Illustration by Bob AulWhen George Lucas' original Star Wars hit theaters in the summer of 1977, it was a hit on a scale that's hard to conceive of today. We're talking ThePassionoftheChristtimes Titanictimes 1963 Beatles big, a bigness so big that it completely changed the face of modern film.
Just before StarWars,the studios had been in such sorry financial shape that desperation drove them to take risks on exciting, bold young directors such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and Lucas, resulting in unconventional, dark, powerful pictures like TaxiDriver,TheGodfatherand THX1138.Escapist fare was out, arty and adult was in. Lucas had some clout following the success of his quirky ensemble dramedy AmericanGraffiti,but when he started shopping around his weird little sci-fi script about the adventures of an outer-space farmboy named Luke Skywalker, nobody, not even Lucas, had much confidence that the film would be a hit. And then the damn thing premiered and the American public went bat-shit crazy for it, so bat-shit crazy that the film's success begat the age of the summertime blockbuster.
Every year the studios trotted out bigger, more expensive, dumber movies, every year audiences lined up for miles to see them, and every year the arty, adult stuff became increasingly marginalized. It's a trend that continued all the way into the new millennium, and nowadays movies are very big, very expensive and very dumb indeed. Budgets have bloated to the point of late Roman decadence, and at this point so much is riding on every release that even a dopey, generic romantic comedy has to crack $100 million at the domestic office or it's considered a dismal failure.
But in recent months Hollywood has become increasingly panicky, as one planned blockbuster after another has failed to bust any blocks. Troy,Alexander,Catwoman,Elektra,Constantine,Robots,TheHitchhiker'sGuidetotheGalaxy,BatmanBegins:all were released with much hype and performed respectably on their opening weekends, but fell off sharply after that. Nothing stuck around, and Hollywood endured a box office slump that lasted for 18 long, grim weeks. Even Lucas' own, final StarWarsprequel, RevengeoftheSith,seemingly as sure a thing as ever there was, performed below expectations.
Lucas himself declared an end to the blockbuster age, and he blamed the Internet: "The big tent-pole movies will be the first victim of the rapid technological changes we're seeing now," Lucas told the Internet Movie Database. "We're just not going to see those being made anymore. Why pay for something when you can get it for free on opening day? If they don't solve this problem of how to sell over the Internet, the business is going to shrink, and what's produced will be more like TV movies. They'll be low budget, and there won't be as many of them."
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Lucas is oversimplifying when he blames the Net exclusively for the decline of the blockbuster: the kids who once would have lined up for a summertime sci-fi epic are now just as likely to stay home dorking around with their PS2s, while their parents are happy to wait for the DVD. But beyond the other entertainment options available to people today, there is the inescapable fact that most of the big event pictures of recent years just haven't been very good. People didn't stay away from Catwomanbecause they were at home downloading it; they stayed away because the film was so obviously awful that even the commercials were enough to make your eyeballs ache.
Lucas got his start as an arty film school geek, young and idealistic and full of promise, but along the way he was overtaken by ambition and wound up at the center of a massive empire that stood in direct opposition to all he'd once held dear. It's all too easy to compare his journey to that of Darth Vader, and Lucas himself noted the similarity more than once as he made the rounds promoting RevengeoftheSith.But during those Sithinterviews Lucas also frequently said that now that he was done with the StarWarssaga, he planned to go back to making the sort of movies he'd dreamed of making in the beginning.
"I've earned the right to just make things that I find provocative in my own way," Lucas told Wired."I've earned the right to fail, which means making what I think are really great movies that no one wants to see."
In all likelihood, Lucas will just go back to producing that long-planned IndianaJonessequel and other projects that will make the shareholders of Lucasfilm happy but which won't do anything to save Lucas' soul from the dark side of the Force. But it would be a lovely irony if this all came full circle, and Lucas—the man who convinced Hollywood that if a movie didn't make a zillion bucks it wasn't worth making in the first place—ended his career directing the kind of weird, experimental little pictures he set out to make a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.