Drawing from the past, Lucas alters film future

If a work of genius can be defined as something that changes a form irrevocably and influences the culture thereafter, then “Star Wars” must go down in history as such a work. To give us a handful of pop references, like Darth Vader as a dark force of evil and the Wookiee as a hairy, comically benign figure would, like Babbitt or Gatsby, qualify as genius on one level. But “Star Wars” has given us much more.

“It’s become one of the seminal movies of the 20th century,” says Newsweek film critic David Ansen, who’s written at length on “Star Wars” and sees it as coming along at a time when Hollywood was cannibalizing itself in movies like “That’s Entertainment.”

“Like ‘Jaws,’ it revolutionized the way Hollywood thought of merchandising. It put a new emphasis on the summer blockbuster movie and the youth market. It was a marriage between comics and the movies that created its own mythology. You can’t deny how deeply it’s seeped into the national consciousness.”

David A. Weitzner sees the widespread influence of “Star Wars” on everything from videogames to the recent “300.” Currently Weitzner is director of the USC School of Cinematic Arts summer program, but in 1977 he was vice president of advertising at 20th Century Fox and remembers that virtually no one liked the idea of making a sci-fi movie after “2001: A Space Odyssey” turned out to be a coldly impeccable film with limited cult appeal.

“With Alan Ladd Jr., who ran the studio at the time, I was the only zealot,” Weitzner says. “Laddie was Lucas’ friend at court.” From a marketing standpoint, “There were fears that men wouldn’t like the word ‘star’ and women wouldn’t go for ‘wars.’ But it turned out to become the biggest film in history and the first that had a media campaign plan.”

Both Ansen and Weitzner see “Star Wars” as a throwback to those Saturday movie marathons where kids entered the theater at 10 a.m. to see 21 cartoons, a Western, a comedy — and the ne plus ultra of the rite, the cliffhanger serial — and emerged at 4 in the afternoon looking shell-shocked.

Linda Voorhees sees one more defining element: classical mythology. Says Voorhees, a screenwriter (“Lion King II”), writer-director (“Out of Omaha”) and instructor at UCLA’s MFA screenwriting program, “Lucas went back to the basis of mythology and folklore in giving us the structure of the hero’s journey. We were in the period of the rebel and antihero then, in movies like ‘Rocky’ and ‘Dog Day Afternoon.’ They were lovely movies, but the blend of studio films, the counterculture, foreign films and the aftermath of Sam Peckinpah wasn’t taking us anywhere.

“In bringing back the Joseph Campbell paradigm of the hero’s quest, Lucas created a shift in point-of-view that the industry was waiting for. He engaged us in the journey.”

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