By all accounts, George Lucas should be one of the most beloved people on the planet. Ignoring the fact that he was the forefather of one of the most iconic trilogies of all time (Star Wars), he has managed to expand the boundaries of what is possible with special effects (down to companies like Industrial Light & Magic and Skywalker Sound) and even in video games (many of the earliest videogames on flopdisk came from LucasArts). Beyond that he’s also the man perhaps most responsible for Indiana Jones and one of the most influential film makers of all time. And yet his name evokes a huge amount of discord when it’s spoken. Just why is that?
I got thinking about this over the premiere of the “lost” Star Wars: Return of the Jedi clip which will apparently be incorporated into the upcoming blu ray release of the six Star Wars films. The scene, featuring Luke tinkering with his lightsabre, had long rumoured to have been lost to the ages, yet Lucas was able to produce the footage at Comic Con to rapturous fanboy response. However, when Mark Hamill was asked about the restored video, he responded that he didn’t remember filming a scene like that. And then the rumours started circulating that George Lucas had “faked” the footage. The story actually goes quite deep down the rabbit hole of what was most likely just a communication problem.
In fairness, he can’t seem to catch a break. The bulk of the problems with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull are laid at his feet, despite the fact that his collaborator’s filmography hasn’t been so hot of late either (and the fact that the conspicuous CGI was almost as dodgy as the film’s script). And he’s become something of a loathed figure – which is remarkable given his career path. This is a director who was at one point the favourite to direct Apocalypse Now.
And, to be honest, he seems like a pretty decent guy. He has allowed himself to be lampooned by the guys at Robot Chicken and Family Guy, which – while always respectful of the source material aren’t necessarily always complimentary of him. He seems relatively happy to directly engage with his fans – even though Fanboys didn’t turn out particularly well, it was a nice gesture for him to make.
Hell, even the more infamous changes that he forced upon his own film – “Greedo shoots first” being the most obvious – didn’t derive from a desire by the director to consciously make Han Solo a much less ambiguous character (despite what some would claim). In a ridiculous bit of film censorship, he had to recut the film today to match the rating it got several years ago (because the rules had got harsher since), which is crazy for a classic like Star Wars. Lucas himself has mocked this decision – he’s been spotted wearing a “Han shot first” t-shirt of all things. It would be nice to have an “unrated” blu ray cut – and I accept that the only reason it’s happening is down to money – but that sort of thing is far too common in Hollywood to be the sole (or even main) reason to dislike Lucas.
I think part of the problem is somewhat similar to what happened with the creator of the “other” great science fiction franchise of our times, Gene Roddenberry. Roddenberry undoubtedly had great vision – without him, there would be no Star Trek. He undoubtedly imagined the world almost fully formed. However, he simply wasn’t a good storyteller. That’s not a scathing criticism of the man – some people are just better at some stuff than others. Roddenberry beautifully crafted a fictional universe which is thriving even now, nearly half a century on. However, his direct contributions were somewhat less magical.
Take for instance, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, the first Star Trek feature film – greenlit after the success of Lucas’ Star Wars: A New Hope. Roddenberry, shunned by the network for his television show, had almost universal control over the movie. And he used it to pitch a slow-moving film which seemed like a half-hearted adaptation of 2001: A Space Odyssey rather than a Star Trek feature. The movie didn’t turn out too hot and – despite some vocal proponents who sing its praises to this very day – the film is regarded as the origin of the “even numbered Star Trek good, odd numbered Star Trek bad” rule of thumb. Prompted by the box office disappointment, Roddenberry was removed from directly overseeing the following production, and the creative team managed to make Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan one of the most enduring science-fiction films of all time.
Similarly, Roddenberry began very involved in the spin-off Star Trek: The Next Generation. His work result in a (quite frankly) atrocious first season which saw him attempt to introduce the Ferengi (effectively “Yankee profiteers” in space) as the next generation of bad guys (they ended up comic relief, to give you an idea of how that played out) and even directly lift the plots of several episodes from the earlier series to the new one – and not necessarily the good ones (the quintessentially sixties The Naked Time became the awkwardly eighties The Naked Now). It was only when – again – Roddenberry was removed from the role of directly overseeing the film that it truly found its feet, becoming one of the best television shows of the nineties.
I think that Lucas suffers a similar problem – although it’s amplified because nobody has the authority to pull him off. If you look at the original trilogy, he was mostly a background figure. He did write and helm the first film, but he is only credited with a “story” credit on the second (and generally best received) film of the trilogy. He is credited with writing the third film, but only as a co-writer and with another director bringing his vision to the screen. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to describe Lucas’ role as one “steering” the franchise, but with a certain “hands-off” approach. These films are universally worshipped and beloved by millions of fans.
Indeed, in reading an interview with Gary Kurtz, a close collaborator on the original films, it’s hard not to get then sense that the contributions that Lucas made to the later films in the original trilogy weren’t necessarily for the best:
“We had an outline and George changed everything in it,” Kurtz said. “Instead of bittersweet and poignant he wanted a euphoric ending with everybody happy. The original idea was that they would recover [the kidnapped] Han Solo in the early part of the story and that he would then die in the middle part of the film in a raid on an Imperial base. George then decided he didn’t want any of the principals killed. By that time there were really big toy sales and that was a reason.”
The discussed ending of the film that Kurtz favored presented the rebel forces in tatters, Leia grappling with her new duties as queen and Luke walking off alone “like Clint Eastwood in the spaghetti westerns,” as Kurtz put it.
Kurtz said that ending would have been a more emotionally nuanced finale to an epic adventure than the forest celebration of the Ewoks that essentially ended the trilogy with a teddy bear luau.
He was especially disdainful of the Lucas idea of a second Death Star, which he felt would be too derivative of the 1977 film. “So we agreed that I should probably leave.”
In contrast, Lucas was certainly more “hands-on” with his return to the franchise for the prequel trilogy. He directed all three. He wrote the first and third, being responsible for the story and sharing a screenplay credit on the second. Here he wasn’t just “steering” the franchise, he was “driving” it – not just guiding it, but actively getting it to where it needed to be. And I think it’s fair to describe the response to the new three films as much more mixed than to the original three. The writing was hackneyed. The dialogue was terrible. The direction never really engaged with the humanity of the story, remaining far too focused on revolutionary effects and jaw-dropping set pieces than character.
What’s particularly jarring is how quickly he has ramped up his involvement in the franchise. In the first twenty years which followed the original trilogy, there were of course video games and books that expanded the Star Wars universe. However, recently, Lucas has been content not only to produce three new films, but to flood the market with spin-offs and a whole manenr of things. There is a live action television show coming up, following several animated television series (which have met with a varying degree of fan praise).
It’s noticeably disconcerting to watch the creator who has sat so patiently on his work – allowing the original films to age like fine wine – suddenly start farming it out across all media. Sure, it wasn’t as if the property wasn’t over saturated already, but it wasn’t so desperately demanding attention and your money – it remained consciously dignified. With the original films, Lucas made himself rich by truly defining what film merchandising could do, but his films seemed almost respectable in the light of the outlandish campaigns and promotion and branding that feature film tie-ins subsequently engaged in. Now he seems intent to push the envelop a little further. Which, coming from one of the most profitable brands in movie-making, can’t help but seem a little bit cheeky.
I think lucas is a prime example of a creator who can easily push his own fanbase against him. I am not for one moment suggesting that he isn’t a visionary creator who has crafted one of the most beautifully iconic stories of our time, but I do think that he has simply suffered from having too much control over his own property. But, hey, what do I know? The force is strong with this one…