Lucas arts – MILD SPOILERS.
Over the last few months (perhaps the last few years) a huge percentage of my brain power has been dedicated to thinking about Star Wars. The Empire Strikes Back is the greatest action/adventure film of all time. That’s an opinion. Another one of my opinions is that A New Hope isn’t all that good. Another opinion is that most of Return of the Jedi is. I’m sure that I’m not alone in the sentiment that The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith were inadequate.
If I have a point, it’s that despite a lot of Star Wars being amazing there’s still a lot of Star Wars that isn’t great. And yet I’ve spent hours pondering possible story lines and character beats for The Force Awakens (now released – my review is here), listening to “The Rebel Fleet/End Title”, saying “I wonder if he means old Ben Kenobi” to my housemate who finds that line funny, playing with the $300 replica lightsaber my brother bought on a whim and generally hyping myself up about the Star Wars universe. I’ve watched the prequels dozens of times, and am perpetually disappointed, but will always go back to them. Because the universe that George Lucas created endures beyond the quality of the films. But Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the first Star Wars film that isn’t George Lucas’.
Lucas was reportedly involved with the new trilogy in its initial stages. He met with old cast members to get them on board. He even wrote a treatment for the direction he thought the story should take. That treatment was rejected by Disney and/or J.J. Abrams in favour of exploring the saga through new eyes. Perhaps the grief of the prequels was still so near that it was easy to forget that Star Wars was the house that Lucas built. The world of The Force Awakens is George Lucas’ galaxy in the sense that there is the Force and there are lightsabers and the Jedi and the Sith are there and so is Han Solo. But for the first time, I watched a Star Wars film and it didn’t appreciate it as part of the Star Wars universe in relation to the Skywalker saga. It looked, sounded and played like Star Wars, but it didn’t quite feel like it.
That Skywalker saga can be executed poorly. The prequel trilogy is the singular example of this. That’s the fault of George Lucas’ writing and direction (“I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere. Not like here. Here everything’s soft… and smooth…“) Lucas was the writer and director on A New Hope, a fact from which most of my issues with that film stem. Lawrence Kasdan wrote Empire and Jedi, which were directed by Irvin Kershner and Richard Marquand respectively. That suggests that Lucas works best when allowing others translate his concepts into digestible entertainment. But Lucas is nothing if not determined and intriguing in his ideas. When he fails, he fails spectacularly. A lot of you may already know about that compelling theory regarding the original intention of Lucas to gradually reveal Jar Jar Binks to a Sith Lord over the course of the prequels. True or not, it doesn’t come off as too farfetched because that’s exactly the kind of creative gumption that George Lucas has. He takes risks. Sometimes those risks reap lightsabers and the Force. Sometimes they reap Jar Jar, trade disputes and Hayden Christensen.
I’ve spent years now hating on George Lucas for his relentless tinkering of the original trilogy (Darth Vader yelling ‘Noooooo’, Hayden Christensen’s ghost, Greedo shooting first and Jabba the Hutt in A New Hope are but a few changes that come to mind) so it’s with enormous internal conflict that I’m forced to admit to myself that I missed Lucas’ presence in The Force Awakens. After two viewings, I began to wish that Disney hadn’t dismissed that treatment that he’d outlined, because even if Lucas has thrown in a few Jar Jars here and there (which could have been vetoed by Abrams and co.) his vision had to be more stimulating, unique and more creatively fulfilling than the end product, regardless of whether you thought The Force Awakens was a good movie or not.
The Force Awakens is superficially everything everyone loves about Star Wars. Whether they missed an intangible element that made the last hour of Empire is something that I feel but is an argument for somewhere else on the internet. So it had everything everybody loves about Star Wars – Wookies, X-Wing/Tie Fighter dogfights, droids, Han Solo – but nothing else. Say what you want about the prequel trilogy, they had a heap of new thought and an enormous amount of new ideas.
For all his flaws as a filmmaker (and there are many), George Lucas is creatively fearless, regardless of whether we all end up thinking his ideas are great or atrocious. That fearlessness is entirely absent from The Force Awakens, which is cautious to a debilitating degree. Whether that lies in Abrams’ direction or pressure from Disney or something else entirely, I’m not sure. But, at least for me, Star Wars: The Force Awakens felt like fan fiction, not something that pertained to the creative drive behind the Lucas’ films. I mentioned that I’ve spent hours thinking about the Star Wars universe. I’ll probably ponder The Force Awakens with as much enthusiasm, though a lot of that has to do with the groundwork that Lucas laid out rather than any bold creative decisions on the part of the new filmmakers.
George Lucas is the best example I can think of of someone who has made me very sad as a result of his poor decisions but also someone who has also made me very happy when he gets it right. The best of Star Wars came about when he let other people (Kasdan, Kershner, Marquand) execute his ideas. Besides the is fact that the world and old characters are Lucas’ ideas, there are no new Lucas concetps in The Force Awakens. And damn it if I didn’t miss the stupid old bastard.