In Defense of George Lucas: Why the New Trilogy Matters

This article is in response to Simon’s article Star Wars: Why the Originals Matter (So if you haven’t read that yet, read it first.)

Simon’s article is, as always, well written, and he touches on many of the issues that have inflamed fans for years now. I must, however, do my part to stand up in defense of Mr. Lucas, and the things he and his films (even the less desirable prequels) have accomplished, which were not acknowledged in what was a fairly unflattering assessment of Lucas’ work over the past three decades.

I too consider myself to be an avid Star Wars fan. I’ve loved it since I was a kid, collected all the toys, I teach a unit on Star Wars in my film classes, and I even pre-bought a set of the Star Wars playskool toys for my children. For years I read every Star Wars novel that came out, and considered myself to be an expert of sorts on all matters Star Wars, memorizing pages out of the Star Wars Encyclopedia and dominating at Star Wars Trivial Pursuit. I would consider myself, to a more conservative degree, a “fanboy”. So I acknowledge that there is some bias in my love of Star Wars, but as someone who appreciates film as an industry and an art form, I have nothing but a profound admiration for what George Lucas has accomplished.

"Mos Epply Airport. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and muppetry."

I don’t really recall the releases of the original films as part of my childhood, although I know I watched them growing up. Perhaps my first true recollection of a Star Wars-related release was when the original films hit the theatres again in 1997 as part of the “Special Edition” craze. I was thrilled to see Star Wars on the big screen, and to be honest, there were just as many pros as there were cons to the enhancements.  There were the not-so-desirable character alterations, such as the infamous “Han Shot First”, awkward deleted-scene inserts such as the odd-looking Jabba and a badly spliced Han stepping over his tail (to hide the fact that it was actually a fat Scottish guy in a fur coat and not a slithery lizard creature), but there were also some very nice touch-ups of the effects, such as the landspeeder looking like it was actually hovering and not like they smeared Vaseline on the lens, making Mos Eisley look like a bustling spaceport and not Epply Airport in Omaha (which never seems to have more than 50 people in it at a time), or enhancing the Yavin skyline to make it look like it was actually on a foreign moon. Let’s not forget that Lucas did throw the fans a bone by including Boba Fett in the bonus Jabba scene of New Hope (renamed to Episode IV: A New Hope after Lucas got the greenlight to make his sequels, which he wasn’t initially sure would happen). I will not attempt to justify that every change Lucas made was, in my opinion, the best, but these changes were not all bad. Sadly, the hardcore fans seem to focus on the negatives. Like whiney, ungrateful children, we the fanboys never really stop to say thanks to Lucas for all the positive things that he has done, we just complain about that toy we saw in the store and wanted, but didn’t get.

I think the biggest culprit in the disappointment of fans is nostalgia.  We look back on things from our childhood with a fondness and forgiveness that we would never grant to even the best of films from our adult years. Really think about it. I’m an 80s kid, so if I mention shows like Thundercats, Transformers, GIJOE, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Mask, He-Man, we reminisce about how TV just isn’t the same, and we had “quality” shows back in our day.  I don’t know if you’ve managed to track down any episodes of those old shows and watch them, but some of them were pretty horrible in terms of the writing and animation. Heck, most of them existed solely to sell toys – another argument fans throw in the face of new Star Wars properties. The fact is, we get so caught up in the fuzzy glow of our childhood memories, that we selectively omit the negative aspects and zero in on the positives. Simon acknowledges the technical limitations in Star Wars, and points out that they add to the charm of the original films, which they do, but ultimately if you can fix those little flaws to polish up the film for today’s standards… why wouldn’t you? To Lucas’ credit, he didn’t do a complete gut-job, he left representations of the original work while putting some polish here and there. The industry isn’t disavowing all knowledge of the original contributions, but at the same time, they’re not going to make the next Transformers movie using tauntaun-style stop motion.

To a degree, nostalgic blinders put a jaded slant on the new Star Wars films. The writing was just as bad in the originals, the effects were worse (although still groundbreaking at the time), heck even the titles were just as cheesy and blunt in their descriptions. (“The Empire Strikes Back” and “Attack of the Clones” are about the same in caliber.) If anything, I’d say the saving grace on the writing in the originals was that the actors were better at turning Lucas’ words into something more believable. Irvin Kershner tells the story of how in ESB as they’re about to lower Han into the carbonite chamber, Leia says “I love you” and Han was originally supposed to say “I love you too”. Thankfully with it being someone other than Lucas as director, he was able to say “Harrison, this isn’t working. Don’t think, just say what comes naturally” and we got the classic we response we all know and love: LEIA: “I love you”, HAN: “I know.”

On the point of Lucas as a director, I have to agree with Simon that he is not the strongest at directing.  His actors always comment that he has a hard time communicating with them to get the performance he wants.  As a director and actor, I can tell you, at the end of the day, if your director isn’t helping give you a direction on your character, the performance will ultimately suffer.

I also agree with Simon that the original Star Wars films succeeded because they were a collection of many individuals’ artistic contributions. To a degree, Lucas’ complete control over everything in his films doesn’t put in that system of checks and balances he had on the original films – between the studio execs having input, his wife, fellow film makers, etc. (Probably the best moments of Episode III came from Lucas’ collaboration with Spielberg on the Obi-wan Anakin fight.) But even the special effects guru behind the original films, John Dykstra, praised Lucas’ tweaking of the originals, even though it essentially erased some of his own work. I like to think of it in this regard – yes these effects were pioneering at the time, but if we stuck with that mentality, we’d all still be driving westward on covered wagons.

Outside of Pixar, which sprang out of a development at Lucasfilm, all of these companies were started by George Lucas in the past 35 years.

But perhaps my biggest disagreement with Simon, and the reason I felt compelled to shed some positive light on Lucas’ work, is Simon’s belief that Lucas has simply “wallowed in mediocrity” since the original Star Wars films were released.  Although it is true that Lucas has not directed more than a handful of films (and I think we agree that it’s better when he leaves his work in the hands of more capable directors), Lucas has worked non-stop at literally redefining the industry of film as we know it. George Lucas the film student/startup director ceased to exist after the release of the original Star Wars, and since has become George Lucas of Lucasfilm, Lucasarts, THX, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM), and Skywalker Sound. Through these subsidiary companies, George Lucas has essentially built the modern filmmaking, animation, and even video game environment.

Through his guidance, these companies developed SoundDroid one of the first audio mixing/editing stations and EditDroid an early computerized non-linear editing system. Let’s not forget that under his watch Lucasfilm developed the PIXAR animation computer, which was eventually sold off and developed into the PIXAR animation company we know and love. Edutopia is an online resource which provides educational computer resources for educators and students alike, and Lucasarts created some of the most beloved games (even non-Star Wars games) of my youth. In the 80s and 90s Lucas continued to develop ILM and Skywalker Sound to provide state-of-the-art film creation facilities for film makers from all over the world. Skywalker Sound has 568 credited films to its credit, and ILM over 300. One might argue that technology companies would have figured out how to do these things on their own, but I contend that it takes a film maker to say “This is what I would want, this is what would help me make a better movie.” It was through this approach that ILM developed the stunning and groundbreaking CGI work that went into Jurassic Park which was developed hand-in-hand with the visual effects tweaking on the Special Edition release of Star Wars.

JAR JAR: "Heya, Gollum! Me-sa you-sa father!" FANBOYS: "Noooo! That's not true... that's impossible!"

And let’s not forget the new trilogy. Often despised by adult fans for being “not as good as the originals”, but generally enjoyed by children of this generation, these films pioneered the digital film making era we’re experiencing today. Admittedly I think the new trilogy films lost their way trying to fill in gaps and appease a rabid fan-base that had been salivating for 15 years for something new, but they were not without their merits. Attack of the Clones was the first film shot entirely using digital cameras, a practice which is becoming more and more the norm.  The continued development of seamless CGI character integration and motion capture technology (yes even Jar Jar served a purpose) paved the way for film makers like Peter Jackson and James Cameron to take the next step and develop technology seen in films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Avatar.

The list of Lucas’ accomplishments and contributions goes on and on.  George Lucas succeeded where almost no other film maker has.  He broke away from a system which had established itself as the only way to make films – driven primarily by the almighty dollar without much care for artistic expression – and created his own empire, where he was empowered to make films the way he wanted, and improve the climate for other directors who otherwise would not be able to afford that luxury. Although even Lucas himself acknowledges the irony and parallel in his story to that of Vader – he started out fighting against the empire, and in the end became the very thing he sought to destroy.

His vision and direction of his companies has ushered in a new era of film making, and he continues to strive toward new advances with each new project. Right now Lucasfilm is developing a live-action Star Wars TV series, but in order to make it become a reality, his companies are working to improve the way CGI is produced so that it becomes cheaper and more feasible on a faster time frame. This would open the door for more advanced CGI in television series – think Heroes, only where they actually had the budget and time to do loads of cool super-powered effects every week.

And we cannot overlook the simple power of these films to inspire people.  Not simply from their entertainment value and the artificial realities they encourage us to act out as children – otherwise Simon and I would still be in our back yards practicing our lightsaber skills – but to seek out methods of creative expression, be it film, art, theatre, music, or even an articulate debate over another man’s work.  I would even contend that the negative changes have inspired people to try their hand at creating something “better”. Star Wars fan films have blossomed from simple rotoscoped light saber fights, to 2-hour epics with fully developed CGI effects.

Ultimately Star Wars is George Lucas’ creation, it’s his world, and we are fortunate enough to experience it. My high school drama teacher ran into George Lucas in London a few years back. I often think of what I would have done in that situation or what I would have said. My teacher came up with something I think was absolutely perfect, he said “Thank you for your work, Mr. Lucas.”  If you don’t like the re-re-re-releases with enhanced this-and-that and want so desperately to cling to your childhood nostalgia, stick with the original theatrical releases on DVD. The fact is, our kids will love them regardless of what’s original and what isn’t. My film students never even notice the changes unless I point them out.

Lucas didn’t have to re-release the original, non-enhanced films, but he did – which is a big consolation. Think what would happen if you wrote an article, revised it, and the revision was published. Now what would happen if the people demanded you publish your first draft, which you know was full of typos and poorly worded points? Wouldn’t you resist turning out something you didn’t feel was your best work? Ultimately the Star Wars films are Lucas’ baby, and we should all be so lucky to be able to revise our work into something we can be 100% content with.  Eventually he will have to let the originals go (probably when he finally dies) but that is his prerogative. As for the man’s work, we are extremely fortunate that George Lucas did not simply “wallow in mediocrity” for the past 30 years, or we’d be looking at a very different cinematic landscape right now.

In short, I get you, George Lucas. God bless you, and keep on doing what you’ve been doing.

P.S. I eagerly await your new film Red Tails.

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  1. Andy Ringsmuth says

    Simon, I have to largely agree with Dave on this one. Yeah, it’d be nice to see the originals in glorious 1080P or even as originally released, that isn’t what matters. What does matter though is what he created – an entire universe in which you can immerse yourself and almost lose yourself. Yes, he made a few tweaks here and there, but even IMHO the whole “Han shot first” debate isn’t anything.

    One way to look at it I suppose – ask two adults to reminisce about events 20 or 30 years ago. They will largely remember the story the same, but each will remember some parts differently and may even argue over a few points. Which one is right? Who knows. Does it matter? Basically no. Same goes for the Star Wars storyline. Does every tiny bit match up for continuity? Of course not. But the story itself holds together well. Heck, not even the four Holy Gospels are in agreement 100 percent point-for-point about events surrounding someone way more important than Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader.

    Lucas created an entire universe, a whole long, winding storyline that is wonderful engagement for a wide range of ages. Ever read any of the books? They put the movies to shame in their depth and nuance. But they also expand the universe beyond three or six movies, and fill in gaps and holes that I didn’t even know existed. And I’ve only read a handful of the books.

    Interestingly enough, I used to be more of a purist like Simon. What changed? Having a kid, and seeing my six-year-old get wrapped up in that story, that universe, and loving it. Does he care who shot first? Does he even know? And does it matter? Does he care if there are rocks in front of R2D2? Of course not. But he knows who R2 is and his role in the storyline.

    In short, Star Wars isn’t about what was projected on screens across the country 30 years ago and whether or not what you can get now is slightly different. It’s about the whole universe which George Lucas created that you can watch, read, play with and enjoy. When your son is 5 and running around the house in a black cape and plastic lightsaber, will he care if one 40 years ago was red or pink? Did you care 15 years ago when we played in the back yard?


  2. I agree in that Star Wars has become much bigger than a simple movie, and it is, quite frankly, a one-of-a-kind universe that doesn’t exist in any other sense in pop culture. And in the long run, quibbling over who shot first or whether Vader should remain silent in Jedi’s final climax kind of does miss the point. George Lucas created an incredible entertainment phenomenon, and I too am thankful for his contribution to my childhood (as well as the childhood of millions of other kids out there).

    And like Dave says, George Lucas’ contributions to film and education stretch far beyond simply making movies. The technologies he pioneered have influenced every aspect of modern moviemaking, and it’s clear the man has not been resting on his laurels when it comes to technological innovation. But in terms of actually creating movies and telling stories, I stand by my original assessment that the man has, unfortunately, been wallowing in complacency. The Star Wars universe is his comfort zone, and rather than branch out and tell new stories or find new myths to explore, he stays in the comfortable bounds of Star Wars and fiddles, tweaks, and changes things.

    But perhaps I should let someone else speak for me here. These are the words spoken to congress in 1988 during a copyright dispute. Companies were taking classic black and white movies whose copyrights had expired, and colorizing them (sometimes in spite of objection from the original directors). Several prominent moviemakers went to Washington to convince Congress to enact laws protecting the copyrights of films whose influence was so broad that they essentially should belong to the people of this country and remain in their original form, preserved and untouched:

    “People who alter or destroy works of art and our cultural heritage for profit or as an exercise of power are barbarians…Today, engineers with their computers can add color to black-and-white movies, change the soundtrack, speed up the pace, and add or subtract material to the philosophical tastes of the copyright holder. Tommorrow, more advanced technology will be able to replace actors with “fresher faces,” or alter dialogue and change the movement of the actor’s lips to match. It will soon be possible to create a new “original” negative with whatever changes or alterations the copyright holder of the moment desires…In the future it will become 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.”

    These words were spoken by none other than George Lucas himself, and I could hardly put it better. Like I said in my original post, he is free to update and change his films all he wants (and to be honest, they do sound better and look crisper now than they ever did originally) but the original films–the ones whose effects continue to reverberate throughout the industry and our culture–should be preserved and presented to future generations as well. It is the originals (call them “rough drafts” if you will) that started everything.

    Why do we have archeologists? To uncover the roots of civilization, even though our forebears were primitive by our modern standards.

    Why do we have museums? To preserve original works of art that have impacted humanity throughout the centuries.

    Why do we have linguists? To study the roots of language.

    Are we to tell archeologists that their work is null and void, because the original stone jars and bronze tools don’t matter when they can just go to Lowe’s and buy a Makita 24-volt drill? That it is only what we have in this day and age that ought to be studied? Should we tear down the Louvre, content that much better-quality color-corrected versions of the Mona Lisa exist on computers nowadays? (Surely DaVinci would, if he were handed a laptop and photoshop, dismiss his original work as merely a “rough draft”) We might as well tell Google to abandon their Dead Sea Scrolls project because our modern bibles get the message across just fine, thank you very much.

    No, I contend that it is the originals which matter more than anything. It’s just too bad George Lucas doesn’t see it that way (at least, not anymore).

  3. The key difference in what Lucas said was that other people should not be making decisions on the work of others. The colorization of classics came about when none other than Ted Turner himself bought up the MGM library of classics and decided to go in and add color to them. Now, although this could be “updating” them just the same as Lucas updates the effects with modern technology, the primary difference is that this is Lucas saying “I wanted to do this originally, but the technology was not there to do it.” (Plus Ted Turner is notably eccentric and bat$*@# crazy.) Mark Hamill says in an interview that while they were filming Lucas was terribly disappointed in the Cantina scene. What he had originally envisioned as a diverse room filled with complex alien species turned into a weird Halloween puppet show because the budget and technology simply were not there. So in this sense, Lucas always had his vision in mind, he was just limited, and newer advances allowed him as the artist to modify his own work to reach his original ideas.

    If zombie DaVinci really wanted to sit down with Photoshop and touch up his Mona Lisa, he’s more than entitled to it. The world may gasp and guffaw over their cherished memory of what she looked like in her original form, but it’s DaVinci’s creative property, and he can do what he wants with it. But to keep the comparison the same, we would assume DaVinci would simply release a new set of prints called Mona Lisa 2.0 with all the enhanced features. People that want to see the original can fly themselves over to Paris and check it out, just like people who want the original, unaltered, museum-worthy Episodes IV-VI can get sweet VHS copies (I’d say Beta, but they’re harder to find) at your local thrift store. I mean, if we really want to be purists about the original art here, then you have to go pre-DVD/BluRay era and get the completely non-enhanced versions. (Enhanced like a modern English translation of the Dead Seas Scrolls… for example.) Frankly I even find myself resistant to most movies being “upconverted” to HD because it takes away that cinematic glow present in older films.

    And to throw one more kink in the argument that Lucas was staying at a mediocre level, the role of executive producer is almost more encompassing artistically than that of director. In that capacity, Lucas served as Executive Producer on several major non-Star Wars related projects during the 80s and 90s, including The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (which served as a proving ground for early CGI effects), the Indiana Jones films (which were just as much Lucas as Spielberg), Willow, Labyrinth, The Land Before Time and the Michael Jackson Disney classic – Captain EO. Not to mention his writing credits, editing credits, and any creative input he provided on all the projects he was given special thanks for. All of this, again, while building all of his multi-purposed companies. At this point I can barely run a four-show theatre season while fixing up my house and doing the occasional side gig editing or doing web design. And having seen what parenthood is like for all of one week now, I’m even more impressed that Lucas raised three kids on his own, while doing all the other pre-mentioned things.

    Yes, I agree he has stayed in the comfort zone of Star Wars-related properties, but to be fair, that’s where the money is, and if you don’t have capital, you can’t make more product. Star Wars has provided the cash flow to do other more edgy things, and now that the final three movies are finished, Lucas has said he wants to make smaller, more artsy films (his first venture being the upcoming Red Tails). We’ll see if the public is willing to accept a George Lucas film that doesn’t take place in a galaxy far, far away. Thankfully with his established financial position, he can continue his “make the films I want, and critics be damned” attitude, so we can expect the potential for some interesting results.

  4. I think this one has the best caption since “Guy Pierce gets medival in the 8000th century.”

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