Lucas Finally Breaks My Heart

After more than a decade of defending him, I am finally brokenhearted by George Lucas. Why, George, why? See, I have always regarded him my favorite director. And not just for Star Wars. I love THX-1138 and American Graffiti just as well. Despite the torrent of hatred lobbed at him from YouTube and message boards, I have always admired his tenacity, his unwillingness to conform to the strictures of the masses. When Star Wars was made, Lucas defied tradition by refusing to put the credits at the beginning of the film. Because of this, he was kicked out of the Director’s Guild. When he was preparing to make The Empire Strikes Back, Lucas was afraid of studio intervention, so he financed the movie himself. If he hadn’t, there is not a doubt in my mind 20th Century Fox would have made a passable sequel at best, adding nothing to the franchise. Throughout his career, Lucas stuck to his guns, despite the critics, because that’s what artists do. When the Prequel films went on to receive near universal disdain, I applauded his courage, in challenging moviegoers to think, for producing, from his own pocket, a pop culture Sci-Fi adventure dealing with such heady topics as the root causes of evil, the Buddhist tenets of non-attachment, and the collapse of democracies into dictatorships. What other Sci-Fi films, aside from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: Space Odyssey and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, even comes close to such laudable artistic ambitions? Sure, the Prequel films weren’t your regular direct-by-numbers, mindless entertainment, but at least Mr. Lucas offered us something to discuss. Whether or not you agreed with Jar-Jar or thought the acting was abysmal is besides the point. Art isn’t intended to appease the majority. There are enough watch-it-and-forget-it movies out there. I wanted a Lucas film more than any other film, because he was unique; he was an independent billionaire who didn’t play by Hollywood’s rules. I don’t want to be spoon fed what a studio thinks I want to see. Hell, I don’t even want to be pleasantly satisfied. I want to be challenged. To be disturbed. Even annoyed. I’ll take Jar-Jar’s annoying antics over cut-and-paste film making any day. So when the masses cried foul that Han no longer shot first, Lucas stuck to his guns. He didn’t relent. Any other studio would have. Whether I agreed with him or not (I often don’t) I have always been inspired by him.

Walt Disney (the man, not the company) is another hero of mine. When he was working on Snow White in 1937, everyone told him the same thing they told Lucas; the movie would bomb and he’d lose all his money from mortgaging his house. But Mr. Disney stuck to his guns. He didn’t make Snow White merely as a financial venture, but also for artistic reasons. Then Walter kicked the bucket, and the studio went on to make a number of atrocities until, by 1988, they were prepared to shut down their animation department. What saved Disney animation and the future of the entire medium? The Little Mermaid. But, the movie almost didn’t get made. The artists, however, were given free reign, having been moved into a trailer park and largely forgotten. Fortunately, Disney went on to make a number of masterpieces, from Beauty & the Beast to Mulan, before succumbing to the industrial machine with garbage like Treasure Planet. Watch either the Toy Story or the Pocahontas documentaries to get an idea of how Disney films are produced today. In Pocahontas, the wonderful song, If I Never Knew You, which spoke to the heart of the story and which validated the not-so-happy ending, was removed. Why? During a pre-screening, some kids looked bored. If Pixar hadn’t made the decision to ignore Disney’s advice about making Toy Story edgy (because that’s what kids “want,” apparently) we wouldn’t have the lovable Woody and Buzz. Fortunately, the head of Pixar understood the value of art for art’s sake. John Lasseter had been a long time fan of Studio Ghibli, the Japanese animation company headed by visionary Hayao Miyazaki, responsible for such masterworks as Spirited Away and Kiki’s Delivery Service. Given this background, it’s no wonder Lasseter refused to kowtow to Disney’s demand for a Toy Story 3. Pixar made the wonderful Finding Nemo instead.

The Disney Corporation is an entirely different beast than Disney the man, buying Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers (because it wasn’t enough that every little girl on the planet adores Disney); Pixar (since they couldn’t force them to make a Toy Story 3 otherwise); and Marvel Comics. At least John Lasseter became the new head of Animation, who had the good sense to bring back traditional 2-D (presumed dead by a board of directors, no doubt) with The Princess and the Frog. Marvel has always had financial difficulties since, let’s face it, kids are too busy playing video games to spend 3 minutes reading, so maybe a Disney buyout was necessary. But Lucasfilm? Industrial Light & Magic is the premiere special effects company in the business. And their merchandise, which includes toys, games and books, sell like hot cakes. Best of all, it was all being run by a visionary, an anti-corporate tycoon, a man who produced Tucker, the true story of a revolutionary car maker bought out by the auto industry. It already frightens me how, when I submit my book to editors, most of the major players, despite going by many different names, fall under the same publisher. The fact that a handful of billionaires will eventually control everything we read and watch and listen to is terrifying, the very socialist, sterile future Lucas warned us about in his first film! So what does George Lucas go and do to finally, finally break my heart? My hero of independent thinking? He sells. And not just to anybody, but to the biggest of corporate conglomerates, to an industry that prides itself on focus groups and catering to expectations, where art has been broken down into a science, and success is measured only by the almighty $$$.

What can we expect from a Disney owned Lucasfilm? New Star Wars films, made by teams of writers, each scene optimized for marketing potential and toy-tie ins; and of course, any and all outrageous ideas, things that might upset or offend people, will get voted down. And what will we have? Films nobody complains about. Films nobody will go on message boards to rage against. No more boycotts. They’ll be like Tron and Pirates and Narnia. Moviegoers will be happy, Disney will make billions, and Star Wars will become just another blip in the noise machine that has become our modern movie producing society.

I honestly feel sorry for Lucas. The Internet age didn’t agree with him, and the haters finally beat him down. We live in a world where people with no real talents are given an equal platform to voice their discontent, where lynch mob mentality dominates, where opinion is indistinguishable from fact. I am deeply saddened by this news on so many levels. Art is dead and the Internet seems to have killed it. To further illustrate the point, last week, the Wachowskis (of Matrix fame) released Cloud Atlas, based on a truly revolutionary book with deep philosophical underpinnings. Making ten million dollars in its first week, it is already being called the biggest flop of 2012. Based on those returns, we can expect the Wachowskis to get booted out of Hollywood soon, along with Shyamalan and Lucas, and anyone else who dares challenge the feel-good status-quo.

I Love The Phantom Menace

I love The Phantom Menace. There. My secret’s out.

Saying that feels like saying I love Al-Qaeda. On the Internet, you might think hate for George Lucas has surpassed hatred for Osama Bin-Laden, particularly after his recent decision to yet again alter the Star Wars Saga for the upcoming Blu-Ray release. The controversy between what some call Lucas “apologists” and Star Wars “purists” brings to mind Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Hindu, Scientist and Creationist. The same deep seated convictions stir the hearts and minds of both groups of fans. Never mind the global economic crisis, the revolutions taking place throughout the Islamic world or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this is STAR WARS! That anyone should care so deeply about a movie is unquestionably absurd, but I find myself inexplicably drawn to this controversy. I can’t help but feel angry by this hatred for a filmmaker who has given us so much. Imagine you get a special gift, something that changes your life, and then, decades later, you are given another by that same person, only you do not like the gift as much, maybe you even loathe it. Should you now hate this person? When it comes to Lucas bashing, it’s a virtual lynch mob, which makes me wonder, did these people learn nothing from Return of the Jedi? Don’t they know hatred leads to the Dark Side?

For die hard fans, no thinking person can enjoy The Phantom Menace. Not a year goes by that I don’t come across some comic or article taking pot shots at the prequel trilogy. The article doesn’t even have to be about Star Wars, yet somehow the reference is thrown out, as though we must never forget our raped childhoods. The epic failure of Episodes I, II and III has become legendary, repeated in the media like a mantra, as certain a fact as gravity. There is even a “fan” film depicting an 80’s George Lucas being kidnapped and replaced by an evil clone, as if the “real” Lucas could never have made something so terrible. Suggesting that the movies might not be that bad is to be suffering from Lucas Stockholm Syndrome. But wait. Something isn’t quite right here. How can a movie, any movie, spawn such hatred?

In 1999, before The Phantom Menace hit theaters, I was not a huge fan. I owned the movies on VHS, and watched them once or twice, but had none of the toys or books or posters. But when the trailer for Episode I was released, it brought me back to Thanksgiving Day, 1980, when I rode on the back of my uncle’s dirt bike to see The Empire Strikes Back; to the afternoon in 1983 when my sister and I waited in a line that wrapped around the theater for Return of the Jedi. This wasn’t just a movie, it was a cultural event. One week before release, I waited hours with a hundred or so people pining for the lost wonder of childhood. We listened to John Williams’ blasted from parked cars and relished talking about things too geeky for everyday society. I was 24 years old.

The Phantom Menace made me feel like a kid again. I didn’t look for clever dialogue or Oscar worthy performances here. I wanted spaceships and aliens and cool looking planets, and things that went KABOOM! and Lucas delivered in spades. Mature Sci-Fi, like District 9 and Minority Report, are far too gloomy for such guilty pleasures. Where else can you find aliens racing plane engines on a desert planet? Or that three way lightsaber fight, still the best in the saga? Keep in mind, this was long before the age of Marvel films, and Guardians of the Galaxy. Consequently, without The Phantom Menace and the much maligned Jar-Jar Binks, we might never have CGI characters like Rocket Raccoon and Groot. After seeing the film, I remember my friends and I loving it, and my four year old nephew going nuts over it. A fellow coworker and Marine later told me, “Now I want to be a Jedi.” Even Rotten Tomatoes gave it a certified 61% fresh rating. So, at the time, there was no inkling of the hatred the movie would later spawn.

Love him or hate him, he gave us Gollum, Hulk, and Groot

More than a decade later, Mr. Plinkett of Red Letter Media would say that Lucas’ script for The Phantom Menace was written by an eight year old. But it’s precisely this unchecked imagination that made me fall for George. It’s every kid’s dream come true: a billion dollars in toys! How can you not enjoy watching him play? In 2005, after the credits rolled on Revenge of the Sith, something changed in me. I knew I had become more cynical, jaded. Having a mortgage and two kids will do that to you. I knew that I would never again wait with such anticipation for a movie. It’s one thing to enjoy a film and quite another to count the days on your calendar, wishing time could move faster. Perhaps if I had been a little older in 1999, 34 instead of 24, I might have understood the disappointment.

I have always insisted that the hatred for the prequel trilogy has more to do with aging and less to do with the actual films. Let’s be honest here: Star Wars meant more to the people growing up in the 70’s than any other decade. My father, who is 78, never goes to the theater because “they don’t make good movies like The Sound of Music or Casablanca.” I know a guy in his fifties who loves The Day the Earth Stood Still and Forbidden Planet, but never cared for Star Wars. I know teenagers who have never seen, or even care to watch, Star Wars. And I also know kids who adore the prequels. So is it really Lucas that’s changed so much, or is it us? Is our hatred for him really a hatred for growing up? No prequel could have delivered the experience of watching the original as a child. In the re-release, critics found flaws with nearly every change, but the first cut of the films, we are led to believe, is flawless. It forces me to wonder, how did Lucas manage to create the most beloved film of all time, if he is so incompetent? But if we were to scrutinize the original with the same critical eye as the prequels, we could find much to gripe about.

The story of A New Hope, originally called Star Wars, revolves around retrieving the Death Star plans, but why does nobody consider that the rebels might have made a copy? Consider Leia’s on-again/off-again British accent, or her ho-hum attitude to having her ENTIRE planet destroyed. She acts like they forgot her ketchup at McDonalds. “Hey, I didn’t order all the people I’ve ever known killed!” It also never made sense to me, how the Death Star is supposed to move. Is it a space station or a spaceship? Somehow, it makes it to Yavin IV, but just can’t fly the extra few miles around its moon to blow it up. And how could the Empire be so dumb to create an exhaust port leading all the way down to the main reactor? Or for that matter, why doesn’t anyone consider, I dunno, landing a ship over the damn port and just dropping a bomb in there? I wonder what Mr. Plinkett would have to say about all this? Doubtless, nostalgia gives the first film a free pass. Empire Strikes Back, heralded the best in the saga, is also the most flawed. Does it really seem credible, to anyone, that Luke was Leia’s brother all along? Or Vader their father? What about Yoda, who continuously contradicts himself when he describes the limitless power of the Force. Size matters not, unless it’s something REALLY big, like the Death Star. Not to mention, turning 900 years old makes you useless. Seen through the rosy tint of childhood, however, the original trilogy is without flaw. As for me, I love all the films, warts and all, not because of what they don’t do wrong, but because of what they do right. With expectations bordering on religious ecstasy, the prequels were doomed from the start, just as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, directed by Steven Spielberg, arguably the greatest filmmaker in history. In contrast, casual fans love the prequels, as DVD and Blu-Ray sales have proved time and again.

The Phantom Menace is far from a perfect movie, but then again, I have never seen a perfect movie. I have never accepted the notion that art should be perfect. Should writers and painters and directors think like mathematicians? Should they never consider their most unorthodox ideas lest people think them inane? I love The Phantom Menace not despite its flaws but because of them. I love that we become passionate about art, one way or another; that we find ourselves hotly debating changes to a film decades after its inception; I love that we wonder whether words like YIPEE are cringe-worthy or just a sign of the times; I love that we consider racial stereotyping about an alien species; I love that we debate the physical aspect (midichlorians) of a spiritual belief system, something long debated by philosophers like Descartes and Spinoza. What other movie comes close to rousing such passions? None. By a long shot.

This post was last updated on 11/12/2015

For more, download this excellent 108 page defense of The Phantom Menace at RED-LETTER-MEDIA-EPISODE-I-REVIEW-A-STUDY-IN-FANBOY-STUPIDITY.