If there is one thing that might not be apparent about me from my blog, it’s the fact that I’m a huge nerd. I love Star Trek, Dr. Who, Harry Potter, Magic: The Gathering (a card game), even comic book superheroes. But the thing that bought me my passport into this universe was Star Wars. My dad allowed me to watch the VHS edition (yes, there are actual differences between the editions) of Episode IV, A New Hope, when I was in elementary school. From there, I’ve watched all the movies (yes, even those that some think should not be named), many of the television shows, and read most of the books that make up the expanded universe that follows the movies. I own several reference books and have lost more hours than I care to admit perusing Wookiepedia, the wikipedia of all things Star Wars. I’ve even debated the finer points of plot, jedi/sith philosophy, and whether Mon Calamari Starships or Kuat Star Destroyers are better (obviously Mon Calamari!). So you’ll excuse me if I indulge in this geekery for long enough to review this book: How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The past, present and future of a multibillion dollar franchise by Chris Taylor.
Taylor, a Star Wars fan and journalist, traces the highs and lows of the movie franchise that changed it all. All what, you might ask? Well, everything from how movies are made to how the science-fiction genre is accepted to how toys are marketed. Even the idea of a movie franchise exists partially because of Star Wars. But the book is about so much more than all this, including the way the book celebrates all aspects of the Star Wars geekdom. From outlining the rise of movements to build exact replicas of R2-D2 (the scrappy droid that saves the day on more than one occassion and is my favorite character) to getting a firsthand view into the mind of those fans who were sorely disappointed by the prequels, the book shares multiple anecdotes from all over the Star Wars universe. Indeed, as Taylor himself states:
“Such anecdotes are amusing in isolation, but together they speak volumes about the incredible read and power of the shared culture that is Star Wars, a universal language of tropes and characters that sparks instant attention everywhere it goes.” – p. 398
The book opens with a tale of a Native American tribe screening the Star Wars movies dubbed in their language, which is the first time any movie has been dubbed into a Native American language. It also managed to be how Taylor found the only person he’s ever met who knew absolutely nothing about the series. This anecdote is used to explain just how much the story has spread and how important it can be in connecting cultures.
Perhaps my favorite chapter is “The First Reel,” which literally outlines everything that happens in the first 10 minutes of the movie, from the 20th Century Fox fanfare through R2-D2 and C3PO barely escaping the Tantive IV and splitting up to meet their destinies on the dry, dusty planet of Tatooine. More than plot, the outline traces the feelings the audience has and the work that was required to create those feelings. Little nuggets explain that it was Lucas who fought to have the classic fanfare restored (and that it was associated with Star Wars for years afterward). Another nugget explains the beauty of Lucas’ decision to leave Luke out until the 17th minute, a tactic that sets the scene before showing you the boy who will unknowingly step into it without slowing down the movie with too much exposition. It takes you through minute by minute, reporting the reactions of the audience, feelings that are felt by every other audience member who ever sees it the first time. Our collective reactions (goosebumps, shock and laughs are common themes) connect us all in ways few else can. Even while reading his description, I felt the ghost of the goosebumps I always feel when John Williams’ epic and soon to be ubiquitious soundtrack crashes into my eardrums, even though I couldn’t actually hear it.
Another fun chapter outlined the stages of grief, rewritten to trace the arc that Star Wars fans go through to come to terms with the prequels. If you’re not a fan, you’ve still likely encountered the often vehement hatred of these three movies. I couldn’t help finding myself in the stages (acceptance), nor laughing when I realized how early in the process my husband was (he’s definitely in denial, preferring to think that the prequels never existed).
The book details the trials Lucas and a number of others have gone through for love a universe that is still growing. But if you don’t care about the movies, then why bother? As a study of the evolution of film or tracing a cultural phenomenom, this book does have some value. You likely don’t need to read it cover to cover to enjoy it, though fans will want to. Die-hard fans will likely get to learn something new, even if you think you know every little piece of trivia. And Taylor’s willingness to revere and gently make fun of fans in equal measure widens its appeal. But honestly, many of the chapters and anecdotes are just plain fun to read. Though, Taylor does sum it up in one particularily illuminating chapter about the cult of my favorite character:
“So if there is one eternal truth to every Star Wars movie, it isn’t that the Force will be with you, since the Force appears as likely as not to lead you down the dark path. It’s that R2-D2 is the man.” – p. 354