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Elon Musk and George Lucas

Seeing another step in the Musk foolishness cycle, I thought of an analogy to another young-middle-aged-guy who was looked on with awe for a long time after his signature accomplishments were over.

George Lucas made American Graffiti in 1973 and Star Wars in 1978, and the mystique from those two films lasted a long time. I remember in the early 1990s talking with some people who worked at Lucasfilm, and even then there was a sense that Lucas could be capable of miracles. It’s funny, because the second and third Star Wars movies came out and they were nothing special, but I guess we still wanted to believe. Lucas stood for something in the culture—I’m not sure what, some combination of ambition and popular success—and we weren’t ready to accept that he’d already said everything he was going to say, did everything he was going to do. At the same time, I’m sure that lots of people in Hollywood were unawed by Lucas; it just took a long time for the unawedness to reach my friends and me. Even the people I knew who were disillusioned by Lucas—still, he was important enough to them to be a subject of disillusion.

Musk is different from Lucas in many ways, but he seems to have the same mystique, at least to some people. I don’t really have anything more to say about this one; it just struck me that the Musk fans today seem a bit like I was in the 1990s regarding Lucas, that for some reason we just had it in our heads that this guy could pull a rabbit out of his hat, if he ever really felt like doing it again.

P.S. Around 1992 I had a party where we watched American Graffiti. I want to the video store to rent the movie, but it took me awhile to find—it turned out it was sitting in the Richard Dreyfus section. Really. They don’t have Blockbuster Video anymore. And, if they did, it wouldn’t have a Richard Dreyfus section.


  1. Adede says:

    I think people are going to take exception to your calling Empire Strikes Back “nothing special”. It’s regarded by many fans as the best of the trilogy.

    Lucas also made Indiana Jones.

    • Matt says:

      Yeah. The analogy could still work since Lucas clearly faded in the eighties, but he definitely had a longer run of excellence than he’s being given credit for.

    • ESB is definitely the best of the 6 that were made before Disney bought it. But ESB was neither directed nor written by Lucas. Sure he’s credited with the story but it’s a good thing some real screenwriters were called in.

    • gec says:

      I guess I took Andrew to be talking about the prequels since he mentioned the 90s, and they certainly were not special in any way one wants to be special. But in re-reading, yeah, it looks like he was referring to Empire and Jedi, which is odd since Empire is not just a great Star Wars movie but a great Movie on its own.

      Still, worth pointing out that by most accounts Lucas was minimally involved with Empire and Jedi, in contrast to the prequels which seem to genuinely reflect his vision for the films.

      Particularly in light of “Crystal Skull” in re: Indiana Jones, I think Andrew’s general point still holds that Lucas had accomplished what he was going to achieve by, say, 1990 or so even though his mystique survives much longer.

      In fairness to Lucas, though, I think the reason for his mystique’s longevity is not so much the movies he’s made, but the effects techniques he pioneered and the people he trained/supported. So his legacy is more about introducing new methods and new blood…a bit like how academics leave their legacies!

    • Rick G says:

      I checked the comments just to make sure someone took you task about Empire Strikes Back. Glad it was the first comment.

  2. Terry says:

    If you want some high-voltage snark about Musk from a financial perspective, you should try Streetwise Professor:

    On the other hand, Tesla stock is hitting all time highs. So who knows?

    • jim says:

      “Tesla stock is hitting all time highs”

      Actually it was at the same approximate level three years ago before tanking by 50%.

      Everyone’s all thrilled about the technology but the auto business runs on wafer thin margins. I mean it’s cool he thought up a battery powered car but in the automobile industry life and death revolves around manufacturing skill and Tesla has shown precious little of that.

      So, we’ll see.

  3. justme says:

    I guess Andrew didn’t care for Empire or Jedi. And you what, that’s totally fine! Different people have different tastes in movies.

    What’s actually jarring about the middle of that second paragraph, though, is that, intentionally or not, Andrew slipped into writing not from his perspective but from a “cultural we” perspective: “I guess we still wanted to believe”, “we weren’t ready to accept”, implying that his perspective is standing in for the broader cultural consensus on those two movies. That’s why it feels (and, quite demonstrably, is) wrong. Individual people may vary quite a lot in their cultural preferences, but even folks who didn’t like Empire & Jedi would be simply factually wrong to supplant their own views for society’s as a whole, which generally has deemed Empire as excellent and Jedi as pretty to very good.

  4. Phil says:

    I know what Andrew means but he has the details all wrong. Lucas directed two good movies (Star Wars, and The Empire Strikes Back), produced one other (Raiders of the Lost Ark) and produced a fairly good one (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade). Then he started sucking. Still, it’s four good movies, not just one.

    I do see an analogy with Musk but I think there’s more Musk-bashing than he deserves. Musk managed to make electric cars practical and cool, and to completely shake up the rocket industry with genuine innovation, and those are after doing PayPal of course. Any one of these would have been a really good trick; to do all three, innovating in three very different industries, puts him in very rarefied air. Yes, he’s an egomaniac and a dick, and he oversells and overhypes, and some of his ideas are pretty dumb, but: electric cars, reusable rockets that land themselves…who else has a record like that?

    Musk may take the Lucas route and start sucking…maybe that’s just regression towards the mean, although Lucas really overshot it….but I think it’s too early to say.

  5. Michael Bailey says:

    Star Wars 2 and 3 “nothing special?” How about this: Andrew, I am your father!

  6. Andrea Matranga says:

    George Lucas contribution through Industrial Light and Magic are arguably his more lasting contribution. Forrest Gump receiving an award from JFK? That’s ILM. The liquid metal T-1000 in Terminator II? ILM. The Jurassic Park dinosaurs? ILM. And the list goes on. Oh, and ILM birthed Pixar.

    In a sense you could say Lucas is mainly a VFX nerd that happened to make a couple of films to market his skills, and it so happened that a couple of those movies were awesome.

    From his point of view, if the prequel trilogy is just a boring sequence of starships arriving and leaving various planets, it doesn’t matter. Industry people saw all the new trick he could pull off and flocked to contract out his special effects team.

  7. Andrew says:

    Hey, I’m just glad that most of the comments here are about Lucas rather than Musk. This gives me some hope for the world.

  8. Carlos Ungil says:

    What are Musk’s signature accomplishments which were over long ago?

    In his wikipedia page there are only a couple of paragraphs about his dotcom bubble days and I don’t think his fans care much about that. In 2001-2006 he become involved in SpaceX, Tesla and Solar City but those “accomplishments” are ongoing. Maybe Solar City is not really worth anything anymore, but his signature accomplishment there was to get Tesla to bail out his cousins and that was only three years ago. And somehow Tesla shares are worth more than ever and they may even reach 420 soon!

    I’m a great fan of him as an entertainer and clearly his main accomplishments in that area have been in recent years. And I’m sure there is much more to come.

    • Carlos Ungil says:

      By the way, I forgot to say something about George Lucas. Just one word: LucasArts.

    • Carlos Ungil says:

      I wrote six weeks ago, when TSLA was trading around $380.

      > And somehow Tesla shares are worth more than ever and they may even reach 420 soon!

      And here we are today, with TSLA trading around $930. Something to keep in mind when discussing about the rationality of people, risk aversion, efficient markets, etc.

  9. I think the problem with the Star Wars series is that Lucas either didn’t figure out or lost sight of what he was doing.

    Star Wars is best understood as a Wagnerian Opera In Space. A man does terrible things so that his children are hidden from him. His children, with the power of a glowing sword and mystical magic fight back against the thing he has become in order to save entire worlds from destruction. They eventually provide an opportunity for him to redeem himself through destruction of the evil that overcomes him. Plus orchestral leitmotifs throughout.

    On the other hand, by the 90’s when Lucas was tasked with making episodes 1,2,3 he had become a different person (or maybe never was the real visionary): a VFX nerd as Andrea Matranga says above. So, basically he just didn’t have the vision of a Wagnerian Opera anymore, he even thought of himself as making children’s movies.

    It’s possible that the whole time Lucas himself didn’t have the vision, it might be that the vision was created by the people surrounding him, like John Williams, and Irvin Kirshner or whatever… and this is why Empire is the best movie because the people with the vision had control.

    • Dmitri says:

      I think it was more mercenary than that. There was apparently a much darker story for the third movie, setting it on the Wookie home planet, with Han Solo dying at the end — already much more Wagnerian than what he eventually settled for. He seems to have decided that story wasn’t going to be able to sell a billion dollars worth of toys to 8 year olds.

    • Phil says:

      Many people have pointed out the parallels between Star Wars (the first movie) and The Wizard of Oz. Farm kid transported to a faraway land, has a quest to perform, is helped by friendly strangers (there’s even a Tin Man), villain has magical powers and a zillion minions and wears black, etc. etc. All very Joseph Campbell as far as repeating heroic tropes. And maybe the later movies did stray from that, I dunno…I feel like if they were any good we would find ways in which they fit into the structure, but since they stink we don’t see it.

      One thing I found really interesting, that I somehow didn’t know about even though I was a Star Wars fan and Empire Strikes Back fan when they came out (although even I had to admit Return of the Jedi was awful), is the extent to which Star Wars, as it was released, differed from Lucas’s original cut of the film. This makes the persuasive case that the original film a la Lucas would have been pretty bad too, in spite of having exactly the same basic story as the movie as we know it.

      • But probably EVERY film is saved in the edit. I mean, editing is really important for books, essays, paintings, recorded music, scored music, and films.

        The thing is, they managed to edit A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back into things that had epic mythological character. Jedi it started to fall apart, and episode 1,2,3 might as well just have an opening scene “Warning, what you are about to see is a paid advertisement for visual effects and children’s toys and does not resemble anything like art”

  10. Dzhaughn says:

    What the two have in common is a clear intuition about what boys will regard as cool.

  11. jim says:

    As we watch Musk, we’re watching the early life of The Joker of Gotham City.

    I predict Tesla will collapse, subjecting Musk to public ridicule, whence he will retreat to his lab in his Dark Castle and plot his evil revenge on the world! ha ha ha ha ha ha!!!!

  12. Mikhail Shubin says:

    No idea why people discuss Grimes’ boyfriend so much.

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