A long time ago, in a small mining town far, far away, a young Chris Taylor discovered Star Wars via the back of a cereal box. Much like Luke on Tatooine, he only experienced the action in brief glimpses — comic books, more cereal boxes — until finally, his small town built a movie theater, and he was able to watch a Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back double bill right before Return Of The Jedi came out. Which I guess is the equivalent of Luke arriving on Yavin 4? The rest is not exactly history, but is contained in this wonderful book.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the staggeringly brilliant How Star Wars Conquered The Universe is not just the only complete history of the entire franchise from its Flash Gordon inspirations all the way through to its acquisition by Disney, but it’s also one of the most insightful and entertaining books ever written about movies and pop culture in general. It’s the only place you’ll find a combination of detailed behind the scenes info and a fascinating look into the fandom that has sustained the franchise. And on top of all that, it really is, as advertised on the front cover, an enthralling creativity manual.
Taylor, who by day is deputy editor of Mashable, illuminates the creative development and decision-making process as each movie evolved from scribbled notes to drafts, rewrites and edits. If you’re a writer, you will learn much from Taylor’s Yoda-esque teaching (he lifts up some major metaphorical X-Wings) as he breaks down how and why the various stories had to change on their way to narrative greatness (he also covers the prequels, but there are lessons there too). Side note: this book has helped me with my current creative projects immensely, on a practical and inspirational level. Thanks Chris!
If you’re not a writer, that’s OK, because this is also an expansive overview of the Star Wars universe from its earliest inception. We see Lucas struggling with his vision for “The Star Wars” while making other movies (THX-1138, American Graffiti), and watch its complex development through four drafts and an uncredited “humor polish”, with Brian De Palma apparently responsible for the final version of the opening crawl. That on its own would be enough, quite honestly, but Taylor goes so much further, like a Padawan becoming a full Jedi. He breaks down Empire and Jedi, the infamous Holiday Special, the Ewok movies, the comics, the novelizations, Alan Dean Foster’s “back up” Star Wars sequel that never was (Splinter Of The Mind’s Eye), the Expanded Universe, the Clone Wars, and, most impressively perhaps, the prequels. The chapter devoted to The Phantom Menace follows the fans who lined up for weeks beforehand and builds and builds until it reaches a symphonic, Spinal Tap-esque crescendo with the reactions of those fans as they stumbled out of the midnight showing. Taylor also takes time to walk us through the various stages of grief that many of us experienced after listening to discussions about trade laws and watching Hayden Christensen talk about sand. With the able assistance of Bryan Young (a novelist who also co-hosts the amazing and essential Full Of Sith podcast with Tha Mike Pilot (possibly not his real name) — btw, if you haven’t listened to it, subscribe now), Taylor goes through intensive Prequel Therapy. It actually helps.
It’s a book about the fans as much as the franchise, and Taylor gives us a compassionate, even-handed view of all aspects of the fandom, from the 501st to the R2 builders, from Steve Sansweet’s Rancho Obi-Wan (the world’s largest collection of Star Wars memorabilia which therefore serves as a de facto time machine back to all of our childhoods) to those fans who wait in line for weeks at a time, to the homemade spoofs and homages (like the classic Troopers). There are many realms in the fandom, just as there are in the franchise itself; Star Wars has created a fandom that reflects it, and its fans are incredibly dedicated and creative, which Taylor wonderfully illustrates.
The book backs up its title over and over again, showing how the world has been swept away by what ultimately comes back to an R2 unit telling a story to the keepers of the Journal Of The Whills. It’s engrossing, moving, inspiring, and at every point, reminds you why you fell in love with this world. Even if you’re not a hardcore fan, it’s essential reading. If you’re more of a casual fan, and just want an entertaining and frequently very funny analysis of movies, pop culture, merchandizing, and how all of this has changed in the wake of Star Wars, you’ll love it. And if, like me, the original trilogy defined your childhood, with Star Wars as the first movie I ever saw in the cinema (right around the time I was watching those same black and white Flash Gordon serials that originally inspired Lucas on TV), and catching the 70mm first run of Empire with Roger Christian’s Black Angel short in front of it… if you’re one of so many who have special, cherished memories of these movies and the toys (oh god, the toys! Taylor spends a lot of time on this phenomenon too, from the “cardboard for Christmas” beginnings to the peak where there were more Star Wars figures on the planet than U.S. citizens), then this book approaches the miraculous.
That’s a lot of praise, but then, this is a book that works on so many levels, is written so well and flows so smoothly even with the many thousands of details that Taylor somehow weaves together, that even this level of praise doesn’t do this masterpiece justice. It’s more level-headed than this review, that’s for sure, and it’s that clear-eyed, patiently wise tone that helps this book make sense of the sprawling universe that Lucas set into motion. Written with an elegant, clear style, laced with generous quantities of British wit throughout, it’s always engaging, and full of knowledge, information, and entertainment.
Basically, to sum up: the force is strong with this one (sorry, I had to go there).
TL;DR It’s great, buy it.
(And then probably buy it again when the revised — “special” perhaps? — edition comes out with all the skinny on Episode VII).
Five out of five binary sunsets