Most people know exactly what this name is synonymous with. If you don’t you should probably be embarrassed. At one time or another Lucas was an innovator – whether it was in the story told in his films, or whether it was in the leaps of technology required to even get that vision onto the silver screen, innovation and patience was required to do it. His films touched a lot of people and the technology created to do it changed the film industry forever.
But somewhere along the line, something happened to this once visionary man. A man of imagination and great foresight, corrupted. As Peter Griffin puts it in Family Guy, ” This is a story of love and loss, fathers and sons, and the foresight to retain international merchandising rights. This is the story of Star Wars. Let’s begin with part four.” The story of Star Wars is one that almost certainly wouldn’t have happened if certain people at 20th Century Fox hadn’t intervened back in the 70s. Over budget, over schedule, clashes with Lucas over the cast – simply put, “Star Wars” (as it was known in 1977 – when the sequel came in 1980 it was quietly renamed in a masterstroke to “Episode IV: A New Hope“) had everything riding against it. George got lucky.
The story behind the production of that film is almost more interesting than the movie itself, and there are countless stories you can watch/read/inhale if you’re interested.
Lucas’ struggle to finish that project was what made him cast another director to do the sequels in 1980’s. That struggle was also what started his obsession with control – if Star Wars wasn’t such a surprise run-away hit, there’s no way the sequels ever would have been made. The money he made from the screenings and most of all, merchandising, is the key element that meant he could fully finance the sequels. Self financed, he had no one to answer to but himself.
Empire Strikes Back is basically the best ‘middle film’ of any three film series I know – it left you in a place that had you agonizing over the fate of the main characters, while really engrossing you in their struggle – how were they going to get out of this one!? The best part about that is that Lucas didn’t even direct it. The wait for 1983 must have been agonizing, and then mildly disappointing when it had muppets and a regurgitation of basically the same story from A New Hope, but I digress…
This totalitarian control over the franchise would lead to a future where Lucas hired people that would agree with ‘his vision’. Yes men. The results of this were obvious in 1997, and again in 1999, 2002 and 2005. In fact, every year since 1997. Why would you argue with someone that created a series of movies that impacted your childhood far greater than Michael Jackson’s wildest dreams (too soon?). Not to mention, he’s paying you to say “Yes George, a 3D animated character with floppy ears and a ‘funny’ voice is a great idea!”. Everybody wins!
It’s even cliched to go into this, but as a kid, and even though I was about 10 years behind the curve by that point, I loved Star Wars. I would watch the original cuts on VHS tape that a friend recorded off free to air analog television. Quickly, and I don’t even remember why, I grew to love the story. Everything about it just kind of drew you in like the Death Stars tractor beam. Fortunately George catered to kids like me with plenty of readily available movie/toy tie-in’s, allowing me to bring Star Wars into my house in a big way. I had the Lego, I had the action figures, I had the video games (‘Tie Fighter’ is still the best PC flight sim ever created) – I would watch the movies every god damn night when I went to bed.
That’s the level of devotion Lucas got out of people with those movies full of ‘kit-bashed’ fighter planes made into space fighters, and hokey 70s motion capture technology. People are still fanatical about the series twenty-plus years on. It was that power to sell me on it that corrupted dear old George. The artistic devotion he might have felt in film school with buddies like Steven Spielberg was left in the shadow of the giant mountain of green. Why make anything new if you can just keep reselling that same old thing.
The tail end of the 1990s was an important time for Star Wars. Around 1995 stories started trickling out that the original negative of A New Hope was in dire need of repair or it was going to be lost forever. George obviously saw this as an opportunity to go back and ‘fix’ what he considered were problems with the original cuts of each film. For the cynic, it was also a chance to test blossoming 3D animation technology and still make money on it before deciding whether it was feasible to go back and make more films, using ‘George’s Original Vision’ as the catch phrase. Clearly the test worked, and in 1997 production was announced on a BRAND NEW STAR WARS. Consider my 10 year old mind blown.
Then consider it blown again in 1999 after an abortive kids-merchandising-friendly disappointment was released instead of a movie worthy of the original trilogy. The Phantom Menace was a kids movie – plain and simple. He satisfied neither them, nor the fans of the original that were 30-odd by the time this movie came out. The teasers had everybody gagging for more Star Wars. The posters had everybody gagging for more Star Wars. Then it finally came out… urgh.
Online you will find a raging debate about the classic cuts of Star Wars vs. the newer alterations – without going into too much, I can say this about it: Imagine someone took a photo of you and your family in a certain year, then 15 years later decided to go back and remaster the Christmas tree in the background so that the lights would have bloom effects, and your parents faces were changed to people you almost didn’t recognize. You recognize it, but deep down you know it’s not the same.
The new cut of A New Hope was the most damaging – hokey 3D, and changing the outlook of Han Solo from “ruthless smuggler” to “smuggler that acted in self defence” by changing about five frames. That hokey 3D hasn’t aged well either, and he continues to tinker with that in each subsequent home release today. Basically, he’s retrofitting the past and nerds really don’t like it. The struggle of internet nerds who remember the films in nauseating detail vs. George Lucas is something incredible.
The control he exerts over the movies is all consuming and I think a lot of fans are really jaded about it. As I’ve gotten older, I still enjoy the films but kind of shudder at some of the alterations. You can basically call George Lucas the ultimate nerd troll, given the subtlety of some changes that still manage to cut deep – right down to the colour of the damn lightsabers. It’s that blind will to keep finding and fixing problems that don’t really matter that’s lead to awful missteps, even in home re-releases.
The newer trilogy was an exercise in the frustration of many – frustrations about poor casting, poor acting (to give Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor credit, I’d be a shit actor if my entire set was green as well), a disappointing story that poorly explained what children had instead imagined twenty years earlier, and a computer generated spectacle that just didn’t live up to expectations. Admittedly they were absurdly high, but Lucas apologists can argue all they like about them being good films – overall consensus says they are not (and they aren’t).
In usual form, this week George is monetising the latest technological fad: THE THIRD DIMENSION. That’s right, all of the movies are being re-released to the cinema utilizing the glorious third dimension. Sadly, not even 3D can polish the turd that was The Phantom Menace, and sadly that’s the first of the six films to be converted to 3D for the cinema. It was terrible in 1999, and it’s going to be terrible again on Thursday. But the fans will still go. They’ll pay even more to do it, and then they’ll buy the Blu-ray later this year. That’s just the way it goes.
The legacy of Star Wars is immeasurable, and many fans would like Lucas to stop fucking it up (in their eyes anyway). The work of Lucas and others had such an impact that the fans basically own the movies – unfortunately, this works directly against Lucas’ sense of all consuming control over them. It’s George on one end of the rope, and millions of fans on the other. To George, it must feel like that original struggle verses 20th Century Fox back in the 1970s. He’ll fight it to the end.
Aside from the drama, Star Wars has had a massive and lasting impact in drawing people together – there are charities that use the story of Star Wars and their passion as fans to help others, there are countless fan recreations (the latest of which is an assembly of hundreds of fan recreated scenes of A New Hope edited into a full movie), tributes, parodies (see: Family Guy) and Lucasfilm has been great in allowing that to flourish.
Not to mention, Lucasfilm is basically responsible for the creation of Industrial Light and Magic – without them you wouldn’t have seen movies like Terminator 2 or Jurassic Park. They’re also behind Lucasarts (behind video game classics such as The Day of the Tentacle, Sam and Max Hit the Road, and about a thousand Star Wars games like Dark Forces and Tie Fighter). So there has been plenty of good amongst the bad.
His movies on the other hand, hands off. I don’t hate George Lucas per say, but I do hate his overwhelming willingness to milk the fans for more money while ruining their memories of his own classics that made him that money in the first place. It’s a sad reality, and one that will likely continue for as long as he lives.