Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The People vs. George Lucas: A Review


I'll go on record to say I never CARED who shot first: Han Solo or Greedo.  I also never dressed up for any screening of a Star Wars prequel (though I was heavily pressured to bring along a light saber for Attack of the Clones and have always regretted this lapse of judgment). I don't understand the entire sub-culture of the Star Wars fans (or for that matter, the Trekkers/Trekkies either, my Whovian status notwithstanding).  All the things about the devotion many people have for the entire Star Wars universe is frankly a bit beyond me.   I do admit to having Star Wars collectibles, but in my defense it is only Obi-Wan Kenobi.  I think the original Star Wars films (A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi) are as a collection, one of the greatest series ever made, pushing science-fiction/fantasy to both a deeply emotional and intellectual level (no, I am serious on the intellectual part...stop laughing).  As for the prequels...well...

George Lucas is in one of the most unenviable positions of any filmmaker: a man both revered and reviled in equal measure.  The People vs. George Lucas at first may, like the Star Wars devotees, may be dismissed as the ramblings of angry nerds upset at Lucas for doing things in both the rerelease of the Star Wars trilogy and/or the prequels or NOT doing things in both the rerelease of the Star Wars trilogy and/or the prequels.  In truth, The People vs. George Lucas is a remarkably sober, even-handed exploration about the trials and tribulations Lucas has endured as well as inflicted on those thoroughly devoted to his stories, exploring the contradictory emotions his magnum opus unleashes on that rabid fanbase. 

We start with George Lucas, a man interested in making films, good films, who hit on the idea for this massive space opera about this tale that occurred a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.  The first Star Wars film (which, in a strictly technical sense, was called Star Wars, only retroactively called Star Wars: A New Hope), unleashed a mania that was unparalleled in the history of film.  Lucas, ever the shrewd businessman, knew there was a market for Star Wars-related products.  His films (including the Indiana Jones series) started meeting with both critical and public acclaim.  All was right with the universe.

Then, for reasons we know not, something began to grow amiss.  It could have been hubris (always the great man's downfall), a sense that everything put down or thought was perfect, it could have been a loss of creativity, it could have been simply having expectations way too high.  However, the public, and in particular the fans who had been deeply touched by all things Star Wars, began to lose faith and hope in the works of the Creator.  Already stinging from the polarized reception of the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi (I'm in the pro camp myself, though granted I was a child when it came out), out came the Special Editions of the Star Wars trilogy.

The changes Lucas made to his films went from the cosmetic (adding new creatures to certain scenes), to the type that slightly altered the stories as first seen (introducing Jabba the Hutt in A New Hope instead of Return of the Jedi), and some were downright blasphemous (replacing Sebastian Shaw at the end of Return of the Jedi with Hayden Christensen, who played the younger Anakin Skywalker in the prequels).  All the changes, both large and small, outraged the hard-core fanbase, who thought Lucas was basically screwing them over and did not take their devotion to the franchise into consideration.  (Side note: one of the questions The People vs. George Lucas raises is whether Lucas should have thought how the Star Wars fans would react to these changes, whether they had some say in how the films should remain as they were released or how the filmmaker wishes them to be seen...good questions all).

From there, things only got worse between Lucas and the Star Wars faithful.  The prequels were not only disliked, but elements were introduced that rendered the previous stories almost nonsensical (having The Force be measurable in the bloodstream).  Even more disastrous, the introduction of character Jar Jar Binks is still a source of fierce debate within the Star Wars enclave (as if the Star Wars Holiday Special didn't already sully the franchise).  Even if the affection fans had survived The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and/or Revenge of the Sith, Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls appears to have only been like waving a red flag before a bull. 

Yet, despite how often George Lucas has failed to please the hard-core Star Wars fanbase, despite how many times his work has disappointed those who can tell an AT-AT from an AT-ST, despite how, in a memorable ditty offered by two fans, "George Lucas Raped My Childhood", the fans still love him.

As for George Lucas himself, he remains mostly silent, save for a few clips.  Lucas doesn't defend himself against all the minutia he's raked over the coals for, but he also has never taken any active steps against the fans making their own versions of any of the Star Wars or Indiana Jones films. 

The People vs. George Lucas doesn't just deal with who is the ultimate controller of a series/saga (in this case, Star Wars): the fans or the creative force, but also delves into whether one should.  The most damning evidence against George Lucas is, ironically enough, from Lucas himself.  Lucas is fierce in his defense of having the right to alter his films to fit his own vision of how Star Wars (or any of his films, really) appear.  However, in 1988 (a good nine years before his "Special Edition" alterations), he went before Congress and said the following:

In the future, it will be even easier for old negatives to become lost and be 'replaced' by new altered negatives.  This would be a great loss to our society.  Our cultural history must not be allowed to be rewritten.

Yet, since speaking these words George Lucas has done the very thing he condemned: he took his 'old negatives' of the original Star Wars trilogy and replaced them with 'new altered negatives'.  Moreover, for the longest time Lucas vehemently resisted bringing the originals back, almost demanding that people accept the changes to his work whether they wanted to or not.  The fans (and I figure some impartial critics) had emotions ranging from upset to downright inflamed.  Finally, Lucas either relented or was convinced to allow the unaltered versions to be released.

Whether anyone has called him on what appears to be a wild discrepancy I cannot say, but what I can say is that as time has gone by, one can't help get the impression that the more criticism Lucas gets from his fanbase (in particular those who dress up like their favorite characters for midnight screenings) for the changes he makes to the films or the story, the more intransigent and stubborn he becomes.  I cannot say what is in Lucas' mind, but The People vs. George Lucas does give people a chance to speak their minds about what they think.

Again, I have to point out this is not a long rap session against Lucas himself.  Instead, it goes into a discussion about whether the changes made to the films (both visual and storywise) actually work or even make sense.  Take for example, the midichlorian business.  All the indications from A New Hope to Return of the Jedi was that The Force (that power from which all Jedi derived their power) was a vaguely mystical thing.  When The Phantom Menace was released, we found that The Force was really from midichlorians, which one can analyze from the bloodstream.  It had the effect of rendering The Force, something that had been built up to something almost spiritual, to a mere physical entity. 

How did midichlorians become so integral to the story (or The Force for that matter) appears to have been a rejection of everything that had come before.  Even worse, how an experienced filmmaker like Lucas failed to perceive this one simply cannot explain away as an artistic choice.  He didn't appear to understand that once something had been established, introducing something that altered if not destroyed what had come before would be at least insulting to fans, at most an almost deliberate slap to the face.

Allow me my own gripe with George Lucas, where I will dip my toes into the realm of fandom.  When Lucas was giving publicity to The Phantom Menace, he was asked if we would learn who Anakin Skywalker's father was.  Lucas told the interviewer that yes, indeed, we would know from whom young Annie would come from.  In the movie, his mother Shmi (played by Pernilla August), simply says, "There was no father.  He just...was"  (or 'is', I don't remember).  I felt insulted, and slightly perturbed (was Lucas suggesting Anakin was some sort of Virgin Birth and thus borrowing from a New Testament story). 

I think George Lucas, or any filmmaker, should not react defensibly whenever his/her work (in particular such a beloved work such as Star Wars) faces criticism for things as varied as story, acting, or characters.  In the end, filmmakers are putting out a product, and if something doesn't work, people should be called on it.  If the characters in The Phantom Menace are seen as racial stereotypes masquerading as aliens, it should be mentioned.  If a particular character is almost universally despised, a filmmaker can make the case for said character, but reacting with umbrage and saying that basically everyone's wrong and that said character should be loved is really counteractive. 

I'm going on another, smaller rant.  Jar Jar Binks was the worst Star Wars character ever: annoying and useless.  When I write a more formal review for Phantom Menace, I will tackle at large why I feel the way I do, but again, for another time.

The People vs. George Lucas taps into the passion people feel for the series (and I figure I should acknowledge that I too, am a fan, though not as fierce as those who camp out and know how many Storm Troopers were in the Death Star).  It is about the fan's conflicting emotions with a remarkably creative writer/director whom they feel at times has betrayed them even as he gives them more of what they want.  It is also a shrewd investigation of the Industrial-Marketing Complex as I call it (how the quest for merchandise has financed great works but also turned the films into almost adverts for toys).

Finally, I see The People vs. George Lucas as a tragedy.  Here was George Lucas, a man who wanted to make movies, good movies.  His reputation began growing with THX-1138, with American Graffiti, then with Star Wars, he becomes a titan.  Then, like Orson Welles, once he created his own Citizen Kane, he found himself inexorably tied to that.  From that sprang other things (Industrial Light and Magic, a great benefit to cinema), but there was no escaping the shadow of Star Wars for George Lucas.  The prequels would, perhaps, never have matched the greatness of the original trilogy, but on a personal note, they appear to have been made by someone with a tin ear for dialogue and no sense of bringing life to characters.  It appears that the prequels brought down not only the reputation of George Lucas, but a great deal of affection for him.

The best way to sum up The People vs. George Lucas comes from another great filmmaker: Francis Ford Coppola.  Star Wars, in essence, brought an end to George Lucas as a filmmaker.  What non-Star Wars or Indiana Jones-related film has Lucas made since Star Wars' 1977 premiere?  How many great movies, Coppola laments, have we been robbed of because of Lucas' ties to Star Wars (either the story or the merchandising).  To add insult to injury, so many people think they could have done it better.  Could they, really?  Could anyone truly put himself in Lucas' position?  It is possible that George Lucas became too stubborn, up in his own Xanadu (aka Skywalker Ranch), convinced the world would accept whatever he brought them in the Star Wars saga (be it midichlorians, Jar Jar, or the now-infamous "NO" from the newly-created Darth Vader in Revenge of the Sith) the fans be damned.

It is tempting to give in and go on my own George Lucas diatribe, going off about the things in the revamped Star Wars trilogy or the prequels that I did not like (and the things I did).  Up to a point, I did here.  Once I finish a Star Wars retrospective, I might do so, and indulge to my heart's content.  It's that passion for Star Wars that motivates both the love and hate for Lucas, one that The People vs. George Lucas chronicles so well.

In conclusion, I will give in just once more.  When Hayden Christensen appeared at the end of Return of the Jedi over Sebastian Shaw, I literally nearly vomited in shock, horror, and disgust.  My reaction stunned me (though not as much as George Lucas' decision to insert Christensen in the film, altering forever both the film and Shaw's work in it--and reminding me of one of the things I hated about the prequels).  Maybe I'm not as far removed from nerddom as I think...


1 comment:

  1. An AT-AT is easy to tell from an AT-ST!... I mean, it's silly to care. (Although Banksy did a great job with it.)

    Thank you for a really thoughtful review. I consider myself a fan but don't quite understand some more hard-core people.


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