If you’re a sci-fi geek like me, you’ve probably heard this already, but for those who haven’t heard it: George Lucas retired. For those of you who feel good about this announcement, you’re probably saying to yourself “he used to be awesome but lately he’s been ruining his movies.” For those of you who feel bad about that announcement, you’re thinking about the fact you’ll never see another Star Wars or Indiana Jones movie again. But I look at these two groups and I think that there’s a flaw: George Lucas’ ideas were always more impressive than his actual work.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Star Wars and Indiana Jones, I never stopped loving them and actually think that the prequel trilogy and Crystal Skull are entertaining in their own rights. But when I think about George’s work and the perception that the quality has decreased I start to think about what exactly has changed for people besides the nostalgia factor. When I watched the original Star Wars trilogy as a kid I thought they were fun but I didn’t see them as perfect and the same went for Indiana Jones. Yet there are fans dedicated to the point that they devote a great deal of time out of their lives to that fandom.
Obviously, for a fandom this dedicated to be so off-put by the recent projects from this man, something had to have changed. But when I took a closer look, something I love to do, I realized there were some key changes between George Lucas of the 80s and George Lucas of the last decade. In the end, I came to a conclusion that would have some people up in arms.
Often, the worst thing to happen to George Lucas movies… was George Lucas.
He isn’t the best Star Wars writer
Yeah, I know, a shot across the bow for some but a good thing to note. Think about the Star Wars movies (particularly the OT) and really consider what would happen if you didn’t have one hell of a cast to carry some of the lines George wrote himself. His dialogue is often stilted, ridiculous and unbelievable. Want proof? Just read the scripts and picture Hayden Christensen saying all of them. Not to bag on Hayden too much, he tried and I could see where he was going, but we all know he was often the weakest link in the prequels. But seriously, picking some of the most memorable scenes, imagine them without the original cast:
Dr. Evazan: [explaining] He doesn’t like you.
Dr. Evazan: [grabbing Luke] *I* don’t like you either. You just watch yourself. We’re wanted men. I have the death sentence on twelve systems.
Imperial Officer: [seeing Luke and Han disguised as Stormtroopers taking Chewbacca to the prison level] Where are you taking this… thing?
Luke: Prisoner transfer. Cell block 1138?
Imperial Officer: I wasn’t notified. I’ll have it cleared.
[signals another imperial officer to check Chewbacca; Chewbacca breaks out of his binders]
Han Solo: Look out he’s loose!
Luke: He’ll tear us all apart!
Han Solo: I’ll get ‘im!
[they shoot out the security cameras and kill the officers]
Picture that in the voice of the weakest actor you can think of and tell me if it would have the same weight without the flashy bits that came around them. I know this is just two scenes out of the first movie, and some of the fondest, but I would argue that without Lucas’ eye for special effects and a cast capable of selling them it wouldn’t work as well. In fact, If I scoured all six movies I’m sure I could find enough to make you regret ever liking them in the first place.
“But hey,” you’re probably saying about now, “what about the good Star Wars movies like Empire Strikes Back? Some of the most quoted and memorable lines of all time came from that.”
And you’re right, the Empire Strikes Back did have a pretty solid script – but it was also the movie Lucas didn’t write or direct. Yeah, that’s right, the movie that most people agree was the high point of the franchise was the one movie where he didn’t have a direct role in its production. He gave them a general story to produce, yeah, but he didn’t actually do the majority of the work. In fact, the prequel trilogy, often claimed to be collectively the lowest point of the entire franchise by most of the outspoken fans was the time when Lucas was the primary screenwriter the entire time. That’s right, whenever the dialogue was awkward and the plot was contrived or nonsensical – Lucas wrote it.
Hell, imagine what would have happened if we could understand everything Chewbacca and R2-D2 could say and consider how much of the dialogue in the first movie was between one of them and their respective straight man. And remember that James Earl Jones was brought in to do the Darth Vader voice because the original actor made everything the man said sound silly. I’m not the first person to notice this!
He doesn’t see the films the same way we do
This one has to be clear to everyone, but I don’t think it’s really been driven home in the most direct way yet: George Lucas doesn’t see the same movies you’re seeing. When you think of Star Wars, you probably think of this.
But you know what George Lucas thinks of? This.
How exactly do I know this? Well, anyone who’s watched enough of his interviews knows that he’s always had a specific target audience in mind – young children. And, when you look at what he produced in the prequels, you can see some marks of that. When he started working on the prequels, he didn’t think about what had been remembered by the loyal fan-base for years or try to recapture the kind of mood and tone of ESB, he put in the thing he felt was going to truly represent his version of Star Wars.
In fact, during at least one behind-the-scenes video he expressed how very important it was that we got to see Yoda really cut loose and be active, at one point saying he should look like the child of Miss Piggy and Kermit.
Beginning in 2002 with Attack of the Clones, Yoda became a CGI character, the concepts of which Oz was consulted on. The documentary, From Puppets to Pixels features behind-the-scenes footage of George Lucas providing direction to his team of animators regarding how Yoda should move in a fight scene. Having already referred to Yoda as frog-like, Lucas remarks that Yoda is “actually the illegitimate child of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy.”
And, you know what, he has the right to create children’s movies for the sake of them being children’s movies. So that’s not really a bad thing, but it’s important to remember because…
His Relationship With Fans Is Souring
When Lucas started working on the prequel trilogy, he had to have known that the people who were going to line up for these movies were going to be the people who watched the original trilogy. They’re clearly devoted, sometimes to the point that they’re willing to cross bounds of reason to show that devotion.
But, despite this, he clearly designed it for their children instead. As I mentioned before, he’s even said in interviews that Star Wars is a generational thing and that everyone’s favorite Star Wars is the version that was produced when they were children. But he goes further than that when you listen to some of his other statements, specifically in regards to the people unhappy with what they got.
“It’s a work of fiction. It’s a metaphor. It’s not real. And therefore, you can either like it or not like it. Whatever”
In part, this is understandable since he’s received a lot of backlash over the years for things like the special editions. But what he’s saying there is that if you didn’t like some of those decisions, he doesn’t really care. Actually, when he does something like create the special editions, he’s not really creating them with the fans in mind. Think about it – does he really need to create new CGI sequences in the films in order to “cash in”? If he’d released them just remastered in digital quality he would have made just as much money without any of the complaints. But the complaints are there because he -did- go out of his way to change things. So was it really for the fans? Obviously not.
The changes Lucas made have always been a matter of fixing things he believed to be a mistake on his part or weren’t quite what he envisioned. He’s trying to create what was in his mind for all of those years but couldn’t be done with the technology he had available at the time. As a result, he makes the changes that he doesn’t really believe were “changes” but “fixes” to match what he originally intended. It’s really all about him and what he wants. Hell, the Han shot first debate?
Think about that. Not only did he go out of his way to change that scene so that he could have his way, but then he went out of his way again to tell everyone they’d always been wrong about the scene and that the new version is the right one. That’s how little of a fuck the man gives about the fan-base’s opinion.
And why on Earth would any creator just disregard the fans of their work like that?
He’s Losing Perspective Within The Industry
This is the core of a lot of the problems. Years ago George stumbled on a surprise hit and it skewed his view of the industry. I know that’s a pretty big assumption for me to make, but you have to understand that his actions speak louder than words. His entire career is centered around that one smash hit that he pulled off. He named Skywalker Ranch after it, hasn’t really done much work that wasn’t related to it and continues to release new versions of it all the time. And when he finally did decide to work on something else, Red Tails, he promptly announced he was done with the film industry all together.
The task of getting Red Tails, a big-budget film chronicling the World War II deeds of the famed, socially-significant Tuskegee Airmen was a difficult one for Lucas, who has always been known to appreciate having the autonomy to do the kind of films that he wants to make, the way that he wants to make them. On Red Tails, studio bigwigs were obstinate on the project, not giving him the time of the day, treating the iconic filmmaker as if he was pitching a sequel to Plan 9 From Outer Space.
So George Lucas had some resistance getting one of his films produced and became tired of the process. But consider how often he’s actually had to go through with this process. Having a hard time remembering any in the last few years? Congrats, you just stumbled on the arrogant part.
For all of his years making films, George has spent a lot of time being George Lucas and that has made it hard for him to remember what it was like before Star Wars. And when you look deeper into it and realize that his thoughts about his own fans have become caustic then it becomes clear that he was hoping to escape that and go into other films, only to find that it was harder than he thought it’d be. Need proof? Look at this quote:
“On the Internet, all those same guys that are complaining I made a change are completely changing the movie,” Lucas says, referring to fans who, like the dreaded studios, have done their own forcible re-edits. “I’m saying: ‘Fine. But my movie, with my name on it, that says I did it, needs to be the way I want it.’ ”
It sounds a little bitter, doesn’t it? And, you know what, he deserves to be a little bitter considering how sour his relationship with the fans has gotten. But that’s why I think it’s a good thing he’s retiring. And that’s also why I’m writing about this even though I’m primarily doing a blog about being a writer. George isn’t the first creator I’ve seen take this turn and he’s not going to be the last, writers have often done the same (Anne Rice famously doing it on Amazon with a rather lengthy response to her critics).
It’s natural to get attached to your work and feel like it belongs only to you. It’s also natural for you to hit some success and believe you were entitled to it. But sometimes you need to realize your limits and realize that you’ve been a success not because you’re just that damn good but because there were people out there who were willing to give you their time and money. Without those people you never would have made a dime. No creator should ever be so arrogant as to believe their fans can be brushed off. And if the fans start to reject you virulently, it’s better to try to understand where they’re coming from than to try to force your will on them and bend them to your whims. You don’t yield all control to them, of course, but you need to at least understand why they feel the way they do.
And if you can’t do that, it’s best to retire, like George did, before it’s…
(I may not be famous, I may not be successful, but here’s something you know for damn sure. If you buy my books, I will love and cherish you forever. Seriously, it’d make my week.)