George Lucas, the Regretful Artist

I really believe that Star Wars is a case where the story about the series, (and of the creator), is just as interesting if not more so than at least 75% of the actual movies in the franchise. It’s a serial that was meant to be a celebration of the Hero’s Journey, and by extension all of mankind’s mythological background. Then over the years, it descended into mediocrity and ultimately a hollow Late Stage Capitalist-Consumerist piece of product to be exploited until there’s no profit left in it. In that sense, this series is an unintentional microcosm of our culture’s descent from an organic celebration of imaginative storytelling into cynical franchise-building and commoditization. There will be an amazing documentary or biopic about George Lucas someday, and despite the humorous header image on this post, I’m gonna try to take a balanced look at him for a second.

This guy directed THX1138 (which I’ve never seen), American Graffiti (which is actually better than Star Wars as far as I’m concerned), Star Wars itself (which is probably his crowning achievement in terms of cultural impact), and the prequels. Beginning in the 90’s and into the prequel era of the 2000’s, Lucas went from being one of the most beloved and respected filmmakers to the most hated. The narrative that formed is that in the old days, everyone else held his bad ideas in check and either encouraged or refined his better ones. Therefore, without those people acting as a check, Lucas lost his way and fell to excess. Original Trilogy (OT) producer Gary Kurtz (who walked off during ROTJ) theorizes as much, and there is some truth to it in the “making of” featurettes for the various prequel DVDs, in which people really do look scared around George and suck up to him. No one challenges his bad ideas even tho you can tell by their body language and facial expressions they often think he’s wrong.  An example of this is when Lucas first suggests Yoda should fight with a lightsaber, and you can see the other guy grimacing in response. Reading early ideas for the original films, such as Luke being a dwarf and Han being a Lizardman, the opening title crawl giving a needlessly detailed history of the galaxy and such also seems to corroborate Kurtz’ thesis.

Lucas’ Motivations and “Artistic Sincerity”

Some take a more cynical approach and say the various Special Edition cuts of the OT as well as the prequels themselves were all a soulless cash grab. I personally do not buy this theory—not completely anyway. It would explain some things, like using the more marketable Ewoks instead of the Wookies (as was the original plan) in ROTJ, as well as all the pointless, stupid new aliens at Jabba’s in the same movie. It would also explain all the stupid over the top marketing for each prequel release and scenes obviously designed with video-game levels in mind that have no bearing on story. (The conveyor belt sequence in Episode 2 comes to mind.) The man ran a media business which made most of its profits on the merchandise—especially toys. It stands to reason Lucas would keep this fact firmly in mind as he made each new film in the series.

But looking at the prequel making-of videos and listening to the DVD audio commentaries, Lucas does sound genuinely enthusiastic and reverent to what he calls “The Tragedy of Anakin Skywalker.” I truly believe he wanted to make good movies, he just forgot how to do it. After all, 20 years had passed since he last sat in the director’s chair. The prequels also have a lot of good ideas behind them. Episode 1 probably should have been rewritten from scratch considering it takes place so far ahead of the other two, and the only thing important which transpires is finding Anakin. However, Episode 2’s political assassinations and Obi-Wan acting as a detective solving a murder mystery are great concepts we’d never seen in the Star Wars universe before. The execution was seriously flawed, but there was a seed for a great story in those outlines. Episode 3 could have been a fantastic Greek Tragedy in space had the screenplay been ironed out. If it turns out that Darth Jar Jar was something Lucas was actually building towards, then for my money it would have been a fantastic twist if done right.

Framing the Special editions as a soulless cash grab doesn’t make sense because Lucas wants to make those the only versions available—it’s not about forcing us to buy a bunch of different versions and milk us dry so much as a genuine attempt to erase the originals from history. I will explore this further in the next section, and I’m not saying I agree with Lucas’ decision to constantly tinker with his old films. But, love the changes or hate them, no one can deny that Lucas’ motivations here are based on presenting a certain version of the story first and foremost. If all he wanted was money, he’d make far more if he presented each cut of the films with every release–especially just the original theatrical versions.

So, in conclusion, the flawed execution of the prequels is perfectly plausible–people get in over their heads and make bad movies all the time. Lucas wasn’t the first and he certainly won’t be the last in that regard. The reasons are equally straightforward: nobody challenged him and redrafted his scripts or worked with the actors to get better performances. The only real mystery is the Special Editions and why Lucas wanted to overwrite the original cuts with this new take. But the answer cannot be money alone, since ignoring the high demand for the original prints was costing Lucas a lot of potential revenue and goodwill from the fans. Lucas is a flawed man like all of us, and a flawed filmmaker, but his artistic sincerity is beyond question in my opinion.

As it happens, the Special Editions were my first experience with Star Wars growing up. I didn’t get to see the original cuts until Harmy’s Despecialized editions came to my attention.

Taking Star Wars Back

The famous evidence people bring up to condemn Lucas for this erasure of the original cut of his films is his testimony to Congress against the colorization of Black and White movies. He famously declared that people who destroy works of art are barbarians who rob us of our artistic history. Within ten years time, Lucas would release the Special Editions with numerous unpopular changes, withhold the original cuts and rob fans of their artistic history. Why? Some theorize that it’s due to bitterness regarding his ex-wife, Marcia Lucas. She is unfortunately unknown to most casual fans, but was one of the best editors in the business, whose input saved Star Wars in post-production, as well as helped Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark become better films than they otherwise would have been.

Marcia left Lucas for another man just as Temple of Doom was being made and this is said to have devastated George. The original versions of the Star Wars trilogy are in many ways Marcia’s babies too and she won an Oscar for the first film while Lucas himself didn’t win any awards for any of the films. Some speculate that in George’s mind the originals as they existed are reminders of her, and the fact that he owes his success to the woman who broke his heart. This would explain his determination to change them for the sake of change even if it’s unnecessary, destroys character arcs and angers fans. I’m sure in his wildest dreams he imagined the buzz on the early internet forums being positive, perhaps even praising these new edits over what Marcia had accomplished.

Beyond that, Lucas seems obsessed with new CGI technology and what it can do—even if it shouldn’t be done. It’s what Jurassic Park‘s Ian Malcolm would call “thintelligence.” It’s a little kid playing with his toys, obsessed with the idea that his every fantasy can come true even if it’s stupid and/or a waste of screen time. I do believe Lucas when he says the first cut of Star Wars doesn’t represent his original vision, that he was hampered by the technology of the time. I’m sure Mos Eisley would’ve looked vastly different and so on. However, I personally don’t think Lucas gives himself or his staff their due credit for what they achieved in the late 70s and early 80s. It looked amazing then and pushed boundaries. If one tracks down the HD fan restorations, the original cuts hold up fantastically well today. To alter that monumental effort on the part of the crew, their achievement which revolutionized special effects, is an insult to their legacy and an injury to the history of the craft if their work can no longer be seen.

Plus, if we believe this explanation for Lucas’ zealous tinkering, that still doesn’t explain changes to characterization. This would include Greedo shooting first and altering lines like “Bring my shuttle!” which worked just fine as they were. So, I can understand (but not agree with) his desire to replace the wolfman in the cantina for something more realistic looking. But no amount of whining “original vision” will convince me Luke was always meant to scream when he falls down the bottomless shaft on Bespin. If that were true, there’s no reason it couldn’t have happened in 1980. And that’s just one such pointless, non-CGI related change which hurts the character (since Luke now screams like a baby in the face of death as opposed to taking it with a stoic resolve.)

In any case, some fans accuse Lucas of not understanding the films themselves and what made his own story so beloved in the first place. As if he thinks it’s the cutting edge special effects we cared about when really it was the story. No one cares about a revolting CGI Jabba in ANH if it makes no sense and adds nothing of importance to the plot. Yet Lucas himself thinks we ought to be astounded by that effect enough to want it in despite the fact it adds nothing and throws off the pacing. I think it’s a combination of that, as well as losing his edge over the years due to having kids. The old George wasn’t afraid of violence or morally gray protagonists (Han being the classic example.) The new George seems to think we the audience can’t like a character unless they do nothing questionable.

And as these changes were vehemently rejected by fans, that aforementioned bitterness and cynical merchandising came back to both punish and profit off of customers for not loving this supposed vision. Lucas added more changes that even he must have known from the outset would be loathed by fans. These include Jar Jar yelling “Weesa free!” in ROTJ, Hayden replacing Sebastian Shaw as Force ghost Anakin, and Vader’s “NOOOO!!!” as he saves Luke from the Emperor. You can almost see Lucas behind the computer laughing: “So you don’t like Jar Jar/Hayden’s acting/Vader’s big moment in Episode 3? Well, take this, assholes!” Then you see Lucas ironically wearing a “Han Shot First” shirt and selling Vader “NOO!” shirts and it’s obvious that this wily SOB knows exactly what he’s doing—and thinks it’s funny!

Conclusions/Looking on the Bright Side

To be fair, the whole situation is kinda funny when you take a step back. I like laughing at the idea of George, sincerely convinced he’s crafting a great movie in those making-of shorts while his efforts are actually way off the mark. But I also like laughing at the thought of a more self-aware Lucas trolling the fans with his increasingly asinine changes. I’m annoyed that I can’t legally see Empire Strikes Back (one of my top 5 favorite movies) in HD unaltered. That’s to say nothing of how disrespectful Lucas’ actions are to Richard Marquand, Sebastian Shaw, Jason Wingreen and others. All the same though, it’s kinda funny to think of a “madman” having total control over a beloved piece of fiction and running rampant with it. It’s funny to think of the poor sods at Lucasarts and ILM forced to animate these stupid scenes like Jedi Rocks and knowing it sucks but being unable to say anything. Imagine watching man-child Lucas with his toys and bad taste in humor, laughing and clapping frantically like a baby in response to the silly aliens his computers can make. That’s something out of a great comedy or perhaps theater of the absurd right there!

And there is something of a silver lining to it all. There’s a Wiki page for “Han Shot first.” Hatred of the changes has brought fans together. Film students have been assigned to UNDO the alterations as official school projects. You’ve read and listened to numerous impassioned arguments against the changes and against the prequels by uber-fans. Essentially, by giving and then taking away, Lucas forced us to analyze what specifically made the unaltered originals great in the first place. There’s that whole idea of how you never appreciate something until its gone, etc.

But there is a sadness too. Listen to how resigned Lucas has been in all interviews about Force Awakensespecially the red carpet one. Notice how he says he’s going to continue making films but only for himself and his friends—no one else can see them. I distinctly remember seeing documentaries about Star Wars where George’s friends mentioned that he’d shown them all kinds of great screenplays he was working on but could never make, because he was committed to Star Wars. The series which was never supposed to be a hit had since become an albatross around its creator’s neck. It has to be sad to be stifled creatively because of a dedication to the fans of the series you never expected to be a hit, only for them to hate you for it. To then abandon your legacy to the care of another must be equal parts liberating, nerve-wracking and humiliating. George offered some story ideas to Disney—his intentions of where the story would’ve went post-ROTJ–and they predictably threw them in the garbage. Not without reason, Disney views his involvement as a kiss of death for any future installments. Lucas kinda brought that on himself, but you do gotta feel for the guy all the same.

It’s a complicated story overall. One of a man’s greatest success also being the source of all his bitterness, regret and insecurity. The man himself being thoroughly contemptible on the one hand yet ultimately sympathetic on the other. I really do believe the “bitter over the ex-wife” theory, and with that taken into account his recent quotes on being “divorced” from the series take on a whole new heartbreaking significance. Like history repeating itself, admitting he couldn’t make it work without Marcia despite his best efforts. And ultimately of a series like Vader and fans like Luke looking at this corrupted, loathsome mess of a thing on life support and somehow seeing good. There will be a tell-all about this when the man dies, mark my words. In the meantime, watch the makings of—especially the one for Episode 1, which is where all these speech bubbles come from—and the interviews to get a decent picture of the man behind the movies.


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