Ah, the hippy-dippy 1960's; if you can remember, you weren't there, right? Well, one thing I definitely remember from those times that were a' changin' is Jim Lucan's esoteric underground classic: Star Wars. Though he is primarily known as the one-hit wunderkind behind the success of the academy award-winning blockbuster Howard the Duck, Star Wars is regarded, by a small, yet tenaciously dedicated cadre of fans, as Lucan's ultimate tour de force. If you were fortunate enough to find a grindhouse, or a drive-in where this forgotten treasure may have played during its extremely-limited and all-too-short release, consider yourself very lucky indeed. Bootleg copies have circulated among those "in the know" for years now, but they are few and far between (I recently saw a grainy VHS edition, with Swedish subtitles, selling for $250.00 on the Internet!). I find it a shame, really, that virtual generations of filmgoers are deprived of what is truly an exquisite filmgoing experience. In a better world, Jim Lucan would be revered as a mighty storyteller and an intellectual powerhouse, his creative decisions above any reproach. In a perfect world, the merchandising rights alone would sustain him well into old age and beyond. Indeed, one would think that, given the nature of this film, it might have even warranted at least one single parody by the likes of Mad magazine.
This little gem flew right underneath the collective radar during the infamous summer of love, eclipsed by such inexplicably more popular offerings such as Akira Kurosawa's: Battle Beyond the Stars (1969), Disny's: The Hole (1967), and, of course, one of the most popular television shows of all time: Battlescar Galactica (1966-present). I know, I know, wags have been accusing Jim Lucan of shamelessly and blatantly ripping-off the groundbreaking television series for eons now, and one should have no problem whatsoever finding any number of angry, ill-informed diatribes on the subject that are low on factual information and high on innuendo and baseless slander. Like many a flower child of my era, I have fond memories of donning my coonskin cap and settling down of an evening to watch Battlescar Galactaca with my family, and then, in later and more turbulent years, watching it with my own children, and my children's children, but that fact does not detract in any way from the subtle majesty that is Jim Lucan's Star Wars. It isn't my place to compare and contrast these two equally brilliant, yet divergent, works of art; each stands on its own merit. Yet, at the end of my day, there is but one that is the victor, and that one is Star Wars. And it is here that I find myself a very vocal, yet extremely subdued and violated, minority.
Hardcore sci-fi (and science fantasy) fans have doubtless read of Lucan's struggles to get his little indy film off the ground, as well as the inspiring story of the vision that led to its conception. Rumor has it that, following a particularly heinous drag racing accident in Modesto, California, of which a young Lucan was the only survivor, he wandered, dejected, with only a notepad and a pencil for company. After forty days and nights in a Modesto desert, having ingested mass quantities of the rain forest hallucinogen, yage, young Lucan had a vision compelling him to write about his drag racing adventures, only set in outer space. Sitting on park benches and huddling against the elements near Laundromat vents, young Lucan shakily wrote out the first draft of what would eventually become Star Wars. Dejected and hungry, the young soon-to-be director was forced to eat some of the pages of the draft for nourishment. Years later, the remaining pages of that august first draft long forgotten, young Lucan took up a series of odd jobs, including running errands at a local radio station (XERB), home to radio personality, Wolfman Jack. On the way to the station, young Lucan found the stained and battered copy of the script underneath the seat of his Ford Thunderbird (a gift from his grandmother) and, utterly dismayed by what he perceived as a hopelessly bleak vision of a totalitarian space opera, he threw the document into a wastebasket at the station, only to have it rescued, unbeknownst to him, by Wolfman Jack's wife herself, who then gave it to Wolfman, who read the script over a period of three days and nights. Deeming it (and by proxy, young Lucan) a worthy financial venture, Mr. Jack, along with Harlan Corman and several unknown financial backers, provided young Lucan with the means necessary to see his burgeoning creation come to life, against all odds. Truly dedicated fans will also know that the hubristic young Lucan intended no fewer than thirteen Star Wars films to be released, one each year on Friday the 13th, over a period of thirteen years. Sadly, this did not take place. A long-awaited sequel, entitled The Revenge of the Phantom, was released in 1977, to even less fanfare than the original. An older, wiser Lucan wrote the script, but turned the directorial reins over to a young David Lynch. Other than one low-budget VHS release in 1985, The Revenge of the Phantom is largely forgotten by time, although copies do circulate on Internet sites such as "Your Tube" every so often.
The story of Star Wars, which takes place in a dystopian near-future, here in our own solar system, concerns itself largely with a young space drag racer named Luke Sky-walker (Jack Lloyd), who is a slave to a creature named Waddle, a Gungan (type of alien) from a desert planet. The film opens with a flashback to a race in which Sky-walker's very freedom itself is at stake. He wins his emancipation from the vile gangster, Jabba the Hut (alien), and is taken under the wing of a mystical Jedi magician with a laser sword named Obie-One Kenovi (Ralph Fiennes) and Obie-One's son and namesake (Sir Evan MacGregor). The film then cuts to a now fully-grown and middle-aged Sky-walker (Mike Hamill in a seminal performance) who is staring off into the twin suns of his mysterious world, not far from our own, reminiscing about his days as a young slave. His mother and father call him to the house to show him the two new robots ("androids") they purchased from some wandering monks. Before his very eyes, his parents die in a fire started by the vindictive monks and Sky-walker is hit over the head by one of the evil creatures, losing consciousness. Thus follows one of the film's many dream sequences, as Sky-walker finds himself in an old west saloon populated by all manner of alien creatures (ably created by special effects wizard Ray Harryhouse) and Maude's Bea Arthur, who launches into a surreal song and dance number in one of the film's few comedic highlights. He later wakes in a spaceship, piloted by a space pirate named Captain Hansalo (Richard Dreyfuss), Obie-One's father (Sir Alvin Guiness), and a talking lion. In what was surely a bold move at the time, Lucan chose to tell his story out of sequence, flitting amidst the past, present, and future nearly effortlessly (a technique that would later be employed by director Quintin Tantarro in his own film: Pulp Fiction. Tarantarro has admitted Lucan's influence, maintaining that his film serves as a rare homage of sorts), as we are treated to a future vision of the film's arch villain, Dark Vader, a black-helmeted Jedi magician (ably voiced by Scatman Crothers), who boards a ship inhabited by a group of rebel freedom fighters. Enigmatically, the two "androids" Luke's parents purchased are aboard the ship as well, for reasons unknown. Vader then kills Obie-One's father, who mysteriously disappears into thin air, never to be seen, or heard from, again. And all this in only the first twenty minutes of this underrated cult classic!
I don't want to give away too much of the plot. So many characters and dream sequences! The special effects, by Lucan and Wolfman Jack's own company: Industrial Light and Machine, are, in my opinion, above and beyond anything up to that point (including the effects of the over-inflated assmunching Battlescar Galactaca). The rousing and bombastic musical score by a young Don Williams foreshadows the wonderful peaks of achievement he would reach on such later films as Steven Steinburg's Raiders of the Last Ark and Roger Semekis’s I’m Back From the Future. The supplemental songs by such luminaries as Bill Haley, the Silhouettes, and Queen’s Freddy Mercury also complement the space drag racing scenes perfectly; it's like you're riding along with them, with a four-on-the-floor (whatever that is) and a cold brew between your legs. The gritty and realistic storyline takes us through the deserted reaches of a desert planet, the icy wastes of an ice planet and the watery depths of a water planet (not to mention a fire planet, and a grass, trees and earth planet). All in glorious 3-D!!!
*** SPOILER ALERT!!!!! ***
The main theme of Star Wars concerns itself with Luke Sky-walker's eventual turn to evil, in which, burned beyond all recognition when a space station he is on explodes, he is forced to don the black suit, cape, and breathing apparatus, in order to stay alive and, in a twist that has influenced countless other underground films, becomes the cruel warlord Dark Vader, who we saw earlier in several glimpses into the shadowy future. Though this transformation is shocking, it will fail to take more astute viewers by complete surprise as the event is hinted at in an earlier dream sequence in which Sky-walker befriends a strange green creature called a Yoda (alien, puppeted ably by master puppeteer Jim Henson) on a swamp planet and sees his own face within Dark Vader's helmet. Later in the film, Sky-walker is frozen in a magical substance called carbon-like, by the vile gangster Jabba the Hut (alien), and is then placed in a healing tank by his loving wife, Padawan (Natalie Fincher), which resores his youthful appearance and renders the breathing apparatus unnecessary. However, his victory over his personal struggles will be short-lived as a rogue Jedi magician (Wesley Snipes) electrocutes him using Jedi magic and he becomes even more disfigured than before. Then, in a twist never (to my knowledge) seen before or since, Sky-walker proclaims himself an evil overlord named Lord Palpatatin--thus surpassing any and all evil he had ever been! This plays out in one of the most surreal dream sequences I've ever witnessed: Sky-walker fighting himself as Vader, while himself as Lord Palpatate watches (Whew! Confused yet? :) --it simply has to be seen to be believed. His soul is irrevocably lost at this point and he eventually creates an army of clone warriors (including one clone designed to look exactly like his former incarnation, Dark Vader). In what may be the most downbeat ending since Requiem for a Dream, the film closes with Palpatin and his Vader clone building an identical space station to the one that disfigured him in the first place. It appears that evil wins the day!
Sky-walker/Vader/Palpatin's loving wife, Padawan, is with child. She flees aboard an escape pod, with the two "androids" and finds refuge on a desert planet (Luke’s home world, Dantooine), raising her child (Anikin Sky-Walker) with Obie-One's grandson and the two "androids". The film ends with Padawan and Obie-One's grandson holding the infant Anikin and gazing out at the twin suns of the desert planet, Dantooine, just as Luke Sky-walker was at the beginning of this eight-hour tour-de-force. We've come full circle. So, judging by the ending of the first film, it appears that Lucan was definitely paving the way for a sequel with the patented happy ending that American audiences have grown to love and trust. And that may well have been the case, had the original film existed somewhere beyond the crippling reach of Battlescar Galactica’s foul and monstrous shadow. I have seen The Revenge of the Phantom, and intend to dedicate a future installment to unraveling its intricate tapestry, but for now, suffice it to say that young Anikin does indeed grow up well and brings balance to the turbulent dystopia of earth's near future.
*** SPOILER ALERT!!!! ***
My only complaint regarding the film (and again, this could have something to do with the influence of Battlescar Galactica) is a minor plot thread that is left hanging, and is not resolved in the sequel either. That would be the question of Luke Sky-walker's parentage. It is revealed by Obie One's great-grandfather (during a dream sequence on the snow and ice planet, Dantooine) that Luke's true father is still alive and is a first rate star pilot. It is implied heavily throughout the course of the narrative that Luke's father's identity will be revealed, but Lucan (again, probably due to budgetary constraints caused by Battlescar Galactica’s overbearing stranglehold on the science fantasy market) simply leaves the question of Luke's heritage wide open. There is one emotionally-charged scene, about halfway through the sprawling epic, in which Luke finds himself embroiled in a laser sword battle with himself as the dark-helmeted Vader, where his “dream-self” informs him that he is his own father just before cutting off Sky-walker’s hand in an unusually heavy-handed (no pun intended) display of symbolism on the part of Lucan. He awakens on a star cruiser, in the arms of his loving wife Padawan, only to find that his hand is still there, and it was only a dream. So, we know nothing except the fact that, whoever his father is, he's a first rate pilot. Now, in the Star Wars universe, that leaves us with quite a few candidates, however, my own dark horse in the running is Captain Hansalo, although I haven't ruled out Hansalo's own father, Lord Calvin Ristian (Billy Jo Williams) or Waddo (Gungan, alien) himself, though I sheepishly admit that the latter is merely a pet theory and is probably not very likely. I will have more to say about this in my next installment: "Comparing and Contrasting The Revenge of the Phantom with Battlescar Galactica, Season Seven." 'Til then, "May the force be with you--beep, beep, bloop" ("android").
In one of many nightmarishly surreal dream sequences, Luke Sky-walker (Mark Hamish) unmasks his Vader persona to see his corrupted future self underneath.