On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of Empire Strikes Back, we’re resurfacing this article, a thought experiment that imagines what would have happened if the movie had never come out.
Despite the decades that have passed since its release, it would be hard to argue that any film is as relevant to the way movies are made today than George Lucas’ 1977 space opera, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope.
Kevin Feige, the Marvel head honcho who presides over what is the most lucrative and successful film franchise currently operating — including Star Wars — talks openly about how much of an impact the original trilogy had on him. The list of filmmakers who directly crib from Lucas would be like a census of Hollywood royalty. And the subsidiary industries that Star Wars has spawned, from toys to novels to video games, has changed how the entertainment business works.
But when you eliminate the biases that come from living in a Star Wars-addled world and look back at the circumstances of its creation, what’s far more surprising is that the film got made at all. That a USC grad in his early 30s best known for a coming-of-age story about small-town America would conjure an original sci-fi cinematic universe out of whole cloth, when the precedent for such a thing simply did not exist. Investors paid for his bizarre, childlike vision. People went to see it.
The release of Solo: A Star Wars Story just five months after that of The Last Jedi makes it clear that Star Wars has never been more ubiquitous than it is now; in fact, if Solo’s box office is any indication, audiences might actually be going a little sour on Disney’s attempts to turn the property from a touchstone of childhood and nostalgia into a never-ending modern-day cinematic universe like Marvel and its imitators. Considering that tension, it makes sense to wonder: What would the last four decades look like if George Lucas had never made Star Wars at all?
Here’s one possibility.
Hot off the runaway success of 1973’s American Graffiti, which becomes one of the most profitable movies ever made, 29-year-old George Lucas tries to write a script about a moral, expansive universe filled with mysterious power and mythological heroes and villains. The first treatment he produces is, by many accounts, incoherent. Discouraged by the negative response, he decides to take up his friend Francis Ford Coppola’s offer to direct a Vietnam War movie called Apocalypse Now, written by their other friend, John Milius.
Lucas brings the film in on time and just barely over budget, delivering a well-reviewed movie shot in cinema-verite style that draws comparisons to The Battle of Algiers and Z. But audiences are tired of the Vietnam War, which had finally ended in 1975, and when the movie comes out in 1976, it’s a modest success rather than a breakout hit like Graffiti. However, combined with the success of The Godfather II in 1974, it’s enough to impress the holders of the rights to Flash Gordon, who earlier refused Lucas’ offer to adapt the property. They agree to allow him to make a movie based on the character, produced by Coppola.
1977 comes and goes. Without Star Wars dominating screens, both William Friedkin’s Sorcerer and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York gain enough of a foothold to become respectable hits. Buoyed by a more positive reception of Sorcerer, Friedkin receives financing to make an adaptation of Born on the Fourth of July, and Al Pacino wins an Oscar for his performance as Ron Kovic. Scorsese never hits rock bottom, which means he never deigns to adapt a book he has no interest in, Raging Bull; instead, with Marlon Brando available, he finally attempts to make a film based on the 1890 Wounded Knee massacre. But Brando’s a disaster, and the movie goes way over-budget and tanks.
By 1979, Steven Spielberg is the sole king of the box office after Jaws, making the schadenfreude of the disastrous grosses of his war comedy 1941 even more potent. However, he never visits Hawaii on the weekend of the release of Star Wars with Lucas, which is when the pair would have come up with the idea for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Bereft after the failure of 1941 and without Raiders to distract him, Spielberg tries to make an adaptation of Blackhawk. When he can’t get it off the ground, the director dives headlong into a sci-fi film based on his childhood: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial.
Meanwhile, without the profits from Star Wars, which boosted the company’s stock price from $6 a share to $27 and increased year-over-year revenues nearly 50 percent, 20th Century Fox can no longer justify staying in the motion-picture business. Instead of Marc Rich and Marvin Davis buying Fox for $700 million in 1981, it sells for a much lower price to a group of investors who strip assets like property in Pebble Beach and shutter the film studio.
Scorsese, now at rock bottom, works his way out of depression when Robert de Niro agrees to star in a project he’s desperate to make: The Last Temptation of Christ.
Lucas makes his Flash Gordon movie, which comes out the same year as E.T. and is received as a derivative, old-fashioned reboot of a property no one is interested in, particularly when compared with Spielberg’s epic. Frustrated by what he sees as a rejection by the public and Hollywood, Lucas retreats to the Bay Area, where he begins to make small, experimental films funded by American Zoetrope, which, unburdened by the expenses of a Coppola Apocalypse Now, manages to remain solvent.
E.T. is a smashing success, returning Spielberg to the top of the heap. Studios begin to realize that there are two primary ways to make a megahit: creature features like Jaws, and kids movies like E.T. Sci-fi continues to be thought of as a niche genre, with the success of Alien attributed to its Jaws-like horror-movie aspects, though it receives a boost with the success of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, starring Jack Nicholson in the role of Deckard. (Harrison Ford, of course, remains a little-known carpenter after a stab at a Hollywood career.) Spielberg spends the decade solidifying his reputation as the premiere creator of childlike wonder, choosing to direct, rather than merely produce, The Goonies, Gremlins and Poltergeist, with the latter helping audiences think of him once again as an adult-oriented entertainer.
The success of E.T. boosts the still-fledgling home-video market, where it becomes the best-selling title on VHS, which beats out Betamax. But home video doesn’t quite catch on, with adults still choosing mainly to see films in theaters. With the onset of the Reagan era, however, as well as the debacle of Heaven’s Gate, New Hollywood still sees its fortunes crumble in favor of more mainstream comedies and romances, the mood at the cinema ossifying into a less controversial mix of date-night films and children’s entertainment.
Meanwhile, President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, un-slandered by any comparisons to blockbuster movies, gains more credence, provoking a late-decade reinvigoration of the arms race and a Cuban Missile Crisis-like scare in Turkey. But the technology is still effectively fiction, and President Bill Clinton moves away from the approach when he takes office at the beginning of the next decade.
Fresh off the success of Batman, which establishes superheroes as a subject of dark, subversive blockbuster filmmaking, Tim Burton and Warner Bros. bid for and win the rights to direct Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park. After missing out on the rights, Universal’s movie division seems far less valuable without the enormous profits it reaped from the film, and rather than bid for Paramount, media mogul Barry Diller seizes the opportunity to acquire the studio and its television assets from Matsushita in 1995. Interested more in the TV channels, he then sells Universal off again, and the studio’s footprint shrinks as it changes hands.
Burton’s vision of Jurassic Park is an edgier, more twisted version of the story, and its success further solidifies the notion that blockbusters are for adults, with kids being served by Spielberg’s new studio, DreamWorks, as well as television and home video. But because of the limited number of studios now, with Paramount, Sony/Columbia Pictures, Warner Bros. and Disney the only relevant major players, an independent film industry appears to serve the appetite of the public for intense, adult-oriented filmmaking, leading to a reinvigoration of New Hollywood by figures like Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson.
Around that same time, James Cameron, a former truck driver who quit his job to make movies after seeing Blade Runner, not Star Wars, finds major blockbuster success with Terminator 2, a special-effects milestone from Cameron’s effects company Digital Domain, which takes the place of a never-founded Industrial Light and Magic in the pioneering history books. Soon after, Cameron announces plans for a movie about the sinking of the Titanic, but it’s too expensive for any studio to commit. Instead, Cameron redoubles his efforts to make an R-rated version of Spider-Man, casting a young Leonardo DiCaprio in the role of Peter Parker. It catches on with audiences, establishing superheroes as a symbol of Generation X rebellion and malcontent. Inspired by the film, Avi Arad’s Marvel Films partners with Diller’s Universal and USA Network to launch a number of prime-time series based on its stable of superheroes, including the X-Men, the Avengers and Spider-Man, with DiCaprio reprising his role.
At the end of the decade, Vice President Al Gore edges George W. Bush in one of the closest elections in American history. Observers credit his win to the positive influence exerted on his campaign and the election by CNN — which is the only major 24-hour news network. Rupert Murdoch watches from the United Kingdom; he’d failed to find a solid entry point into American media in the mid-’80s, Fox having collapsed years earlier, and his dreams of a conservative challenger to CNN remain unrealized.
Riding the e-commerce boom, Reed Hastings and Marc Randolph decide to become the Amazon.com of something, but, with the home-video market delayed a few years, DVDs had yet to catch on, so it isn’t that. Netflix never happens.
The nation is stunned by the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, but when President Gore preaches prudence and due process, with only a moderate commitment in Afghanistan, his popularity plummets, even without the condemning presence of Fox News. He loses the 2004 election to Sen. John McCain, who pledges to invade Iraq and depose Saddam Hussein, which he does during his first term, involving the United States in a quagmire of a war in two countries in the Middle East. But the war’s boost to the economy helps balance out a financial crisis brought on by bad mortgages and irresponsible behavior on Wall Street, and McCain convinces the country that it would be unwise to change presidents in a time of war. He beats Hillary Clinton in the general election, rising Democratic star Barack Obama having decided not to challenge an incumbent.
By the beginning of the decade, the widespread adoption of DVDs had finally popularized the notion watching movies at home. As a result, the rental market booms, with the previously humble Blockbuster emerging as a media juggernaut. The studios and independents throw their weight behind rentals and DVD sales as a viable alternative to piracy, and Blockbuster, recognizing the opportunities that could be provided by DVDs versus the less successful VHS medium, starts “Total Access,” a mail-subscription rental service that proves popular.
Toward the end of the decade, in the span of a few years, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Matrix trilogy and James Cameron’s Avatar redefine blockbuster movies, creating a large appetite for epic, multifilm sagas centered around savior-like heroes and set in incredible worlds. The four-quadrant tentpole approach, which had yet to widely catch on in filmmaking, begins to take off, and an arms race starts among the major studios to find movies that could support such endeavors. These are also some of the first films to be shot entirely on HD digital video, the widespread adoption of which is postponed by half a decade due to the absence of Lucas, but film’s foothold remains strong into the present day, with digital mainly used for heavily CGI-dependent projects.
On television, Marvel’s series have come to behave like filmed comic books, becoming increasingly elaborate, self-referential and specific. Their popularity decreases with the advent of the fantasy tentpole, and Christopher Nolan, who will later inspire a critical re-evaluation of Lucas’ Flash Gordon and a reissue by the Criterion Collection, creates a new Batman trilogy reasserting the idea that superheroes are meant to be dark, embattled and reflective of current events.
By the end of the decade, all of the Marvel series except Spider-Man — which now stars its fourth different lead, DiCaprio having left after a few years to star in Scorsese’s Gangs of New York — have been canceled, though interest in them has been revived somewhat by Hulu, a joint venture between NBC, Disney and Universal that allows people to stream old episodes of television online.
When fans push to bring back the X-Men TV series, other networks begin to see the potential value of putting their catalogues online, and the network AMC finds huge audience boosts for its shows Mad Men and Breaking Bad when it makes them available to stream on its website. Following in its footsteps, channels begin to make their shows available to stream either through Hulu or individual platforms. Movies, however, continue to be watched primarily on DVD, and Blockbuster partners with the major studios and distributors to prevent any sort of streaming service from getting off the ground.
Barack Obama is president, having defeated Mitt Romney in 2012 and won re-election in 2016, despite the advent of a reactionary movement born out of the increasing use of the internet and social media to push the party rightward. Despite threatening to do so, Donald Trump never runs a formal campaign, lacking the organization and a legitimizing presence in news media; instead, he uses his Twitter as a bully pulpit to help coalesce far-right extremism online. Obama’s victory over Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is backed by McCain and provides a moderate Republican for the party to rally behind, goes down as one of the biggest landslides in American electoral history.
Online streaming has continued to expand, but it’s mostly used as a sort of glorified DVR. While the quality of television has risen, it’s still seen as secondary to film, with theaters remaining the main venue for seeing movies. There are fewer than 4,000 screens nationwide, but numbers are growing with the demand caused by the blockbuster boom of the previous decade; in the meantime, robust attendance numbers mean a wide variety of movies can find enough of an audience to merit their production.
But the major studios — Sony, Paramount, Warner Bros. and the DreamWorks-Disney partnership under head honcho Spielberg — are worried about both Jeff Bezos’ stated intention to enter the filmmaking and distribution game, and budgets, as well as ticket prices, are experiencing a steady increase, threatening to swallow some of the indies and the specialty outfits, like Paramount Vantage and Warner Independent, that have produced much of the best work of the last two decades. And multiple startups have begun to offer limited selections of movies for streaming, threatening to open the floodgates at any moment to a wider array of at-home options — particularly if Blockbuster, which is being pushed by YouTube’s backroom negotiations with the big studios as well as robust piracy, decides to start a streaming service and shift its business online.
In theaters, expansive fantasy worlds continue to top the box office, from a new Dune series to a seemingly never-ending series of films based on George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire novels. Television brain drain remains a problem, with the top writers proving themselves on the small screen before being snapped up by the studios and independent producers and given carte blanche to produce their own content at a reasonable budget — once again evocative of the 1970s — but TV increasingly provides a forum for young talent to experiment with genre and pre-existing characters. The X-Men are back, this time as a racially diverse and sexually boundary-pushing dramedy, and Spider-Man, who has become a sort of Law & Order-caliber presence, has produced numerous spinoffs.
And George Lucas, now in his 70s, has moved into video games, where he’s experimenting with an old idea: an intergalactic MMORPG that pits good versus evil, with players able to choose either side. He plans to call it The Star Wars.
Kevin Lincoln has written for the New York Times Magazine, New York, Grantland and elsewhere. He lives in Los Angeles.