Star Wars's debt to Metropolis is particularly evident in this early illustration of C3PO by the late and very much lamented Ralph McQuarrie. The picture moves me because it shows the working-out, the process by which the aesthetic of the Star Wars films would come into being and take on its own tenor. It hasn't yet set itself apart from its forebears. The pronounced androgyny of C3PO is striking here -- the hips seem feminine, the chest masculine, as though he belongs to both sexes, or neither. Of course, a robot needn't have any sex at all, although Anthony Daniels as much as anyone settled that question in the final film.
Anyway, McQuarrie's influence on the Star Wars films is incalculable, and the influence of the Star Wars films on the dreams and playtimes and narrative proclivities and inner monologues of a generation of individuals (to which I belong, and I have the unopened Kenner action figures to prove it) is also incalculable.
Quint at Ain't It Cool News has appended a number of McQuarrie's illustrations to his obit; scrolling through them, you're struck by the vivid colors, the beautifully balanced compositions, and the meticulous detail (note the snow encrusting a rebel soldier's boot, for example). Seeing those familiar objects -- light sabers, TIE fighers, AT-AT walkers -- compressed to simple, elegant two-dimensional images makes them seem fresh again, and reminds us that it's as a work of design, as much as storytelling, that Star Wars resonates so strongly with us. The film's characters, acting, and dialogue had their strengths and weaknesses, but the design, the look of the thing, was absolutely off the charts, and McQuarrie had an enormous amount to do with that.
The illustrations also remind us that Lucas's true genius, in the creation of the original 1977 film, may have been for collaboration. I don't think the screenplay for Star Wars is as well written, as a piece of sheer wordsmithing, as many an unproduced sci-fi screenplay I've come across over the years. But Lucas's vision -- which was, essentially, to transplant the aesthetic of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon serials to the era of modern movie special-effects -- was powerful enough, and argued persuasively enough, to corrall some of the supreme talents in their respective fields: John Dykstra in special effects, Ben Burtt in sound design, John Williams in scoring. And Ralph McQuarrie in design.
As a kid I got an expensive coffee-table book, "Industrial Light & Magic: The Art of Special Effects," and spent uncounted hours paging through it, until the glue at the binding started to come apart. It was instrumental to my burgeoning understanding that movies are things that get made, that take thousands of hours of hard work by dedicated professionals, and that even the tiniest details -- the briefest shots -- may require enormous amounts of effort to get just right. I think of Mr. McQuarrie, patiently working away at his drafting table, using whatever inner design logic and visual sensibility he had earned over the years of his own apprenticeship, producing the first drafts of images that would later be blazoned on a hundred million retinas on fifty-foot screens in the cavernous dark of the movie theater, where, as George Melies and a century's worth of his descendants knew, simply anything was possible.
I apologize for waxing poetic. My heart is in the pictures there with McQuarrie.