The Jedi Returns Again
Published: Sunday, November 4, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
I have a bad feeling about this.
This past Tuesday, George Lucas and the Walt Disney Company made a major announcement that it’s safe to say no one saw coming. Not only has Disney acquired Lucasfilm—the film and television production company founded by Lucas that has been responsible for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and all of his various pet projects—it is also going ahead with Star Wars: Episode VII, set for a 2015 release date, with Episodes VIII and IX to follow soon after.
The Disney merger was certainly unforeseen, and provided lots of snarky Internet fodder—especially the pressing question of whether Leia now qualifies as a Disney princess. But the really surprising news is the continuation of a series that seems to have run out of steam long ago. After an endless succession of re-releases and special editions, a disappointing prequel trilogy, a spin-off cartoon series, and a spin-off movie of this spin-off (2008’s virtually forgotten Star Wars: The Clone Wars), one might have thought that good old George would finally be able to lay Star Wars to rest.
Instead, Lucas seems to be laying the foundations for endless extensions of the brand. Thankfully, he’s neither writing nor directing the next installments, instead serving in the vague role of “creative consultant.” I suspect this means that he will offer some general advice and story suggestions, delegate the work to others, and then watch as the money rolls in.
It’s hard not to be cynical about the prospect of the series’ continuation, especially when it seems so evidently to be a cynical cash grab. George Lucas knows full well how ill-received his prequel trilogy was, but he also knows that it made a fortune. Lucas is once again placing his bets that even if the new films are terrible, people will line up to see them because, well, it’s Star Wars.
Of course, Lucas is free to do as he wants with his creation (and audiences are free to ignore the new movies), but I think his latest decision continues to trace his sad decline from a legitimately inspired filmmaker to a lazy businessman. The fact is that not so long ago in a galaxy very much our own, George Lucas was an independent filmmaker. He made documentary shorts and student films inspired by e.e. cummings poems. His first feature, THX 1138, was an unconventional, dystopic science fiction film whose visual style referenced the work of the Italian master Michelangelo Antonioni. Even the original Star Wars seems suffused with a uniquely personal vision, and was clearly a passion project for Lucas. Its enormous success upon release often obscures the difficult realities of its making, when Lucas fought the studio—and sometimes his own cast and crew—to get the movie made his way, even when everyone doubted him as production went over budget and behind schedule.
Somehow he pulled it off, and Star Wars remains a wonderfully undiminished entertainment all these years later, with a charm and energy that was never replicated (even in its two excellent sequels). I still remember the impact it had on me when I saw it for the first time at the age of six. The subtleties of the plot may have escaped me, but that didn’t matter—not when I was swept up in the excitement as Luke and Leia swung across the chasm to escape the Stormtroopers to the sound of John William’s triumphant score, or as Luke destroyed the Death Star in the rousing finale. The movie was fundamentally idealistic, good-natured, and above all fun, and it became my gateway into a lifelong obsession with movies. Star Wars led to Indiana Jones, Indiana Jones led to the filmography of Steven Spielberg, and from there on there was no turning back. I wonder if any 6-year-old introduced to the prequels would have a similar reaction. For all their flashy special effects and superficial entertainment value, the prequels felt more like toy commercials than movies. Somewhere along the line, Lucas lost the youthful creative spark behind the first movie and let the franchise serve as his personal piggy bank.
There’s always a possibility that Star Wars: Episode VII will recapture some of the original trilogy’s magic. Many have already speculated that Joss Whedon, who did such a fine job with The Avengers (for Disney-owned Marvel, no less) would be an inspired choice to helm the new movies. Yet even so, I find it hard to work up enthusiasm for a franchise extension that no one was asking for and that seems merely an excuse to further George Lucas’s considerably deep pockets.