the book emphasize its passion and influence. Albin Johnson’s tragic injury in an automobile accident created a circuitous route to the “Fightin’ 501st” Stormtrooper legion and their adoption as an official standard bearer at Star Wars events. This more than cosplay, it traces both the depth of cultural assimilation across the globe and the embrace of such movements by Lucas. What became known as the Expanded Universe of books, animated series, and other media not only allowed for creativity outside of the franchise, but also provided an environment for ideas to germinate. The success of the movie franchise – despite its uneven critical acceptance by fans – is intimately linked to the familial communities that flourish around the world. Taylor does an excellent job documenting these stories.
How Star Wars Conquered the Universe excels when finding anecdotes to reveal its message. In this regard, there is no stronger writing than the Introduction, which recounts Taylor’s visit to the Navajo Nation for the first screening of “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope” dubbed in the native language of Diné. This visit – 35 years after the film’s premiere – hoped to discover the few people left on the planet still unaware of the franchise’s cultural impact. We are introduced to George James Sr., who is not only significant for his isolation from “Star Wars,” but also because he is one of the last Code Talkers, a group of World War II veterans who crafted unbreakable code from the Navajo language. Their code was impenetrable because of the cultural barriers between the Navajo and the rest of the world. Now these folks are the latest adopters. James represents the difficulty of transporting myth across cultures, but by the end of the tale (and the screening of the movie), we realize that “Star Wars” has achieved that very goal.
A disappointing omission from the book is an explanation for the movies’ limited distribution channels. After finishing the chapter on the filming of “Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back,” I took a break from reading in order to rent the movie. It took no time to realize that it was unavailable in digital format (although you can still buy a LaserDisc version). A bit of research on the Web uncovered myriad conspiracies and explanations, but none could be verified or seemed credible. In a world in which even this 50-something no longer keeps a Blu-ray or DVD player, this strikes me as a huge revenue opportunity being ignored. With all of Taylor’s access to executives from Lucasfilm and its owner, Disney, finding the answer to that question would have been valuable and insightful.
Still, How Star Wars Conquered the Universe engaged me in much the same way as the movies: It was informative and entertaining, even though I had to overlook its flaws from time to time. Taylor’s narrative occasionally strays, but there are great benefits to his storytelling. The book has iconic moments (like the Navajo Nation discussion) and there are sections that fade quickly. But as many fans of the “Star Wars” franchise will tell you, we watch the cable-TV marathons, are instantly transported back to that Memorial Day Weekend in 1977, and talk online with giddy excitement about the next release. Our parents are familiar with the Force and our children play with light sabers. For all of us in this global community, this is definitely a book you will want to read.