Who imagined it would come to this: defending George Lucas in the wake of the release of a new Star Wars movie?
Lucas certainly earned himself a lot of ill will; the Prequel Trilogy alone is enough to make anyone forsake him, and the meddling with the Original Trilogy is one of the greatest sins in pop cinema history. I've written my share of scathing things about Lucas, and the one time I had a chance to meet him I found myself feeling totally over him (it didn't hurt that I had just sat through the Clone Wars cartoon movie). But forgiveness is the greatest virtue, and at any rate he’s done with Star Wars, which means we can look back at his films with a clear eye, not with the jaundiced eye of fans certain he’s going to retroactively ruin yet something else from the first three movies.
But that isn’t why he needs defending; in the last two weeks I have been shocked to see so many Star Wars fans online tearing Lucas down to prop up Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And they don’t stop at Lucas - they also go after the first Star Wars (it’s unoriginal! It’s fan fiction! It's stilted!) and Luke Skywalker (he’s a Mary Sue! He’s ridiculously powerful!). It’s as if they need to burn down everything that came before to raise up the new thing.
Well, I stand here - probably lonely - on the ramparts to defend Lucas and the original Star Wars.
George Lucas is a genius. It’s absolutely apparent when you look at his first three films: THX-1138, American Graffiti and Star Wars. I’m not a huge fan of THX but it’s a work of singular vision, and it contains the concerns and issues that Lucas would continue to struggle with throughout his career - man versus the system, the dehumanizing effect of technology, fast cars. It’s as much an art film as it is anything else, a bleak and uninviting movie that predictably lost the studio money.
THX-1138 is the most clearly experimental of his first three movies, but each is, in their own way, an envelope-pushing exercise. It’s easy to look back at the nostalgia-soaked success of American Graffiti and assume it was a sure-fire home run, but Universal wanted to dump the film on TV. It has a loose, non-narrative structure that was unique in American cinema at the time, and its use of needle drops instead of a traditional score made it sound unlike anything else in theaters.
In retrospect American Graffiti looks easy, just like Star Wars. But the truth is that neither made sense to executives at the time they were released. It's a testament to how powerful they were that we no longer instinctively see how unusual they were. And if the floating, scattered action of American Graffiti confused Universal executives, the scifi nonsense of Star Wars absolutely flummoxed those at Fox. And yet Lucas was able to put his head down, push forward, spend a whole bunch of his own money and make one of the most influential movies ever.
THX-1138 and American Graffiti represent different sides of George Lucas; with Star Wars he smashed them both together, creating a totally new kind of movie that also happened to be one hundred percent completely him. The auteur theory ascribes authorship of a film to a director, but rarely has that been as true as it was on Star Wars. It was a movie that confused even many of those integral to its success; the FX wizards at ILM talk about their first time seeing human footage from the movie, many months after they started working with models, and finally having any idea at all of what Lucas was doing with this weird film.
Here’s a mental exercise I recommend: watch the original Star Wars on its own. Try to remove from your brain the context of the sequels and prequels, the Expanded Universe novels and the cartoons and the toys. Just watch it as a movie, as it would have been seen in 1977. It’s remarkable that this movie became the standard for populist entertainment - the first 20 minutes follow a pair of robots, one of whom doesn’t even speak English, as they wander around. This is a film that throws the viewer head first into a totally strange universe without any preparation, and it did it at a time when studios didn’t make science fiction movies like this. This disorientation was purposeful; at one point Lucas had toyed with the idea of shooting the whole movie in Japanese in order to replicate the feeling of otherness he experienced while seeing Kurosawa films for the first time in school.
This is what I believe many of the modern detractors misunderstand about Star Wars: it was blazingly original in 1977. Lucas has become synonymous with the Campbellian hero’s journey, but that aspect came late in the process of creating Star Wars; as an art movie geek Lucas didn’t have a strong interest in narrative (see THX and American Graffiti for proof) and he set himself a challenge as Star Wars developed to tell a simple, strong story. Campbell - and fairy tales - gave him the structure for that, a structure that allowed him to get experimental everywhere else. As budget and time forced him to strip away the more baroque elements of his space opera the simple Campbellian story skeleton, the basic beats of the hero's journey, gave him room to build a strange, cohesive and immersive world on film that no one else has ever - and probably ever will - top. That experience - and the technical aspects of shooting special effects in a way that no had ever mastered before - were where Lucas poured his experimental nature.
Too many of Lucas’ modern critics equate inspiration with remake, and they parrot too many easy lines about Lucas’ history with Flash Gordon. Yes, the earliest spark for Star Wars was Lucas’ desire to do something like the Flash Gordon serials he had watched on TV as a youth, but Star Wars isn’t Flash Gordon fanfic. When Lucas approached King Features about getting the rights to Flash Gordon he was almost relieved that they wouldn’t grant them - he didn’t want to get stuck with characters like Ming the Merciless, characters that didn’t interest him. What did interest Lucas was recreating the feeling he had when he watched those old Flash Gordon serials, not the actual events or characters themselves. Buck Rogers, it should be noted, was just as important, and yet nothing in the plot and none of the characters reflect those serials and comics. Freed of the specifics of the things he loved as a child he was able to get at the heart of what he loved about them.
Lucas’ stroke of genius was to recreate the thrill and imagination-firing weirdness of those properties in the context of a modern major motion picture. Science fiction had been a B-level genre forever, with very few forays into high quality along the way. In the wake of 2001 there had been some films that approached scifi in a high-minded way, but Lucas wanted to come at the pulp side of the genre and still give the material the treatment of a serious film. Lucas surely wasn’t the first filmmaker to approach low-class genre material in a big budget format but he may have been the first to approach it with a straight face; this wasn’t a farce or a put on, there were no winks.
Flash Gordon gets name-dropped by people who I suspect never watched a Buster Crabbe serial, but for anyone who looks at Lucas’ earliest drafts and outlines (think “Journal of the Whills” days) the obvious launching pad was Frank Herbert’s Dune. But recognizing the DNA of Dune in primeval Star Wars doesn’t take away from the finished film’s stunning originality. Again, Lucas took not the structure or characters of Dune but rather its feeling, the sensation of reading an expansive scifi epic with major spiritual undertones. In the end there’s an Empire and there’s spice and there’s a desert planet, but Lucas has otherwise synthesized his influences into something new. Watching Star Wars isn't like watching a remix of Flash Gordon, and it isn't like watching another version of Mua'dib's journey, but you can see the foundation built upon them. The film is no more a rip-off of these works than late period Beatles were a rip-off of Chuck Berry.
Filmmaking is a collaborative art, but it is clear that all of Lucas’ Star Wars collaborators were working to bring his specific vision to life. As mentioned, many people working on the film didn’t exactly understand what it was they were making (Lucas created a simplified outline to help Fox execs wrap their brains around the fantasy world in his head), but beyond that the film is saturated in George Lucas. It is like mainlining George Lucas, featuring everything from his interest in the technical side of filmmaking through his love of hot rods to his fascination with the nature of freedom and tyranny to his own thoughts about the Vietnam War, partially arrived at when he was working on Apocalypse Now (which his pal Francis Ford Coppola would ultimately direct). Nobody but George Lucas could have made this movie, for good or ill. It’s a singular work, one that none of the sequels and prequels could ever match if only because by their very nature a prequel or a sequel can never have the audaciousness newness the original had.
(It’s worth taking a sidebar here to note that while Star Wars was pure George Lucas, it was George Lucas working with many restrictions, often budgetary. With those restrictions gone we got The Phantom Menace, a movie that is totally uncut, un-stepped on Lucas. This is as good an example as any in the history of art that limitations often help artists.)
I can’t stress enough that Star Wars isn’t simply homage or a remix; it’s a representation of everything that has made up George Lucas as a person. It’s quirkily personal in a way that almost none of the blockbusters it spawned ever were or even can be; in a world where blockbuster franchises are the work of a corporate author Star Wars is old-fashioned in its artisanal quality.
Here’s where the peculiar genius of Lucas comes into play; as with American Graffiti he took something deeply personal to himself (the 1973 film is truly the story of his own adolescence in Modesto, California) and made it completely universal. What makes Star Wars special and the work of a genius is the way that Lucas was able to take this obscurist, purposefully distancing work of dorkiness and make it resonate with everyone. Somehow this wonkiest of the Film Brats, the quiet nerd with a head for experimental art film, made a movie that speaks to almost every single person who ever saw… and that was seen by almost everybody.
I know we talk about Star Wars all the time, and I know that it has overtaken the culture in ways that might be discomfiting, but I feel like this is the part that we don’t talk about enough: how it sprung from one guy, how personal it is, how it was unlike anything that had been made before and how it has never been equaled since. It is one of the most remarkable achievements in the popular arts. George Lucas has made himself integral to our culture in a way that only the greatest artists and religious figures ever have. Watching The Force Awakens, a movie that very much tries to hit the same notes that Lucas initially discovered, you see how gargantuan his influence is, how he looms over so much of what we imagine today.
What happened to Lucas after Star Wars is another story; in many ways he became trapped in this prison whose bars he had forged. He changed the culture in 1977 and somehow lost touch with it along the way, which is tragic in its own right. But the fact that his later output cannot match his initial output is mostly a testament to how strong his initial output was; we don’t run around decrying Francis Ford Coppola for never again reaching the heights he hit in the 70s. Lucas went off the rails, or perhaps more accurately was able to make the rails bend to his will, and it didn’t work out well. But here’s the truth: Star Wars didn’t need rescuing from George Lucas, because there was no Star Wars without George Lucas.
And here’s another truth: The Force Awakens isn’t better if you deny the initial achievements of George Lucas. And it isn’t better if you underplay the extraordinary, culture-shifting newness of the first film in 1977. Whether or not Star Wars is perfect or has plot holes or wooden acting or bad dialogue doesn’t matter, because the movie is more than the sum of those particular parts. It’s alchemical magic that works only once in a generation or two, and it can be copied and approximated but never exactly replicated. And that’s okay. You can play every single note exactly as The Beatles did, and it can sound the same but it will never feel the same. This is where all the art analysis in the world breaks down, where all of our words fail us. It's where the soul of the artist infuses the work, and transforms the art from crude celluloid or loud noise into something transcendent, something that exists in the moment of its creation only. You can sound like The Beatles but you're never going to be The Beatles. You can go back to the well of the Original Trilogy but you're never going to be Star Wars from 1977. But denying the greatness of The Beatles doesn't do your soundalike band any justice.
When an artist dies we can look at their work with a better perspective. You forget the late period albums they released and focus mostly on the good stuff. The shape of their art comes into clearer focus. George Lucas isn’t dead, but he’s dead to Star Wars, and it’s time that we lay aside our anger at his shitty later work and focus on the good stuff. It’s time we stop using him as an easy target and accept that, for a few years in the 1970s, he was working on a level that few artists, let alone filmmakers, ever reach. Don’t try to diminish that just to shine up the latest thing that has you excited.