Have you ever wondered why Star Wars has become one of biggest, if not the very biggest, most recognizable franchise of all time? Or have you ever wondered how George Lucas could have gone from making the critically-acclaimed original trilogy to the HEAVILY debated prequel trilogy? Or even how, after the prequels, the series continues to be so beloved (even getting bought out and continued by Disney)?
George Lucas grew up surrounded by comic books, science fiction serials, westerns, and Japanese media. After a car accident, he decided to turn his attention from racing to filmmaking. As he grew older, he made friends with such greats as Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola. Throughout his career, Lucas noted that, despite being separated by cultures, languages, and even time, numerous cultures' myths and artwork often had similar underlying themes.
After his success with American Graffiti, Lucas wanted to make a film based around a franchise he grew up with — Flash Gordon. However, a film was already in development, so Lucas decided to create his own pulp sci-fi franchise. Lucas decided that he would make his film a grand, epic adventure reminiscient of the stories he grew up with, and one that could be more or less family-friendly. It was a stark contrast to other films at the time, which tended to be extremely gritty and cynical, and exclusively for adults.
In 1973, Lucas wrote the first drafts of what would become Star Wars. Over the next few years, he would continue to modify the script, and contact the various people needed to bring it to life. Said people included producers, editors, concept artists, sound designers, musicians...and of course, actors.
In 1976, primary filming began in Tunisia. The project was off to a glowing start — a freak rainstorm occurred in the middle of the desert on the first day of filming. In the coming weeks, the crew would be plagued not only by the heat and sand, but by malfunctioning equipment as well — Anthony Daniels even had one leg of his C-3PO costume shatter, injuring his foot. (And now you know why one of Threepio's lower legs is a different colour.) At one point, Mark Hamill had his face injured in a car accident, meaning he could not do reshoots.
As the film (SLOWLY) started to come together, Lucas' situation only became worse. He had to fire an editor; the cast and crew weren't taking the film seriously; nearly everyone thought it would fail — both the studios and the audiences. Even Lucas himself agreed with them. As the situation worsened, the stress took a physical toll on him — his doctors warned him that his health would fail if he didn't relax. Only his wife, Marcia Lucas, offered him any hope.note
Finally, the big day arrived — May 25, 1977. The film opened in fewer than forty cinemas across America, since few wanted to take a risk on a film so different from what they were used to. Everyone still thought it would fail. And then the unthinkable happened — people liked this film. Really, really liked it. Star Wars was not only the highest-grossing film of that year, but the highest grossing film ever.
After the success of A New Hope, Lucas decided to cut his ties with the Hollywood system (which had been his dream all along) and decided to focus on making films his way. However, after his hellish experience with the previous film, he decided that he would not direct anymore (it would not be until The Phantom Menace that he would finally direct again), so he asked Irvin Kershner to direct The Empire Strikes Back. Kershner was originally reluctant, but eventually said yes.
While production of The Empire Strikes Back was nowhere near as stressful as that of A New Hope, it was still terribly tedious, even for Lucas. At one point, the film went far overbudget, causing the investors to get cold feet. Yes, even though the previous film was the highest-grossing film of all time, its investors worried they would lose their money. Lucas had originally hoped to make more than three films, but the challenges he faced became too much for him, so eventually he decided that he would stop at three.
Despite having cut his ties with Hollywood, Lucas was still part of the Director's Guild. They had allowed him to put the credits at the end of A New Hope since they weren't concerned about its profits, but with The Empire Strike Back, they knew they had something, so they demanded that he put the credits at the beginning. Lucas refused, since he wanted to maintain the feel of the first film. Eventually, he left the guild.
Finally, after finishing TESB, Lucas began making Return of the Jedi. He had originally wanted his old friend, Steven Spielberg, to direct it, but since Spielberg was still in the Director's Guild, that was impossible. Lucas hired Richard Marquand to direct — even though Marquand was relatively new.
With ROTJ, Lucas knew how much he could make from merchandise (such as toys), causing him to go all-out on making new characters he could market. Thus we were given the Ewoks and the infamous opening in Jabba's palace. The former is considered a bad idea; the latter less so, most likely due to it at least having a climatic action piece that showcased the progression of the main characters.
After the difficulties that Lucas had with the original trilogy, the most tragic moment of his life up to that point happened — his wife left him. The one person who could have offered him solace after the trials he had experienced, the person he had devoted his life to, the mother of his children, and his closest companion, was now gone. Lucas was a wreck.
Before you go off about how horrible The Phantom Menace is, pause and think for a moment about the situation Lucas was in: you've been through a hellish experience with a personal project, and everyone, including yourself, believed it would fail...only to be proven wrong in the most hilarious (and awesome) manner possible. You have plenty of money, but you're still recovering from the experience. You've then made two more of these vanity projects, each of which brings in the crowds, and plenty of cash, but also takes a lot out of you, both physically and psychologically. And then, just as you're starting to recover from that, your spouse abandons you. Wouldn't you be tempted to say "Enough of this," and do what you wanted to do, rather than what others wanted you to do?
And so it was. It was not until the early-to-mid nineties that Lucas would begin work on the prequels, but he would do so entirely of his own volition. Gone were the constraints of the Director's Guild, the nagging peers who said he would fail, and those awful weather conditions that made his life so miserable.note That's right — the prequels are so filled with CGI because Lucas was tired of the difficulties presented by practical effects. Interestingly, The Phantom Menace contains less CGI than Attack of the Clones or Revenge of the Sith.
It took five long years for Lucas to complete TPM, but eventually he did, and it was released on May 19, 1999...to rather, ah, mixed reviews. The Phantom Menace is the most hotly-debated, not to mention despised, of the Star Wars movies. Some people went so far as to call Lucas the devil.
Undaunted, Lucas began work on Attack of the Clones not long after. He took a bit of his audiences' reactions to heart, but not many (he reduced Jar-Jar's role, but kept the reliance on CGI). And why would he? He was sick of answering to others. He was George Lucas, and one way or another, he would complete his movie his way.
It was not until Revenge of the Sith that audiences started warming up to the prequels, likely because ROTS is largely considered the best of the prequel trilogy. It even scored higher than Return of the Jedi in some circles.
Despite their reaction, the prequels were still financially successful, proving that Star Wars fandom was as alive and well as it was in the seventies and eighties. Lucas moved ahead with a new project — Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a television series set between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Among the production crew was Dave Filoni, known for his work on Avatar: The Last Airbender. Under their supervision, the series began to take a different path than the prequel films before it — one that audiences found far more appealing. Although the first few seaons were met with mixed reception, the show gained approval as it went on. The show even managed to save some characters from scrappydom — the infamously-hated Jar Jar Binks was far better-liked after the series, and series original Ahsoka Tano became more popular in the show's later years.
In 2012, Lucas finally decided he had had enough of blockbuster work, and decided to move on. He sold the franchise to Disney — to the tune of $4,050,000,000 — which he donated to charity. He then moved on to produce more artsy films. And now the franchise is in new hands.
Sadly for fans of The Clone Wars, the series had begun to struggle in the ratings. In fact, Star Wars Rebels was already in development before the former's cancellation. When Disney looked at the situation, they basically said, "Look; your show isn't going to last much longer. Let's scrap it and start over with this new project of yours." Filoni's crew therefore stopped working on The Clone Wars to focus on Rebels (The Clone Wars was later renewed in 2018 for a seventh season).
Due to its placement in the timeline, Rebels has a much different feel from The Clone Wars. Rebels strives, above all things, to emulate the feel of the original trilogy — appropriate, since the OT was Lucas' love letter to the media he loved as a kid. Many of the concepts of the prequels and The Clone Wars are abandoned for the OT's concepts, although they are still viewed with the lens that the prequels happened. Rebels essentially serves as a Reconstruction of the franchise, while still introducing enough new material to keep fans happy.
The Sequel Trilogy
Meanwhile, Disney hired J. J. Abrams to direct the first film in the sequel trilogy, The Force Awakens. Known for his work on such works as Lost and the Star Trek (2009) reboot, Abrams has plenty of experience with sci-fi and fantasy. (Interestingly, the Star Trek reboot has been compared to Star Wars.) He and his entire crew were ascended fans dedicated to making the new film as good as they can, and successfully pulled it off; the film received positive reviews and became the third highest grossing film of all time. The sequel trilogy continued with The Last Jedi, written and directed by Rian Johnson, and will conclude with The Rise of Skywalker, with Abrams returning to the director's chair one more.
Ever since its release, Star Wars has become the dominating franchise. Even during lulls in its popularity, it still brings in millions every year. In fact, not only did A New Hope become the highest-grossing film of all time up to that point, but it changed the way movies are made — the Summer Blockbuster, as we know it, would not have been possible without it. As Roger Ebert put it in 1999, every studio has been trying to replicate the 1977 success of Star Wars ever since.
But what's the secret? How did this one movie spawn a franchise the likes of which no one had ever seen? In his childhood, Lucas asked his mother an important question: "If there's only one God, why are there so many religions?" You remember how, earlier on this page, we mentioned that Lucas found common threads throughout different cultures' mythologies? Good, because it lies at the root of what makes this franchise so popular. See, Lucas boiled down religion to its most basic principles to create The Force, as well as a group of monks to follow it — the Jedi Knights. In essence, The Force was able to reach so many people due to its cultural neutrality.
There are other reasons the film became so popular as well. Lucas poured a lot of money into the special effects of the opening shot — you know, the one where Tantive IV flies past the screen, only to be dwarfed by the behemoth Star Destroyer Devastator. Lucas knew that if the audience bought that opening shot, they would sit through the rest of the movie. As it turns out, he was even more right than he realized — that single shot set a standard for the rest of the film, and it had only just begun!
Another reason is due to the number of themes explored in the film. We mentioned that Lucas grew up with comics, sci-fi, etc.? All of that contributed to the film in some way. The Star Wars galaxy takes themes from all different aspects of fiction, and condenses them into a coherent universe that utilizes them all in some way, with the additional caveat of placing them in a high-adventure setting — an escapist setting.
Now that's all fine and dandy, but what about the prequels? How did they become so divisive? After many years of being in charge of his own studio, Lucas finally sat down in the director's chair once again — a bold move, since he hadn't directed since A New Hope. He was also free of the constraints of Hollywood executives — a dangerous situation for someone who was as traumatized as he was.
The complaints about the prequels are legion. There's too much CGI. Jar Jar and Anakin suck. The podrace is a diversion. The Neimodians are racist. No one does anything smart. The complains have been done to death...and yet no one has ever taken the time to psychoanalyze Lucas' own experiences. As we've already pointed out, Lucas hadn't had an easy time making the original trilogy, and wanted to spare himself the trouble. And he was tired of working within the constraints of Hollywood — he wanted to make the films his way (as he had every right to do). Very few people would argue that the prequels are as good as, let alone better than, the originals. As for the prequels being bad movies in and of themselves...that's a related issue, but ultimately another can of worms entirely.
Lucas was hardly unaware of the backlash against the prequels (people were practically shouting at him about it, and have ever since 1999), but while he was saddened, he did not deviate from his intended course. He modified the plans for his films, but ultimately made something resembling his personal vision. Notably, the prequels were better received as they moved forward, though even Revenge of the Sith invites its share of snark.
The Clone Wars ran in more or less the same fashion (except that their reception was better overall). We may surmise that this was partially due to Dave Filoni's influence — while Lucas still held executive power, Filoni contributed a lot of creative influence, allowing Lucas an outside perspective on how the show should be made. (Judging by the show's reception, this was probably a good thing.)
With the Disney acquisition, the new owners have indicated they want to return to the franchise's roots — that is, making the new material more like the OT. Small wonder, since the first three films are considered the pinnacle of the entire franchise. Abrams even filmed The Force Awakens using 35mm film, instead of filming it digitally, so that he could better emulate the feel of the OT. It shows that, even though Star Wars has been going strong for three generations, it still has the power to strike a deep chord within audiences everywhere, to the point we'll do anything to get another glimpse of that galaxy far, far away.