Star Wars: Why the Next Trilogy Matters

This article is technically the third in our own little Walking Taco trilogy regarding the works of George Lucas. You can read the others to help you get back story, although this one does stand on its own.
Episode 1: Star Wars: Why the Originals Matter
Episode 2: In Defense of George Lucas: Why the New Trilogy Matters
Also, check out Simon’s article – 5 Reasons the Disney Acquisition is Good for Star Wars

If you don’t follow breaking movie news, Oct 30th it was announced that Disney was acquiring Lucasfilm Ltd for a sum a little over $4 billion in cash and stock. This merger of companies brings all of Lucasfilm’s properties and subsidiary companies into the fold of the Disney entertainment juggernaut. Details of the deal are slowly coming to light, and what we know, among other things, is that Disney will acquire Industrial Light and Magic (the premiere visual effects company in the world) and Skywalker Sound (which does the sound recording/editing/mixing on many Hollywood films), both of which will continue to be able to provide services for films outside of the Disney corporation, as well as LucasArts (the video game branch of Lucas’ empire). The deal includes all of the Star Wars properties, as well as the Indiana Jones series (although those distribution rights are currently shared with Paramount, so will require some negotiation). Along with this major announcement, Kathleen Kennedy, the new Co-Chair/President of LucasFilm has announced that Star Wars Episode VII is already in the works, and under the new Disney banner will arrive in theatres in 2015, with Episodes VIII and IX to arrive shortly thereafter, and Star Wars films every 2-3 years after into the foreseeable future.

It is, needless to say, a very big development in the world of film and Star Wars. Everyone is weighing in on their thoughts as details and questions continue to emerge. I’m still sorting out all of my thoughts, but figured I would gather them in writing.

So, what do I think about all this?

What some people probably imagined the cast of Episode VII would look like under the new Disney banner.

Five years ago I would have been extremely leery of it all. I would have thought “Oh no, Jar Jar has gotten to George. He’s going all super-kiddy and soon Mickey will be appearing in a live-action Star Wars film that will rival the ill-conceived Holiday Special.” But two words put all those fears at ease – The Avengers. If Disney’s purchase of Marvel has shown us one thing, it’s that Disney can handle a well-established source material and allow it to flourish within it’s own individualized existence. We shouldn’t have to worry about them suddenly trying to water down the Star Wars films to appeal to even younger audiences because the Marvel movies are some of the most enjoyable films I’ve experienced as an adult. So in that regard, I welcome the merger. If Lucasfilm can flourish as much as Marvel has under the Disney banner, we should see some amazing things down the line.

Let’s also look at the new creative structure on the upcoming Star Wars films. Lucas has already created a treatment (which is basically a rough outline of the story for those who don’t know film-speak). But Lucas has also entered semi-retirement, meaning he will only be serving as a creative consultant on these films. Kathleen Kennedy, who has worked with both Lucas and Spielberg on many of the amazing films they created over the past 3.5 decades, is executive producing the films, and they’ll be bringing on new writers and someone else to direct. In essence, you have almost the same formula as The Empire Strikes Back, which is arguably the best film in the series. It allows George to offer his input and keep the universe cohesive, but doesn’t require him to write out all the dialogue (which even I’ve acknowledged he’s not always the best at) and gives other people with fresh eyes a chance to make the material more accessible to a mass audience. So, depending on who they can get to direct, and fans are speculating from names like the Wachowskis to Spielberg to Nolan (although odds are it will be someone less-known), it could produce some really intriguing results.

New directors means the potential for some new style elements to the Star Wars universe. Just imagine the possibilities!

Lucas has always known that Star Wars would continue long beyond his time on this earth. It is a legacy. It is a universe that has amassed fans of all ages, from all generations, and continues to grow, even without (or in spite of) additional movies. He couldn’t keep hold of it forever, and as he stated in a video interview you can watch on StarWars.com, he knew that Disney was a safe, stable company to house that property within. It’s a company he’s worked with on various projects in their parks, so he was comfortable with them, and I’m sure after seeing how they handled Marvel, he’s really got some peace of mind that they’ll handle that responsibility well. But more than that, even though George has been hesitant to relinquish control of making Star Wars movies to someone else because, in his words – “they’re my thing”, he acknowledges that in order for the property to stay relevant with future generations, there will need to be more films, and they will need to be done well without him feeling like he has to do it all himself.

However, this decision has bigger ramifications than simply excited fans getting to see more Star Wars movies. It’s bigger than a potential “Star Wars Land” at Disney parks, or the $4 billion George Lucas made, it once again opens the door for some serious advances in film. Many of the advances in all areas of film production – effects, cameras, editing, sound, etc. – all came in tandem with Star Wars movies. Lucasfilm, ILM, and Skywalker Sound have all continued pioneering new technology, but the times they seem to be at their best are when they are pushing the envelope on a new Star Wars film. So with an endless future of the sci-fi series in the works, it would reason for us to believe that we will continue to see bold new advances to film technology.

My daughter playing with her astromech. Who knows, with the future of Star Wars being so bright, maybe she’ll grow up to direct her own Star Wars movie someday. A dad can dream…

But even more than that, this decision will open the door for a new generation of film makers. Keep in mind, Lucas was a member of the group affectionately known as “The Movie Brats”, the first real crop of students formally trained in the art of film making. He and his classmates (Spielberg, Scorcese, Ford Coppola, Cameron, etc.) have literally defined quality cinema of the past few decades. We’re now at a point in the history of film where people who were children when the original, or even the new, trilogy hit theatres are now adults. Some of these people went into a career in film as a result of these movies – inspired to become filmmakers themselves. Who better to take over the helm of Star Wars films than the very people they so passionately inspired? I can’t think of a more fitting circle-of-life-esque tribute to George Lucas’ love of education and fostering creativity.

So once again, I sign off with a note to George Lucas. (Although I’m pretty sure he will never read these posts.) I want to thank you, sir. You have inspired me on many levels. As a lover of film, of storytelling, of imagination, as an educator, as a parent, as a human being – you have added so much to my life through your work, and although I can only imagine how many mixed emotions are involved with such a decision, rest assured that it will continue that impact far into the future. Thank you for all that you have done, and continue to do, and may your “retirement”, whatever that entails, reward you with as much enjoyment as you’ve provided us for all these years, and the peace of knowing that your legacy will make a difference for a long, long time into the future.

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5 Reasons the Disney Acquisition is Good for Star Wars


I remember the moment I got the news with a crystal clarity usually reserved for momentous events like the birth of a child or the arrival of a long-lost loved one.  I remember, like it was yesterday (because it was), when I read the first tweet informing me of the news I never expected: Disney had bought Star Wars.  Disney, the biggest of media companies, was now the owner of one of the most fiercely independent film studios.  Disney, whose decades of cheerful cartoons had brought joy to millions of children and adults around the world, was now custodian of such iconic figures as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Yoda, and Darth Vader.  My initial reaction was shock and disappointment, and I immediate posted the following reaction on Facebook:

Oh no…Episode 7? C’mon George Lucas, just let it rest already.

I read a lot of other opinions and news stories, and watched the video in which Bob Iger and George Lucas talk about the decision.  And now that I’ve had time to digest this news and really give it the consideration it deserves (because, let’s face it, 24 hours is an eternity in internet time), I think this is actually a good thing.  In fact, it might be the best thing that has happened to Star Wars and all of Lucasfilm since Return of the Jedi.  Here are five reasons why:

1. Disney knows how to make good movies.

Disney’s track record is kind of like the stock market in that it goes up and down, often unpredictably.  The studio has put out some stinkers like Mars Needs Moms and Old Dogs, but on the whole Disney can deliver the goods when it needs to.  They’re not afraid to spend big money on good talent, and let’s not forget that this is the studio that somehow they turned a 50-year-old theme park ride into one of the most successful franchises of the past decade. The icing on the cake?  The movies were actually pretty good.  Disney is also not afraid to take chances on giant projects that don’t turn out so well.   John Carter and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time didn’t turn out to be the gravy trains they were made to be, the quality of the movies wasn’t half bad.  The main problem with these big-budget letdowns was partially due to their lack of recognition in the mainstream zeitgeist:  nobody cares about Barsoomians or ancient Persians when heading to the summer megaplex, but it’s a safe bet that ten out of ten filmgoers could pick Yoda out of a lineup with no problems at all. Give Disney some established characters and storylines, and stand back with your blast shield down lest the shockwave knock you over. They will do everything humanly possible to capture lightning in a bottle, which also means they will make certain Michael Bay will never, never be involved.  While the Star Wars prequels and the most recent Indiana Jones movie were commercial blockbusters, they were critical goose eggs.  Put these characters in the hands of the Disney corporation, and it’s a safe bet they will hire screenwriters and directors who can inject a new lifeblood into these franchises who will make sure the movies are golden eggs for the studio while also being quality films.

2. Lucasfilm was Disney already.

A giant company has massive film franchises that are beloved around the world.  It leverages the characters and stories in these franchises to sell merchandise of every conceivable kind, from action figures to lunch boxes to bedsheets to candy to clothing to video games, comic books, and spinoff novels.  This company also keeps milking cash from its franchises directly in the form of spinoffs, sequels, prequels, and 3-D re-releases ad infinitum.  Is this company Disney or is it Lucasfilm?  It’s both.  And anyone who thinks Disney could do any further damage to the beloved Star Wars franchise by whoring it out to product vendors of every conceivable kind has obviously not been paying attention.

(it was Lucasfilm who allowed this Star Wars Kinect game to happen, not Disney. There is literally no possible way things could get any worse.)

3. Iron Man/The Avengers

This kind of piggybacks on Reason #1, but I think it deserves its own entry.  Let’s rewind things a bit to the 1990’s, when comic book movies were kind of a joke.  While Tim Burton injected a much-needed shot in the arm to this corny celluloid stepchild with his dark and gritty Batman, his counterparts were busy churning out schlock like Tank Girl, Timecop, and The Phantom, not to mention a string of subsequently stupider Batman films culminating in one of the worse offenders in modern cinema: Batman and Robin. It wasn’t until Bryan Singer brought the X-Men to the silver screen, followed soon after by Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) and Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins) that comic book films really launched into the stratosphere.  These were deep, thought-provoking movies with multi-dimensional characters and solid acting–a far cry from the cornball movies of yore like Howard the Duck (a Lucasfilm production, no less).  Comic books, in the hands of talented directors and writers, became a gold mine of characters and storylines that shows no signs of running dry.  Marvel leveraged its own deep roster and financial clout to form its own movie studio, which was bought by Disney in 2009.  Sure enough, fans cried foul, grabbed their pitchforks and torches, and took to the internet in fits of collective rage decrying the inevitable befouling of their beloved franchises at the hands of Mickey Mouse.

So what happened?

Iron Man.  Iron Man 2.  Thor.  Captain America: The First Avenger.  And of course, towering over all modern comic book movies, The Avengers.

Some might dispute the faithfulness of these movies with respect to the source material. Others might quibble about costumes or supporting characters.  But few would argue that these are not quality films.  Disney knows how to turn franchises into commercial and critical hits, and there is no reason to suspect anything else from future Star Wars or Indiana Jones films.  They spent too much money to mess these up, and while audiences might have forgiven the awful dialog and painful characters of the Prequels because they sprouted from the same mind that brought them Star Wars in the first place, this same leniency will not be extended to Disney. Any new films are going to have to work hard to earn their place in the fans’ hearts, and if Disney’s track record since acquiring Marvel is any indication, Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones are in good hands.

4. We might get the original trilogy back.

For fanboys like me who have been crying foul over George Lucas’ treatment of his original trilogy by releasing endless special editions with gratuitous CGI effects might finally get their wish granted.  Disney knows how to get every last dime out of a sense of public nostalgia, but few could argue that they do a great job paying tribute to their original works.  Take Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, for example.  By all accounts this film is hopelessly outdated with what would now be seen as shoddy animation, poor quality sound, and unflattering character stereotypes.  But when Disney released it as the Diamond Edition Blu-Ray, they left the original untouched in all its lo-fi glory. The colors have been restored, not edited, and the release strives to be as close to the original version as possible as opposed to George Lucas’ endless tinkering with the classic trilogy in order to suit his ever-changing “original vision.”  But after years of repeatedly denying fans the opportunity to see the classic Star Wars trilogy without all the CGI muck, Disney might finally leverage its considerable power and financial werewithal to give the original trilogy the Blu Ray release it deserves.

It might be wishful thinking, but it’s the best shot we have had in years.

5. It’s better than the alternatives.

Think what would happen in five years if George Lucas were left in charge of Star Wars.  At best, we would likely get sequels with the same terrible dialog and wooden acting (but gosh darn it if those CGI effects aren’t pretty) as Episodes I-III.  But at worst, they might never happen at all.

George Lucas is in his 70’s, and to be honest the man deserves a break.  Say what you want about the licensing, the prequels, and the endless spinoffs, you gotta respect the man for bringing all this to us in the first place.  And like my buddy Dave pointed out, it was George Lucas who single-handedly changed the face of modern filmmaking while also bringing us Industrial Light and Magic, Pixar, and THX not to mention countless innovations in how films are produced and edited.  The man deserves our respect, our thanks, and more than anything, a break.  I applaud him for letting Kathleen Kennedy take charge of Lucasfilm back in June of this year, and selling the company to Disney is the next logical step.  I honestly don’t believe George’s heart is in it anymore, which is why he wants to get back to basics and work on smaller, more personal projects.  More power to him, and I hope he does well.  If Lucasfilm was left in charge of Star Wars the franchise would likely sink into mediocrity, and while it would still make boatloads of money it would probably not innovate.  The Disney buyout is a breath of fresh air for our beloved galaxy far, far away, and probably the best thing that has happened to it in years.

As we look forward to Episodes 7-9 (hopefully based on the outstanding Timothy Zahn novels), a possible TV show, and no doubt a tidal wave of products and merchandise along with them, I feel a disturbance in the force I have not felt in a long time: hope.

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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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Star Wars: Why the Originals Matter

star-wars-original-poster

The poster for the original Star Wars. Note the absence of the subtitle "A New Hope," the first of many additions Lucas would make in subsequent years.

I can’t pinpoint the time when I first saw Star Wars, but I think I have a fairly good idea.  I was born in 1980, three years after Star Wars was released, and while I was growing up I had no concept of Jedis, the Force, Darth Vader, or X-Wing fighters.  But somewhere along the line, perhaps around the mid-1980s, my parents rented a VCR and let us stay up late to watch George Lucas’ masterpiece.  From the moment John Williams’ score poured from our 19-inch TV’s single three-inch speaker I was hooked.  I watched with bated breath as R2D2 and C-3PO evaded capture and flew an escape pod to Tatooine. I marveled as Luke Skywalker handled his first light saber, my mind reeling with the possibilities such a weapon offered. And when the X-Wing fighters took to the trench in the film’s climactic battle, I gaped at the screen, mesmerized and completely, utterly hooked.

The technical details mattered not to my six-year-old brain.  The monaural soundtrack, the obvious puppeteering, the poor quality matte lines…those didn’t even register.  What kept my mind spinning for days and weeks was the incredibly story of a young boy who grew up to realize his destiny, his friends who never abandoned him even in the face of great danger, and the haunting, chilling sound of Darth Vader’s mask.  Rooted deep within the story, at some primal level, were the basic elements of mythology that humans have used to tell stories for generations without end, and in our living room more than two decades ago they connected with me too.

Soon after that we rented Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and I was absolutely thrilled to be able to continue the journey of Luke Skywalker and his friends.  My brothers and I used sticks in the back yard to pretend we were Jedis.  I delivered newspapers on my bike pretending I was on a speeder bike evading scout troopers and dodging trees.  On cold walks to school I would make believe I was looking for a tauntaun I could ride instead.  The entire universe captivated me, despite the fact that it was riddled with technical glitches, chroma-key matte lines, and obvious modelwork and puppetry.  All that is beside the point, because as George Lucas himself said, special effects are just a tool, a means of telling a story, and it’s the story itself that matters.

And it’s the story itself that endures.

With the release of the Special Editions in 1997, George Lucas began what would be a seemingly endless journey of tinkering, tweaking, altering, and even polishing his original trilogy.  He has stated that his original movies were only 25 to 30 percent of what he wanted them to be, largely due to technical limitations.  The changes he has since made, from the mundane (cleaning up the colors of the lightsabre duels) to the horrifying (Greedo shooting first) continually eroded not only fans’ appreciation for the newer editions, but their respect and admiration for Mr. Lucas himself.  All this tinkering has been well documented, and will not be explored in depth here, but suffice it to say the version of the classic trilogy that hit store shelves recently is, in many ways, a shadow of its original counterpart.

The originals weren’t perfect by any means, and compared to today’s cinematic productions with 1080p and 4K resolutions, 7.1 sound, and 3D effects, they do show their age more than a little bit.  But, and this is the part of the argument that seems to escape Mr. Lucas, that is precisely the point.  Star Wars broke new ground in so many ways, and advanced cinema in so many unprecedented directions, that to essentially deny the validity of the originals is akin to robbing popular culture of one of its most enduring treasures.

Consider the man behind all this for a moment: George Lucas.  Thirty years ago he was a kid fresh out of film school with an epic story to tell and enough tenacity to actually pull it off despite massive obstacles facing nearly every element of the production.  However, ever since his success with the original Star Wars (not subtitled “A New Hope” until long after its initial theatrical run), Mr. Lucas has, for all his notoriety, wallowed in mediocrity.  To this date, a scant half-dozen films comprise his entire directorial resume:

George Lucas Han Shot First

George Lucas on the set of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, wearing a t-shirt with a graphic that says "Han Shot First."

THX-1138

American Grafitti

Star Wars

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Star Wars: Episode II – The Clone Wars

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith

And that’s it.  Consider, then, the laundry list of films directed by Steven Spielberg, one of Lucas’ contemporaries whose films like Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. have had a similar impact on the cultural zeitgeist.  While Lucas had a gap of more than twenty years between directing the original Star Wars and The Phantom Menace, Spielberg was busy making dozens of films and refining his craft, and currently has four films in various stages of production.  So what was Lucas doing that whole time? Nearly every project he was involved in after 1977 bears the words “Star Wars” or “Indiana Jones,” a film which he was, admittedly, very influential in creating.  Stymied by his own myopic vision, or perhaps simply too scared to venture out with other projects, Lucas has seen fit instead to tinker with his original creations rather than branch out into new areas of science fiction and storytelling.  Not every film made by Spielberg, Martin Scorcese, James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, or other influential Hollywood personalities, is a success.  Even the greatest artists sometimes fail, which in its own way an integral part of success.  But George Lucas has never experienced failure, thanks to his refusal to exit the comfortable confines of his Star Wars universe and try something new.  Instead, he is content to meddle with Star Wars, babbling on about his “original vision” and adding pointless things like additional rocks and blinking ewok eyes to films that, for years, have stood entirely on their own without enhanced color grading or CGI dewbacks. Notice also two curious omissions from the aforementioned list: The Empire Strikes Back (which Lucas actually said was the worst in the series) and Return of the Jedi. These films were borne from Lucas’ original creation, but he did not actually direct them. Instead, he wisely left that task to men who understood conventions like dramatic tension, character arcs, and (gasp!) good dialogue.  Even the original Star Wars owes a great deal of its success not to Lucas, but his wife Marcia, who edited the film and in many ways helped her husband guide its direction (it was her idea to kill Ben Kenobi, an idea which Lucas initially resisted).

X-Wing Approach

In the originals, shots like this were the culmination of cutting-edge motion control and compositing. In the Special Edition, they were replaced with CGI, effectively erasing some of ILM's most pioneering work.

In other words, George Lucas may have been the guy with the idea, but Star Wars owes its enduring popularity to a host of individuals. And yet it is Lucas who has decided not to leave well enough alone and revise the very objects of art which catapulted him to fame and fortune.  Star Wars is not simply his vision. It was the product of many committed individuals who poured their heart and souls into the films. And with the release of the Blu-Rays, the original trilogy has been, in many ways, marred beyond recognition so as to effectively snuff out out the contributions of the many individuals who helped bring them to fruition.  The special effects might have been cheesy, the colors less than perfect, and the sound a humble stereo mix, but these are what made the films great.

Of course Lucas is free to alter the films if he so chooses.  He owns the copyright, and he can take his fancy ball and go to another playground if he wants to–even if no one else is there to play with him.  But it was the original trilogy that changed how movies were made. It was the original  trilogy that defined special effects for the next 30 years. It was the original trilogy that created legions of devoted fans around the world.  And it was the original trilogy that entranced a generation and made them believe that each and every one of them had the power to do something special, to stretch their wings and fly.  Lucas can update his films with newer gee-whiz computer graphics and add floor-rumbling surround sound, but to deny future generations of moviegoers the opportunity to see the original films as they actually existed, regardless of his somewhat specious claims regarding his original vision, is like denying a grandmother the opportunity to hold her grandchild.

Of course the originals on VHS and Laserdisc can still be tracked down by dedicated fans, and in 2006 Lucasfilm even released a DVD set of the Special Editions that included a bonus disc with the original version of each film (infuriatingly presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, almost as if Lucas was just goading legions of fans clamoring for his original creations). But Lucas has since essentially abandoned the originals, tossing them to the curb and dismissing them as mere rough drafts. What he fails to realize is that those “rough drafts” are precisely what put him in the position he is in today. And it is those “rough drafts” that will be celebrated for years to come, not despite their imperfections but because of them.

The People vs George Lucas

In The People vs. George Lucas, filmmaker Alexandre O. Philippe documents the love/hate relationship Star Wars fans have with George Lucas.

And so remains the question: what is to be done? In a sense, the best chance to make sure these films are not relegated to the celluloid dustbin is to keep the feedback coming. SaveStarWars.com has an incredible FAQ that answers a host of questions regarding the original trilogy (and debunks some of the common myths, such as Lucas’ own statement that it would be too expensive to restore the originals) and contains myriad resources for fans to take action.  But by far the most influential method for changing Lucas’ mind is simply affecting his pocketbook.  Each time he releases newer altered versions of his films, they are purchased by fans all around the world (the Blu Rays recently broke all kinds of sales records)–many of them torn between keeping the original films alive while also delighting in seeing them gussied up with all of today’s home theater wizadry.  And the films will soon be back in theaters with a full 3D treatment and, presumably, even more changes to fit Lucas’ ever-changing “original vision,” with a 3D Blu-Ray release years down the line virtually a foregone conclusion.

Imagine if George Lucas threw a party and nobody came.  Imagine if his 3D Star Wars films bombed at the box office, and if the blu-ray sales fell like a dead tauntaun.  Would he finally listen to the fans and release the original versions? I’m thinking he would.

The fact of the matter is, there’s room in Star Wars fans’ hearts for all kinds of versions.  He can release all the HD/3D/Special Editions he wants, just as long as he releases the originals too.  And not a cheesy laserdisc transfer from 1993 either.  If Star Wars was big before, just imagine the sales figures of this hypothetical boxed set.

In the meantime, there’s plenty of resources for fans to keep the originals alive for generations to come.  And as for me, my son who will one day be old enough to watch Star Wars. One day I’ll pull out my 2006 DVD versions, skip to Disc 2, and let his imagination be caught up in the adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Yoda, and all the rest.  If I have my way, he will only know the originals–the ones with the poor-quality matte lines (“That’s how they used to make movies, son.”) and bad lightsaber visuals (“They didn’t have computer graphics back then…”).  I’m sure some day he’ll ask about the prequels or the Special Editions and maybe we’ll even watch those too, but the Star Wars he grows up will be the same as the one that millions of fans around the world grew up with–one in which Mos Eisley is not a wretched hive of CGI distractions, the Max Rebo band is not a gaggle if cartoon muppets, and Han always, always shoots first.

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Sorcerer’s Apprentice

Without Jay Baruchel’s incessant whining, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice would have been at least a mindlessly amusing thrill ride. Baruchel ripped the heart right out of this movie, and left pieces of it scattered all over the set. Baruchel plays Dave, this story’s Luke Skywalker; a young man, bored and discouraged with his average life, until centuries-old wizard Balthazar Blake (Nicolas Cage) bursts into his life, tells him he has special powers and he has to save the world, and starts training him. But he’s everything a Luke Skywalker character shouldn’t be. He’s whiney, he’s wishy-washy, he’s boring, he’s just plain annoying.

I was optimistic enough to hope that superstar Cage would prop up the movie where Baruchel let it drop, but I’m afraid Cage has passed his prime. What’s more, his costume seems a bit derivative. Take a look at him below,  next to a picture of Chicago wizard Harry Dresden and tell me you don’t see some resemblance.

The only cast member that carries his part particularly well is Alfred Molina as Maxim Horvath, the evil wizard bent on world domination. Horvath has adopted the modus operandi of a late 19th century British gentleman, complete with bowler hat and cane. Molina slips seamlessly into the role, infusing it with Horvath’s sinister nature.  He commands the respect that every great megalomaniac does. Toby Kebell rounds out the cast as his henchman, Drake Stone. Aside from Horvath, the only interesting character is a 17th century witch who gets a whopping ten seconds of screen time. Talk about disappointing.

Molina and Cage have some impressive fight sequences. Once again, Apprentice seems to be at its best, when it copies The Dresden Files. A good, visceral punch-out with a little magic thrown in is, in my opinion, the best thing a wizard story can have. Too much magic, and it starts to get ridiculous. This would have been a better movie with more of these and fewer over-the-top scenes.

Blake brings this statue to life and rides it early in the movie.

Apprentice is a bit too eager to show off its special effects budget. Right from the word go, we get an overbearing score crammed into our ears, in-your-face magic battles, and statuary turning into monsters that tear skyscrapers to pieces. The movie seldom pauses to build the plot or get to know the characters. It’s too bad, because the climactic battle is actually pretty intense, rather inventive, and very effective dramatically. It would have made the perfect bang to finish the movie with if it had been preceded by two hours of subtlety and development. Sadly, being preceded by a string of even bigger bangs, the relative pop at the end seems flat and empty.

Most of what happens is not only cliché, but painfully derivative, ripping off other movies and not adding anything original. When a clerk tells Horvath “I’m going to need to see your faculty identification,” Horvath waves his wand and says “You don’t need to see my faculty identification.” Drake then delivers the line “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” but it’s too late; half the audience has already said it. More annoying yet, when Dave is having a hard time cleaning up his lab space, he uses his new powers to make brooms and mops come alive. Guess what happens next. If you said “he can’t get them to stop and he nearly drowns, right before Balthazar saves the day,” you get a cookie. This scene copies the other Sorcerer’s Apprentice, to a tee, using the same music and even including a silhouette shot of Dave chopping up a broom with an ax. And it does nothing to advance the story. It’s just forced into the middle of the movie for its own sake – a classic big-lipped alligator moment.

Apprentice has a few things going for it. The special effects are cool, the action is cool, and the story, while bland, isn’t painful or preachy. It’s a pretty safe family film, and if you have kids, you could probably use Apprentice to shut them up for 90 minutes. You will be quite ready to leave before you see the credits, however. Ultimately, this is one more example of how the world’s biggest budget won’t guarantee a good movie. They couldn’t spend enough to hide the fact that Apprentice is simply one more re-hash of all the standard clichés clumsily thrown together, with none of them done well.

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