Harmony, 1983, 304 pages, C$14.95 hc, ISBN 0-517-54677-9
Summer of 1999 was flagged, in movie circles, as being “the summer of STAR WARS” given the release of the newest chapter in the saga, STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE. The movie certainly captured media attention for a while, mostly under the form of humorous human-interest stories about the hordes of rabid fans lining up days, even weeks in advance to be the first to get tickets for the movie’s premiere.
Your reviewer has more than a soft spot for the STAR WARS films, even though this fondness never reached unreasonable levels. Growing up with the STAR WARS films, however, makes them almost critic-proof, impervious to critical judgment. (Seeing the new STAR WARS on opening day was a must, though a flexible work schedule and matinee showings simplified matters considerably.)
In this context, it might seem a bit belated to do a review of a 1983 biography about STAR WARS creator George Lucas. But after reading the book, the new STAR WARS summer of 1999 makes it the best year yet to review Skywalking.
Stop. Rewind. Play.
Skywalking is a biography of George Lucas. From his childhood in California to teenage years marked by a passion for sport cars—a passion that would culminate in a spectacular car crash, and would be immortalized later in AMERICAN GRAFFITI. The narrative follow Lucas from his first few days at USCinema school, through his student films to, finally, his first full-length feature, THX-1138.
Then Skywalking details the steps leading up to the release of the first STAR WARS film, from the agonizing screenwriting to the chaotic filming (sets destroyed by sandstorms, malfunctioning special effects, etc…) and the almost-unexpected success of the film. By that time, two-third of the books are done, and the remainder of the book seems like routine; the success of THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, the production of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, the making of THE RETURN OF THE JEDI…
Unexpected details pepper this biography. A visit on the RETURN OF THE JEDI set. Descriptions of George Lucas’ student films. A summary of the first, first STAR WARS screenplay. A chapter on the friendship between George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola.
This portrait of George Lucas is fairly complete. Dale Pollock takes great care in establishing, even at first, the traits that would push Lucas to build a cinematographic empire: His thriftiness, his sense of authenticity, his distrust of authority, his desire to entertain and his refusal to compromise.
Skywalking remains relevant even seventeen years later because this is a relatively unbiased portrait of Lucas. Relatively, because Lucas granted unprecedented access to Pollock, numerous private documents and several interviews. It’s a fair bet to assume that Lucas cannot be studied in this fashion any more: Would his status as a legend of filmed SF (gack!) allow him to collaborate so willingly to a book of this type nowadays? Hmm… LucasFilm is already known for extensive history rewriting… (“EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE”)
But the true value of Skywalking in 1999 is to be found in the last chapter, where George Lucas allows himself to talk about his future projects: Enhanced special effect, independent production facilities, forays in video games… THE PHANTOM MENACE is the culmination of these elements, and 1999 is the first year where we can see the extent of Lucas’ success. Yes, George Lucas has accomplished everything he’s set out to do. The irony, after seeing THE PHANTOM MENACE, is that he’s put himself in a position of supreme accountability for the considerable flaws of the end product.
Skywalking won’t convince those who criticize Lucas. It’s not a chainsaw biography, it’s not a slavish portrait of a demigod. It has managed to remain relevant seventeen years. It even shines on current event, proving that nothing ever exists in a vacuum, that nothing new is without antecedents. Not bad.