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.
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.
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.
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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