When Star Wars roared into theatres in 1977, it changed the trajectory of cinema forever. Overnight, George Lucas’ smash-hit space opera almost single-handedly shifted the industry’s attention away from American New Wave fare towards the kind of high concept, big budget blockbusters that continue to dominate the box office today. Ironically, though, Star Wars tremendous success was born out of crushing failure.
See, six years before Lucas presided over one of the most influential movies ever made, his debut feature, dystopian sci-fi flick THX-1138, was released to lukewarm reviews and disappointing ticket sales. It was an experience that left its mark on the young filmmaker, making him rethink his approach to moviemaking and informing everything he made (including Star Wars) from then on.
But what if THX-1138 had been a hit back in 1971? Would Star Wars – heck, would cinema itself – still be the same today?
Would George Lucas still have made Star Wars if THX-1138 hadn’t flopped?
George Lucas was always going to make Star Wars, regardless of whether THX-1138 had flopped or not. An avid sci-fi and fantasy fan since his youth, Lucas retained fond memories of Saturday matinee serials like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers and eventually became fixated on producing a property that captured their appeal, only with higher production values. He even tried to acquire the screen rights to Flash Gordon before creating his own mythology, instead.
So, even if THX-1138 had earned widespread acclaim and raked in mountains of cash, Lucas would almost certainly have continued to set his sights on producing a more sophisticated take on the stories he loved growing up, in the form of Star Wars. That doesn’t mean that he would have made the same kind of Star Wars movie, though.
After THX-1138, Lucas enjoyed much greater success with 1973’s American Graffiti, a coming-of-age comedy about the cruising culture of the 1960s made after his friend and mentor, Francis Ford Coppola, challenged him to make a more mainstream film. Lucas later admitted that American Graffiti directly benefitted from his post-THX realisation that audiences were more interested in giddy escapism than in being bummed out by gritty realism and harsh social commentary.
This shift in Lucas’ filmmaking style – away from challenging, bleak storytelling towards something far more accessible and optimistic – was validated by the enthusiastic critical and commercial reception of American Graffiti, which encouraged Lucas to double-down further with Star Wars. Whereas before, he might have approached his galaxy far, far away with a more cynical or subversive tone, now he was committed to playing the subject matter straight: this was going to be an unabashed, old-fashioned rollicking adventure, the complete opposite of THX-1138.
It was a decision that would have far wider and more long-lasting effects than anybody (including Lucas) could ever have imagined.
Changing Star Wars changes the history of cinema
That’s because Star Wars didn’t become a watershed entry in the annals of cinema due to its pioneering special effects alone. Sure, they played a significant part in the movie’s popularity, however, what really won audiences over was the story – and just as importantly, how that story was told. Star Wars was the first of its kind: a cross-genre monomyth that boasted characters and themes that were both timely and timeless. In short, it (and its sequels) provided the template for practically every high-concept movie that followed.
That’s no exaggeration, either; big name filmmakers such as Ridley Scott, James Cameron, Peter Jackson, Christopher Nolan, David Fincher, and Jon Favreau have cited Star Wars as a direct influence on their own movies. Would the likes of Blade Runner, Aliens, The Lord of the Rings, Inception, or Iron Man exist as they do today had Lucas’ vision for Star Wars been even slightly different? Would they even exist it all, in a world where a different version of Star Wars doesn’t necessarily spearhead the industry’s enduring obsession with blockbusters?
And then there’s Lucas’ own output to consider. Would a different, THX-inspired Star Wars have enjoyed less acclaim than the version we know and love, but performed well enough not to deter Lucas from pursuing edgier projects?
Think about it: Star Wars’ unprecedented success provided the final validation Lucas needed that his post-THX revelation regarding genre fiction was correct. From here, he didn’t just oversee The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, he also teamed up with buddy Steven Spielberg to launch the Indiana Jones franchise – yet another exercise in fun, throwback moviemaking that has left its own indelible imprint on modern cinema.
If that validation never came, would Lucas have bothered to move forward with his Star Wars sequels or conceptualised the Indiana Jones flicks? Or would he have reconsidered his storytelling ethos yet again, perhaps blending his passion for experimental filmmaking with his knack for devising crowd-pleasing yarns to find a creative middle-ground somewhere between THX-1138 and American Graffiti? And if that had happened, what would the knock-on effect for modern cinema be?
Final verdict: cinema wouldn’t be the same if THX-1138 had succeeded
Of course, this is all conjecture, and some of you are no doubt rolling your eyes right now at the assumptions I’ve made. Yet the fact that THX-1138’s failure directly influenced how George Lucas developed Star Wars is as undeniable as Star Wars’ impact on the last 40+ years of cinema, so it’s only logical to assume that THX’s success could have had equally huge ramifications.
Would THX-1138 succeeding really have radically altered the entire landscape of contemporary cinema by wiping countless classic films (including Lucas’ own) out of existence and setting the industry on a different, less blockbuster-oriented course? It’s a tantalising question we’ll never be able to answer for certain – but for me, at least, the answer is very much “yes.”