Once upon a time, so the fairy tale begins, in a land far away, there lived a prince. That prince’s name was George, and he wanted nothing more than to make his own films. Eventually, he did make his own films, and he took a break for a while. Then, he came back and did it again, scraped a bunch of money from awestruck fans, ruined his empire with commercial greed, and slunk back into his sacrosanct cave to laugh at everyone. The end.
The story of Star Wars is well known. This simple fact means I don’t have to spend a paragraph or five retelling the rags-to-riches story of one George Lucas, film-making auteur and to this day, the most successful independent filmmaker of all time. Lucas’s canny decision to retain the rights to the Star Wars merchandise, which Fox at the time felt was worthless, ended up being the business bargain of the century. His creation, Star Wars, became one of the highest grossing film trilogies in history back in the 80’s, after the release of sequel films The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi. He had more money than God, his own production company, the ability to develop new cinema technologies (such as the THX standard) and pretty much a run at anything he dared to dream of.
Cut to 1999, and the release of a new Star Wars film entitled The Phantom Menace. A film that could never possibly hope to live up to the hype and expectation its release generated. Using the latest digital technologies, George promised us all, allowed the scope and broad narrative of his film to finally give us his true vision of the Star Wars universe, after hinting at it with mildly upgraded variants of the original three films released in 1997. Indeed, The Phantom Menace boasted more digital trickery in a single frame than many films had in their entire runtime up to that point, and that alone should have sent alarm bells ringing through the fanboy pantheon. As it turned out, expectations were not only not met, but obliterated with a single stroke of the digital workstream – namely, Jar Jar Binks.
Internet hatred towards Jar Jar Binks is now almost its own self-perpetuating joke, with many commentators spotlighting this reviled character as the moment Star Wars officially “jumped the shark”. But The Phantom Menace also highlighted something we weren’t really aware of – for all his ability as a producer and creator of Star Wars, Lucas’s ability to direct a film was still stuck back in 1977. The original Star Wars sequels had been directed by other men (Empire by Irvin Kershner, and Jedi by Richard Marquand) based on his scripts, so The Phantom Menace represented Lucas’s first effort in direction since the original SW film in 1977. The direction of Star Wars, when you look at it in detail, is actually pretty restrained. There’s not a lot of fluidity in the direction of Star Wars (subsequently retitled A New Hope), and the editorial style is also pretty anachronistic for the time. In the intervening years, audiences have come to appreciate a more bombastic approach (for better or worse) to their sci-fi or action films, a diet of rapid jump-cuts and stylistic distinctiveness has not only given us more acute thrills, it’s also given us Michael Bay.
So we have The Phantom Menace, a film so poorly written and stodgy in its direction it almost seems like a time capsule exploded inside Skywalker Ranch and this is what came out. A film with the technological advantage of cutting edge digital effects, with the cumbersome storytelling style of the 1960’s. Most people can overlook this small flaw, however, because it’s Star Wars. The pop-culture icon of the 80’s, a touchstone moment for all Gen-Xers, and one of Hollywood’s most successful enterprises to that time, was about to start falling apart. Why? A tall, baby-talking piece of characterized garbage known as Jar Jar Binks, an all new completely digital character devised by Lucas’ to represent the new trilogy’s C3PO, that’s why. As the initial hubbub of the new films’ release died away, we were left with the bitter aftertaste of one of cinemas least amusing, least interesting characters, and it’s my opinion that this was the moment the world suddenly realized that Lucas’s vision was, to be frank, a little blurry.
Jar Jar wasn’t the start of it, though. No, he was simply the culmination of stuff done to Star Wars’ original trilogy upon re-release as “Special Editions” back in 1997. The, the good folk at Star Wars HQ had decided to spruce up (read: screw around with) the classic films with all new digital effects, add in extra characters and smooth out many of the at-the-time-cutting-edge cinematic technology problems that remained. The advent of digital effects with Jurassic Park had obviously been the eyeball equivalent of a wet dream for Lucas, and he saw in this new, relatively inexpensive new technology, a way to finally (finally, mind you, as if he’d been thinking of this stuff all along!) see Star Wars reach its true potential. New digital CGI material was integrated into the original Star Wars films, with a veritable cornucopia of background and ancillary characters appearing where they’d never been before. This, while commercially successful to Lucas, spelt the beginning of the end.
As technology improved, Lucas realized that he could finally make the long-awaited prequel trilogy using this new technology, and set about doing so. Entire worlds could now be created on the computer, hell, even entire characters to move and interact within those worlds, so the sky wasn’t even the limit for the nerds over at Lucasfilm. Truth was, there were no limits at all. Only an animators imagination.
Fans of the series had long anticipated the story of just how Darth Vader came to be, being Luke Skywalker’s father and all, and the hints of history throughout the original films kept fans guessing on just how it all unfolded. With The Phantom Menace, and then with Attack of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith, Lucas told us all the story behind the story. The anticipation leading up to the release of Phantom Menace, as I mentioned before, could never be totally lived up to, however it could have been accommodated if the film had actually been any good. As hype gave way to the realization that fandom had been truly gypped, a bubbling resentment of dreams shattered slowly began to build, all focused on the man who led the charge in the first place: George Lucas. As audiences around the world stumbled from the darkened midnight screenings, their once-bright plastic lightsabres now dimly expending the last egrs of power those batteries would give out, many were shaking their heads in disbelief. Disbelief that after fifteen years of waiting, the answer to the Holy Question was in fact “midichlorians”. That, and Jar Jar Binks, perhaps the single unfunniest character ever to grace the Star Wars mythology. That, and the sudden sweep of horror that, oh no, there were two more films to come after this!
The Phantom Menace represents all that is sad and lonely in the Star Wars saga – for all the effort put into creating a film designed to support a bunch of new liscened toys, the film slammed into critics with the wet thud of a flying turd. Universally panned by fans as a terribly scripted, wooden acted, horrifyingly unsatisfying piece of drivel, The Phantom Menace had as many supporters as Hitler had kosher meals. While Lucas remained stoic in defence of his work of “art”, fans and general public realised eventually that what they’d been served up as a bright, shining new era in the Star Wars universe, was in fact an abortion of a film, the kind of film you’d see go straight to DVD if it wasn’t for the fact it had the title “star wars” on the front. Lucas’ arrogance to think his film was critically invulnerable was given credence by the massive (and I mean massive) commercial success it had, leaping into the top 10 all time box office earners almost instantly. Plenty of folks, dissillusioned by the once mightly Lucas empire taking a hit with such a debacle, sought refuge in the knowledge that perhaps Lucas might improve on his failings in time for the second prequel film.
In what became one of the most ironic pieces of footage ever filmed, the DVD edition of Phantom Menace contained a key moment in one of its “Making of” special features, in which a confident George Lucas says to a team of effects dudes all standing around with awed looks on their faces, that he believes “Jar Jar Binks to be one of the funniest characters he’s ever come up with” [not a direct quote], to wit we all start pelting the screen with something hard and shiny. Even Steven Spielberg, upon having a special guided tour of one of the massive sets and seeing for the first time the soldier droids Lucas developed for the films series, looked nonplussed. His abounding indifference to it all spoke volumes as to what he was seeing. Could nobody see the folly in what was occurring during the making of this film? Did nobody approach George Lucas at any point and suggest that perhaps spoiling the mysticism of the Force as some kind of blood disorder would be counter-intuitive to the fanbase and expectations of the audience? Not one, I say.
Not to be outdone with his arrogance, Lucas decided that he’d write the script for the next film himself as well, although he did take note of the overwhelming hatred for Jar Jar Binks and consign the walking shitpile to a single scene with minimal dialogue, although in some eyes even this was still one scene too many. Still, Attack Of The Clones was
hoped expected by the majority of all and sundry to return the saga to the lofty standards the original trilogy enjoyed. The ubiquitous fan anticipation, enormous hype and clever marketing campaign all fueled the public’s imagination as the release of Attack Of the Clones drew closer. And once more, after the midnight screenings occurred and the many fans took to the internet to voice their opinions, were our worst fears confirmed. The Phantom Menace wasn’t a fluke – George Lucas was a terrible director. If the dire inter-character relationships in Phantom Menace were bad, then by that standards, Attack of The Clones is reserved a special place in Hell, surely. Newcomer Hayden Christensen, whose on-screen chemistry with co-star (and love interest) Natalie Portman resembled that of two pools of vomit colliding in a post-curry spew, turned Anakin Skywalker, the future Darth frickin’ Vader, into a whining, insolent wanker. It wasn’t his fault, though. The blame for this entire pile of shite lies directly with director George Lucas. The “romance” between Anakin and Padme, which would inevitably lead to Luke and Leia in the original trilogy, is so monotonously corny and contrived it’s barely watchable as a candid-camera styled joke, let alone a serious piece of cinema. Ewan McGregor, who escaped Phantom Menace with his reputation severely dented, cops a pounding here too, trying to deliver some of history’s most awkward and forced lines while maintaining an Alec Guinness accent and trying not to bust a smile the entire time.
By now, folks had little hope that the last film of the prequels, the one in which Darth Vader is “born”, would be any good at all. Were they right in their justification? Perhaps, and while personally I thought Revenge Of The Sith to be the best of the prequels, that’s a little like saying Police Academy III was the best of the lot – by that stage, nobody cared, really. Once more, with Revenge Of The Sith, Lucas’ inability to create anything resembling character we give a crap about was unable to hide amongst the overload of digital CGI. This was less a case of filmmaking than it was about putting some live action people into a computer game. Digital character run riot, like Lucas’ realises it’s his last hurrah and he throws everything but the kitchen sink into the movie. Useless characters designed to sell more bloody toys. Plot points which lead nowhere and a love story only barely more lively than sewerage. Horribly edited “action” sequences which drag on and on and seemingly go nowhere, as Jedi are slaughtered and Anakin succumbs to the dark side. Even the finale, the reveal of Darth Vader in costume for the “first” time, is badly managed, with a nod to the original Frankenstein putting even the last few on-side fanboys offside. Noooooooo!
Lucas wasn’t done there, however. With the post-Prequel Star Wars fervour now dying away, the calls continued toc ome think and fast for the release of the original, pre-Special Edition releases, of the original trilogy. The now infamous “Han Shot First” campaign, a result of a critical (and heinous) change made to A New Hope, and Lucas’ refusal to even acknowledge the fact that more and more fans were clamoring to a halt to the digital tinkering with the classic series, had many a fan up in arms. The change was made to the critical scene where Han Solo is confronted by Greedo in the Cantina sequence on Tatooine, where threats are carried out before Han brutally kills Greedo before Greedo kills him. Originally, Solo just blasted Greedo away before getting up and flipping the bartender a few coins for all the trouble. The Special Edition, in which plenty of digital tinkering took place, saw Lucas digitally ajust this moment: now, Greedo fires his weapon, the blast from which misses Hans head by inches, before Han returns volley with his own weapon, killing Greedo. It may not seem like a lot, but it fundamentally changes the feel of the character of Han Solo in the film. Originally, Han seemed quite the renegade, gunning down Greedo without even so much as blinking or feeling guilty. This set viewers on edge for the rest of the film – was Han a good guy or really a bad guy. The change in the Special Edition version sees Han acting in self defense, which not only undermines his snarky attitude throughout the film, but softens him as a character throughout the saga. He’s a nice guy, just put upon by everybody else, instead of a ruthless gun for hire. No doubt Lucas wanted to appease somebody with this change, much the same way Spielberg bastardized ET for its 20th Anniversary by changing many of the FBI agent’s weapons into walkie-talkies, so as not to scare impressionable children watching.
For years now, fans have been crying out (many in a somewhat self-righteous demanding tone) that Lucas should release the original Original Trilogy on DVD (or BluRay) to appease those who can’t stand the changes he made back in 1997. The last time we saw the original, unspoiled versions of the Original Trilogy was on VHS, a few months prior to the release of the Special Edition versions. Since then, Lucas appears to have tried to bury the original versions into the ground, almost refusing to acknowledge that they ever existed, preferring instead to tinker with, and re-release, the Special Editions each time he needs a bit of spare cash. Opportunities to present the original versions have cropped up, with DVD releases of the Original Trilogy SE’s over the years missing the most obvious of “extra features” fans have been crying out for.And when they were finally included on a recent DVD release, they were in non-anamorphic, low-budget presentations that got a lot of people off-side once more. Oh well.
The argument to all of this is that Lucas created the whole thing, so why can’t he do exactly as he pleases with his baby? It’s a fair question, and the answer is often met with grumbled silence and glowering looks of “man, if I was running the show things would be different”, but the point, folks, is that things aren’t different. Lucas is so wrapped up in his own deluded sense of status that he’s forgotten the most important people of all – the people who spend the money on this crap to further enhance his fortune. Does he owe those people anything? Not at all. If you don’t like what he’s selling, don’t buy it. Simple. But somewhere in the capitalism and rampant over-commercialized hype of any significant Star Wars event (such as the recent “countdown” debacle announcing the BluRay edition features), things have gotten a little lost. Lucas is slowly but surely eroding any goodwill he may have had amongst the fans, becoming almost a joke of a figurehead where he once commanded untold respect. He runs the risk of going to his grave as not only the man who created Star Wars, but also the man who single-handedly ruined it.
A lot of the argument online, where the battleground is the most scarred with fans who’ve turned against Lucas, is missing the point on what exactly they’re arguing about. The problem of the fan rage is less pointed towards the quality of the franchise (although that is a big issue in itself, I can’t argue with that!) and perhaps more about Lucas’ arrogance towards the fanbase. While he may not owe the fans anything in a technical sense, he owes them respect for sticking by him, for clamoring for the prequel trilogy in the first place (much to their eventual dismay, I guess) and for throwing good money after bad when Star Wars became less about the story, and more about how many toys you can sell. Where Lucas went wrong creatively, Jar Jar aside, is that his ambition outweighed his talent. Lucas’ imagination is second to none, that much is easy to see, but he has no idea about telling a story beyond the superficial. A New Hope isn’t the most deep character driven piece you’ve ever seen, although Empire and Jedi had their moments (perhaps thanks to the influence of script-massager Lawrence Kasdan), and it’s pretty obvious that the Prequels don’t hold much chop in the character development department. Lucas has a tin-ear for dialogue, and an arrogance to believe that he’s good enough to deliver what his imagination tells him should happen.
As a director, aside from the fluke which turned into A New Hope, Lucas is an abject failure. His three most recent films were terrible examples of the cinema form, in their most fundamental elements: story and characters. Some would argue that not every film has to have great characterizations, or a great story (again I refer you to any Michael Bay film you care to imagine), but every great piece of entertainment has to have character who are interesting. The Prequel trilogy sucked the very life from its character with an overuse of digital chicanery. One of the worst creative decisions Lucas made with Star Wars was to film the prequel trilogy using almost every piece of CGI imaginable. Set extensions, useless digital characters and an abundance of unnecessary background and foreground smegma makes watching the prequel films like having a mini-stroke. Part of your brain switches off, and muscle control lapses into a semi-coma just thinking about listening to Anakin professing his undying love for Padme again. While we were all supposed to be incredibly impressed with just how cool everything looked, it lacked soul, creating a blanket of indifference to the on-screen action which the Original Trilogy had in spades. In my opinion, Lucas should have learned the lesson from the 80’s: write the story, but let a quality director direct the thing. And film it using actual sets and locations, not on a soundstage with a bunch of green-screen.
Even worse, news came through this year that Lucas is preparing the entire saga for 3D conversion, to gouge even more money from hard working folks. This is a purely commercial decision, and in no way artistic (3D is not an artistic decision, it cannot be because it’s a technology, not an artform), and in typical Lucas fashion has decided to release each of the films a year apart (meaning that should Phantom Menace 3D be released in 2012, then A New Hope and the rest are a further three years away!) to magnify his hype and arrogance. Did The Phantom Menace cry out for a presentation in 3D? Pod-race aside, no. Attack Of The Clones… in 3D? Watching Anakin pout and whine in glorious 3 dimensions? Hell no. No doubt after they’ve all been released, we’ll be eagerly awaiting the eventual 3D box set on BluRay in 3D, to complement the upcoming 2D BluRay versions on your shelf. More money in Mr Lucas’ enormous pocket. To me, as a casual Star Wars fan, choosing to do this reeks of a cheap grab for cash. There’s no reason Star Wars needed to be converted to 3D, other than to increase overall box office thanks to what is already an overpriced gimmick. It’s a slap in the face to true fans.
The fans are passionate, dedicated, and the best possible advertising for Star Wars Lucas could ask for, yet he seems to think all they’re good for is screwing a few extra bucks from them. I think the fact Lucas refuses to even listen to those who’ve given him all he has, is the bit that sticks in the craw of every fan of the series. Nobody can argue that Star Wars is his to do with as he pleases, but to dig a chasm between you and the fanbase because none of your sycophantic Lucasfilm cronies has the balls to say to you “man, that’s not what Star Wars is about”, is close to reputation suicide. You may not like it, but the fans are the ones who keep you going, Mr Lucas. Eventually, those fans aren’t going to give a shit if you modify something else again with “your” baby and release it in yet another box set of underwhelming extra features on BluRay. In the process of gouging the current fanbase, you’re also potentially alienating any new, younger fans from appreciating your work by whoring your product in every which way but the one way that matters: as a quality story, with characters people can relate to. Nobody can relate to Jar Jar Binks. He talks like a two year old, and no two year old is going to give two shits about a Trade Federation or Midichlorians.
My suggestion, as a response, Mr Lucas, is pretty simple. Admit the mistakes you’ve made, admit to errors in judgment both artistically and personally with regards to the abhorrent Prequels, and start to give back to the fans a little. It’s too late now, I know, but here’s my suggestion for the inevitable next BluRay set of Star Wars; give the fans the 3D and 2D versions of all the films, but also present the uncut, unretouched original versions of the Original Trilogy as “Bonus” discs, throw in the Ewok Holiday specials, and all the extra archival material you can get away with (or, if not that, then the complete series of Clone Wars by way of an apology) as a “complete anthology” edition. This way, you have your “Directors Versions” of each film, plus the stuff the fans want. Doing so may be a bit late to salvage your reputation in the short term, but in the long run you’ll probably find that goodwill being generated again. You have the money, and you know there’s the demand for it, so why not?
Or to put it another way, what have you got to lose?
© 2011, Rodney Twelftree. All rights reserved.