I do like a spot of alternate history – the literary subgenre in which a crucial historical moment either turns out entirely differently or never happens at all, at a stroke transforming the here and now into the jarringly unfamiliar. On the page, for instance, the idea of Hitler winning the war famously animated Philip K Dick and Robert Harris into grim flights of speculative fancy. But you can also treat the concept as a parlour game – one easily applied to film. How would cinema have been affected had Akira Kurosawa made it as a painter and never made Seven Samurai? What if the 1998 best picture Oscar had gone not to Shakespeare in Love, but Gummo?
Looking out balefully over the summer release schedule with its sorry parade of remakes, prequels, sequels and threequels, in which the sole original story in town would appear to be The Smurfs, I can’t help wondering exactly how we wound up here. And, more particularly, how the next few months might look had the one movie that changed studio films forever not had the chance to do so. In short, where would we be now had there never been a Star Wars?
Now, before I’m brained by a flying Boba Fett roleplay helmet, I’m not saying that every last gripe about modern film is down to Star Wars, or at least Star Wars alone – marvel that it is, the phenomenon of Jaws didn’t help. But still, in a parallel reality where George Lucas abandoned film-making after American Graffiti to breed koi or invent hair gel, many of the more wearying aspects of big-league cinema do feel a whole lot less likely to have taken root: the triumph of visual effects over, y’know, dialogue, atmosphere, character, plot; the merchandising; the grinding expectation that any summer film must make more at box office than any summer film ever made before or doom the careers of all involved.
So, in erasing Star Wars from existence, you need to start with the most obvious consequences – the different fates enjoyed by the cast without it. Harrison Ford, for example, would have stuck with his carpentry, turning out 34 years’ worth of occasional tables and leaving Blade Runner to have starred, as was long mooted, Dustin Hoffman or Burt Reynolds. Free of the dead hand of typecasting, meanwhile, Mark Hamill would have frolicked into the sunlit professional uplands and claimed roles in Apocalypse Now and Raging Bull. (I fear I may have over-reached here, but let’s keep going …).
But then you come to those more profound disruptions in the historical record – the abrupt gaps in the narrative caused by the absence of Lucas’s influence. In a Star Wars-less history, for instance, sci-fi and fantasy would never have so momentously interbred, the latter remaining the preserve of Krull and The Dark Crystal rather than some of the last two decades’ most profitable franchises.
But even that’s rivalled for impact by the disappearance from cinema of the man who by his own account would have stayed a truck driver without having seen Lucas’s opus: James Cameron. And with him, of course, goes not only everything from Terminator to Avatar and its sequels yet to come, but the slow, remorseless honing of Lucas’s original notion of film as a showcase for blandly spectacular technical wiz-bangery. And then there’s the force which could never have become so powerful without the initial succour of Star Wars: fanboy culture.
But wiping the slate clean is the easy bit. Things get trickier once you start musing on what might come next. Because there is a school of thought that goes thus: had all that swords-and-sorcery-in-space not corrupted the average filmgoer, the golden second age of Hollywood that was the pre-Star Wars 1970s would have just kept on trucking, with Terrence Malick, Hal Ashby and Robert Altman dominating the screen into the 80s.
I’m not so sure. For one thing, most of the era’s most gifted directors were erratic enough to have self-sabotaged without any help from outside; for another, if we’re going to pin the blame for the film industry’s creativity-sapping love for sequels on anyone then, yes, as noted earlier, we also need to finger Jaws, Rocky, the first big-screen revivals of Star Trek, Christopher Reeve’s Superman, and the general economic climate of the late 70s and 80s. Without Star Wars, we wouldn’t have all the faux-religiosity and Yoda impressions, but George Lucas wasn’t the first mogul to milk a cash cow.
And the terrifying thing here is that, even without all the merchandising and fanboys, I wonder if the whole creaking edifice of cinema might not have come crashing down sometime between 1977 and now. After all, at the same time as Star Wars was coming out, film as a mass medium was about to face huge challenges from the rise of video and even more so computer games (a nipping presence at its heels ever since).
Indeed, it seems to me that the original Star Wars fans and their Comic-Con descendants would, without Lucas, have never come to the movies at all, drawn instead to a full-time relationship with comics and games – and that film, with all the wily survival skills of a survivor from the fag-end of the 19th century, evolved in order to take their money. Without which, let’s face it, the real alternate history may have been a sea of boarded up cinemas, and in the final analysis even less chance of catching a good movie than you’ll have this summer. See you at The Smurfs.