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Closing the circle of 'Star Wars'

The movie that built an industry


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(CNN) -- The story is told in Peter Biskind's chronicle "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" of an early screening of "Star Wars."

In attendance that day in 1977, among others, were 20th Century Fox executives, directors Steven Spielberg and Brian De Palma, and the film's 32-year-old maker, a Francis Ford Coppola protégé named George Lucas.

They didn't know it yet, but the rough cut they were about to watch would go on to redefine the movie industry, become a worldwide sensation, make billions and create a sci-fi mythology told in six motion pictures, the last of which opens today. Back then, however, things didn't looks so promising.

Lucas, whose only hit was the unlikely 1973 sleeper "American Graffiti," was nervous.

The special effects weren't done yet; in the place of battles between starships was World War II-era dogfight footage.

The dialogue seemed stilted, overwrought. (As star Harrison Ford told Lucas during filming, "You can write this s***, George, but you sure can't say it.")

For almost everybody in the room, the screening was a disaster.

Everybody, that is, except Spielberg. The director, just two years removed from making the blockbuster "Jaws" and preparing his own sci-fi extravaganza, "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," thought it was going to be one of the biggest films of all time.

"George, it's great," he told Lucas, and later said to Fox executive Alan Ladd Jr., "You're going to be the happiest film studio executive in Hollywood."

Twenty-eight years later, he's been proved right beyond anybody's wildest dreams.

The original "Star Wars" was the highest-grossing film of all time until being surpassed by "E.T." in 1982, and thanks to its 1997 re-release now ranks second all-time to "Titanic"; the second and third films, and then the fourth and fifth releases, entered the pantheon and added new dimensions to a mythology devoured by fans.

And now, "Star Wars" fans must prepare for the end.

On Thursday, "Star Wars: Episode III -- Revenge of the Sith" will premiere in 3,661 theaters. The long odyssey of Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader, will reach its climax -- and its continuation, as the film leads into the 1977 "Star Wars" to bring the series full circle.

Lucas, for one, is pleased.

"I feel very satisfied that I have accomplished what I set out to do with 'Star Wars,' " he told CNN. "I was able to complete the entire saga and say this is what the whole story is about."

And, he added, relieved.

"I mean, it's like an endurance race," Lucas said. "So, when you finish, when you cross the finish line, it's not a matter of being happy or sad. It is a matter of being relieved that you are finished."

Depravity and redemption

"What the whole story is about" is a mishmash of tales as old as tale-telling: A young boy, plucked from obscurity by elite beings who believe he is somehow blessed, who grows up under their wise tutelage, becomes corrupted by power and evil, and then must finally face his own son -- equally trained, equally tempted -- in a battle to the death.

There are elements from the Arthurian legends, from Greek mythology and the House of Thebes, from Shakespeare, from the Bible. The films borrow bits from war movies, Westerns, old adventure serials and 1950s Kurosawa works.

Whatever its provenance -- whether it's Lucas' love of "Flash Gordon" or his determined probing of Joseph Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" -- the work struck a deep chord with the moviegoing public.

At its heart, Lucas sees it as a film about a family.

"It's a story of how one can fall to the depths of depravity and then be redeemed by your children," he said.

Hayden Christensen, who plays Anakin in "Sith," knew what happened to Darth in the end. After all, "Return of the Jedi," episode six in the series, came out in 1983 -- but he wasn't sure how his character was going to grow in "Episode III."

Star Wars
Surrogate father and his "son": Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) prepare for battle in "Revenge of the Sith."

"I have sort of been holding my breath for the past two years waiting to see how this film is going to turn out," Christensen told CNN.

"I was looking forward to this film because this was the side of Anakin's character that I was really looking forward to playing ... that sort of transitional phase of his life where he goes to the dark side."

Ah, the dark side. Villainy, treachery. In "Sith," Anakin comes under the influence of the traitorous politician Palpatine, who appeals to Anakin's worst instincts.

"That is what this film is about. It is about Anakin becoming dark, and all that that entails," Christensen said. "It gets back to the basics that make 'Star Wars' great. Good versus evil, all that good stuff."

Redefining movies

For the movie industry, "Star Wars" has been good stuff indeed.

Before "Star Wars," the summer was a time of film doldrums. After "Star Wars," the summer became Hollywood's biggest profit center.

The series also changed the industry's marketing focus, for good or bad -- depending on how you feel about the dearth of "adult" films in summertime (or the dearth of "adult" films, period).

"Star Wars" attracted millions of teenagers as well as adults -- teenagers who would see the film again and again. That audience, and its willingness to give a film repeat business, became a chief driver of Hollywood profits.

"I think ['Star Wars'] definitely is the major force in the redefinition of movies for kids and teenagers -- the whole elaborate apparatus of tie-ins that it's attached to," film historian David Thomson, whose books include "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film," told The Associated Press.

story.darth.jpg
"Star Wars" has been a merchandising bonanza, making billions over the years.

Lucas lucked out when it came to the merchandising and tie-ins. Because he wasn't being paid much up front by the studio, he negotiated the rights to the toys and marketing deals related to "Star Wars." Those rights ended up being worth $9 billion -- at this writing.

Lucas pumped some of the money into Industrial Light and Magic -- which created the special effects -- and moved it near his home north of San Francisco from its origins in suburban Los Angeles.

The special effects firm has become a leader in the industry, creating the effects for "Jurassic Park," "Terminator 2," "Men in Black," "Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events" ... and, of course, "Star Wars."

And if the "Star Wars" empire isn't as big as the galaxy, it certainly spans the globe: Web sites, conventions, action figures and catchphrases are among its many manifestations.

It has become part of the culture: " 'Star Wars' is one of those cultural presences that will be experienced by people who watch Fox News and people who watch ESPN and people who watch Nickelodeon," Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

"It is very satisfying to have people that like the movies," Lucas said. "The fans in line [have] become a completely different little cultural artifact. It is mostly like Woodstock. It's mostly a chance for like-minded people to get together and have fun."

And Lucas? The movies have changed his life -- but have they changed him?

Now 61, the filmmaker says: Not really. It was always about the work.

"I am not sure that it changed me very much other than the fact that I got a lot older, and I didn't realize it," he said.

"Whenever you work on something really hard, you sort of forget that you are growing up. And you then look around and you see that you have gray hair, and you say, 'Oh my gosh, where, what happened?' "


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